Tracy Letts is living out the ambitions of both of his parents. His mother, Billie, and his father, Dennis, were both English professors. Billie wrote novels in her spare time, penning the best seller Where the Heart Is; Dennis became a journeyman actor who played smaller roles until his Broadway debut in his son’s play August: Osage County. Letts, 51, does both, writing plays and screenplays, winning a Pulitzer for August, while also having become an accomplished actor. (In 2013, he won a Tony for a revival of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?) More recently he’s made his way into meatier on-camera work, with recurring roles on Homeland, Divorce, and the upcoming film The Lovers, which he stars in opposite Debra Winger.
In The Lovers, Letts and Winger play a married couple, both in the throes of extramarital affairs, seemingly on the road to divorce. But before they do, the pair rekindle their relationship, effectively cheating on their side-pieces. During a press junket for the film, Letts spoke to Vulture about shooting sex scenes with Debra Winger, the relationship between sobriety and creativity, and how he read for a part in The Leftovers before his wife, Carrie Coon.
What drew you to the part in The Lovers?
They approached me a couple of months before they started, and I had the time free, so that’s always a big bonus.
I like when it’s just about logistics.
Sometimes it is! It’s like, “Don’t even talk to me about it, because I can’t do it.” But I was able to do it — that was first. Debra was a big selling point for me because anybody who was watching movies in the 1980s was aware of the singular talent of Debra Winger, and I was certainly interested in playing opposite her. One of the things I noticed while watching it last night is how much of the first half of the film unfolds in silence, and how much of it is conveyed by not just looks, but filled with moments between people that aren’t language-based. It’s a little new for me. I’m relatively new to on-camera work as an actor. Most of my experience is on stage. That stuff is a little new for me. But if the material and the relationship with my fellow actor is there, as it was in this case, and you have a good director talking you through what those moments are, then that’s very helpful. It helps to get me there. I loved all the space in the script for the very thing we’re talking about, the space to explore in the thing.
And finally, one of the most important things, certainly, was the role. I was 50 at the time, I’m 51 now, and I don’t get asked to do a lot of that kind of stuff. As a stage actor, I’ve played leading roles, but I’m a character actor through and through; a lot of my work on camera has been bureaucrats, guys in suits, and jerks. So the idea that somebody would come to me with a story about middle-aged love, sex, and romance is not the kind of thing I’m asked to do very often. It’s kind of scary in that regard, and I like to do things that scare me.
When you’re shooting sex scenes, do you establish rules beforehand?
We don’t do a lot of that. You establish a private conversation, like, “Okay, we can talk about what’s going on.” I remember there was one moment where they called “action” and upon that, I began a fucking motion, and Debra’s immediately like, “Jesus!” and I went, “That’s the gig!” That made her laugh a lot, that I just said that. It’s funny, not a lot of it really exists in the film, but we shot it all over a day and a half. I mean, it was a day and a half of a lot of exposure for both of us. So we were relieved once we got all that behind us.
Neither of your characters has a conversation about whether they’re having affairs or not. There’s no sit-down. Do you think people feel freer when they’re doing something illicit?
I think that’s one of the reasons you have an affair, is to give yourself freedom, or the illusion of freedom. You can also create the illusion of, “Oh, this is the person I really am. That person is trapped in that relationship over there, that’s not who I really am. The person I really am is free and easy and doesn’t suffer from these responsibilities.” It’s a kind of fiction, but so much of that is something you’re telling yourself. It’s not about the other person in so many ways. One of the things that appealed to me about the script was that there weren’t many come-to-Jesus conversations between them. If they were able to have those kinds of conversations, then they wouldn’t have gotten into this situation that they’re in. They’ve boxed themselves into something.
Yeah, if they were healthy communicators, I don’t think they’d be in that situation. Do you think they have a healthy relationship?
No! No, I don’t! [Laughs.] You know, I was just working on a play I wrote that’s in Chicago right now, called Linda Vista. The lead character in that is a 50-year-old guy going through a bad divorce, and he’s struggling in his relationships with women. We talked a lot about the trade-off between living a life that is in a relationship, that has a consistency and a rhythm and patterns, and living a life outside of that, outside of those rules and parameters. There’s always a trade-off. You can live that life outside of a system, and the highs might be higher, but the lows might be much lower. You have to be wiling to ride the roller coaster if you’re going to live your life that way. I think some of that applies to The Lovers as well. Aza does a great job of showing that their jobs are stultifying, their community is very bland, and the thing they have found that gives them energy, that’s getting them out of bed in the morning, is the crackle of these extraneous relationships. The fact that they start to find it again with each other — well, that’s kind of what the movie’s about, right? That’s the beauty of the movie. That crackle doesn’t have to exist outside; it can exist with your partner, in your primary relationship.
You’ve said in the past that you have to “own your own damage.” How did you come to that point where you felt like you were able to do that?
