Normally, I'm not a big fan of group interviews. They often devolve into a cross-talking nightmare of laughing, side conversations, in jokes and other things that make transcribing a bitch and don't amount to much in terms of getting any serious insight into the film being discussed. But I've come to realize, it's all about who's in the group, and I recently got a chance to sit down with some of the talent involving in making AUGUST: OSAGE COUNTY transition from an award-winning play into a film that is already a part of the awards season discussion.
I'm not going to go deep into the career details of each of the four folks I sat with collectively, but I'll give you the highlights. The clear ringleader of the group was the playwright/screenwriter Tracy Letts, whose previous plays turned into films include BUG and KILLER JOE, but he's also become a renowned actor, having just finished up a season of "Homeland" as Andrew Lockhart; he also recently won a Tony Award for his performance in "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" The play "August: Osage County" also won a Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 2008. One man ought not to possess so much raw talent, but Letts certainly does. I had the great pleasure of interviewing him not long ago about KILLER JOE, and he's a blast to talk to, clearly digging deep from his personal pain to create these fantastic characters.
Next up is one of the crowned queens of character acting, Margo Martindale, currently on the CBS sitcom "The Millers," and about ready to start up her second season on "The Americans" (in a slightly limited capacity compared to the first season). Martindale has been in such films as LORENZO'S OIL, NOBODY'S FOOL, DEAD MAN WALKING, 28 DAYS, MILLION DOLLAR BABY, THE HOURS, THE SAVAGES, WALK HARD, WIN WIN, and even HANNAH MONTANA: THE MOVIE. But she's probably best known in recently years for her Emmy-winning role in the second season of "Justified" of the murderous Mags Bennett.
Julianne Nicholson just finished a great run in the premiere season of "Master of Sex" as the only female doctor at Washington University, and managed to briefly return to her role as only female district attorney in "Boardwalk Empire." I first remember spotting her in the Stephen King-written television mini-series "Storm of the Century," "Ally McBeal," and "Law & Order: Criminal Intent," as well as films such as KINSEY, FLANNEL PAJAMAS, BRIEF INTERVIEWS WITH HIDEOUS MEN, SHADOWS & LIES, and the upcoming Sundance Channel series "The Red Road."
Playing her sister in AUGUST: OSAGE COUNTY is the ever-reliable Juliette Lewis of CHRISTMAS VACATION and CAPE FEAR fame as a kid, who went on to star in such films as NATURAL BORN KILLERS, STRANGE DAYS, HUSBANDS AND WIVES, KALIFORNIA, WHAT'S EATING GILBERT GRAPE, FROM DUSK TILL DAWN, OLD SCHOOL, WHIP IT, and more recently CONVICTION with Sam Rockwell and Hilary Swank.
I felt like I was surrounded by more greatness and talent than could be contained in a single room as we discussed some of the themes of the material and the camaraderie that was born on the set. Whatever you may think of the paired-down version of the story or the acting, the film is darkly funny, vicious, emotionally devastating and very often shocking. Moreover, it's packed to the gills with famous and talented performers like Meryl Streep, Julia Roberts, Chris Cooper, Sam Shepard, Ewan McGregor, Benedict Cumberbach, Abigail Breslin, and Dermot Mulroney, all at the top of their game.
With all of that in mind, and a roomful of gifted actors and creative personalities, please enjoy my interview with Tracy Letts, Margo Martindale, Julianne Nicholson, and Juliette Lewis, each of whom waited their turn to talk but still managed to have a lively discussion about their experiences on the film.
Capone: In theater or in film, very often when there’s an ensemble piece, there’s a character that is designated as the conduit through which the audience is supposed to see the events transpire. But I’ve noticed with this story, different audience members seeing it are picking different characters as that conduit, depending on what the personal experiences they bring into the film. Have you noticed that to be the case?
Tracy Letts: I have noticed it.
Juliette Lewis: [to Letts] I want to know what you have to say about that because you’re so good at making each character alive and their perspective shown.
Letts: They’re all me. They’ve got to be me. They're all some part of me. They all come out of me. The worst person in it, or the most poorly behaved person in it to the best, they're all some quality of me. Because this is autobiographical, they're all different views of the same story. In some ways, Jean [played by Abigail Breslin] is the person I identify with, because some of the events in the story happened to me when I was 10 years old, and I’m looking a lot of it through her eyes.
