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Playwright Tracy Letts talks upcoming TV, movie roles

Veteran stage actor Tracy Letts is now seeing

Veteran stage actor Tracy Letts is now seeing roles on television and in film. Credit: WireImage / Jeff Vespa

Tracy Letts may be a veteran stage actor — and playwright and screenwriter — who has won a Tony Award (twice) and the Pulitzer Prize (for his mountain of a play, “August: Osage County”). But score a couple of seasons on “Homeland” (as CIA director Andrew Lockhart) and that’s what really gets you noticed.

Letts is on a roll these days, having shot several films, including “Indignation,” based on the Philip Roth novel, co-starring Logan Lerman and Sarah Gadon, and premiering July 29. Lerman plays Marcus, a working-class Jewish kid from Newark who finds himself at a WASP-y Ohio college in the 1950s. Sarah Gadon is Olivia, his unpredictable girlfriend. The story percolates along until Marcus is called to the office of the college’s Dean Caudwell (Letts) and — from there the film is like few others. In the austere chamber, Marcus sits, fidgets, sweats, cajoles and clashes head-on with the dean for nearly 20 minutes. One scene. It’s an unusual and fascinating confrontation that’ll have you reliving your fears of the principal’s office.

A Tulsa, Oklahoma, native, Letts, 51, will soon be seen in the films “Imperium” (with Daniel Radcliffe, out in August), “Christine” (about infamous newscaster Christine Chubbuck), and the HBO comedy series “Divorce” (with Sarah Jessica Parker). He’s married to actress Carrie Coon.

Your big scene is nearly 20 minutes long. We don’t see that very often. It must’ve intrigued you as an actor, and writer. Is that why you wanted to do this film?

I was offered the role and accepted without reading the script. A Philip Roth book, with James Schamus writing and directing — I’m in. Then I read the script and . . . that scene was . . . fascinating, daunting. One of the reasons you do this work is for challenges like that. I didn’t have a lot of time to prepare — maybe three weeks. So I just pulled up my sleeves and started trying to learn it. To learn it well — because you always think you know something till the camera’s in your face and you realize you don’t know it as well as you thought you did. As you say, it’s not something you see very often. But I believe audiences have infinite patience when something is well done. And this scene is very well-written.

You think audiences have patience? Why don’t producers think that?

I don’t know. There are these quote-unquote “rules” about screenplays — your scene can’t be longer than three pages. Audiences supposedly don’t have the patience to stay with anything longer than that. Well . . . they don’t have the patience to stick with anything bad for three pages. As an audience member myself, if the material’s good, I don’t care how long it is.

Right. But wait — you’re the guy who wrote a play more than three hours long. Granted, at the end of “August: Osage County,” I remember thinking, “I’m ready for three hours more.”

That’s gratifying to hear. I never worried so much about the length of “August.” I just worried about getting it right.

How tough was it to film this unusually long scene?

At the end of that day, I turned to Logan [Lerman] and said, “How ya doing?” He said, “I’m exhausted.” I said, “Good! I’m so glad you’re exhausted, too, and it’s not just my age.” James was smart about it. We didn’t rehearse a great deal — Logan and I got together a few days before we shot it, ran through it. Then we shot it a few times over, each time from beginning to end.

Wow. So what’s next?

I shot a lot of films last year. They’re all lined up like airplanes waiting to take off at the airport. And “Divorce,” the HBO series with Sarah Jessica Parker, airs in the fall. It’s strange — it’s a new world for me. I’ve spent so much of my career onstage. Then “Homeland,” I think, started driving interest in me, allowing me to get cast in these films. It’s been great fun.

Ah, yes, people know “Homeland.” But Philip Roth? How do you think his story will come across to younger viewers today?

Good question. I have no idea. I guess Roth would tell you himself he’s not especially pleased with past adaptations of his work. Perhaps it just doesn’t lend itself very well to film. That’s true of some great writers. But I think James has done a terrific job capturing Roth’s tone and essence. And Logan is a terrific actor. I think young audiences will find a lot, not just in Logan but in his character.

Maybe it’ll be like that time recently when millennials discovered Paul McCartney — they’ll be saying, “Hey, who’s this new Roth guy? Gotta check him out.”

I hope so. That’ll be great.


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