I have an interview with Tracy Letts in the Telegraph today and you can read it here. Please do, he has things to say. Too many things to fit the piece, so here is the (only lightly and slightly) edited transcript of our conversation.
So thank you so much for this.
My pleasure. Do you know anyone else here?
Sort of. I just had lunch with a kind of professional acquaintance. Before that I was working in Intelligentsia – I was disappointed they were so friendly to me. I like my baristas in snooty coffee places to be full of disdain.
[Laughs] – Midwesterners.
So perhaps we should start with the movie. I wonder whether you’ve had a degree of detachment creep in – because I know it’s a long time since you wrote the play, movies take a long time to make, there’s a lot of cooks in the broth…
Well I don’t feel [sigh] especially detached – I think it’s just too personal for me to ever feel detached, you know? It’s personal material and it still gets me, it still impacts me when I watch it. People’s reactions to it still matter. So I don’t think I feel that detached. I mean there’s a certain finality about a movie, when it’s done it’s done, when it’s locked it’s locked. It’s frozen. Whereas plays always feel more malleable, more flexible in a way.
Right. And playwrights can be constantly rewriting them.
Though I don’t even do that, because a play only lives as a blueprint for a performance on any given night, it’s never going to be a fixed, set thing, whereas with the movie, it’s locked – ‘ok, that raised eyebrow in that moment will always be that raised eyebrow, it will never change.’ I mean none of my pieces that were written for the theatre were written with an eye toward them coming a movie.
Yes, but this is the third time it’s happened.
I know and it’s kind of odd it’s happened so much. Because they weren’t constructed with movies in mind and they’re not particularly cinematic. They’re contained in a single set and they have a limited number of characters and, like most plays, they’re very talk-y. So they don’t feel especially cinematic to me but people have always said from the beginning, from the first plays, well it seems like a movie and I think it’s because they’re very actable, they’re friendly to actors, they’re…they’re story, right, movies loe story and theatres doesn’t always. And also perhaps the subject matter is contemporary or seems at least in the case of the first two, Killer Joe and Bug, genre exercises. Not to mention sex and violence which is always good for the movies. So I think that’s one of the reasons people thought they’d make good movies but when you’re actually in the process of trying to turn it into a film you have the usual challenges. You’re trying to adapt the piece for film…but in addition I just know how they live in the theatre. I mean they were created for the theatre, I’m very accustomed to the way an audience receives a play, participates in a play, in a way that they don’t participate in a film. There’s a reason you can eat popcorn and watch a movie and you can’t do that in the theatre. Theatre you have to lean in, you have to tune your ear to the stage; the audience affects any given performance. So…they just work very differently in the cinema than they do the theatre and I don’t think I’ve ever been completely reconciled to that. I don’t think I’ve ever been totally comfortable…I always want to say to people after they’ve seen the movie, well it’s very different to the play, it works on you in a very different way than the play does. They are different. But. You know. They’re different, so they’re different.
In this instance what do you think those differences are?
Well one of the amazing things about August is that from the first time we performed it was that we were aware of a kind of…conversation in the audience. People who didn’t know each other in the audience were having a kind of cross talk regarding what they were seeing on star – laughing at the experience and then checking in and saying, oh you’re laughing too, so this is also your experience.
So there were moments of kinship…
And then it becomes just like popcorn, the audience just starts to bubble with that feeling, of, we’re all in on this together. It’s very moving actually and very gratifying as a writer to feel you’ve tapped into that. It works differently in a movie, you’ve got a distance from them that you’ll always have which allows people to step back from it and say that is me, or that’s not me. And if it’s not me then you sit there and go, ‘these people are crazy, I don’t know these people.’ That’s an early reading of it, you know? That’s one way it strikes me as a little bit different. But then you know…I talk to people who love the play, they’re familiar with the play, they have their problems with the movie, but then I talk to some other people who saw the play just once, weren’t part of the whole business, didn’t feel like they were insiders necessarily, just happened to see the play and now they’ve seen the movie and they say I preferred the movie. I actually….I enjoyed getting out of there in two hours instead of three and a half hours, and, you know, they respond to people like Meryl Streep and Julia Roberts in a way that perhaps they don’t respond to strangers. You know, different strokes.
Do you believe that there is something just more inherently edifying about seeing a good play than seeing a good movie?
