August: Osage County is by no means the lighthearted family romp you'd expect to see in a movie premiering on Christmas Day. There's no caroling. Well, there is one carol, but it's cut off by an excellent yet scathing Liberace joke. If you're familiar with Tracy Letts' original play of the same name, you can expect his self-adapted film version, directed by John Wells (executive producer of Showtime's Shameless), to be the same kind of gut-punch.
In the midst of a family crisis, the Westons reunite at their old childhood home in Oklahoma, where they must deal with an insufferable mother, long-suffering from mouth cancer, and the dysfunction that separated them in the first place. It's a darkly comedic tale that's as emotionally painful as it is deeply funny. The funny is so delicate and so necessary—trust us, you'll have an ulcer if you don't giggle at least once to relieve the tension—that it deserves only the most talented Hollywood actors to bring it to life on screen.
Enter: Meryl Streep, Julia Roberts, Ewan McGregor, Chris Cooper, Margo Martindale, Julianne Nicholson, Benedict Cumberbatch, Abigail Breslin, Juliette Lewis, Dermot Mulroney, Sam Shepard, and newcomer Misty Upham, all of whom make up the immediate and extended Weston family.
Complex got a chance to sit in on a cast Q&A, where each talent besides Shepard, Upham, McGregor, and Cumberbatch were present. The participating cast and crew discussed everything from the making of the film to becoming their own little family.
Meryl Streep on the pain of playing Violet Weston:
"As an actor you’re supposed to want to go into the house of pain over and over and over again, but it’s not something that’s fun, and I resisted doing the part initially because of that. On so many levels—physically, mentally, spiritually, emotionally—Violet is enraged or in pain or drugged at any given time.
"To me one of the most excruciatingly funny pieces in [the film] is the [dinner table] prayer. It reminded me of when I used to go to church. There was no laughter like the laughter you could get the whole pew going. Talk about the humor born out of pain. This was not funny when you were there, but in the telling [of the story], it’s fabulous. That’s how you transform your life."
Julia Roberts (Barbara Weston Fordham) on re-teaming with My Best Friend's Wedding co-star Dermot Mulroney:
"Dermot and I have been friends since My Best Friend’s Wedding. We became pals then and when he called me that he had gotten the part, we squealed like little girls... Dermot, even when he had a day off, would come run lines with me before I went to work at 6 o’clock in the morning, for the trade for a good cup of coffee... He would come to work and watch scenes that I was in and support me in that way. It was beautiful to have each other...especially when we’re all the way from our families and forging new relationships. It was nice to have my rock steady there."
Chris Cooper (Charles Aiken) on Meryl Streep's talent:
"She’s the master of it all. The viewer who watches her work still has no idea that the talent that we observe... She brings such rioting to what [Violet Weston] says. She’ll bring her drug-addled side [out], or she’ll bring [out] the mean underdog in the conversation—she’ll just mix it up. We just never know what’s coming and that keeps us on our toes. It’s a great lesson. It’s the second time I’m working with her [the first was in 2002's Adaptation.] and I’m still learning."
Abigail Breslin on playing the film's only kid, Jean Fordham:
"I'm 17. I wasn’t 14 that long ago so I know that age is a really weird age because you’re not a kid but you’re not really accepted as being a teenager yet. [Jean] does have a lot going on because she’s trying to be this out-of-touch, doesn’t-care-about-anything [girl], like she’s really tough, but she’s not really at all. That’s how I read it. Towards the end, she's realizing, 'Oh my god, I don’t want to become like any of these people at all,' so there’s a little bit of hope for her that she can make it."
You hear about all of the pain the characters are going through, and all that stuff is very real and it’s what the piece is about. But while that may be difficult for the actors to live in, it is impossible for an audience to watch if not for the humor. —Tracy Letts
Juliette Lewis (Karen Weston) on working with John Wells and Tracy Letts:
"John gave us this wonderful environment to pour out what we needed to create these roles. He was always very consistent as a temperament, like really lovely and easy to work with. He gave us a rehearsal period, which is a luxury on film these days. Tracy's writing—I was just so floored because you’ve seen the state of cinema today, so this is something that comes maybe once in a while. But his characters are written so strong that they just leap off the page. I understood Karen and her iillusion and denial. I’m always struggling too between being a realist or an idealist."
Margo Martindale (Mattie Fae Aiken) on living with the cast during production:
"We all had townhouses hooked together and we did a lot of socializing together. We actually became a family together, watched television together, cooked together, ate together, laughed together, 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.
"I made chicken spaghetti, yes. I actually left one for John Wells in the refrigerator when I left."
Dermot Mulroney (Steve Heidebrecht) on the opportunity to be in the film:
"Those four days on the set were the most memorable I’ve had in 28 years of film acting. John, thank you so much. To be here with you all today, I’m almost choking on the privilege and the honor that I feel.
"To tell you about the [dinner scene] would be to tell you how you’re supposed to make movies, and that’s how it’s supposed to be done. You’re supposed to do it straight through, you’re supposed to do it with everybody there, you’re supposed to do it in a real place, in a real state, in a real town. So all of that was provided for us with the words that will stand for centuries and now that we’ve filmed it, can you imagine? People long after we’re dead will be enjoying Tracy’s words.
"I was thrilled to have one of the ugly people in this play. I was thrilled to play one of several and felt in good company in terms of that."
Julianne Nicholson (Ivy Weston) on performing Letts' writing:
"In theater, you have to fill the space in a different way. Approaching it, you just want to honor the words that are there and be as honest and as present as you can be to the people are around you. And this [movie] just ups your game tremendously. Tracy’s writing has quite a rhythm to it. There was no improvising. We didn’t want to mess with that, with him. It feels and sounds very naturalistic, but it’s quite precise. There’s a lot of freedom, actually, to know you can’t stray from the lines so it was thrill to be able to do that."
Writer Tracy Letts on preserving the humor of the piece:
"I always felt that in some ways the secret to success in August: Osage County is the humor. Quite often when plays are turned into film, the humor is lost, even though the films are still good. Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and Glengarry Glen Ross—I’ve done both of these plays and they’re outrageous comedies, but the movies become a gloomier affair. I said to John [Wells], 'If it happens with August, we’re dead.'
"You hear about all of the pain the characters are going through, and all that stuff is very real and it’s what the piece is about. But while that may be difficult for the actors to live in, it is impossible for an audience to watch if not for the humor. The humor is what sort of pulls you in and as long as you’re laughing, you’re listening."
Director John Wells on the fear of a silent audience:
"My real fear when we first started shooting was that nobody would laugh. The tremendous relief when they start to is crazy. One of our producers that produced the play on Broadway gave me access to the video version of the play...and I sat there with a copy of the play with a highlighter and I highlighted every single laugh.
"In our cutting of the piece, we literally only cut two spots that had laughs. We saved every single laugh so that the humor is what allows the characters to progress, to undermine the tension."
Compiled by Tara Aquino (@t_akino)