This is the year Tracy Letts is here to tell you “no.” Or, at least, he is if you are an aspiring author in Little Women, or the only person who knows how to build a world-class race car in Ford v Ferrari. In both of those movies, the main obstacle to getting either of these things accomplished is the Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright (and actor, obviously) Letts. Though, as Letts explains, yes, he does get offered a lot of these types of roles. But what he tries to bring to these roles is a reasonable point of view.
Hey, in Little Women, his goal is to sell as many of Jo’s books as possible, so there have to be concessions. In Ford v Ferrari, as Henry Ford II, he wants to win, too. But he has reservations about a hothead driver. Regardless, he’s just happy to be a part of both of these films. And he explains when he was making Greta Gerwig’s Lady Bird, he thought it was a bad idea to remake Little Women. Obviously, he has changed his mind.
So, which movie do you want to talk about first?
Oh, it doesn’t matter to me. I love both films. I’m really proud to be a part of both of them.
It would be funny if we just started with your first movie, Straight Talk, with Dolly Parton, instead. I actually saw that in a theater.
I don’t remember much about it. I did get a chance to meet Dolly, which was great. And what’s funny is Amy Morton plays my wife in that movie. Amy Morton and I, we played husband and wife on stage, I think eight times since we did that film. And we had not even met at that point. So, weird little bit of kismet.
Between Little Women and Ford v Ferrari, this is the year of Tracy Letts telling artists they can’t do what they want to do.
You know, I get asked to play quite a bit of what the Coen brothers refer to as, The Man Behind the Desk. And frequently the function of The Man Behind the Desk is he or she is a gatekeeper, right? Is an obstacle. Our protagonist has to get through the man behind the desk in order to get what they want. And so Little Women and Ford v Ferrari are both sides of the same coin, in that way. In that, I function as an obstacle for the protagonist to overcome.
But the way you play them, they usually do have a point of view with some reasonable points.
I think the idea that they do have a point makes them even more compelling as adversaries. Even when I did Homeland and I first read the thing and I thought, oh, this is a hard ass in a suit. And then I looked at it and I was like, wait a second. The CIA headquarters just blew up and the Vice President was killed, and now I’m talking to the new head of the CIA and he’s saying, don’t worry about this. We’ve got this. And I thought, no, I don’t think so. I think actually I do have a point to make here. So I’m glad you noticed that these fellows do in fact have points to be made.
In Little Women, your character’s point of view is that he just wants to sell books. In Ford v Ferrari, he is worried about hiring a driver who lets his emotions get the best of him.
Right. I mean, I think the hero of Jim Mangold’s movie is Ferrari, right? He’s the guy who’s trying to make perfection. He’s an artist, and he’s trying to achieve perfection. And he gets there, and yet what the movie also tells us is that he’s broke. His business isn’t such a great business model, and in fact these guys are in business. The movie’s called Ford v Ferrari, and yet it’s very complicated, right? It’s actually a messy human story, as opposed to Rocky versus Rambo or whatever the hell, you know?
Now, Rocky versus Rambo, now I think you’re on to something…
Yeah, I didn’t mean to tip my hand there, it’s just something I’m working on.
A scene that really sums up Henry Ford II is when he leaves the still in progress race, in a helicopter, to go have dinner.
And it’s true. That’s from the actual history of the thing. The cheat, in some ways maybe the biggest cheat in the movie, and Mangold admits to this, is that Ferrari was not at the race.
Oh, I did not know that.
Yeah. Ferrari actually did not go to the races. Now, one of the reasons he didn’t go to the race, whether or not it was superstition or who knows. But his drivers had a knack for dying on the track at a lot of those races. And so, maybe that’s why he didn’t go, but he was not actually at Le Mans in ’66. That’s the biggest bit of dramatic license I think we take in the film.
You have a Pulitzer. So when you read scripts, how picky do you get about the writing?
There have been a number of scripts that I’ve chosen not to do because I didn’t think the writing was any good. Some of them, high profile, and yet it’s just like, look, the only way I know how to make this determination is based on the quality of the writing. I’ve thrown stuff out just because it’s got too many typos or it’s misspelled or the sentence structure is poor. And I think, well if they haven’t paid any attention to this, if they’re not watching this detail, then they won’t be looking at details down the road. You can tell the difference when the script has been carefully written. I mean, Greta, both Lady Bird and Little Women are not only beautifully wrought pieces of work on the page, but they’re very accurate. The movies we made, both Lady Bird and Little Women, looked very much like what it was on the page. She made the movies that she wrote.
With Little Women, she had been hired as a writer at first. Then Lady Bird came out they decided she should direct it.
Yeah, and they made a smart decision. But I remember, even when she told me she was doing it, I thought, that’s a bad idea. Why would you want to do Little Women again? It’s been done so many times. We know it so well. That last version was quite good! I don’t know why you would want to take that on. Then I read it and I was like, oh, that’s why you want to take it on. Because you have a very clear idea about the way this work functions in the world, here in 2019. I mean, I’m not a big believer in period. I think a movie is set the year the movie it is made, and I think that Greta’s Little Women is very much a movie about 2019.
‘Little Women’ opens on Christmas day. You can contact Mike Ryan directly on Twitter.