Tracy Letts on His Writing Routine and His Roles in ‘Ford v Ferrari,’ ‘Little Women’

Lorraine Wheat

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Tracy Letts says he’s driven by the need to tell stories that showcase humanity. It’s a need that earned him a 2008 Pulitzer Prize for “August: Osage County” and led to his current Broadway play, “Linda Vista,” about a 50-year-old divorcé (played by Ian Barford) in the midst of a midlife crisis. Letts also brings the human touch to his acting roles; he won a Tony Award as George in the 2012 Broadway revival of “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” His many on-screen credits include playing the dad of Saoirse Ronan’s character in Greta Gerwig’s Oscar-nominated film “Lady Bird.” (He also portrays Mr. Dashwood in Gerwig’s reimagining of “Little Women,” which bows in December.) Currently, Letts appears as Henry Ford II, heir to the Ford Motor Co., in James Mangold’s “Ford v Ferrari.” 

How did you come to play the role of Henry Ford II?

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James Mangold had talked to me about playing a part in a Patty Hearst movie. That project got abandoned, and he took up “Ford v Ferrari.” When I read the script, I thought it was well done, but it wasn’t until I got on the phone with James and he talked me through some of the ways that he saw the character — I just responded to the idea that the Ford Motor Co. went to Le Mans and took on Ferrari [because Ford] got mad that Ferrari had used him in his negotiations with Fiat.
I loved that the hidden history of all of that hinged on this guy’s insecurities.

Talk about your character’s relationship with his father.

There’s that moment in the film when [the character] says, regarding the automobile they’re making, “I wish my father could see this.” It’s easily relatable, deeply personal. I understood the desire of this man to make something with this company that is his legacy that he thinks would please his father. It’s one of the things that makes him really human.

How do directors help you as an actor?

James and Greta are so different. Greta is very gentle. She runs a very friendly, warm set. James yells — not in a demeaning way, just in an excitable way — he curses, he’s demanding. Everybody’s got their own approach. And as long as the conversation is smart and respectful, we eventually get to the truth of the matter.

What is your daily writing routine? 

I’m a storyteller. Playwriting and acting, for me, they’re ways of telling stories. Sometimes it’s a struggle, and I say, “Who the hell needs my stories these days?” But then I make a cup of coffee and go back to the typewriter and get back to work because that’s the way I know to contribute. In terms of a daily writing regimen, I don’t have one. When I’m acting I don’t tend to be writing, and when I’m writing I don’t tend to be acting, so I’m not a guy who gets up and writes his three pages or his six hours every day. I work in bursts. And they can be pretty disciplined, concentrated bursts.

Why did you want to work again with Greta Gerwig in “Little Women”? 

Greta and I became friends on “Lady Bird,” and so when she wrote the screenplay for “Little Women,” she sent it to me just to get my thoughts. It was just such a great screenplay. … When she called me to play a part, I said, “Yeah. I mean, the answer is yes.” 

Things You Didn’t Know About Tracy Letts

Age: 54 Birthplace: Tulsa, Okla. Celebrity spouse: Married actor Carrie Coon in 2013 Longtime Roots: Still an active member of Steppenwolf Theater Company Family Ties: His father, Dennis Letts, was in the original production of “August: Osage County”

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