Well…maybe. Maybe yeah. It maybe true. It seems to me it’s harder to make a good play than it is to make a good movie. Right? Because…well I don’t know if that’s true or not.
One of the thrilling things about the play’s transfer to Broadway was that it retained – all of its original cast, almost all?
Well, all but two.
That kind of felt like a fuck-you to the star system – it’s very rare that that happens. Did it feel like a triumph?
Well it just felt like we had made the thing in such an organic way here at Steppenwolf that it wouldn’t have made any sense to disassemble then reassemble it with inorganic parts. I don’t think…there were multiple producers looking at the play and I don’t think any of them were thinking well we need to get some stars in these parts. I don’t think we ever heard that. I think even the producers from the earliest moment realised it’s not just a play, it’s also a moment for this theatre company which has somewhat of a national reputation. And so that’s part of the event of the night.
Are there things about the movie that don’t work for you, or that surprised you?
I like the movie.
So do I by the way. I should state that.
Oh thanks. I love the movie. It’s preserved a lot of the play, every word up there I wrote, which I’m happy about. Some of it is straight out of the play. I lost a lot. And I hated to lose a lot because…what happens is in a movie those things that are not part of the central conflict, those things that are a bit more on the margins, they…they’re deemed for the cinema not as essential. I suppose they’re not. And so they get eliminated or they lose some of their depth. And I hated to lose depth. It wasn’t length, it was depth, you know? So when we would get paste notes, for our two hour and ten minute movie, I would say we didn’t get any fucking paste notes when it was three and a half hours long in the theatre. I think this is one of the things we’re sacrificing by losing some of the scope. So I lost things not just because they were dear to me but because I had seen the way the piece worked with that depth so I was loathe to lose that. But, you know, more than one person pointed out, there’s never been a movie made where stuff wasn’t cut, shot and then cut…We had both. We had stuff cut out of the screenplay as well as cut from footage.
I read an interview where someone quoted Hilton Als at you and you said, “Fuck Hilton Als”.
But to go from slightly facetious to more serious: it seems to me that as a white writer you’re criticised if you don’t write non-white characters, but if you do, you’re so often accused of a kind of cultural trespassing. Which isn’t to discredit the legitimacy of those criticisms, but tell me what you think about that.
I think it’s tough and I think it should be tough. There’s no easy response to that, nor do I think there should be an easy response to that. Our theatre company, when we did August, Osage County, we had maybe 32, 35 members, and we had one African American member of the company. And August, Osage County is about old white people for the most part. I mean that’s what our company was for the most part. We made some changes in the company which were way overdue and diversified a great deal. now we have 43 members and quite a few African American members of the company. I felt as a guy writing for this company, and in the instance of writing Superior Donuts, writing about the city of Chicago, that that was one of the challenges, to try and write about the community I live in. This black and white community. And for the ensemble that I’m not only part of, but a spokesperson for. I thought it was incumbent on me to try and write black characters. And we’re very fortunate to work in a company where I could sit down with those actors who were playing those roles and say what do you think about this. Is this a conversation we can have? Let’s talk about this. It’s hard. It was hard to do. It’s hard to write in that voice. For me. But that’s my job. I can’t just sit around and write 48-year-old white guys, I have to write other people as well.
Yeah. I think if you adhered to that “write what you know” maxim you’d become an incredibly myopic writer.
Yeah. Unless you’re writing from a single point of view. But as a playwright you have to be able to…empathy is one of the big parts of the job, you really have to be able to walk around in other people’s shoes.
And how did you get into Franco’s shoes? What kind of things were at play in your mind as you were writing him?
I don’t know. It’s just pretend. You just make it up! How would I feel if this was my set of circumstances, how would I respond… That’s why they all lined up to see. They’re all some version of me, hopefully some honest version of me so it’s not just an idealised version of me. Versions of me that encompass good behaviour as well as terrible behaviour.
One of the things that really struck me is that his novel is this physical bundle of paper, messy and stained, and obviously there are the references to DVD rental and even donuts themselves being tinged with archaism. And I love that that message was being put across in a <ital> play <ital> , which some people would also say is an outmoded form.
Right, right. Well…
I mean I guess the question is why still write for the theatre.
