Video/Q&A: 'August: Osage County' co-star Margo Martindale and writer Tracy Letts

At the end of their interview with RedEye's Matt Pais about "August: Osage County," the co-star and writer of the film break into a song ... and keep going and going. In a good way.

Boasting a cast stocked with Oscar winners and nominees (Meryl Streep, Julia Roberts, Chris Cooper, Juliette Lewis, Abigail Breslin) and a script adapted by Chicagoan Tracy Letts from his Pulitzer Prize-winning, Steppenwolf-debuting play, "August: Osage County" may seem like awards bait. Co-star Margo Martindale, a Tony-nominated actress who won an Emmy for her work on "Justified," says intent makes all the difference.

"If you start doing something to get an award, you've lost the path already," says the actress, now also seen on CBS' "The Millers." "You do the work, you hope it's great and then if that stuff comes, wow, even better. But if you're ever thinking that way, I think you've stumbled."

"Sometimes that's also a quality of the movie business, where they push everything to the end of the year and enter it in the horse race to see what's going to catch hold," adds Letts, a Tony-winning actor who also can be seen on "Homeland." "But that's not the business we're in."

In "August," which opens Friday and actually shot from September to November because August in Oklahoma's Osage County is too hot to film in a house, the disparate members of the Weston family converge after the matriarch Violet (Streep) says her husband (Sam Shepard) has gone missing. Martindale plays Mattie Fae, Violet's sister and disappointed mother of Charlie (Benedict Cumberbatch).

At the Four Seasons Hotel, Martindale, 62, and Bucktown resident Letts, 48, talked about writing women, why it was best for Letts not to be present for filming and if he wears his Pulitzer around his neck.
 
Tracy, what do you find most challenging about writing female characters, and Margo, how can you tell when a man writing a woman gets it wrong?
Margo Martindale: I can tell. I’m interested in complex women. Tracy writes them better than anybody I’ve seen in years and years and years. There is a playwright named Steve Metcalfe, and he wrote a play that I did called “Emily.” I thought it was one of the best-written female parts I had seen in a while. And he told me he wrote it actually as a man, and then put a woman’s name on it. Which was fascinating.

I wouldn’t think you could make that switch.
MM: Well, he did, and it was really good.
 
Does that surprise you, Tracy? I imagine that’s not your approach.
Tracy Letts: That’s not really my approach. It just seems that with female characters there’s a larger range of possibilities as to what they might say or do. When one character says something to a man, I know exactly how that character’s going to respond. When I have a character say something to a woman, I don’t know what she’s going to say. She always takes me by surprise when I’m writing.
 
Is there anything, either in the play or the movie script, that you wrote and said, “Man, that is awesome!”
TL: Yeah. I’m not the best one to judge the material, but I can tell you that there’s a moment in the play and in the movie when Uncle Charlie stands up to Aunt Mattie Fae that was not part of the plan. I had not expected him to do that. And you look for these wonderful moments as a writer when suddenly a character steps up and says, “Wait a minute; I have something to say,” and they take you by surprise. I didn’t know Charlie was going to say that. I found myself surprised at my own character.
MM: Wow, that’s incredible.
TL: Great moment.
 
Tracy wasn’t on set for the filming of the movie. How do you both think that would have been different if he was there?
MM: I don’t know. I don’t know that it would have been different.
TL: It might have been better and worse. It might have been better in that [director John Wells] might have enjoyed having me there to bounce some ideas off, to talk to about some things. It might have been worse because I might have nitpicked over things that really didn’t matter, and I might’ve intimidated the actors a little bit from feeling free enough to do what they did.
MM: Or worrying that you weren’t satisfying Tracy’s creation--his image of what should be.
 
Do you think that would have been intimidating for you?
MM: I’m glad he wasn’t there.
TL: Thanks, Margo!

It sounds like you were so involved, though, even not being there.
TL: I was very involved in the pre-production. The creation of the script and the casting and pre-production. I was not involved in the production, though I was in constant contact with John Wells, the director and then I’ve been involved in post-production. Kind of there for all of it except for the filming of it.

Can a story ever have too much drama?
MM: If it’s real, I don’t think so. If it’s possible and real I don’t think so. Can you have melodrama? I think that goes into another place. But this is real and it’s dramatic and wildly funny.
TL: I’ve had people tell me it’s too funny. As opposed to too much drama, I’ve had people say to me it’s too funny. “It should be less funny.”
 
Tracy, do you have your Pulitzer Prize around your neck, and can I try it on?
TL: The Pulitzer Prize does not come in medallion form.
 
You can’t make requests of what form you want it in?
MM: [Laughs]
TL: I think the Pulitzer Prize, the prize itself refers to the check. I think that is the Pulitzer Prize.
MM: You get a check?
TL: You do.
MM: Wow! I didn’t know that.
TL: It’s all right. [Laughs] It’s not like a MacArthur grant.

So you have the check framed around your neck.
MM: [Laughs]
TL: [Laughs] No, I cashed the check! I cashed the check and bought the jewelry I wear around my neck.
 
Plus:
Letts on if he’s an asshole on “Homeland”: “I don’t know why people think I’m an asshole on ‘Homeland.’ I don’t get it. I see myself as righteous. Absolutely righteous. The one guy who’s asking for a little accountability from these people. These people are running around the globe killing people and spying on people. You need a little accountability.”

Watch Matt on “You & Me This Morning,” Friday at 6:55 a.m. on WCIU, the U

mpais@tribune.com

 

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