There’s a scene in James Mangold’s Ford v Ferrari that had TIFF audiences almost rolling in the aisles. Tracy Letts as Henry Ford II is persuaded by Matt Damon’s Caroll Shelby to take Ford’s latest racecar for a spin, but the bossman is vastly underprepared for the reality of 100mph. When the car finally stops, all his gravitas turns to childlike sobs. But then the real brilliance of Letts is that within seconds, we go from laughing to crying along with him. Aside from this iconic role, he also has a turn in Little Women, directed by Greta Gerwig, with whom he made Lady Bird.
DEADLINE: Is it true that you did that crying in the car scene in one take?
TRACY LETTS: It wasn’t a one-take. In fact, we did many, many takes. It’s just that apparently James used the first take. I was not aware of that until after I saw it myself. It was a great scene on the page, and we all recognized it was a great scene. It’s a pressurized day because you know what you need to do with the scene and there wasn’t a lot of talking about it beforehand. I think the great thing that James did was provide the underpinnings to let the scene happen. I really was in a car, and I really was traveling very fast speeds, and Jim had the cameras all ready to go, and we really did slam to a stop, and that was the moment, you know? So, he provided the underpinning work for the adrenaline to do some of the work, and of course you’ve already got adrenaline going, just performance energy that you know what you need to do that day.
DEADLINE: And then of course you make everyone cry along with you too.
LETTS: The scene’s really well written. If it had just been a guy crying because he’s scared of fast speeds or something, it wouldn’t have been as interesting to me, but the idea that it was actually something emotional underneath that, the emotional connection to his father and pressure of the legacy and all that kind of stuff? I loved all that stuff. That’s one of the reasons I took the part. We shot that scene all day. Matt and I were in a car. We were being pulled by a camera car that they call a Biscuit, which goes quite fast. Jim tells me we got up to 100 miles an hour.
DEADLINE: For real, 100mph?
LETTS: Yeah, we were doing serious speeds. We were doing 100 miles an hour out on the tarmac. The speed was not scary for us. For Matt and I both, the scary part was the claustrophobia. Those cars are really tight, and because of the way you have to shoot, there are cameras attached all over the car so you can’t open the doors and you can’t open the windows. You’re strapped in with a seat belt, wearing period clothes and makeup, with your hair lacquered down, and then get you get in that. I can’t even extend my legs in the car because it’s so short. The roof of the car is just a few inches over your head. Then you get in that position, they say, “Yeah, you’re going to be in here for a few hours.” So yeah, I better find a happy place or I’m going to freak out. It’s a great scene. It was great fun to do. Matt’s a very generous scene partner. We had a great time that day.
DEADLINE: So much of Ford v Ferrari is about iconic American industry. Was that part of the draw for you? How did you get involved?
LETTS: Jim Mangold had another movie, a movie about Patty Hearst, that he was looking to do. And I was in talks about playing a role in that film. And then the Patty Hearst movie fell apart, and Jim very quickly shifted his attention to Ford v Ferrari and asked me to play Henry Ford. Most of the time, when somebody comes to me with a role of one of these guys—a head of state or a titan of industry, or what the Coen brothers refer to as ‘the man behind the desk’—I get asked to play a lot of those parts—there has to be something special about it to interest me. In this case there were a few things that were really special about Ford v Ferrari. First of all, Jim Mangold. I really admire his work. I thought he was the right director for this script. The script by the Butterworths, I thought was really strong. It was long, but it was strong and it was beyond just being a sports movie. I mean, it hits all of those points that a sports movie hits. But beyond that, I really loved what felt to me like secret history. It’s not really secret at all, I just didn’t know it. I don’t know anything about cars, I don’t know anything about racing, but the story made all that stuff, not only very understandable, but it was like, oh, this really is a moment in history.
DEADLINE: The cars themselves are an American touchstone.
