What Tracy Letts did with the family dinner table in his 2008 Pulitzer Prize-winning play August: Osage County, he is now unleashing upon a city-council board meeting in small-town America in the new Steppenwolf production of The Minutes—which is to say, exposing all the fractures, urges, and ambitions of humanity just underneath the mundane, carefully controlled surface. Letts might well be our foremost theatrical chronicler of the messy American psyche, following in the footsteps of his playwright idols, Arthur Miller and Edward Albee. But the affable, 54-year-old Oklahoma native is a double threat: he’s also an accomplished, Tony Award-winning actor. For the first time, he’ll be playing one of the lead roles in his own play, opposite Blair Brown and Armie Hammer for The Minutes’ Broadway run. It’s cracking up to be a busy spring for Letts, who also wrote the screenplay for the upcoming thriller The Woman in the Window, starring Amy Adams and Julianne Moore. He took a break from play rehearsals in Chicago to talk to a triple threat, the director, screenwriter, and actor Greta Gerwig (Letts appeared as the humbled, even-keeled father in Gerwig’s directorial debut, Lady Bird, and as the salty publisher in her second film, Little Women). They spoke about Death of a Salesman, the death of Edward Albee, and how a playwright’s job isn’t so much predicting the future as it is paying attention.
TRACY LETTS: Greta, since people are listening to us, please don’t say all the dirty things you normally say when we talk to each other.
GRETA GERWIG: [Laughs] I will refrain. We’re here to talk about your magnificent new play, The Minutes, which I read a few years ago right after we did Lady Bird. I remember being horrified by it and dazzled by it in equal measure.
LETTS: When I finished writing it, I turned to [the actor] Carrie [Coon, Letts’s wife] and said, “This is no good.” I immediately knew it didn’t work. I sent it on to [the theater director] Anna Shapiro and told her it was no good. She wrote back, “I think it’s your best play,” which was not what I was expecting.
GERWIG: I definitely felt while reading it that it was a major work from you. But maybe, to what you’re saying, there’s a connection between thinking something is dumb and it actually being great.
LETTS: Once we put it up on its feet, and I saw it in production at Steppenwolf, I thought, “Oh, it really does work.”
GERWIG: It reminded me of Hannah Arendt’s Eichmann in Jerusalem in the way that it’s both a procedural and a horror. I’ve been wondering, do you find horror in procedure?
LETTS: Yeah, I guess I do. There’s a moment in the play when they say the Pledge of Allegiance. I had written a fictional Pledge of Allegiance for that scene and then, when we ran through it, I thought it seemed really self-conscious. So we just started saying the actual Pledge of Allegiance. There’s something about all those people standing up and facing the flag and putting their hands on their hearts and reciting the words that in some ways have been stripped of their meaning. It’s just a rote repetition of sounds we learned as little kids. Something about it is a little horrifying.
GERWIG: You take a town hall meeting and spin it until we see the underside of it.
LETTS: The impulse of the town hall meeting was, of course, to take something very small and specific and hope that it represents a larger idea. For me, The Minutes was a way to look at how we write and pass along our history. The way we function with it, the way we move forward through a day, through our lives, knowing what we know about our history, knowing the things that we have learned or unlearned or learned wrong about who we are and how we got here. I’m pretty conscious of that, I have to say—every time we throw out food or the casual ways in which we live with great comfort and take that for granted. I wanted to explore that. I had started writing the play during the 2016 election, but it really wasn’t about that. When the election results came in, which was not anything I anticipated, it was a job to keep the blinders on and keep writing. I’m not actually writing about Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton. I’m not writing about Republicans and Democrats. I’m not writing about this political moment, though I think in some ways the play does address it because it deals with history. It addresses just how we got here: How did we get to this place we’re at right now?
GERWIG: It’s interesting, this delay, as a writer, in terms of when you make something and when the work actually comes out. You have to see into the future a bit, whether you’re aware of it or not. Do you think your subconscious knows the future?
LETTS: We asked Tony Kushner this question when we were working on Homebody/Kabul, which was a play that Tony wrote before 9/11. It came to look very much like fortune-telling as well. But Tony was quick to dismiss that aspect of it and say, “Look, I don’t tell the future. All I was doing was paying attention.” Anybody who was paying attention to what was going on in the Middle East was not surprised by 9/11—they were shocked by it, of course, but nobody paying any attention was surprised. I guess I would make the same argument for my last two plays: They saw a moment before the moment happened. But I can’t tell the future.
GERWIG: How much does your sense of geography and where you’re from affect your view of the U.S.? I’m thinking of your play August: Osage County and your having grown up in Oklahoma. I’m from California, and I’m sure that has somehow affected my psyche. Does some of that get into who you are as a writer?