Barbara [Julia Roberts] is dramatically the protagonist of the piece, so I’m looking at a lot of it though her eyes, but I think I’m looking at all of it though all their eyes. The fact that people are able to identify with a variety of people around the table in the family I think is great. It gives a lot of people different access into the thing. They’re given their own secret access into the thing though the eyes of the character, and it’s very cool.
Capone: Did any of the rest of you feel that way about a character other than your own?
Lewis: I connected a lot with Barbara, not that that’s where I am, but I love the fearlessness in her when I saw it written and how angry she was and unrelenting about that anger at that particular time, because I don’t believe Barbara’s like that all the time. I feel like we met her at a certain place in her live going through a divorce. Anyway, I like Barbara a lot, and of course my character that I play.
Julianne Nicholson: I like that each character has some place to go. And you have no idea when the film starts of where that place will be, and there are quite a few reveals, and each one is shocking but also feels entirely correct and recognizable, not necessarily the specifics but secrets in the family and these revelations.
Margo Martindale: I certainly identify with Mattie Fae, but where I want to be is Chris [Cooper] telling everybody basically, “How can you people be so mean?”
Capone: That ultimatum that he gives your character is something you’re waiting the entire film for someone to say. How important is that moment, and will it stick?
Letts: I’ve always thought that it sticks for them. I think she’s married well in the sense that she’s married somebody who's going to break the cycle. Going back into this house has re-ignited a lot of this stuff in her, but she’s married somebody who’s going to help her break a terrible pattern, and I think what he basically says to her is “You don’t get to bring that back into our house, into our family.” And I have hope for Mattie Fae that she’s going to do that.
Martindale: I do too.
Capone: In the adaptation process, what was the toughest nut to crack in terms of you being able to reduce it and get to its essence? Was there a breakthough moment?
Letts: I don’t recall a single breakthough moment.
Capone: More of a painful chipping away?
Letts: [laughs] It wasn't all painful chipping away either. There were things that I was happy to loose in that I thought, well, the movie is going to be better at showing this in some ways than the play is. There were certainly moments when I knew that good actors were going to be able to convey things on screen that didn’t need a monologue anymore to convey. Yet at the same time, there did come a point where I thought, "Alright, we’re going to lose some of the characters who are a little further out from the central conflict, we’re going to lose some of their depth." That was hard for me to loose some of the depth of Beverly [Sam Shepard], Jean, Johnna [Misty Upham]. It gives the play a real dimension that in the film we didn't feel we had the time to get straight up far afield from our central conflict.
Capone: The play ran in Chicago and New York initially, but film makes it accessible to a much bigger audience. Does that factor in at all when you're adapting your plays?
Letts: No, well I hope not. I hope I’m not writing down.
Capone: Oh, I wasn’t saying that but more about "Will everyone be able to get what we’re going for here?"
Letts: Yeah, I think that’s what it would amount to. I think I would wind up writing down to people, so I don’t think I ever concerned myself with that too much. Let's face it, the play had a populist appeal, much to my delight. It seemed to cut across a lot of boundaries. It seemed to speak to a lot of people in a lot of different situations, so I was never worried about trying to extend it’s outreach as a film. The film’s has to do that on it’s own.
Capone: I know a lot of people have asked you questions about working with Meryl Streep, and, Margo, I know you have before on a couple of other occasions. There are certain people that you get in a room with and you just feel you’re game getting upped immediately. Was that the sense you were getting? Was she setting the tone? Do you feel that shift happen?
Martindale: I think that we saw how prepared she was and how she brought 150 percent on every take, no matter if it was on her or on someone else. So, yeah. You upped your game. You prepared even more.
Nicholson: Nobody was there to phone it in. We already knew the material, and everyone wanted to honor that and do the best they could, and then that cast did up that. But everybody came so excited to be there no matter how much experience they had or how many honors have been bestowed upon them. They were excited to be there and wanted to be as good as they could be.
Martindale: And that had everything to do with Tracy’s screenplay, Tracy’s play. Everybody, we were all given a great gift of getting to be in it, and I think everybody felt that way.
Lewis: Yeah, the level of honesty and layers that Tracy writes or gives you as an actor to explore is unusual, and it’s what you hope for and what you think you’re capable of, but then he tests you or challenges you with the material. So I still don't feel like I lived up to his writing but you give it your best try.
Capone: When you’re playing family members who are also to a degree estranged, or don’t see each other that often, is it better beforehand to spend a little time together to get that chemistry, or is it better to have that distance?