Well I love it, I’m a theatre guy. I love movies, I have a big collection of DVDs and I love ‘em, but the technical aspect of making movies is very boring, I mean being on a movie set is a very boring place to be. I think that as a writer, talking about some of my detractors finding it’s a bit much, I think as a writer I respond to heat. And blood. And humanity. The cold experience is not for me.
Dionysian not Apollonian?
Yeah. I’ve always enjoyed all the real people in a room together in the theatre. More so than coolly observing [mimes circumspect smoking of a cigarette] while they smoke cigarettes. And even in the case of Killer Joe and Bug which use certain genre elements as a jumping off point, I think what gives them depth is the humanity, is that they’re some real people bumping up against each other. That’s why I like the theatre. You know when I wrote Donuts I guess I had in mind that I’d written this big thing, three storey house, thirteen characters, and I wanted to write something small for storefront theatre, which is what we have here in Chicago. There are theatres that range from twenty seats to two hundred seats perhaps and they literally are storefronts, some old retail shop that’s now been converted into a place. So that was the idea behind Superior Donuts, but because of the success of August – we did it on the main stage at Steppenwolf, that show went to Broadway and it was one of the more popular shows we’ve ever done in our theatre, it was very successful, people in Chicago liked seeing Chicago on stage, they got a kick out of that. Later, a smaller company here in town did it in a store front and they had a very successful run with it. I was very happy to seem them doing it. And I’m very happy that this company in London is a small, pub theatre, I think. It’s the right fit for the show.
Just to return to things being outmoded. As I was thinking about DVD s and Donuts it occurred to me that culture is moving faster than it ever has before – I wondered how you think that changes the job of a writer. Because I imagine it’s the writer’s job to kind of assimilate what’s going on, digest it, and then create something. But if things are moving so fast, then the thing that you create will already be an outmoded artefact. I mean, do you feel excited to be alive now, dealing with the world now in its…um…velocity.
I don’t know about that. Like most thoughtful people I’m looking around and what’s going on with these goddamn phones and iPads and all the rest – I have all this stuff too – and worry about what it’s doing to us. I moved back to a typewriter a few years ago in fact, because of that very reason – I started taking a hard copy of the newspaper again
- I got a turntable. I became a little more analogue in my life.
Because I don’t like what it’s doing to me and my own attention span. I got to the end of a year and looked back over the year and realised I had read…my list of books I’d read that year was really short and I was like, this isn’t good. I’m a writer for godssakes! I gotta read more than this. So I made some changes. But I don’t know….how important it is to reflect that in writing? I don’t know. I don’t know….I never know what the hell I’m writing about, I never know what the next thing I’m writing about is, I never have a plan. They all seem to be very different from the one that came before. I have a new play, hasn’t been done yet. Very different from everything that’s come before.
Can you tell me about it?
Well I can’t tell you a lot about it. I can tell you that it’s…ninety minutes long and has forty characters. So it’s very expensive to produce. So finding production for it’s going to be difficult. I may in fact have to write it again with some practical considerations in mind. You know some of that’s just about the world economy right now. You know when we did Donuts on Broadway it was…2009, fall of 2009. Nobody was buying tickets. I think if we opened that show now it would run for a year. Because I was in the auditorium, listening to audience response to that play and people were loving the play. But in the fall of 2009, nobody was buying tickets, everybody was struggling. So, you know, sometimes the real world…you have to deal with that.
Right, the world deals with you rather than you dealing with it. Tell me about the phrase and the idea of The Great American Novel. Do you believe in that?
I don’t think so. I believe in the attempt. I believe in the idea that you can write something that encapsulates some of the ideas of what it is to be an American and you can do so in a grand or broad narrative. I’m working on Grapes of Wrath right now, I’m doing a screen adaptation of Grapes of Wrath with Steven Spielberg and that’s a great American novel. Might be The Great American novel. So yeah. I believe in the idea of it. I don’t think it gets written very often.
Do you think a 21-year-old could write it?
No. I don’t.
August, Osage County is often lauded with the phrase, “Great American Play” – does that feel like a burden, or an absurdity?
Um. I had a story to tell and I considered for many many years how best to tell that story. It seemed to me that the right container for that story was the big American play, not necessarily the Great American play, but the three act, three storey, thirteen character, three and a half hour long, sort of capital letter, Big American Play. And that it would have big sloppy American feelings and history in it. You know? Great American play no, that’s different. You just gotta..I mean you can’t…I couldn’t as a writer be like, now I’m going to write the Great American Play, I couldn’t do that.
