×
You will be redirected back to your article in seconds

Actor-Playwright Tracy Letts Started His Career With a ‘Bang’

Tracy Letts is having a busy fall. The writer-actor, who’s won Tonys both for a play (“August: Osage County”) and a performance (“Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?”), not to mention a Pulitzer for “August: Osage County,” has a new play, “The Minutes,” debuting Nov. 9 at Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theater, and the latest movie in which he appears, Greta Gerwig’s “Lady Bird,” is in theaters after a buzz-magnet bow in Telluride. He’s also got a role in “The Post,” the Steven Spielberg film that rolls out Dec. 22.

His first mention in Variety came in 1992 for a production of “Bang the Drum Slowly” at the Next Theatre in Chicago. Variety’s critic gave the show a mixed notice, and Letts, who’s noted in the cast list, doesn’t get singled out. But hey, the reviewer does write that the director has “fielded some good actors.” Maybe Letts was one of them.

What do you remember about that time in your life?

I was in Chicago; I was working at a lot of great theaters; I was learning my craft, acting. I was making connections in the theater community. Some of these people who were in that show are friends of mine to this day. At the time I was broke ass. We were working for change, really no money at all. I was just going from theater to theater working for chump change, living in — I won’t call it squalor, but living in humble circumstances. And having the time of my life.

What was that production like?

It was at the Next Theatre, which is now defunct, so I think I can say anything about it I want to: The Next was always in trouble. We took the stage knowing that this play had to succeed or they were going under. Richard Christiansen was the critic for the Chicago Tribune at the time, and I think he knew that too because he gave us a glowing review, which we maybe didn’t entirely deserve. It wasn’t a great show. I think it was a good show. It wasn’t a bomb or anything.

What role did you play?

I was miscast. I was playing the grizzled old catcher on the team, and I think I was 25 or 26 when we were doing this. I was the catcher on his last legs.

As a writer, your first produced play, “Killer Joe,” premiered at the Next the following year.

The director Dexter Bullard was an associate at the Next, and he started something called the Next Lab, which was a classroom in the Noyes Cultural Arts Center that he took all the furniture out of and painted black. It became a black box theater: 40 seats. I think “Killer Joe” was the third production in the Next Lab. It ran for eight months.

Do you read reviews?

Yeah, I read ’em all. I read everything. I’m curious what people are saying about the work. Both my works as an actor and as a writer. I read my reviews; I read other people’s reviews. I’m very conscious of reviews.

What do you get out of reading them?

I have a chip on my shoulder, and the reviews quite often knock it off, or place it back on. Sometimes reviews will piss me off, and they’ll goad me to get back to work. Also I would say that sometimes they’re insightful. When they’re insightful and well-written, I do get something from them. It’s very rare that a reviewer has thought of something that the show’s creators haven’t. But the critic’s perspective is different than anybody else’s associated with the piece, and I sometimes find that helpful. I find that edifying.

More Vintage

  • THE EXORCIST

    'Exorcist' Star Max Von Sydow Doesn't Let Age Define His Roles

    Max von Sydow turned 90 this month, which is a milestone for most people, but age has always seemed incidental to the actor. When he played the elderly, frail Father Merrin in “The Exorcist,” von Sydow was 44 — meaning he was the same age Bradley Cooper is today. In the 1950s, von Sydow had [...]

  • Bob Fosse and Gwen Verdon

    Looking Back at the 'Fosse/Verdon' Dancing Legends That Inspired FX Series

    On April 9, FX debuts “Fosse/Verdon,” about two people who may not be household names, but are certainly in the Pantheon to those who love musicals. In the Jan. 25, 1950, issue, Variety reviewer Hobe Morrison lamented the stage revue “Alive and Kicking,” but gave one of the few positive mentions to newcomer Gwen Verdon. [...]

  • OPENING NIGHT OF ABBA MUSICAL 'MAMMA

    How 'Mamma Mia!' Has Remained a Money-Maker for 20 Years

    “Mamma Mia!” is still going strong 20 years after its April 6, 1999, debut at London’s Prince Edward Theatre. The longevity is a testament to the band ABBA and to the persistence of producer Judy Craymer, director Phyllida Lloyd and writer Catherine Johnson. The stage musical opened with low expectations; in 1983, another tribute to [...]

  • The Matrix BTS

    'The Matrix' at 20: Looking Back on the International Box Office Success

    In the 20 years since its debut, Warner Bros.-Roadshow’s “The Matrix” has remained a major influence on countless action and sci-fi films. When it premiered in Los Angeles on March 24, 1999, producer Joel Silver described the film as “the first movie of the 21st century.” Variety also reported that Warner Bros. execs were “gleeful, [...]

  • Barry Manilow illustration by Ben Kirchner

    Barry Manilow Reflects on Early Career, New York Talent Show 'Callback,' and Featherbed

    Barry Manilow’s place as one of America’s best-loved entertainers was secured decades ago, but the 75-year-old shows no signs of resting on his laurels, which include nearly 50 top 40 hits, beaucoup gold and platinum albums, sold-out tours, an Emmy, a Grammy, a Tony and a Clio. His 21st century accomplishments include more SRO dates, [...]

  • DUMBO US 1941. Photo by: Mary

    Why Labor Strife Was the Elephant in the Room for Disney's Original 'Dumbo'

    Tim Burton’s live-action “Dumbo” launches March 29, a remake of the Disney classic that opened Oct. 23, 1941. That film is remembered as one of Disney’s shortest (64 minutes) and sweetest. It should also be remembered as the animated movie that launched Disney’s studio in Burbank — and one that was completed in the midst [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content