Tracy Letts Talks Leading 'The Lovers' and Penning His Next Broadway Play

Tribeca Film Festival
'The Lovers'

"It’s not often that you get offered your first lead at 50 years old," Letts tells THR of starring opposite Debra Winger in the A24 relationship comedy.

The Lovers centers on a married, but estranged, couple who are both seriously involved with other people. When their respective partners pressure them to fully commit, the two amicably resolve to call it quits — a move that ends up leading their newfound fling.

Directed by Azazel Jacobs, the A24 comedy stars Debra Winger and Tracy Letts — the latter in a leading role for the first time. The Hollywood Reporter spoke with Letts about how Homeland helped his starring turn, what to expect from his next Broadway-bound play and why it’s “bullshit” when viewers refer to his onscreen connection with Winger as “magical.”

What drew you to The Lovers?

The script was thought provoking and intelligent and about mature people who are engaged in love, romance, desire — they’re portrayed as sexual beings. I was happy to participate in something that was thoughtful on that subject matter.

And I have to say, if I’m totally honest, part of the attraction was a leading role. I’ve not been offered a lot of that kind of stuff. I’m a character actor for the most part, in my roles in film and TV anyway. Good parts I haven’t been bitching about, but supporting roles. It’s not often that you get offered your first lead at 50 years old.

Any apprehensions about taking the lead?

No, I felt pretty prepared for it. I’ve been working more in film and TV over the last couple of years, and I started to feel more comfortable in front of a camera and on a film set. I also felt great that I’d be working with Debra, who is more experienced than me [at leading a film]. I had a person I could turn to and say, “Tell me about this. How do you do this?” One of the great things about being on Homeland was that almost all my stuff was with either Mandy [Patinkin] or Claire [Danes], and they’re both so experienced and so gifted. I went onto the set of Homeland saying, ‘Look, I’m gonna watch you. I’m gonna ask you a lot of questions.” They were very generous, very helpful.

What was your first impression of Debra Winger?

She called me in my hotel room the night before we started shooting just to say, “Hey! I’m glad you’re doing this. I’m looking forward to meeting you.” The first time we met face-to-face was in the makeup trailer before we started working together. It was not a lot of time, but we got on great from day one. I appreciate her talent and her experience.

A lot of people have commented on our chemistry — people try to describe it as this magical thing that happened. That’s kind of bullshit. You make chemistry — you make it by being available to it and by offering it and receiving it when it’s offered to you. If the job were, “I’m gonna sit in this chair and wait for somebody I have chemistry with to walk through the door,”  then you would never do anything. I feel good that Debra and I forged that chemistry to make the film.

What do you hope this movie says about relationships?

This may come as a newsflash to The Hollywood Reporter, but relationships are hard. Whether it’s a long-term marriage or a short-term affair or a relationship between parents and their child, relationships are hard. There’s that old phrase that relationships take a lot of work — well, what does that look like?

I think it’s interesting too that these characters don’t have very interesting lives beyond their extramarital affairs. Their jobs are bland, their town is flat and we don’t see them with a lot of friends or outside interests. I used to have a shrink who said, “People have affairs to make themselves feel better.” I think that that’s really true. I don’t know if it ever works, maybe it works temporarily but it never works long term.

How do you hope audiences feel about the ending?

I’m curious about that because my wife said, “Everyone is telling me how much they liked the ending. I thought the ending was very sad.” I guess I hope they feel both things. I love the ending. It’s really beautiful and crowned in its own way. It seems real. What they do is ultimately very recognizably human.

Are you open to more leading roles?

I look out for good material. I kind of don’t care about the size of the part. Believe me, I’m not walking away from The Lovers going, “Well, I’m a leading man now.”

Tell me about Minutes, your next Broadway-bound play.

It gets into the question of how we define our own history. History sometimes is in the eye of the beholder — what we choose to remember, [versus] factual reportage.

Is it specific to our current political climate?

I was maybe three quarters through writing the play when the election occurred, and I actually had to keep my blinders on in order to finish the play the way I had set out to finish it. But the play is not about Donald Trump. However, I do think it speaks to political process and our sense of history.

Do you feel it’s important for artists to speak on politics?

I don’t know if I would say it’s more important; I’d say it’s unavoidable. I don’t know how the hell you’re supposed to write about life on this planet in 2017 and not address, to some extent, the political moment that we’re in. I mean, what conversation do you have that doesn’t touch upon what happened to us as a country, where we’ve gone, where we’re going? Regardless of which side you’re on, we’re all concentrated on it. We should be. 

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