You’ve talked about seeing it as a political parable, do you still see it that way, and you see the movie that way, or do you feel the play has changed with time?
I think they change. I mean they’re written…You know Who’s Afraid Of Virginia Woolf holds up now but it can also be seen as an absolute time capsule of the time it was written as well. We don’t understand what Martha was going through in 1962. And the lack of possibility for a woman like that in 1962, we can’t even identify with that any more. And yet, if you’re going to do the play you better get your head around that idea because that’s something that’s absolutely fuelling the whole thing – that she has no opportunities, no avenues for expression. Similarly, August was written in a pretty dire period, as far as I’m concerned, of decline in this country. And I don’t think you have to be in that moment to know that’s what was going on. Nor do I think when you watch it now you have to be aware of that. The piece exists with or without that, just like Virginia Woolf exists with or without its context.
In reading Superior Donuts I was reminded of a Gawker piece that ran at the end of last year called The Year In Racial Amnesia, which is this horrifying kind of litany of all the young African American men who were killed by police. Would you ever take what is really happening in this country, directly, and make it into a play?
I don’t know. You know my plays have all been personal. Superior Donuts was supposed to be an exercise in writing something no so goddamn personal. August had taken such a goddamn chunk out of me, I was like jesus, some of these other playwright write their play, stick it in an envelope and send it off to their agent and they’re done. And I thought well I wonder if I can do that. Well I can’t. And the fact is Donuts was very personal, as personal as anything else I’ve written. So, I sort of sign up for that. I go, ok, I write about the personal. Hopefully the personal has some resonance beyond it. But in the play Superior Donuts the idea of personal versus political. And Arthur even says at some point, it’s the same thing. So I think that idea…similarly in August, Osage County, when Barbara’s father is talking about, “this place used to have some promise and now it’s a shithole” she doesn’t know if he’s talking about the country or if he’s talking about the family. It’s the same thing. Is it personal or is it political. I don’t know. We don’t write a lot of political theatre in this country. We never have. People talk about the family play like it’s an especially American phenomenon. People have asked me why that is and I throw my hands up and say I have no idea.
I noticed this is the third time you’ve had a young man who’s hunted and in trouble.
With apologies for a straight-up autobiographical question, but….were you a young man who was hunted and in trouble?
Oh. I don’t know. I don’t want to bullshit an answer for you…I’m sure there was…I’m not an easy person. I’ve had years of therapy. Yeah [performative exhale.] So yeah. I don’t know. I was a troubled young man, I’ll put it that way.
I think being in your early twenties is just…
It’s terrible isn’t it?
Hideous. Maybe we should talk about medication. You’ve said we’re a pill-popping nation. That Violet is this metaphor for the rottenness of American society.
I didn’t say that. [laughs]
Well you used the phrase pill-popping nation.
Well it’s true isn’t it?
Do you feel pessimistic about America?
Sure! Sure I do. How could you not. I mean there’s a lot to be pessimistic about. But I mean I…I’m kind of perverse in that I think that’s helpful. [chuckle] I think that pessimism is helpful. My pessimism is my own kind of patriotism. My dissent. I’m also a terrible drunk, I’ve been sober twenty plus years. Certainly that’s in my work. And a part of August, Osage County. But you know most people I know have some relationship to addiction. Or, if not addiction, then distraction.
Yes, and it’s a fine line between the two.
And I don’t know if that’s a particularly American problem. It’s universal.
There does seem to be a tendency to medicating, making everything palliative. I was looking at water bottles in a bodega and there are, you know, waters to help you focus, waters to calm you down and so on.
Tell me about Homeland, were you a fan and what drew you to the show?