LETTS: The development of these cars, and all of these people coming together in this moment, actually goes beyond just a race. I mean, the car culture is a very important part of American culture, and it marked a big shift in car culture in the United States as Ford created the GT, and a lot of innovation that happened as a result of that. That scene you see where they are pulling the computer out of it… In the real history, the first time a computer was ever put in a car was for the development of the GT. I so admired all of the research and all of the history that went into that.
Then, beyond that, there was just the character itself. It was just like, yes, there is more to this, the man behind the desk. The fact that the story hinges on his insecurity; that we wouldn’t even have this story had Ford not been offended by Enzo Ferrari and decided to beat him at his own game. All of that stuff transpired to make me interested. And then of course there was the casting. I mean, those guys are amazing movie stars and actors and there’s a certain guarantee of quality with them being involved. So, all that stuff inspired me to say, “Yes, I will do it,” and I’m thrilled I did.
DEADLINE: I imagine it was a lot of fun on that set? Racing around with those guys?
LETTS: It was a great experience. It was a great time. Jim is an inspiring director and leader. Even more than director, he’s a leader. You have to be a leader to make a movie like this. You’re marshaling such enormous forces, money and labor and manpower. And not to mention the goddamned cars. There were a lot of them, and they’re real. They’re not computer graphics, they’re real cars racing around on a track. So, Jim was the man to do that. He inspires me. It was just a great experience.
DEADLINE: The behind-the-scenes photos of those cars are just phenomenal.
LETTS: They really are. We didn’t even realize this until we all got to Toronto, but none of us are car people. Nobody on the movie’s very interested in cars, knows anything about cars. None of them. None of the principal actors, or Jim, are big car people. I don’t think any of us knew that when we got into it and it’s probably a better thing, right? It helps to keep from fetishizing the cars or making the movie about the cars and not about the people themselves.
But then when you are around them, I have to say they’re really startling works of design. Not only the functional part of design of course, but also just the beauty. They are. You understand the appeal when you see them, like, “Oh, now I see why people get into this, because these are really cool.”
DEADLINE: What sort of digging into Henry Ford II did you do? Did you meet with people or talk to any family?
LETTS: I’m not a big research guy. I don’t do a lot of that stuff. I don’t find it very helpful, and the truth is that most of the Henry Ford stuff was on the page. The scenes were on the page. The true story of that drive, for instance, I think is that Ken Miles—not Carroll Shelby, but Ken Miles—took Ford around the track a couple of times and they had a great time. How much good does it do me to know that, when in fact what the script requires something very different? It’s not a documentary.
I watched some YouTube videos—not really that helpful. I did track down some old biography of Henry Ford II, but it was written by a friend of his and it was just hagiography and not helpful at all. So, not a lot of that stuff was helpful to me.
DEADLINE: There’s this amazing speech that you give to the factory workers. Was that a favorite scene for you?
LETTS: One of the nice things about Henry Ford was that he’s got these big set pieces. Those scenes are kind of laid out for you in a beautiful way. Again, they’re well written, and they have beginnings and middles and endings. That speech on the factory floor, that’s great theater, and I’ve done a lot of theater. The idea that I get to stand up there and pontificate, make my angry speech for a couple of minutes, it’s like, I know how to do this. There’s a little fear if you blow out your voice. You get adrenalized because you want to do a good job. And so you blow out your voice. Sometimes even blow out your voice in rehearsal. Like, “Oh sh*t. Now I can’t do it again.” So I did it for Jim and he said, “That’s great. How’s your voice?” And I said, “I can do that nine more times.” He said, “I’m going to ask for 12.” And I said, “Okay, we’ll see what we get.” And I wound up doing it 18 times. And by the end, I mean, I was gasping.
DEADLINE: I love how exact you were. Precisely nine.
LETTS: I knew how many. I’ve done enough theater that I knew how much I had left in the tank. But one of the great things I have to say about Ford v Ferrari was its analog nature. Again, not only were the cars real, but there was an enormous set there for me to perform to. There actually was; I’m not talking to a green screen, I’m not talking to a bunch of tennis balls. There was a giant warehouse and they had spent over a year crafting those parts that they’re making on the factory floor. There were 50 or 100 extras working that day. It’s very concrete. It’s very tactile. You could touch everything on the set. It’s real, and it makes it so much easier to pretend with authority.
