Meryl Streep, Julia Roberts, Juliette Lewis, Julianne Nicholson Are the Dysfunctional Family at the Core of "August: Osage County"
By Michael Gioia
Tracy Letts' "August: Osage County," the Tony Award and Pulitzer Prize-winning work about a dysfunctional family — led by Oscar winner Meryl Streep — that reunites when tragedy strikes, hits the big screen Dec. 27. At a recent press conference, Streep and her co-stars sounded off on the Weston family at the film's core.
"One of the things that really interested me was where she was at [during] any given point in the cycle of 'pain' and 'pain relief'," explained Academy Award winner Meryl Streep on the drugged-out Violet Weston, the matriarch at the heart of "August: Osage County" who phones her children when her husband goes missing. "Since we were shooting out of order, I kind of had to map [her stages], in a way, just so I'd know what level of attention or inattention I could bring to my fellow actors."
Streep, a master of her craft — having received three Oscars for her performances in "The Iron Lady," "Sophie's Choice" and "Kramer vs. Kramer" as well as the coveted Kennedy Center Honor in 2011 — was hesitant to take on the bipolar, broken and brash Violet, a role that won Deanna Dunagan the 2008 Tony Award, in her latest film outing.
"As an actor," she said, "you're supposed to want to go into the House of Pain over and over and over again, but really, it's not something that's 'fun.' I resisted doing this initially — the part — because of that. I just thought, 'Ugh!' because on so many levels — physically, mentally, spiritually, emotionally — Violet is enraged or in pain or drugged at any given time."
However, Streep's co-stars — much like the family members they play in the Letts drama — provided support through the journey and admired her ferocity.
"We do our best to act along with her," admitted Chris Cooper, who plays Charles Aiken, the husband of Mattie Fae (Margo Martindale) and the brother-in-law to Violet. "The viewer, who watches her work, really still has no idea the talent that we observe per take because she brings such variety. And, with this character — say at the dinner-table scene — she'll bring, of course, her drug-addled side, but there's also the 'I could give a shit about what's going on at this dinner table,' [and] she'll bring the mean, mean underbelly and the confrontation… She'll just mix it up, and we never know what's coming at us, and that keeps us on our toes, so it's a great lesson. This is the second time I've worked with her, and I'm still learning."
Martindale, who plays the sister to Streep's character, Violet, explained how the family truly became a "family" throughout the filming process. "We lived in town houses all hooked together," she explained, "and we did a lot of socializing together. We actually became a family together. We watched television together, cooked together, ate together, laughed, worried about Hurricane Sandy together… It was an incredible experience that really made for the perfect environment for this ensemble of actors to do this beautiful screenplay."
With a laugh, she added that she made her chicken-spaghetti casserole for downtime dinner with the cast.
More sisterly bonding occurred between Julia Roberts, Juliette Lewis and Julianne Nicholson, who play Violet Weston's daughters. "We spent a lot of time together in getting to know each other," said Roberts. "We didn't know each other at all when it started, and by the time we began filming, I felt very familiar and entangled with these girls in a way that seemed correct for sisters. [I] had made just enough happy experiences with them, and [we] had a couple of appropriate, sisterly "Really? That's what you're wearing?"-kind of moments where I felt like it was all going to fall into place."
In the film, the trio of actresses — who all have the same first three letters in their names, Roberts noted at the "August" press conference — play Barbara (Roberts), Karen (Lewis) and Ivy (Nicholson), who return to their hometown and must confront the multitude of skeletons in the Weston family closet.
"Approaching it, you just want to honor the words that are there and be as honest and, in this case, as present to the people who are around you, which just ups your game tremendously," said Nicholson. "Tracy's writing is very particular and so beautiful and actually has quite a rhythm to it, so there was no improvising because we didn't want to mess with that rhythm, and it feels and sounds very naturalistic, but it's quite precise… There's a lot of freedom, actually, when you know you can't stray from the lines, so it was a thrill to be able to do that."
Lewis also praised Letts, who — after winning the Tony and the Pulitzer for August (not to mention a 2013 Tony Award for his acting work in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?) — penned the screenplay for the film.
"Tracy Letts — his writing…!" Lewis said excitedly. "I was just so floored because you've seen the state of cinema today… This [work] is something that comes maybe once in a while. His characters are written so strong. They just leap off the page."
Dermot Mulroney, who plays Lewis' fiancé, Steve Heidebrecht, in the film, couldn't be happier that the award-winning work will now be exposed to the masses. "Now that we've filmed it, can you imagine?" he asked. "People long after we're dead will be enjoying Tracy's words."
(Playbill.com staff writer Michael Gioia's work appears in the news, feature and video sections of Playbill.com as well as in the pages of Playbill magazine. Follow him on Twitter at @PlaybillMichael.)
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