Like I say, when you live in Chicago you take a vow of poverty because like I say we don’t make a lot of film and TV here. So, you know, you can work in the theatre but you’re not going to get paid any money. But you can work here. I’m a shameless booster of Chicago theatre, I think it’s the best theatre in the country. There are advantages to New York theatre and one of them is you’re in the marketplace in the cultural capital of the Western World. Apologies to London. [laughs] And the truth is though it has largely priced itself out of the culture business, [New York] is still the marketplace, there’s still a hell of a lot of media there and people who make TV shows like Homeland go see theatre there. I don’t think Alex Ganza who made Homeland ever would have come to see a play here in Chicago, he wouldn’t have had any reason to. But he was in New York, he decided to come see Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf and he put me on his TV show. It was that simple. I had seen the first season and I had enjoyed it. I’ve never been a big TV watcher but in the last few years with DVRs and the kind of serialised nature of television, I’ve tried to keep up with what’s going on. He approached me, I very quickly watched Season 2 and I actually declined the audition that he originally proposed. It was for the character I played in the first episode of Season 3 and he called me and he said why are you turning it down and I said because it’s a guy in a suit in front of a committee and I don’t think I want to do that, it’s just not what I want to do. And by god there’s no better feeling in the world than turning down work, it’s a great, great feeling. And as a broke-ass actor most of my life I’ve not been in that position so the last few years being able to do that feels great. But we had a conversation about it where he talked about the changes that the character would go through over the course of the season, the kind of theoretical disagreement that would take place between my character and the character Mandy [Patinkin] plays, as being representative of a conversation about our secret service and the way they behave in the real world. Whether or not I embraced that discussion was kind of beside the point, I just wanted to work with a guy who was thinking along those lines, a guy who wasn’t just making a spy show for TV but was thinking about the bigger world and that his show had some kind of responsibility to it. So I said yes. I auditioned and they asked me to do the thing and I did the thing and I’m so glad I did it, I had a great time. The show’s really well-written and almost all my stuff is with Mandy and Murray; they’re old men of the theatre so we had a great time. Everybody was so sweet. They shoot the whole thing in Charlotte, North Carolina, I’d never been to Charlotte, it’s a great little town. I just had a great time, I’m really glad I did it.
When people talk about this being a great age for TV, that’s one of the shows that tends to be mentioned. Have you never been tempted to write for TV?
Not really. Talking to Alex and the other writers of that show, they talk about the way they create that show as a staff and they refer to this hive state they have to be in in order to write a group, I’ve never written like that. I couldn’t write under that kind of pressure I don’t think. John Wells who directed August is a TV writer and in fact when we were at the Toronto film festival we were going out one night and he had to go back to the hotel room and work on his script for Shameless because episode one was due. He had to write it. He said I have to write eighteen pages tonight and I said my god, how do you write under that kind of pressure and he just shrugged and said sometimes it’s not that good. That’s sort of the mentality of a TV writer and I respect that. So when the juices aren’t flowing you just have to lower your standards and turn it into a script. That’s the nature of television. When I first went to work with Alex I said I’m a big fan of the show, you guys do a great job and his response was, sometimes we hit it out the park, sometimes we don’t. You know. That’s the TV biz. I like it, I like to watch it, I don’t know how lasting it is. But then I don’t know how lasting anything is.
What do you watch?
I watched Top of the Lake recently, that’s Jane Campion with Elisabeth Moss. It’s a six part series that was made for BBC and that was terrific. Oh I watched all of Breaking Bad. I watched it all.
Did you enjoy it?
You said, “I watched it all” as though it was something to dutifully tick off a list.
Well, I have felt a bit like that with some of them. Just keeping up.
I feel like that too sometimes. Especially since we’re meant to believe it’s the foremost medium of our time and all that.
Yeah who knows. I don’t know about that. I get the addictive nature of this kind of serialised television that they’re making these days. And again, because of DVRs…you know before DVRs, I’ve always worked in the theatre, I was working six nights a week – you can’t keep up with shows if you’re working six nights a week. So people talk of the TV shows of the last twenty years and I say I don’t really know what you’re talking about, I was working. Now you can actually DVR that stuff and watch it. And the reach of it amazes me. I mean, I’ve been acting my whole life, I’ve done all this work for forty something years and now I’m in an airport and people come up and say I hate you, or you’re such a bastard on Homeland. People watch that show.
Is that kind of scary?
A little bit, a little bit. William Friedken, who made Bug and Killer Joe – we had lunch in Los Angeles not too long ago and I told him, I said, I don’t know I’m that comfortable about giving up my anonymity and he…[chuckles] he just totally busted my chops and said, well you’ll get over it.
Ha. He wasn’t sympathetic.
