I attended a press conference in New York for the new film adaptation of the play, “August: Osage County,” which included Meryl Streep, Julia Roberts, Dermot Mulroney, Juliette Lewis, Chris Cooper, Margo Martindale, Julianne Nicholson, Abigail Breslin, director John Wells, and playwright/screenwriter Tracy Letts. Ewan McGregor and Benedict Cumberbatch are also in the film but, sadly, were not at the conference.
Unfortunately, I never saw the play, but I loved the film. It’s a very intense family drama with edgy humor. You will take quite an emotional rollercoaster ride when you watch it, but you’re in good hands with this cast.
I also had a chance during the conference to ask Cooper and Martindale about their time at Actors Theatre of Louisville in my Kentucky hometown. I had the privilege of seeing both of them on stage there more than 30 years ago.
They confirmed that they had only ever done one play together, and Cooper said he had been waiting for years to get a chance to work with Martindale. Knowing their professional history, it was great fun to see them play a couple in “August: Osage County.”
Here are some highlights of the press conference:
Martindale on how close the cast became during shooting:
We lived in townhouses all hooked together, and we did a lot of socializing together. We actually became a family together, watched television together, cooked together, ate together, laughed, and 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.
Nicholson on the language of the film:
In a theater, you have to fill the space in a different way, but I think approaching it [the screenplay], you just want to honor the words that are there and be as honest, and in this case as present, as you can be to the people who are around you….
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…. There’s a lot of freedom actually when you know you can’t stray from the lines.
Streep on playing her character:
John and I emailed a little bit in preparation for this, and I would say one of the things that really interested me was where she was at any given point in the cycle of pain and pain relief – where she was on her painkiller cycle in any given scene. Since we were shooting out of order, I sort of had to map that in a way just so I’d know what level of attention or inattention I could bring to my fellow actors.
I think as an actor you’re supposed to want to go into the house of pain over and over and over and over again. It’s not something that’s fun, and I resisted doing this initially, the part.
Breslin on her character:
I read it, and I kind of immediately felt really attached to her, for some reason. And I think it’s because I’m 17, so I wasn’t 14 that long ago. So, I kind of know that age as a really weird age because you’re not really a kid but you’re not really accepted as being a teenager yet. So, it’s kind of complicated.
She does have a lot going on because she’s trying to act like she doesn’t care about anything and like she’s really tough, but she’s not really at all…. Toward the end is when she’s realizing that “Oh my God, I don’t want to become like any of these people at all,” and so there’s a little bit of hope for her.
Lewis on working in the film:
When I first read this script, my heart just swelled, and I completely understood everything about Karen…. I feel like, as an actor, to be in touch with all those emotions of shame, anger, your lust, your joy – they’re sort of like your watercolors – I don’t know, I have to validate Tracy and John while they’re here because first of all, John gave us this beautiful environment to pour out what we needed to do to create these roles. He was always very consistent as a temperament – lovely and easy to work with.
He gave us a rehearsal period, which is really a luxury on a film these days. And then Tracy Letts, his writing, I was just so floored because you’ve seen the state of cinema today…. The characters are so strong that they just leap off the page.
An exchange when Chris Cooper was asked what it was like to work with Meryl Streep more than once (they previously worked together in “Adaptation”):
Streep: He’s the only one I’ve done a nude scene with … so far!
Cooper: And she’s a master at it all…. The viewer that watches her work still has no idea the talent that we observe because she brings such variety with this character…. She’ll just mix it up, and we never know what’s coming at us. And that keeps us on our toes.
Cooper on a subject in the film that hit close to home (Cooper and his wife had a son with cerebral palsy):
I had to particularly zero in on this idea of unconditional love for your child when people don’t see that child as whole, so it was something that was really visceral and some life experience that you can bring to your work.
Mulroney on his experience of working in the dinner scene on the film:
Those four days on this set were the most memorable I’ve had in 28 years of filmmaking. No offense, Julia…. But you can see why. This is a famous play already and a famous scene, and this character that I was truly gifted with. John, thank you so much. To be here with all of you today, I’m almost choking up with the privilege and the honor that I feel.
Roberts and Mulroney on their friendship:
Roberts: Dermot and I have been friends since “My Best Friend’s Wedding.” We became great pals then, and when he called me that he had gotten a part in this, we squealed like little girls, both of us. We were so excited for each other and to be back together.
Everybody, but in particular Dermot, who, even when he had a day off, would come run lines with me before I went to work at 6:00 in the morning…. It was beautiful to have each other in that way, especially when we’re all away from our families and forging new relationships. It was just nice to have my rock steady there.
Mulroney: I’d start my day with the coffee with Julia, and because I know her and love her, we would whisper in each other’s ears on the set. And then, I’d kiss her goodnight. Can you imagine a day like that?
Roberts: That’s really not going to go well in print. Let’s just get that straight, people! We’ve got two happy marriages here.
Mulroney: On the cheek! On the cheek!
Roberts on what happens to her character at the end of the film (don’t worry; no spoilers):
I don’t want to say … because I think more than any person in the piece, Barbara in the end … everyone that I’ve spoken to says, “Oh, I know exactly what she’s thinking…” And I haven’t heard the same answer twice. So, I don’t want to spoil it for anybody.
Streep on the rest of the cast:
We were very lucky to have each other…. You don’t get to vote who’s in your family, but John was like God. He put this group of people together and thought, “Oh, this will get messy.” And it was masterful.
Streep on shaking off emotional scenes:
It wasn’t the most joyous experience from my point of view. It was hard to feel that way about everybody. Really, that was miserable…. You can feel very disembodied in that world, so it was important to make a connection [with the other actors] beyond, outside the set.
For me, one of the most upsetting scenes we shot early on, and it was with Sam Shepard, who is a writer I really have always admired, and admired as an actor. To look at him close up and see his loathing of me [the character], that was really hard.
Wells on the film’s composer, Gustavo Santaolalla:
We called him and asked if he would do it, and I was very surprised that he responded that he would. He doesn’t do film very often. He has a studio that’s in the Echo Park area of Los Angeles, and one of my great pleasures through the whole process was spending about two weeks over there watching him create the music, and play.
Those, to me, are always the gift at the end of the entire filmmaking process, which is very grueling, is to actually get to work with the musicians. We recorded the score then at Abbey Road in London.
Letts on the cinematic version of the story:
The play exists as the play and always will, and the movie is its own very distinct but self-contained animal and, I think, successful in that regard.
“August: Osage County” opens in theaters Dec. 25, 2013, although I wouldn’t call it heartwarming Christmas fare. Check out the trailer below.