Movie Interviews
11:22 am
Sat January 11, 2014

'Osage' Hits Close To Home For Writer Tracy Letts

Originally published on Sat January 11, 2014 11:53 am

The movie August: Osage County has just opened, with its all-star cast.

Meryl Streep, Julia Roberts, Chris Cooper, Benedict Cumberbatch and more play various members of the Weston clan. They converge on their Oklahoma home when the patriarch, Beverly, who is a poet somewhat past his rhymes, goes missing.

His wife, Violet, gobbles pills, some of which are for the pain of mouth cancer and some of which are just because.

Tracy Letts, who won the 2008 Pulitzer Prize for the play, adapted it for the screen. He also won a Tony for starring on Broadway in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, plays a U.S. senator in the latest season of Homeland, and is a member of Chicago's Steppenwolf ensemble.

The story of August: Osage County came from his own experience, Letts says. In fact, his actor father, Dennis Letts, played the role of the grandfather on stage.

"It's based on family history," Tracy Letts tells NPR's Scott Simon. "My grandfather — my mother's father — committed suicide when I was 10 years old."


Interview Highlights

On how he came to write the play, August: Osage County

My grandmother descended into years of downer addiction, which had a horrible impact on my family, and has ripples in my family even to this day. Watching that as a 10-year-old certainly had an impact on me.

After I became a dramatist, it certainly seemed like ripe material for a play, and I just thought about it for a really long time before I thought, OK, I think I've got the right container for this story. I think I know the way to tell this story in a way that's personal for me, and ... yet not too personal.

On how the setting — Oklahoma — became a character in the movie

I think the landscape is pretty evocative just by itself. When [director] John Wells was scouting locations ... when he saw Oklahoma, he said, "We have to shoot it here, because no place else looks like this." There's a quality to the light that's unlike anywhere else.

On how people sometimes grow up resembling the ones they swore they never would

I think the sad truth is perhaps we always do. I think, though, that one of the things the story provides, it introduces a question. The question is: Do you have a choice? Are you your brother's keeper? When does your responsibility to your family end, and when should your responsibility to yourself take over?

On how every family is a little bit like the Westons of Osage County

What we have seen by doing this play is that the story of this family is pretty universal. The dinner scene alone, in the theater: I can tell you that some people are howling with laughter, and other people are in tears crawling under their seats — they find it very upsetting to watch because it hits pretty close to home.

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Transcript

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

"August: Osage County," the movie, has just opened. An all-star cast, including Meryl Streep, Julia Roberts, Chris Cooper, Benedict Cumberbatch and more play various members of the Weston clan, who converge on their Oklahoma home when the patriarch, Beverly, who's a poet somewhat past his rhymes, goes missing while his wife, Violet, gobbles pills, some of which are for the pain of mouth cancer and some of which are just because. At some point, there is a funeral dinner-

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "AUGUST: OSAGE COUNTY")

JULIA ROBERTS: (as Barb) What's the matter with you?

MERYL STREEP: (as Violet) I'm sorry you two are having trouble. Maybe you can work it out. Bev and I separated a couple times. Course we didn't call it that.

ROBERTS: (as Barb) Help us with an illustration from your storybook marriage.

STREEP: (as Violet) Truth is you just can't compete with a younger woman. It's just one of those unfair things in life. Is there a younger woman involved?

ROBERTS: (as Barb) You've said enough on this topic.

EWAN MCGREGOR: (as Bill) Yes, there's a younger woman.

STREEP: (as Violet) Well see? Odds are against you there, babe.

JULIANNE NICHOLSON: (as Ivy) Mom believes women don't grow more attractive with age.

JULIETTE LEWIS: (as Karen) Oh I disagree. I think...

STREEP: (as Violet) No, I didn't say they don't grow more attract. I said they get ugly. And it's not really a matter of opinion Karen, dear. You've only just started to prove it yourself.

SIMON: Tracy Letts, who won the 2008 Pulitzer Prize for his play, has adapted it for the screen. He's also won a Tony for starring on Broadway in "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf." He plays a U.S. senator in the latest season of "Homeland," and is a member of Chicago's Steppenwolf ensemble. Tracy Letts joins us from Chicago. Thanks so much for being with us.

TRACY LETTS: Thanks for having me.