Like I say, a lot of years, a lot of therapy, a lot of sobriety, some good mentors and good people, a good relationship, a healthy outlook in my work life, and even with that, it’s still elusive! I’m not a Zen master! It’s still elusive, and it’s ongoing! You lose it, and then you have to fight to get it back! It’s not easy to do. I don’t claim it’s easy to do. I suppose, in fact, in some ways, owning your own damage simply means, “Look, these are some of the issues I have, right? These are the issues I have, and I try to address them in a variety of different ways, but I have them.” And everybody’s got it! They have different items from the menu, but everybody’s got something.
I think there’s a fiction about artists and how they need substances to make work. What’s the relationship between your creativity and sobriety?
I think, in the very early days, I had convinced myself of the fiction that you need substances in order to do your best work. Now I think it’s utter nonsense — at least for me. But I made a decision pretty early on for myself, because I am a somewhat public figure, that I would be upfront about my sobriety. I actually think it’s a good thing for people to hear that there are sober people and sober artists in the world who are functioning. So you start to develop different ways of working. If you’re somebody who has relied on alcohol or drugs in order to get yourself to the typewriter to do your work, and then you no longer have alcohol or drugs, then you have to find some other reason to get yourself to the typewriter to do the work. That’s just a matter of adaptation. In terms of where your brain goes, alcohol has never made anybody smarter, ever.
They just think they are.
Yeah! Drugs have probably given people insight, maybe temporarily or longer-term, but not a lot of it, and to such excess that they start to destroy themselves. I can’t say that this was my original thought when I got sober; it’s something I came upon after some years of work, but I became aware that I wasn’t going to accomplish anything with alcohol and drugs that hadn’t already been accomplished. If the endgame of that is to kill yourself, a lot of people have done that, so there’s nothing original about that. But if I write a play, even a bad play, that’s something that nobody else would write. The individuality of the artist is that you’ve done something nobody else can do, whether it’s good or bad. It doesn’t matter: it’s purely mine. And I thought, “I’d rather have that than the unoriginal outcome of drinking myself to death.”
Your father was an actor and your mother was a writer. Do you see yourself as fulfilling the ambitions they had for themselves?
I don’t think about that a lot consciously, but if I reflect on it, I suppose I do. They were both schoolteachers. When I was growing up, they both taught college English. Those careers, acting for my dad and writing for my mom, were aspirational. They were creative people and they needed a way to get their creativity out. My mom, I mean, I don’t know how the hell she did it, working a full-time job and raising two kids in a pretty traditional household where she did all the cooking and cleaning, and finding time to get in her office and write! I don’t know how the hell she did it. She had an incredible work ethic. And then my dad, the first play I ever remember seeing was To Kill a Mockingbird at our local college, with my dad playing Atticus.
When I started trying to act professionally at 17, we lived in southwestern Oklahoma and I’d drive down to Dallas, about 100 miles, away to audition, going out there with my little head shot and résumé trying to break in. My dad went down there and started working a lot. He was a guy in his 50s with a great accent and a great face, like Robert Mitchum, and he worked a lot in film and TV. He maybe did like 40 different things, playing a lot of sheriffs and riverboat captains, or whatever the hell was required. So both of my parents had come up from working-class roots, growing up after the Depression. They’d both grown up in real poverty, and were the first in their families to graduate high school, both winding up with college and advanced degrees. So the fact that I’m able to do this is absolutely a furtherance of their aspirations for not only themselves, but for us.
In the past you’ve said you were terrible at relationships.
I’ve been terrible about relationships in my life, yeah.
How’s your marriage to Carrie Coon now?
Fantastic! It’s fantastic! [Laughs.] I’m really surprised to find how much I love being married. Maybe it’s just about being married to the right person. But it’s really great!
I can’t speak for other people, but for me, there are no secrets. I can say anything that’s going on. I’m only able to do that now maybe because of the life I’ve lived up to this point, the therapy I’ve gone through, or again, just finding the right person to be able to do that with. But to be able to live with that kind of freedom, like, I can say anything! I don’t have to hide the person I am from my partner. That’s great.
Your wife is a pretty accomplished actor. What’s your favorite role of hers?
I’m a little biased, because of my bias towards the stage. My response is Honey in Virginia Woolf, because it’s a very tricky part. That character can be played very superficially, but there are great depths to be found, and she found them all. In terms of like, her on-camera work, what she did with that Nora character on The Leftovers I find pretty remarkable. I had read the book before Carrie and I gave it to her and said, “You should read this.” She read it and we both really liked it, and then I actually had the first audition for it, but by the time I got home I found out it wasn’t going anywhere!
You went in for Kevin, right?
I did. In the book he’s the mayor of the town, not the police chief, and he’s older. I wasn’t surprised that they went the way they did, but then Carrie got called in and I thought, Oh, that’s really good casting. I hope they go in that direction. She found things in that that I didn’t see when I originally read the book and the script. She willed that character into more life than was on the page, and it’s been made manifest by the expansion of her character on the show. She willed that into being, and Damon [Lindelof] and Tom [Perrotta] give her all the credit for doing that. It’s remarkable, what she did with that part. She’s the best.