Family drama hits new heights with August: Osage County, and it's already predicted for big awards this season.
Playwright Tracy Letts won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama, along with a Tony Award and Drama Desk Award, for penning this piece. After it premiered at the Steppenwolf Theatre in Chicago in 2007 then hit Broadway at the Imperial Theater for two years. The story didn't end there with a UK debut in London and a U.S. national tour.
Letts then wrote the screenplay for the big-screen version starring such heavy-hitters as Meryl Streep and Julia Robberts. The story centers around a three-story home outside of Pawhuska, Okla. Violet Weston, played by Streep, deals with mouth cancer, a husband who committed suicide and the family arriving to help out.
The family consists of Roberts as Violet's daughter Barbara; Ewan McGregor as her husband Bill; and Abigail Breslin as her daughter Jean. Julianne Nicholson and Juliette Lewis play Violet's other daughters, with Margo Martindale as Violet's sister, Mattie Fae, who is married to Chris Cooper's Charlie Aiken.
Lewis was nominated for an Oscar in Cape Fear and has continued in the biz with unforgettable roles like What's Eating Gilbert Grape and Natural Born Killers. Martindale can currently be seen on CBS with The Millers, and created the role of Truvy in Steel Magnolias. Nicholson currently is in production of The Red Road for the Sundance Channel along with reprising her part on Boardwalk Empire.
Letts, Lewis, Nicholson and Martindale all arrived in Chicago for an appearance at Steppenwolf's Women in the Arts annual luncheon. Windy City Times spoke with them afterwards.
Windy City Times: How was the Steppenwolf's luncheon?
Tracy Letts: It was great.
WCT: In Osage County there's an intense scene with the family about eating fish. Did they serve fish at lunch?
Juliette Lewis: They did have fish!
Margo Martindale: "Eat the fish, bitch!"
Juliette Lewis: Cold salmon. Is that the thing?
Julianne Nicholson: I don't normally think of salmon as fish, but it was protein.
Margo Martindale: Let me just say I didn't touch it. I ate the lettuce.
Julianne Nicholson: I ate the whole thing.
Juliette Lewis: I ate half of it.
Tracy Letts: As soon as I saw the cranberry I thought, "Salmon, really?"
WCT: Tracy, can you talk about making the play into a movie?
Tracy Letts: It was real hard. It took a long time and was a process in patience. We tried to find a way to tell our story with pictures instead of with words. We didn't want to change things that we knew already worked about the piece. It was a balancing act.
Ultimately, we wound up losing stuff that I didn't want to lose. I will admit that but you are making something different. When you are the person that wrote the play you have to let go of the stuff that preserves it as a play. You are making something entirely different.
That is what we did. We made a movie. It looks, walks, and talks like a movie not like a play.
WCT: You are originally from Tulsa, Okla., Tracy, and insisted on filming in Oklahoma. How was it?
Margo Martindale: Fabulous!
Juliette Lewis: A revelation.
Julianne Nicholson: It was beautiful.
Margo Martindale: I loved it.
WCT: Where is everyone from?
Margo Martindale: I am from East Texas.
Juliette Lewis: I was born and raised in Los Angeles, but a couple of different parts of LA. I feel defensive already because it is not just the TV and Hollywood world. I lived on a ranch as opposed to lower income apartment living.
Julianne Nicholson: I'm from Massachusetts.
WCT: All over the place. Tracy, did you think about putting more humor in the beginning because the drama is very intense?
Tracy Letts: The truth is the play begins with a 15-minute scene with characters that are not the central characters. The scene in the movie is three minutes so maybe we get to the funnier stuff sooner.
Julianne Nicholson: I think you shave off 12 minutes from the play version and Beverly not being funny. When the people start arriving, then the humor is there.
Tracy Letts: I think that happened with the play too that you would listen and lean in to hear what is going on with that scene. There is a real darkness to that scene.
Margo Martindale: I loved the play and listening to all of those literary references and poetry. I liked the history of Oklahoma at the time and the Native Americans. I loved that but you couldn't do that in a movie.
WCT: Were there any divas on the set with this extraordinary cast?
Juliette Lewis: No; that was the remarkable thingthe actors were not like that in this piece. We shared stuff about our families and things in rehearsal that surprised me. I thought, "Oh, wow. Julia Roberts was so open and so was Meryl about marriages, children and siblings"stuff that colors your relationships in the movie.
Everyone was there to do the best they could and it required being pretty open and down for the cause. I think it was the casting too. I don't think they cast anyone who suffered from what I call "Hollywooditis."
WCT: You worked with director John Wells before, Julianne?
Julianne Nicholson: I worked for him on a show called Presidio Med years ago. It was a lady doctor show. It starred Blythe Danner, Anna Deavere Smith, Dana Delany and Sasha Alexander in all 13 episodes. John was my boss.
Tracy Letts: It's a terrible title.
Julianne Nicholson: It is. I agree.
Juliette Lewis: I can't understand it when she says it.
Julianne Nicholson: Presidio Med. I actually met John once or twice when we were doing it so it was a pleasure getting to work with him on this. I adore him.
WCT: Juliette, like your character in this film you have a knack for tapping into the innocence in these various women in parts you have played. Is it a part of you?