DEADLINE: Now, about Little Women…
LETTS: I saw it last night for the first time. I was blown away.
DEADLINE: At our Contenders event in London, Saoirse Ronan was moved to tears seeing a clip for the first time.
LETTS: Me and my wife, we sat there, we cried as soon as it started. We cried for two solid hours. We just never stopped crying. So yes, we all want to live in the world of Little Women. Who doesn’t want to crawl in that world? It’s so fantastic, it’s so beautiful. She’s such a great artist, Greta. She just made an extraordinary movie. I’m so proud. Even just the tiny little part of it, it’s just a thrill.
DEADLINE: It’s a really fresh take on the story, the way she reverses the chronology, and it’s comedic. What did she tell you about it beforehand?
LETTS: Well, Greta and I became friends when we worked on Lady Bird together. She had sent me the script for Little Women before I was ever even part of it. She just sent the script, she said, to get my notes, but the truth is she was probably wanting to show off because she’s such a f*cking genius. I read the script and said, “I don’t have any f*cking notes for you. I need notes from you.” It’s a remarkable job, it’s brilliant. Her adaptation is f*cking brilliant. I knew it on the page. So, when she called and said, “Do you want to play a part?” I said, “I don’t even need to know what part you’re talking about. I’ll do anything. I don’t care, I’ll show up and carry cable from room to room. I don’t give a sh*t.”
DEADLINE: Did you get a chance to hang out on the set with your other Lady Bird friend Saoirse? It looked like the shoot was a great time.
LETTS: Oh, I wish I had had more time to spend with them. The truth is that because of the nature of my scenes, we shot them all in a day, or maybe two days? So, I was on the set very briefly. I went in the day before, and I sat with Greta while she was directing some scenes in the house. We just sat and chatted about where she was in the process, and then I shot my scenes and got the hell out of there. I wish I’d had more time to sit around because it looked like great fun to be around. All the people, and I adore Saoirse so much. She’s a really special person, and we had a wonderful time making Lady Bird together. I loved getting a chance to do those scenes with Saoirse. I wish I’d had more time to spend with her.
DEADLINE: How do you choose your roles? Is it a gut feeling? Does it have to have a certain meaning for you personally?
LETTS: The only way I know how to do it is to choose good material, to choose a good script. That the script itself is high quality. And I like to say that if you see me in it, it’s because I think the script is good. Who knows? Maybe I’ll be wrong about that someday. So far so good though. I just know when I read a script and I respond to it, I think it’s well written, and I think some time and care and intelligence have gone into not just individual characters or scenes, but the overall design, the architecture of the piece. I’m not a person who can say, “Oh, well this person’s in this movie,” or, “This person’s making this movie, therefore I’ll do it even though the script isn’t very good.” I wouldn’t know how to do that. For me, that would be a mistake. The first and last thing really is always the script. Now having said that, if Greta Gerwig calls and says, “You want to do something?” What am I going to do? Say, “Well, I need to read this.” I’m just like, “No, I’m in, I’m in. I don’t care. Just tell me where to go. Tell me what to wear and what I’m saying and I’ll be there.”
DEADLINE: What’s left on your list of parts you’d love to play?
LETTS: That’s a really good question. The truth is that as a theater actor, I’ve never had a long list of roles I wanted to play. I had wanted to play George in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? for a long time, and I got a chance to do that onstage. So that was one I was able to cross off the list. But the truth is I don’t have a long list like that. The truth is also that in film and TV it’s a little bit new for me. I’m enjoying the challenge of it, and I do enjoy the opportunity to do something different. When Greta came to me with Lady Bird and I got a chance to play a guy not in a suit, but a different kind of guy, a guy sitting there reading the newspaper, which is so much closer to the person I am in real life, I really greatly appreciated it. I want to play more guys who sit in their clothes and read the newspaper.