Not at all. He said, we’ve chosen public means of expression, that’s part of the deal. He was like, if it bothers you don’t do it any more, but otherwise get over it. He said it’s all about how you deal with the public anyway. Again, I’m from the Midwest – I smile, I’m grateful – it’s automatic.
Yeah, auto-pilot. Autopolite – Sorry.
I just want to know what excites you in contemporary culture, either generally or specifically – what’s getting you going right now?
That’s a good question. Because I’m so fucking critical.
Oh good. Well my next question is what’s depressing you and pissing you off so we can start with that.
That’s such a good question. [long pause] God dammit. You’ve really stopped my brain.
I write about music and every time someone asks me what I’m listening to I draw a complete blank. So…sorry for doing that to you.
I’m starting to get to that age…I have friends and the music they listen to is Billy Joel and Bruce Springsteen, people sort of stick themselves at a certain time and place. And I think I’m starting to get to that point myself, where I find myself listening to the old stuff.
To your personal canon?
Yeah and not…you know what I started watching which was helping was Jools Holland’s show, and I started DVRing that and just keeping it on when I was around the house.
Did you follow any leads from that?
I did, but…which is nice, right? I mean, Sharon Jones and the Dap Kings, I discovered her through Jools Holland actually. So fantastic. So just trying to broaden my horizons a little bit but my god, your question is so…diabolical. The other night I was watching one of the awards shows and I was watching with my friend Bob and as we were watching, I wasn’t even aware that I was particularly critical or sardonic while we were watching the programme but a trailer came on for the new Muppet movie and it was a very clever trailer and I laughed and Bob turned to me and said, see? There’s something you like. And I felt awful! I thought, I’ve become this grumpy guy who doesn’t like anything.
You’ve become the one in the trash can…
[laughs.] Oscar the Grouch….So I don’t know.
I’d love it if your answer to the question, “what excites you about contemporary culture” could just run as “The Muppets.”
[laughs]. Yeah. I don’t know. I don’t gave a good answer.
So what was pissing you off as you watched this awards ceremony?
[long pause] It’s not the work itself. There’s nothing wrong with the work. People talk about this great year of movies. Yknow what’s pissing me off? Lazy journalism is pissing me off. That’s what pissing me off. I’m watching this year of movies and i’m saying I like all these movies. There are none of these movies where I think, that’s terrible. I like all these movies. I think they’re all flawed, I think most of them are pretty deeply flawed, and yet somebody, somebody bothers to write down, “it’s a great year for movies” and then I feel like everybody else just rushes out, “it’s a great year for movies”. There’s no examination of that idea! Maybe it’s not a great year for movies!
But I also feel like every year is a great year for everything and a terrible year. Because what changes are industries and all the stuff around them, but, you know, the quality of human expression isn’t itself going to decline.
Right. I’ve been showing my wife a lot of movies from the early 70s because I’m of that generation that believes that was the great period of expression in American films – all those young directors – Friedkin and Spielberg and Scorcese and Coppola, that was a great period. But what I’ve been finding, is the movies from the 80s, are a lot fucking better than I thought they were in the 1980s. And we found ourselves looking at a lot of movies from the 80s and I’m sitting there going goddamn, this was made in the 80s, it seems so personal. A lot of personal films made in the 80s – Repo Man, Sid and Nancy…. Jonathan Demme…Something Wild…oh god and now of course they’re now escaping me. But it just seemed like everything we were watching was made in the 80s and, you know, independent movies were really reaching their zenith in the 1980s. People working outside the studio system. And so I guess what I really respond to is the personal. I don’t care if it’s art or it’s exploitation, just as long as it’s not commerce. But once something becomes completely packaged and commercialised and everybody’s weighed in on it and you feel this sort of art by committee, then I really start to lose interest.
This is a really important distinction – between art and entertainment, right? Art can be entertaining but pure entertainment probably can’t be art.
Are you concerned about being entertaining when you’re writing a play?
Sure. Sure I am. I even used to have a quote from Ingmar Bergman over my desk that said, “thou shalt always be entertaining” and that’s Ingmar Bergman for godssake! The truth is, if you’re not entertaining what the hell’s the point. You’ve got to stay hooked in for some reason. You know more than one person criticised August, Osage County for being too funny. They said it’s too funny. For something that was taking on some big ideas, it can’t be that funny or people aren’t going to take it that seriously. And I think that’s the most ridiculous thing I’ve ever heard. I just felt like, but if they’re laughing they’re listening and that’ s how I’m going to keep people hooked into this thing for three and a half hours. And it’s also my sense of humour, it’s a very personal sense of humour. So yeah anybody who manages to pull off something personal and get it out into the world – I’m admiring of that.
