'August' actresses played into movie's wild family dynamic

Actresses take play home to Oklahoma

Out in the Oklahoma plains with pretty much nowhere to go between takes, the cast of "August: Osage County" had time to bond like an extended family, albeit not as twisted as the one it was portraying on screen.

Months later the performers were together again for the film's Oscar/holiday season promotional rounds, duties that brought actresses Julianne Nicholson, Juliette Lewis and Margo Martindale around a downtown hotel lounge table to enjoy some breakfast and conversation about turning Steppenwolf member Tracy Letts' Tony- and Pulitzer-winning play into a movie directed by John Wells ("ER," "Shameless").

While Meryl Streep and Julia Roberts inhabit this darkly comic family drama's biggest, flashiest parts — twisted matriarch Violet and angry eldest daughter Barbara — the story's foundation is built upon the family's other women: middle sister Ivy (Nicholson), who stayed home to care for her parents; flighty youngest sister Karen (Lewis), who left in search of solid footing; and Violet's no-nonsense sister Mattie Fae (Martindale), who has reasons for her tart talk.

The following is an edited transcript as 42-year-old Nicholson ("Masters of Sex," "Boardwalk Empire"), 40-year-old Lewis ("Natural Born Killers," "The Firm") and 62-year-old Martindale (Emmy winner for "Justified," "The Millers") muse upon Letts' writing, distinctions between movie and stage acting and the prospect of an "August: Osage County" bed-and-breakfast.

Q: Had you seen "August: Osage County" on stage?

Nicholson: I did.

Martindale: I did.

Lewis: I saw (Letts') "Killer Joe." I did not see our play.

Q: What did you think?

Nicholson: It blew me away. I didn't want to get out of my seat when the show was over. At the end of the 3 1/2 hours, you still want more.

Martindale: Me too. I just was blown away by the writing and by the ensemble.

Q: What about (Letts') writing is so distinct/ive/?

Lewis: His writing, the characters are so vivid, they're so multilayered and complicated yet simple and poignant, and they speak to you, to your heart like a laser, like an arrow.

Martindale: Complicated but real. Complicated is what you look for to get to play.

Nicholson: But it doesn't seem complicated to listen to. His dialogue in particular feels quite naturalistic, but it's really quite particular. In the movie there was no room for improvisation whatsoever. I don't think there's a single word change in the whole thing.

Lewis: It's such a gift as an actor to have that kind of writing, you know. It's what you dream of in your career and look for. It's really rare. You're usually selling cereal. And then every so often you get to make real art with somebody who's breaking the law, you know? Tracy does that.

Martindale: I love that these are smart people. These are people that have knowledge, that have some book learning, that are still screwed up.

Q: Did you think when you saw the play: Oh, this will make a great movie?

Nicholson: It didn't cross my mind.

Martindale: It crossed my mind. (laughs)