SIMON: You know, such a well-known play, but I'm afraid I don't think I've ever heard the story of how you came to write "August: Osage County."

LETTS: It's based on family history. My grandfather - my mother's father - committed suicide when I was 10 years old. And my grandmother descended into years of downer addiction, which had a horrible impact on my family and has ripples in my family even to this day. And watching all of that unfold as a 10-year-old certainly had an impact on me. And after I became a dramatist, it certainly seemed like ripe material for a play. And I just thought about it for a really long time before I thought, OK, I think I've got the right container for this story. I think I know the way to tell this story in a way that's personal for me, and yet not so personal, not too personal, you know.

SIMON: So, I wonder, the character Beverly, the poet, the - I think we refer to him as the patriarch of the clan - who was, as I recall, even your father played him, didn't he...

LETTS: Yeah.

SIMON: ...when the show premiered in Chicago, and I think he even went to Broadway with it.

LETTS: Sure did.

SIMON: Well, forgive me, can he ever be just a character to you?

LETTS: Well, that character, for instance, is very much a work of fiction. My grandfather, the one who committed suicide, was a laborer and not a poet at all. That was completely my creation. That's a good example of where autobiography ends and creativity, I suppose, takes over. But the character of my grandmother is very much drawn from life. She's very much based on my memories of my grandmother. Perhaps not her use of language so much but in attitude and inclination. She's very much based on my grandma.

SIMON: Can you make Oklahoma the state a character in the film in a way that's harder on stage?

LETTS: Yeah, I think the landscape is pretty evocative just by itself. You know, when John Wells was scouting locations - John Wells directed the film - when he was scouting locations for the movie, John realized when he saw Oklahoma, he said, well, we have to shoot it here because no place else looks like this. There's a quality to the light that's unlike anywhere else. And it's really true. The landscape is very particular to Oklahoma and I think it is very evocative. It certainly, well, it's certainly evokes a lot from me since I'm from there.

SIMON: I'm left with a couple of overall impressions after watching the film. One is that the people we know weren't always the age by which we know them now.

LETTS: Well, I think that's absolutely true, and I think that's one of the things the play is getting at. These people have histories. But, yeah, I think that's absolutely true.

SIMON: And the other is we sometimes grow up to resemble the person we swore we never would.

LETTS: Well, sometimes. Maybe we always do.

(LAUGHTER)

LETTS: I think perhaps the sad truth is we always do. I think, though, that one of the things the story provides, it introduces a question, right? The question is: Do you have a choice? Are you your brother's keeper? I mean, when does your responsibility to your family end, and when should your responsibility to yourself take over?

SIMON: You got married recently.

LETTS: I did.

SIMON: In a hospital.

LETTS: Yeah.

SIMON: Can we ask for the story about that? I mean, you didn't go out of your way to get married in a hospital. I guess in a sense you did, right?

LETTS: We had applied to get married in Illinois. We had 60 days. We were never in the same town. My wife showed up - and we had one day left - and she walked in the door from Los Angeles. And I suddenly grabbed my stomach. I said, boy, I'm not feeling well. She said you're not getting out of it that easy. But we wound up going to the emergency room. I had my gall bladder removed. And my wife went and found the chaplain at Northwestern - a Lutheran chaplain who never performed a wedding before. She came to our room and performed the ceremony, just the three of us. It was a lovely, personal, intimate ceremony. And immediately after the ceremony, I took some pain medication and peed in a cup.

(LAUGHTER)

SIMON: Well, that's one way to l'chaim, isn't it? I made a short list: addiction abuse, adultery, abandonment, imminent incest and just plain old hatred. So, is every family is a little bit like the Westons of Osage County?

LETTS: What we have seen by doing this play is that the story of this family is pretty universal. And the dinner scene alone, in the theater - I can tell you that some people are howling with laughter, and other people are in tears and crawling under their seats. They find it very upsetting to watch because it hits pretty close to home.

SIMON: "Fiddler on the Roof" with the F word?

(LAUGHTER)

LETTS: That's one way to look at it.

SIMON: Tracy Letts, the playwright and actor, who has written the screenplay for the new movie of his Pulitzer Prize-winning play, "August: Osage County." Speaking with us from Chicago. Thanks so much for being with us.

LETTS: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SIMON: This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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