I also think with humour it’s like the dart with which you can drive in the message – you can sneak it in there – a vessel for it.
When people would compare my play to Long Day’s Journey Into Night – by the way not a hell of a lot of people compared by play to Long Day’s Journey Into Night – though I’m very flattered by it, I’m not fit to lash Eugene O’Neill’s shoelaces, nor have I ever claimed that. At the same time, if you told me you have to go watch Long Day’s Journey Into Night or August, Osage County, I’m going to go see August, Osage County, because there are no laughs in Long Day’s JOurney Into Night. [laughs] And I like a few laughs! Again, that’s just my own bent. I have to be entertained myself, you know?
What kind of got you going as a teenager or young man? Were there certain books or movies that ignited you?
Yeah I was a pretty macabre sense of humour for as long as I can remember. There’s a story, I caution you about it because it’s been written about in the press more than once.
About you writing a story about a psychopath?
Yes the story when I was a kid. And that holds true. . I was always drawn to horror and the macabre and pulp fiction and Jim Thompson. I got in trouble for having a copy of Clockwork Orange in my desk when I was fourteen years old. My teacher was bothered by some of my influences. My parents were very liberal. I remember them taking us to see Serbico when I was maybe six or seven. The only movie they ever took me out of was Taxi Driver. I was ten and we were at the drive in movie theatre and I think they just got uncomfortable in the car with us. So I always had that…that was always my inclination. And then, coming to Chicago and doing theatre, I liked the gritty, in your face stuff, the stuff that was kind of scary – a little punk in some ways. And Killer Joe I think was written very much with that visceral, in your face, shocking idea. I wasn’t trying to surprise people – we x-rated the play, so people wouldn’t be too…
I mean it’s also called, Killer Joe…
Yeah we were letting people know you were in for a black time. So I was always drawn to that kind of stuff. But then what I found, again, when I started working in those….and every time I sit down and think I’m going to work within this genre, or I’m going to work within this framework, I just think…it’s just less interesting than what’s going on inside of me and what’s personal to me, you know? But I think the best genre pieces do that, the best genre pieces are made personal in some way. So as a teenager, I don’t know, I was a weird teenager, I liked weird stuff.
Did you have comrades in the weirdness?
Not a lot. I was growing up in a small town in south eastern Oklahoma. Twelve thousand people, there wasn’t a lot of outlet for that kind of stuff. You know, this is before cable and before…I guess video stores were just becoming popular, were just in vogue. I was a voracious reader as a kid of course.
What do you particularly remember reading?
Oh I don’t know. I read a lot of the classics. But…I did always gravitate back towards the violent or disturbing…
I sometimes wonder this with actors who play fucked up, frightening characters – when you’re writing scenes like the chicken leg one, do you feel as though you’re in danger of being poisoned by it? As if you have to preserve a sort of distance from this nasty shit – do you know what I mean?
I do know what you mean and in some ways I think it’s kind of the opposite – it’s kind of like, you’ve just got to get the censor out of your head – the person sitting there going, oh you can’t write that, don’t you dare write that, do you know what people will say about you if you write that. You’ve got to get rid of that voice and write whatever the hell’s bothering you. And sometimes, in my work, it does take on a kind of…I was talking to Elvis Mitchell about this, I did his show, The Treatment, on KCRW in LA, and I don’t think this made the cut of his interview, but we were talking about this – something happens in the pieces, in all of them when, towards the end, in the fifth, they hit a kind of new gear that’s a little hallucinatory, they suddenly become a bit more…I don’t know, unrealistic, in a sense. I don’t know what that is. I mean I told him, I said, I haven’t drilled down to what that is, that wants to subvert the moment or take it up a pitch.
I feel like it’s the moment taking itself up a pitch. It feels like that’s just the trajectory.
Right. And suddenly they go a little…
Yeah, they go a little batshit…they get a little schizzy. A little weird. It’s cool because it’s not conscious. All of those things were stumbled upon. It’s in my newest play too. It gets very bizarre at the end.
