September 25, 2022
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How ‘Doing Nothing’ Became a Hollywood Career Strategy for Tracy Letts

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Tracy Letts, 56, is an actor and playwright whose “August: Osage County” won a Pulitzer and Tony in 2008. He appeared in “Lady Bird” and “Ford v Ferrari,” and now co-stars in HBO’s “Winning Time: The Rise of the Lakers Dynasty.” His play “The Minutes” is on Broadway. He spoke with Marc Myers.

As a child, I felt like an outsider. I don’t know how much of that had to do with me being an outsider or just the way I felt.

From the start, I was precocious and a nonconformist. I tended to act out in funny ways, like wearing mismatched socks to school.

At home, I was a big reader with an ear for words and language, and I began writing stories early.

Tracy Letts at 13, in Oklahoma.



Photo:

Tracy Letts (Family Photo)

We moved from Tulsa, Okla., to Durant in 1970, when I was 5. Durant was a small college town with a population of about 12,000. My dad, Dennis, taught English at Southeastern State College. Eventually, my mom, Billie, did, too.

Enrollment at SSC was nearly 4,000 students, so some of my friends were the kids of other college teachers. My folks were steeped in books, music and the movies, and we always discussed the arts and a life of the mind.

Initially, we lived in many different houses. I’m not sure why. Our first rental was across from the college. I remember Claude Adams, a Black professor who taught with my father and a dear friend of the family, dropped by for iced tea on the porch. The next day we were evicted.

When I was 10, we moved into a big house on five acres in the country. It was a three-story home, maybe 4,000 square feet, but nothing fancy. We remained there until I left at 18.

Dad was very smart and very well read. A big guy with a large personality, he could be funny and charismatic, or quiet and moody. At times he had a volcanic temper that was scary, but he was demonstrative in love and affection. He was the most important figure in my life.

I think deep down, he was a frustrated actor. He thrived in local community theater. The first play I ever saw, at age 10, was a university production of “To Kill a Mockingbird.” My father played Atticus Finch and college kids played the other parts. His performance left a deep impression on me.

In many ways, we were a very traditional family. The dinner table was fun and challenging. Everyone was expected to contribute to the conversation, and all opinions were valued, never belittled or chided.

In 1975, my mother’s father committed suicide near Tulsa. My father’s parents drove me and Shawn up there to the funeral. On the way, they told me he had killed himself by drowning.

I learned later he’d gone out in a boat at night, jumped into the lake and, I suppose, chose not to swim. He also had left a note. A general unease surfaced whenever I’d ask why he did that.

In high school, I was pretty awkward and didn’t have a lot of friends. I found myself less and less engaged, though I did play tenor saxophone in the school band.

When I was 15, Katie Morris, a friend of the family, was directing “The Solid Gold Cadillac” at a community theater in Tishomingo, Okla. She wanted my father to do it, but he didn’t want to.

So Katie asked me to play the narrator. I said, “Yes.” She was clever and knew that if I agreed, my father would have to drive me to rehearsals. We wound up in the play together.

As a senior, I took courses at SSC, which by then was Southeastern Oklahoma State University. I fell in with the college’s theater kids and did a couple of shows there.

Mr. Letts with his mother, Billie.



Photo:

Tracy Letts (Family Photo)

After graduation, I went to college for one boozy semester at SOSU. I knew it wasn’t going to work out, so I left. My parents were perfectly fine with that.

I moved to Dallas for a few years to do storefront theater. I worked with a couple of good directors. Then I moved to Chicago, where I spent the next 36 years—26 of which were at the Steppenwolf Theatre Co.

My big break came at age 43, with “August: Osage County.” The play took me roughly two years to complete. The idea was based partly on my grandparents and came to me by doing nothing.

Doing nothing has always been a career strategy. In this fast-paced culture, where there are always screens in front of us, we miss out on daydreaming and letting the mind go where it wants for ideas and discoveries.

Today, my wife, actress Carrie Coon, and I live with our two children in the Park Slope section of Brooklyn.

We have a great old brownstone a block from Prospect Park that we rented when we commuted from Chicago. Now we’re New Yorkers.

Dad died in 2008 and Mom in 2014. I miss them. The fact that they aren’t around to see our kids, who are spectacular, is the worst part. It’s heartbreaking.

Tracy Letts in HBO’s ‘Winning Time: The Rise of the Lakers Dynasty.’



Photo:

Warrick Page/HBO

Tracy’s Style

You in “Winning Time?” I play Jack McKinney. He coached the L.A. Lakers for part of a season and introduced a playing style called Showtime.

Home design? Eclectic actor-writer.

Learning lines? I read them into a tape recorder and memorize them on walks.

Research? Not a lot. My method is to pretend I’m that person.

Heavy workload? Carrie and I challenge each other not to work so hard, but we’re both workaholics.

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