The Post wasn’t rushed out, per se, but it did come together “with a sense of urgency,” as Tracy Letts can confirm. That urgency is earned: The story of Katharine Graham’s (Meryl Streep) decision to publish the Pentagon Papers in the Washington Post (after a restraining order stopped the New York Times from publishing further excerpts) is one of a handful of movies to make you leave the theater feeling just a wee bit hopeful — things have been this bad before, and we made it through.
Letts is Fritz Beebe, Graham’s only ally in a room full of men. Letts plays him as firm but respectful, empathetic to Graham’s plight: The Post was her family’s paper — her father’s, then her late husband’s — and she’s all too aware of what it means to risk damaging its legacy. But even when Beebe, her most trusted adviser, says he’s not sure about publishing the papers, Graham trusts her gut.
Beebe is just one of three roles Letts has taken this year opposite standout actresses: He also played Debra Winger’s unfaithful husband in The Lovers, and Saoirse Ronan’s warm, passive dad (with an especially funny line-reading of “Doritos”) in Lady Bird. He spoke with Vulture about acting opposite Meryl Streep, working with Spielberg, and why his wife Carrie Coon has ice in her veins.
Spielberg really got this out with amazing speed. Did the production ever feel rushed?
It didn’t feel rushed, but I didn’t have a lot of time before we started on the film. Then again, I rarely do [get a lot of time]. I didn’t have a lot of time to get ready, but once we were on the set it didn’t feel rushed, it just felt like the usual process to me.
Rather than say rushed, I would say that there was a certain urgency about getting it out. Everybody seemed to accept that this was a story that we felt needed telling. And the script was good, though it still felt [like a work] in progress. That was, in this instance, a good thing, because it meant that we were showing up on the set and having to figure out how the scenes worked, how to make the scenes work. You’re always doing that, but in this instance some of the scenes were very challenging. It’s rare to have scenes with so many characters who are important to the scene and have something to contribute to the scene. It makes the blocking and the physical movement in space become really challenging.
What kinds of conversations did you have on set about Trump and his relationship to the media and to truth? Did you all talk about the daily news?
Sure. We were talking about that stuff, who doesn’t talk about that stuff? I had just come from a theater rehearsal that had nothing to do with Donald Trump, and we talked about it every day. I just don’t know how you live in the world right now without talking about what’s going on in the world, and what’s going on in our country. Unfortunately too, because of cell phones, people have access to the news as it’s happening. It’s like, Well, what did he say now …
Do you get the push alerts on your phone? Are you the type to obsessively check every update?
I do not obsessively check. In fact, I’ve had to urge my wife not to obsessively check because she’s one of those people who’ll live in it all day. I just don’t believe you can do it, I think it’s too exhausting to try to live in it all day. We try to read the newspaper in the morning — we still read the hard copy newspaper — and then try to watch PBS NewsHour in the evening. We try to limit it to that, but even that’s difficult.
Your character Fritz was was one of Katharine Graham’s allies in the face of a lot of men who didn’t think she was qualified to publish the paper. How did you approach that sort of role?
I approached it simply. I didn’t have a lot of time to do a lot of research, and frankly I’m not a big research guy anyway. You do what’s necessary, and the truth is that for me, the needs of the character were very apparent on the page: He loved this woman and he felt his job was to advise her as best he could. At its core, The Post is a movie about a woman who has to make a political decision and ultimately uses principles to guide that decision.
One of the things we see over the course of the film is her turning to her trusted advisers to help guide her through that decision-making process. Ultimately, the choice is hers to make, and I think that’s one of the really moving things about the film. It’s one of the moving things about Katharine Graham’s true story. Fritz was a guy she really trusted, really admired, and he gave her the best advice he could and she still went the other direction because her principles told her to.
What’s your working relationship like with Meryl Streep now, after she acted in the film adaptation of August: Osage County?
I’m so glad that we had that experience of August before we made this movie. I think I would have been intimidated by Meryl. I wasn’t because I know, first of all, that she’s just a really lovely person. Very down to earth, and has a good sense of humor and is easy to talk to. That kind of stuff is important to me. Beyond that, Meryl just works really hard! You know, people talk about how talented she is — and of course she is, I mean she’s one of the most important actors we’ve had in the last however many years — but she’s also just a hard worker. She’s really well-prepared. She’s very thoughtful in her approach. At some point, you know, you step onto the set and it’s about playing the scene opposite of another person. It becomes a give and take, and you’re just trying to relax and play your scenes.