Speaking of very bizarre. I read an interview in which you mentioned filming your grandmother in a Pscyh Ward on a Super 8. Can you tell me about that.
Oh you’ve done your research haven’t you. Tell me about your name Hermione.
My parents were English teachers and they liked the Winter’s Tale. But I still don’t know why I’m named after a character who’s turned to stone for sixteen years.
You’re the first Hermione I’ve ever met.
Good. I get very territorial about the name.
Uh, what was the question?
Filming your grandmother in a psych ward.
Well she would lose her mind on drugs and she would call the cops and tell them there were people in her back yard and accuse people of stealing, whatever the fuck – she was out of her mind on drugs. And then when she would sober up my mother would tell her do you know what you did. And she would always deny it – laughingly deny it. ‘No I didn’t. That’s crazy, I didn’t do anything like that.’ So once she was totally blitzed out of her head and she was in the psych ward and I’d been making movies with my little Super 8 camera.
How old were you?
Sixteen, seventeen. And again, this is before video cameras – nobody had those. So mom asked me if I would bring my camera to film my grandma. And she said, this isn’t going to be pleasant, I wouldn’t ask you to do this if I didn’t think you could handle it. I took it out and I filmed my grandmother lying in this bed in this horrible yellow light, very dimly lit room, and she’s just making nonsense sounds and doing things in the air with her hands. And uh. It’s, you know, at the time you could only load three minute mags into the thing so I only shot two of them, six minutes worth of material. We never showed it to her, mom backed down from that idea for whatever reason. But yeah, it’s about the most depressing six minutes of film you’ve ever seen. It was purely documentation.
At what point did you move to Chicago?
It was 1986. I first came here in the summer of ’85, liked what I saw, and then came back in the summer of 86. And I turned 21 that summer.
What’s kept you here.
Well. Theatre’s kept me here. I’ve liked making theatre in this town. And it’s also the right temperament for me. You know, probably when I first came here I was scared of New York and Los Angeles, being from a small town in Oklahoma and probably something about still being in the Midwest appealed to me. Something about it seemed more manageable, more liveable, in spite of these ridiculous winters. But I didn’t care so much about the winter. And I found a community here very quickly that I liked and that embraced me. And so I stayed and was here about eleven years before I left and went out to Los Angeles for a few years. But gladly came back, because I was finding in LA, even though I would get a little work on a TV show, a Seinfeld episode there, but I wasn’t expressing myself the way I needed and I thought, jeez, these should be some fertile years as an artist and I’m just kind of sitting around waiting for the phone to ring and I didn’t want to do that. Then they added me to the company at Steppenwolf and I had a real artistic home at that point. So that’s why I stayed. And now I’ve been here so long I’ve just gotten really comfortable with the place. And it’s convenient. Well not convenient, but it’s in between New York and Los Angeles, so I can get to either of those places and can afford to go there and stay for a while but can always come back here and be home here. So nothing fancy, I don’t have a fancy answer to that question. Our audiences at Steppenwolf…wherever you may be making theatre, subscribers will always complain and say, we want to see Streetcar Named Desire, we want to see Shakespeare, we want to see things we know. Our audience at Steppenwolf will complain even more loudly if we’re not doing new plays. They want to see new work. In this weather, right now, people will go out tonight and see a play that they know nothing about, just because it’s a new play. And you can afford to do that here in a way that you just can’t afford to do in New York any more. It’s just too expensive. You know, Scott Morfee who runs the Barrow Street theatre in New York, he’s a dear friend of mine, he produced both Bug and Killer Joe in New York….Bug was a big big hit in New York and it ran for a year – and he broke even. Our Town, was perhaps the biggest hit off Broadway in the last twenty years. It ran for a year and a half. And he broke even. You know…you just can’t afford…so you understand why producers don’t take risks on new work, without guaranteeing it somehow – you know, if we get this person in we can guarantee we’ll get our money back. So the work suffers. The craft suffers. One of the best compliments we heard when we were doing August, Osage County was the actors who’d come see the show in New York and they’d say wow I went to the wrong city – if you were doing work like this I should have gone to Chicago. Now granted, not everything here is as good as August, Osage County, but there’s an ethic about the work here that I’ve always admired.
Well, I’ve got to go get on a plane so I think we’ll have to end there. Thank you.