Juliette Lewis: It is. [Laughs]
WCT: You have done it in a few films, going back to Kalifornia.
Juliette Lewis: In Kalifornia she truly has the mentality of a 9-year-old. I guess a lot of my characters have suffered trauma. In my heart of hearts I fancy myself as a healer so I try to give a voice to people's pain I guess. I don't know why that is.
With Karen, I can't take too much credit because of the way she was written. She really cares about appearances and that was different for me. I don't usually play females that are looks based. It is really important to her that her hair is done and to show her mom and sisters what has become of her, that are her troubles are behind her. I loved her, that opening and entrance to her. Her guts and insides get divulged but she is still trying to keep it together.
There is a dignity there even though it's horrifying. She is trying to maintain her dignity but is going with a predator to Belize! Clearly, this is insane but she is going to do it in a very dignified way. That juxtaposition contradicts because I feel I am as strong as I am vulnerable and weak, so that drives me a bit crazy.
WCT: How was working with Meryl, Margo?
Margo Martindale: I knew her before this film, and she was thrilled to see me. We had done other movies like The Hours togetherone I played best friends with her and the other as her therapist. I had a history with her but being with her again it was as if we had been around each other for the last 10 years. We spent an enormous amount of time together.
Julianne Nicholson: You both snort when you laugh!
Margo Martindale: We do and have a lot of little tricks that make us similar to playing sisters.
Julianne Nicholson: Did the actors walk on set in character?
Tracy Letts: People don't come on set in character but if there is a prevailing mood then yes.
Margo Martindale: Yes, if the mood is there right but none of us were people that can't break character.
Juliette Lewis: None of us were called only by our character names. People could call me by my real name or character name, either/or.
WCT: Did the cast have fun?
Julianne Nicholson: We enjoyed each other's company so much! That is what made the job so much fun was actually being together. I care about these people every time I am with them. The first time I watched the movie I felt like I was in their company again. They felt like my family and I really fell in love with them.
Margo Martindale: I felt that way too. It felt like family. Looking at pictures of the set and cars I kept thinking that this was part of my Texas family. The landscape was similar. We sort of lived and breathed as characters. We were all together all of the time. We didn't have anybody else.
Juliette Lewis: There was no Four Seasons Hotel. We stayed in a complex of townhouses with a horseshoe driveway. They wanted us all to live in a house together but they couldn't find one so they found these odd townhouses behind a Toyota dealership. We would go to Meryl's to have a pot luck and rehearse. Meryl would yell at the TV...
Margo Martindale: She would cook and we would eat. You see that really helps the movie. We didn't even know that at the time.
Juliette Lewis: I would run away to Tulsa to see rock shows because that was what Karen probably did when she was 18. That is also what I do.
WCT: I noticed you tweet a lot about music.
Juliette Lewis: It fuels my day. If I don't listen to music then something is off. It could be anything whether is Jamaican soul music or Beastie Boys.
Tracy Letts: Where did you go? Cain's Ballroom over there?
Juliette Lewis: Yeah. I saw Smashing Pumpkins; only Billy Corgan, thoughnot the original band.
Tracy Letts: He lives here in Chicago.
Juliette Lewis: I also saw Jack White's band. I know from touring in a small town that it is harder to get VIP tickets in LA because of the celebrities but in Oklahoma you get the royal treatment. "You want ten people on the guest list? Sure you got it!"
WCT: Margo, you did theater in Kentucky?
Margo Martindale: Yes, the Actors Theater of Louisville when in its heyday from 1979 through 1984. I met Chris Cooper from Osage there 33 years ago.
Juliette Lewis: I bet he was cute back then, too!
Margo Martindale: He's cute now...
Juliette Lewis: I mean now, that is what I am saying... [everyone laughs] some people are cuter as they get older.
Margo Martindale: He was definitely cute back then.
Julianne Nicholson: I wonder if he likes being called "cute."
Juliette Lewis: He's handsome then.
WCT: What is everyone doing for awards season?
Juliette Lewis: This is it, doing interviews.
Margo Martindale: We will see where we get to go. We hope to go everywhere but we will see.
WCT: Let's go around the room on future projects.
Margo Martindale: I am on TV with The Americans and The Millers on CBS.
Julianne Nicholson: I am on Masters of Sex right now and just did a show on the Sundance Channel called The Red Road. It comes out in February.
Juliette Lewis: I was just at Sundance with Aaron Paul of Breaking Bad in a film called Hellion. I just did an indie called Kelly and Cal and a TV show I did with Matt Dillon called Wayward Pines coming out in March that M. Night Shyamalan created.
WCT: Are you still singing, Juliette?
Juliette Lewis: Oh, yeah. I am making a record with the band Cage the Elephant. They are like my rock 'n' roll brothers. We are recording in Nashville and I basically hijacked their band with Brad, their guitarist, doing my EP. I miss being on the road like crazy!
WCT: And your plans, Tracy?
Tracy Letts: I am doing a play on Broadway as an actor called The Realistic Joneses by Will Eno with Marisa Tomei and Toni Collette.
Juliette Lewis: What a great castwowsers!
WCT: Speaking of a great cast, August has a stellar one and I wish you all the best success with the film.
Take an unforgettable trip to Oklahoma by way of cinema as August: Osage County opens in Chicago Jan. 3.