How was it being directed by Spielberg?
It sounds so stupid to say, but Steven Spielberg was really good. Of course he was! His use of the camera is masterful. He’s been doing this a very long time, and he knows exactly what he’s doing. There are times when he shows up, and he knows exactly what the shot is and how the whole thing’s going to be pieced together. Other items, he’s needing to improvise a little bit, but he always knows how the thing’s going to cut together.
I’ve worked in TV quite a bit, where you work with directors and their obligation is to cover the scene every way imaginable before sending it off to an editor who’s then going to assemble it. It’s interesting to work with a director who edits in the camera. He doesn’t need to cover the shot, because he knows the way it’s going to cut together. I won’t call it a lost art, exactly, but it’s a certainly not as common as it used to be. As an actor, I really appreciate not having to do it more times than is necessary. I appreciate that we might do a number of takes in one setup and then we’re not going to cover it in another direction because he’s already got what he knows he’s going to use, and I really appreciate that.
Did anything particularly funny happen while filming? A lot of this movie is really heavy, and it must have been tricky, with so many group scenes.
Ah, Bradley Whitford is a very funny guy. But I have to say: For all the talk of an amiable set and people with good senses of humor — and all of that is true — people were working hard, and everyone was nervous. Everybody was nervous. Steven was nervous, Meryl was nervous, Tom was nervous. I stress them, because I don’t want to make it sound like everybody else was nervous, though we were all very nervous too.
We talked frequently about how nervous we were. We would talk in the makeup trailer about, “Wow, I’m really nervous about this work today.” There was something about that urgency, as well as some of the powerful players who were part of this thing. Not because of their power, just because of their reputations. That was, you know, I think had everybody just wanting to do their best possible work.
I will say there was one person who was not nervous, and that was my wife, Carrie Coon. She just has ice water in her veins. She’s like an assassin. She’s the one person who was not nervous, and I think everybody found that a little disconcerting. It’s like, “Wow, look at this woman who is the only person here who’s not nervous.”
Ha! This was your first time acting together onscreen. How was that?
Because I was nervous, it was great to see her in the makeup trailer in the morning. It was great to be able to go to work and see my wife. Not to mention, then we go home at night and we get to talk about the day, talk about the work, talk about the other people. It was great fun. Getting to have lunch with her — what a pleasure. Normally, you say good-bye at the beginning of the day, you go off to work, and you don’t see each other again until sometimes very late that night, or sometimes if we’re away shooting, not for weeks at a time, so it was a great pleasure for us.
You’ve had three movies — The Lovers, Lady Bird, and The Post — come out this year, and you happen to playing guys supporting really standout performances from actresses. Usually you’re cast as really intimidating men. Do you like playing these guys better?
What I really like is playing a range. In the theater I was able to play a variety of characters, and not settle into playing any one thing over and over again. I certainly jumped at the opportunity, with all three of those movies you mentioned, to not play an asshole. It was a lot of fun, and the truth is that dad in Lady Bird is just a lot closer to me temperamentally than a lot of those roles I play. I don’t have a bad temper. [Laughs.] I try to be nice to people. I’m pretty content in the corner and read the newspaper. That’s temperamentally a little closer to who I actually am. But I like mixing it up.
What were you like at Lady Bird’s age?
Oh god! I was a wreck. I was a mess. Who isn’t a mess at 17? I was a total mess. Ugh. I can’t even, it’s so long ago. [Laughs.]
Were you still living in Oklahoma at that time?
Yes, I was. I was itching to get out of high school, get on with my life, get out of my little town. I grew up in a small town, 12,000 people, in southeastern Oklahoma. I just could not wait to get out. I love my parents, I was very close with my folks, but I was straining to get out of the little town I was in. I left at the first chance I could. I moved to Dallas, which was the big city for us. I lived in Dallas for a couple of years before moving to Chicago.
One last question, because I’m also from Oklahoma — do you consider it the South or the Midwest? I’ve heard both.
Wow. I don’t consider it either one. I consider it a Plains state.
That’s a good answer, tell me why.
It is not the South. It is also not the Midwest. Michigan, for god’s sake, is considered the Midwest. They call Minnesota the Midwest. Oklahoma can’t be the Midwest because we’re not part of the same thing that is Michigan and Minnesota. But it’s also not the South because the South is like Civil War states. The people who live in New York or California would call Oklahoma the Midwest, only because they don’t really know where it is.
This interview has been edited and condensed.