Nicholson: We had the luxury of a week rehearsal, which I don’t think I’ve ever had on a film before, and a lot of that rehearsal process was going through the script scene by scene. I think another huge part of that was being in each others company and spending that time together. So we had a week to get to know each other where we were going to each others houses, we were going out to eat, we were spending time together. So even though we haven’t been together for many years, some of us, you still have that base, you still have that history of coming from the same place.
Lewis: And you can always create the distance, but you do want to create the affection. Like for Ivy [Nicholson's character] and I, I think we're closer in age, so we talked about, What period did we hang out and play dolls, if we did or didn’t, and Barbara was always the leader or the more bossy older sister. So we got to discuss these relationships to see where we might tap into that when they return home.
Martindale: What I was going to say is that what we did do in getting to know each other was there was no phony-boloney anything between us. Everybody was who they are, I felt. There were no nerves in that play, which was great. And for me and Meryl [who play sisters], we spent a lot a lot of time together, even not with everybody. Shopping together, doing lots of things together, Yes, I did want to spend time with her, and yes she did want to spend time with me, but I have a feeling Meryl knows what she’s doing also, when she’s off stage.
Letts: It’s a very well cast piece and that’s a tribute to John [Wells, director] and a very patient process he had with the casting. He really took his time assembling the pieces, but it’s not just casting in terms of who they are already and how they relate to one another; it was also good casting just in terms of a certain quality of actor that you want walking through the door. Not only how fucking good they are, but how seriously they take it. It’s not a frivolous bunch.
Nicholson: And eccentric bunch.
Martindale: Yeah, it’s not frivolous at all.
Lewis: No, but you’d be surprised. There’s nothing I can’t stand more than a lazy actor, dammit. You’d be surprised, sometimes people are really unprepared when they show up. They're in it for the hotel and the room service, I don't know. [Everybody laughs]
Nicholson: We didn’t have that.
Lewis: We didn't have that, oh mo.
Capone: I keep hearing about these legendary dinners that Meryl Streep would have.
Martindale: Yeah, that’s true. More than once a week. And we had dinner together every Sunday night, because John found in Bartlesville [Oklahoma] that a lot of restaurants weren't open. So in order for people to be together and eat on Sunday night, we could because we had kitchens, but the crew and everybody would get together on Sunday nights. But we also would get together at least as a group once a week, I would say.
Letts: Were there restaurants in Bartlesville that you ate at?
Martindale: Yeah, there were.
Lewis: There was this place called Frankie‘s or something.
Nicholson: I was happy to just prepare my own food.
Letts: Well, that steakhouse we went to that very first night, did you guys go back to that joint?
Martindale: Oh, you mean that place that we ate in the back? Oh yeah, I liked that place.
Nicholson: I went there once or twice with other cast. But you can’t eat there more than once a week. You got that steak, and I brought half or two thirds of mine home. It was ginormous.
Letts: When we sat down at this steakhouse, and I was so pleased that all these Hollywood actors ordered steak. Everybody ordered steak. I thought they were just going to get a little salad. But then I saw the difference--I finished my steak. Everybody else had a lot of food to take home.
Capone: When you read this script for the first time, do you remember specifically something about your character that you latched onto, something that you felt like you could build upon?
Lewis: I 1,000 percent craved Karen’s ability to believe, despite what reality is presenting her. So the ability to see only your illusion, and there was a desperate quality to wanting to hang on to that illusion, but I was just coming from a place of facing the possible loss of my father. So I was going though this really hardened, cynical view of how brutal life is, and yes, life is brutal. I’m a fairly positive person, so Karen’s ability to hang on, to a fault, the dream-- it’s delusional, but I actually wanted to be delusional and I couldn't.
Capone: Yeah, it might be the most uncomfortable performance to watch, only because in the midst of all this misery, to have this beam of light there is almost out of place. There’s something about her that made me happy and sad.
Lewis: Oh good, I hope so. She should be exactly what I was at the time, 39 pushing 40, right? Because the years are going. You know she doesn't have that many opportunities to find the one. I think Karen literally drops in from another planet into this world because she’s going to show everyone how well she’s doing. She can’t even acknowledge that her dad really killed himself. There was a line in the sister scene--
Nicholson: You said something about “No matter what you have to give it up to mom and dad for staying married that long.”
Lewis: Yeah, and you say, “He killed himself, Karen.” And she goes, “We don’t know that.” I love that she said, “We don't know that.” That’s exactly who she is.
Capone: Yeah, what about you two?
