While actor, director and writer Tracy Letts admitted “I’ve played about every kind of part there is on stage,” the Pulitzer Prize and Tony Award winner noted recently, “Film and TV is a little different story.”
As fans of Letts’ work in projects like “Homeland,” “Indignation,” “Christine” and “Elvis & Nixon” know, those acting roles fall into categories Letts called, “guys in suits, real jerks and stuff like that.”
However, the role of Michael in Azazel Jacobs’ “The Lovers” (opening Friday) is much different. Letts and Debra Winger portray a long-married couple who are carrying on very established affairs with others — and each is about to announce he or she wants a divorce, but only after their only son comes home for a rare visit. “It will be the last time we’ll be together as a family,” Letts’ Michael explains to his girlfriend, played by Melora Walters.
Letts was happily surprised when Jacobs reached out to him and offered him the role. “It was kind of out of left field for me when the script showed up and the offer came in. I don’t often get asked to do pieces like that.”
The real hook for Letts, besides the appealing Jacobs-penned screenplay, was the actress who would play his wife — his principal co-star in the movie.
“Of course as soon as they said, ‘Debra Winger,’ that pretty much was all I needed,” said Letts. “If you were alive during the 1980s, you remember her as such a singular talent. The idea that I could do something with her was another reason I signed right on.”
The actor chuckled when told how “brave” he was to appear in a number of romantic scenes in the film — showcasing his, uh, less-than-toned physique.
“That’s exactly right,” said a totally unapologetic Letts, who did admit that after first seeing the final cut of “The Lovers,” he joked he “needed to apologize to my wife” — actress and “Fargo” star Carrie Coon.
More seriously, Letts likes that “when I read the script, I saw it was about middle-aged people who have nothing truly exciting or adventuresome about their lives. Yet, they are shown as sexual beings who have strong desires. They have relationships. They have love as well.
“That’s an idea we see represented so rarely in film and TV. So, the idea I could play a real person going through those things was extremely appealing to me. … Look, I’m as vain as anybody else — certainly as vain as anyone else in this business. But I realized that wasn’t what the job was about. It wasn’t about looking good. It was about real people going through this emotional journey.”
Working with Jacobs and Winger led to “some very interesting conversations about relationships in general. We talked about it a lot as we prepared to film ‘The Lovers.’ We came from such three very different places. Debra has been married for a long time and has raised three kids. Aza’s been married for 15 years, and has no kids. I’m almost still a newlywed, having been only married for 3 1/2 years.
“So, we all had very different experiences, but we put it all out on the table and told each other what we thought about when it came to love and relationships and some of the things this movie deals with.”
Already intrigued about working with Winger, Letts was delighted when he learned he’d also be paired up with Walters as the ballet teacher with whom he has a tempestuous affair.
“When I first read the script, I though Aza would cast some young girl to be my lover — you know, typical Hollywood casting, where it would be all about her physical look.
“Instead, Melora is a peer of mine. Very age-appropriate, so I was very encouraged by that. I realized Aza was really after capturing something true and real on the screen.”
Speaking of things “true and real,” Letts explained why he and Coon continue to make their home in Chicago — unlike many of his Steppenwolf ensemble colleagues who long ago moved to California or New York.
“Sure, Carrie and I work a lot in New York and in Los Angeles — and in other places too. But it also feels great to have Chicago to come back home to. Ultimately, you know, Chicago is all about a certain aesthetic. I like the way we do our work in Chicago. It’s very no-nonsense. We come from a real simple place here. It’s always about, ‘How do I best tell the story?’ … I do think living in Chicago is a grounding thing. Carrie and I will come home and say, ‘OK, [that last film or TV show] was fun. But now, let’s roll up our sleeves and get to work on stage in Chicago — the place that got us to where we are.’ ”