INTERVIEW: August Playwright Tracy Letts on New Film Killer Joe and Broadway Acting Debut in Virginia Woolf

The Pulitzer Prize-winner has several stage and screen projects currently in the works.

Tracy Letts
(© Tristan Fuge)
Tracy Letts
(© Tristan Fuge)

There’s a new quadruple threat guy in town and his name is Tracy Letts. While his well reviewed adaptation of Anton Chekov’s Three Sisters continues through August at Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theatre, his home base, he’s also been busy publicizing Killer Joe, opening on July 27. It’s his second stage to screen collaboration with director William Friedkin, who also directed the film version of Letts’ play, Bug.

Then, in October, Letts and the entire Steppenwolf cast of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? are coming to Broadway and as if that weren’t enough, the film version of Letts’ Pulitzer Prize-winning August: Osage County — with Meryl Streep, Julia Roberts, and Abigail Breslin — also begins shooting this fall.

In the film version of Killer Joe, we re-visit Letts’ trailer park trash family, the Smiths: Mom (Gina Gershon), Pop (Thomas Haden Church), son Chris (Emile Hirsh) and daughter Dottie (Juno Temple). Chris must pay off a local drug kingpin and comes up with the idea of knocking off grandma for her insurance, and hires local lawman Joe Cooper (Matthew McConaughey) — who moonlights as a contract killer — to do the job.

THEATERMANIA: First of all, congratulations on the great advance buzz on Killer Joe. How long has it taken to go from stage to screen?

TRACY LETTS: Thanks, well, Killer Joe was originally written in 1991 and first produced in ’93 at the Next Theater’s Lab – a 40 seat black box theater, in Evanston, Illinois – back when I was getting started. I was just 25 and I had been acting for awhile, but it was my first play and the one that really got me noticed, especially by Steppenwolf.

TM: Did you get to see it in NYC at the 29th Street Rep back in 1994?

TL: I absolutely did and it was the same director, Wilson Milam, who directed it again in 1998 even further downtown at the Soho Playhouse with Amanda Plummer and Scott Glenn.

Amy Morton and Tracy Letts in
Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?
(© Michael Brosilow)
Amy Morton and Tracy Letts in
Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?
(© Michael Brosilow)

TM: Do you consider writing and acting as two separate careers?

TL: No, for me they’ve always run on parallel tracks. I mean the film of Killer Joe is opening during the Steppenwolf run of my Three Sisters and then Amy Morton and I will come to New York with the Steppenwolf production of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf. In fact, we open exactly 50 years to the day [October 13] in the same theater [the Booth], which makes it all the more exciting for us. So it’s often both writing and acting at the same time.

TM: George and Martha are such iconic acting roles. Are there any other iconic roles out there that you hope to play someday?

TL: You know, Steppenwolf presents a lot of new works and maybe it’s because I also write, but I really look forward to the next new role. That said, I played George once before and my then co-star, the late Margo Skinner, said, “As an actor, if there’s a role you find yourself well suited to, you’ll also find that you’ll play it more than once.”

TM: Killer Joe is your second stage to screen adaptation with director William Friedkin. How involved were you with the screen versions of both plays?

TL: Billy is the most collaborative director imaginable. He came to me to do Bug after seeing it onstage and he fought to keep Michael Shannon in the lead role. There’s no one better than Billy at making low budget, truly independent films. I was on the set almost the whole time. Same with Killer Joe.

TM: The cast of Killer Joe is phenomenal — in particular, Matthew McConaughey and Gina Gershon, who have never been better, and young newcomer Juno Temple. Do you have any say in the casting process?

TL: I did have some say on these two films. I’d always thought of Matthew in terms of romantic comedy but he’s an absolute revelation as Joe. He’s got this quiet stillness that’s more frightening than anything. I wanted Gina when the show was at the Soho Playhouse, but she told me that she couldn’t figure how to play the role eight times a week and that frightened her. This time, we talked and she said she knew she was ready. As for Juno, Dottie is such a pivotal role yet it’s not a lot of dialogue. She was so great at getting it.

TM: And how involved will you be with the John Wells/Harvey Weinstein film adaptation of August Osage County?

TL: I’m going to be busy with Virginia Woolf of course and I’ve already delivered John the script. We’ve talked and we’ll probably talk some more, but I don’t know if I’ll be on the set all the time as I was with Bug and Killer Joe. Besides, with Meryl Streep as Violet, Julia Roberts as Barbara, and Abigail Breslin as Jean, why would they need me around?

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