Nicholson: I don't remember one specific thing, but I just sympathized with her from the word go. From first reading it, I felt like I understood who she was and that I could bring something to that.
Martindale: Well, I loved the introduction into the movie. I love Charlie and Mattie Fae coming in. I love the whole walking up into the house, through the kitchen, into the living room, the relationship between them. I loved that. And I loved-- Well, there’s nothing I didn’t love doing about that part.
Capone: Obviously the film stirs up a lot of emotions, both amongst the characters and in the audience. Was this the sort of set where people just start talking about their families because that's what was in the air?
Nicholson: Yes, and not only us. That was something that John encouraged us to do in that week of rehearsal, but that was something that happened very naturally after filming a scene from crew members or other people that were watching it happen. And everybody was very open about their own experiences: the actors, the director, and everyone who was making it.
Lewis: I thought that was really interesting: Julia Roberts was sharing, Meryl was sharing. Everybody's guards were down to share what our dynamics were within our own family, and how it contributed to the piece.
Letts: I was going to tell a quick story, which is when we were first doing the play. You know that thing that purple says at the dinner table, the bit about the silver and "If you want, I’ll sell it to you." That was a real story, and one of the original actors at the dinner table relayed it, and I then put into the line.
Lewis: That’s beautiful because that’s family. "We’ll sell you the silver maybe for a deal, maybe."
Nicholson: And I love it when Julia’s says, “Or we could wait, and you’ll never get around to it.”
Martindale: That’s the best part. I love that more than I can even tell you.
Capone: What did you learn from doing this? What did you take away from this that you’ll keep with you from that point forward?
Martindale: I think that in doing the next movie I do, that I will really go into backstory a lot more. I never have done that a lot. I’ve done it on stage some, but we really went into backstory, and I think it really shows, and I’m proud of that and I think it’s something I’ll do again.
Nicholson: For me--I got weepy the other night talking about this--it was such a profound experience working, especially on this subject matter and opening yourself in that way, but with this remarkable group of people. It’s given me huge validation and confidence in the work that I’ve done and that I hope to continue to do. It was amazing that John had the confidence in bringing me into this group. I’ll never forget that, it’s huge.
Lewis: The learning thing is so difficult, because I’m always--with everything I do, but with deeper pieces of material--trying to learn how to loose myself but not loose myself. It’s impossible. But I’ll keep trying it. How do you completely loose yourself and control something at the same time? I don’t know.
Martindale: It’s happened to me a few times.
Lewis: Really? I know, and you’re touching gold.
Martindale: And you feel it.
Nicholson: It’s beautiful.
Capone: Tracy, what about you? Did you come out of this a little changed from this experience?
Letts: Oh, absolutely. Everything I’ve acted in changes me a little bit. Sometimes the way it changes me, I won’t know for a while. But certainly the things that I write have always had profound effect on my life, profound. For me, because the story is so personal and is about my family, I think I gained a lot more acceptance, not only of people in the past, people who are long dead and that loomed large in my mind, I not only gained a lot of acceptance of them, but I learned about their humanity though this process. But I think I’ve gained a lot more acceptance as a person of other people now. I got married three months ago and I don't think it’s a mistake that I wasn’t married before AUGUST: OSAGE COUNTY.
Capone: Well thank you all, My time is up.
Martindale: Well, I’m sorry.
Capone: You’re sorry my time is up?
Martindale: Yes, I don’t want you to go. I wanted to talk a little more. Honestly, because what you just said is so interesting to me, because it is like when you come to something like this, and everybody is on an equal playing ground, just know that what I take from it is, know your value where you go next. Know your value and know that what you bring will change what is around you. It’s fascinating because I’ve been little and working next to big stars.
Lewis: Yeah, in our business , that’s an important thing to come to know.
Martindale: Know your value. That’s a big huge plus, because if you go in thinking you’re the little mouse, you’re going to be the mouse, or think "I don't deserve to be here." I damn deserve to be here! Working with Paul Newman, I remember thinking [whispers], "I'm in a room with Paul Newman." But I thought, I’m in a room with Paul Newman, and then we became friends. But this was completely different.
Nicholson: Very special.
Martindale: Very special. It really was special, and so were those cookies [points to a platter of mostly crumbs that used to be several types of cookies in the center of the table].
Capone: Clearly. They’ve been devoured.
Lewis: They must have put extra sugar.
Letts: I haven’t had a bite of cookie.
Lewis: Good for you, Tracy. I want you to know I asked for these cookies.