LETTS: It certainly does for me. I think if you were to look at your “I don’t like the idea of the artist so front and center. I like an artist who disappears a bit in the work” work and mine, anonymously, you could tell who is from Oklahoma and who is from California. There is something intrinsic about where we come from that shows up in our work. Oklahoma has its own story, and if you grow up there, then you grow up as part of that story. You inherit that story. It becomes a part of who you are. I think that’s really true about us as American artists.
GERWIG: I’m always amazed by the specificity of place in your plays. There’s something about how these characters speak at the beginning of the meeting that reminded me of being with my mom at a committee meeting at a Presbyterian church. Did you grow up with any religion?
LETTS: I grew up in the middle of the Bible Belt, but I was not raised in a particularly religious household. Both of my parents had been members of the Baptist church, but they’d become disenchanted as evangelical churches were being politicized. That was not the experience they’d had as young people in church. So we weren’t taken. But you cannot grow up in that part of the country without some exposure to it. We had a school chaplain who said a prayer. They weren’t supposed to at a public school, but they did.
GERWIG: I heard that you’re actually going to appear in the Broadway production of the play. Is that true?
LETTS: It is true. I’ve never been in one of my own plays. I’ve never written roles for myself. It’s just not something I was ever interested in doing. And I didn’t want to do it here, frankly, but the actor William Petersen, a great actor who did it at Steppenwolf, didn’t want to go to New York with the play. He’s got twins at home. We offered it to 30 actors—we had a list—and they all turned it down. We eventually got to a place on the list where I was like, “Well, I’ll do it before I let that next asshole do it.” So that’s how I wound up in my play. But I will say that I’ve bitched about it enough now that I’m starting to get to the point where I’m embracing it. One of the reasons I haven’t done it before is that I don’t like the idea of the artist so front and center. I like an artist who disappears a bit in the work. If you watched Death of a Salesman and Arthur Miller stepped out to play Willy Loman, I think you would read the play much differently. I’m hoping the audience will spend a few seconds thinking, “That’s the guy who wrote this,” and then forget about it right away.
GERWIG: I’ve acted in things I’ve written and I never liked it. It’s because I never think about myself while I’m writing it. Here’s a question about being a playwright. As a filmmaker, there’s only ever one film that you end up with. But as a playwright, you have these different iterations and often you’re even able to tinker with lines between runs. Where does the final play exist for you? Is it the one that’s finally published?
LETTS: Once it’s published, I put it on the shelf. I’m not a guy who wants to tinker with it a lot after that. I know some playwrights who do, and more power to them. In my opinion, Edward Albee, who I defer to as a playwright in all things, did real damage to The Zoo Story by going back to it 40 or 50 years later. I don’t think he should have. It’s not as good as it once was. I don’t want to mess with a play once it’s on the shelf.
GERWIG: I remember when I was making Lady Bird and I wanted to change something, you essentially said, you have to trust the person you were when you wrote it. I was like, “Oh my god, that’s the best.” I think that’s so true. Also, it should be noted that we were on the set of Lady Bird together when Edward Albee died. I really feel like he was one of the first writers whose work I understood. For a long time, Arthur Miller really escaped me, and it wasn’t until I saw you in All My Sons that I felt like I got him. But Albee clicked in my 17-year-old brain. Who was your entry person as a playwright?
LETTS: Edward Albee. And now that you mention it, I remember that moment we were on the front lawn of the house filming and I went up to you and said, “Edward Albee died,” and you said, “Oh, wow.” And then you turned back to whatever it was you were doing. There was a moment where you turned back to me and said, “That’s really big.” And, I don’t know, I still love you for recognizing that it was a big deal.
GERWIG: It was big. I remember sensing your vulnerability— I’ll never forget that moment. He was the guy. Reading Edward Albee, I could feel his brain working as I was reading him. I could also feel the pleasure of writing. Okay, I have two final things I genuinely want to know. First, and it’s the easy one: How and where do you write?
LETTS: In my office at home. I work first on a typewriter and then eventually move to a computer.
GERWIG: The second question: When I was reading The Minutes, there are some extraordinary speeches that crescendo and I can feel them crescendo as I’m reading them. When you’re writing those speeches, do you know what you’re going to say in advance? Do you know how they are going to crescendo?
LETTS: No, I don’t. My brain is extemporizing. It’s doing a weird thing, engaged in that little Fourth of July firework—what is it? That gray pellet you light on the ground and it starts to mushroom and grow?
GERWIG: A worm?
LETTS: Yes, a worm. That’s what it feels like when I’m writing one of those speeches.
GERWIG: Well, that’s what it feels like when I’m reading them.
This article appears in the March 2020 issue of Interview Magazine. Subscribe here.