Tracy Letts on Linda Vista, The Minutes, and How Festivus Paid Off Like a Slot Machine
The two-time Tony winner tells us about his two new plays, his late-in-life acting fame, and the little Seinfeld episode that could.
Tracy Letts will achieve a rare theatrical distinction in 2019-20: two plays on Broadway during the same season. Up now is Linda Vista at Second Stage's Helen Hayes Theater, a dark comedy about an unhappy man in the throes of a mid-life crisis. Coming this spring is The Minutes, a 2018 Pulitzer finalist about the ugliness of American politics.
Alongside this feat, the two-time Tony-winning playwright and performer is in the midst of a "late" acting boom. As he puts it, "Writing August: Osage County led to acting in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, which led to Homeland, which led to a lot of other stuff," including playing Lady Bird's dad, Fritz Beebe in The Post, Henry Ford in the upcoming Ford v. Ferrari, and Mr. Dashwood in Greta Gerwig's Little Women.
Suddenly an indie darling at age 54, Letts thinks all of this success is gravy. But he'll never forget all the little jobs that paid off, too...like the seat he occupied at Seinfeld's Festivus table.
Tell me the origin story of Linda Vista.
I didn't set out to write this play. I was doing some freewriting and the character of Wheeler emerged. I have a lot of friends who are in their middle age, and maybe they're going through divorces or dealing with kids. They're smart, funny guys, and it was a way to pay attention to their voice a little bit. And then I started thinking about how I consider my views of politics and culture and the arts really unimpeachable. I occupy the moral high ground with that stuff, but in my dealings with women and love in my life, I've often behaved without integrity and unethically. That schism seemed like an interesting thing to explore. A lot gets made of the autobiographical nature of it, but I'm fulfilled in a lot of ways that Wheeler is not. So it's not autobiographical, but like all of my characters, he borrows from me.
What is it like to put a Wheeler onstage in 2019, in light of all that's going on with gender and sexual politics?
Wheeler is a character that a lot of the audience knows. Even if they don't directly identify with Wheeler, they have, quite often, been involved with Wheelers in their life. He's charming, he has a great sense of humor, he's self-deprecating, affable. And at the same time, he's really dangerous. He starts to be the antagonist in his own story. People feel very invested in some of the choices he makes, and then they find themselves rooting against him and wondering if he'll be able to win our sympathy back.
There was a great conversation early on in the life of this play that I heard after a preview at Steppenwolf. An actress who had come to see the play was having a conversation with Dexter Bullard, my director. He was holding forth about some of the gender issues the play brings up, and she said, "I'm Wheeler. I've hurt people like that guy in the play. Don't tell me I can't have this story because he's a man." That was the point where I felt really good about this play. It's not trying to divide an audience down gender lines. It's trying to open a larger conversation about being human and treating people with respect.
How much was your next play, The Minutes, influenced by the current political climate?
I was working on The Minutes before the election. It was a tricky matter to keep the play about what it was about, and not about Trump or Trumpism. It's about a divide in political philosophy, and an attempt to look at the way we govern. Is it the best system? Or is something about the system really f*cked up? It became very important to me that the play gets done before the 2020 election. It's a weird mixture of altruism and selfishness: I want people to chew on this before they vote. I could get out in the streets with a sign, but I think my time and energy is better used trying to write a play that says something and put it out in the world.
When you were first starting out as an actor, was your goal to achieve the kind of recognition that you've suddenly earned? Or has this "moment" you're in come as a surprise?
It's all unexpected. As a young actor, you go through a lot of rejection and disappointment. That's part of the life of 99.9 percent of actors. But the truth is also, your dreams change over time. It's not as though I've sat around crying about my career. I never really made money until I was 43 when August: Osage County became such a big success, and I'm sure there were times when I felt down or bitter, but I never let that consume me. I had a great life as an artist even before I had a lot of success. I worked on projects that meant a lot to me, I traveled to a lot of places. But the fact that I've suddenly had this late career in film and television is just gravy.
Now, I get to work on things I want to work on, as opposed to things I have to work on. I was going from one thing to the next to just stay afloat. Now, people send me scripts like Lady Bird and Ford v. Ferrari and I don't even have to audition. It's such an embarrassment of riches.
Not many people realize this, but you're not only in the Festivus episode of Seinfeld, but you're next to Julia Louis-Dreyfus at the table as Jerry Stiller airs his grievances. What do you remember about that shoot?
I had just moved to LA, and it was the first thing I booked when I got to town. We shot it over the Thanksgiving holiday, and it was one of the rare occasions when they didn't have a studio audience brought in. It was great fun. Jerry Stiller is maybe the funniest performer I've ever worked with. Everybody had a hard time keeping a straight face. Julia can't keep a straight face regardless, but you can find the bloopers from that season, and you will see her laughing her ass off around the Festivus table. They were all really nice to me. It was a great gig. And for a broke-ass actor, which I was at the time, that thing paid off like a slot machine. I still get checks on that thing, because they play it all the f*cking time.