Interview: Tracy Letts on how he prepared for ‘that’ eighteen minute argument in Indignation

When this year is said and done, one of the standouts in cinema won’t be a film full of physical action and visual fantasy, it will be a quiet project; the first film adaptation of a Phillip Roth novel since 1969’s Goodbye, Colombus that’s actually any good.

James Schamus’ Indignation is a brilliant film about a precocious young man (played with depth by Logan Lerman) who fortuitously avoids being drafted to the Korean War in the 1950’s by attending college. The film is dense in kinetic dialogue with a quiet storm approach to one man’s rebellion against an oppressive educational system, no doubt a project helped greatly by having a veteran such as Tracy Letts (Homeland, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?) come on for a small, but powerful, role as Dean Cauldwell.

Letts’ scene with Lerman is undoubtedly the film’s strongest moment, an 18 minute long verbal battle that is much more intense than most action films today. To talk about the scene, the film, and preparing for such a wordy role The Iris had a brief chat with Letts. You can check out the transcript below, in which the stalwart actor explains how he had to be “cold” in his approach to the film, and how he feels about young actors taking on such dramatic roles.

I first wanted to ask you when and how you came on board Indignation, and what was it about the script for Dean Caudwell (the role played by Tracy Letts) appealed to you as an actor.

I came on board pretty late in the process, maybe a month before the shooting started or not even quite. My agent called and said that I have this offer to be in this movie that James Schamus had written and was making his directorial debut and it was based on a Philip Roth novel and I said I’m in. She said ‘don’t you want to read the script?’ and I said I don’t need to, with those people involved I know it’s something I want to do. So I signed up to do it and I read the script and it was smart and as literate as I had hoped. I mean there was daunting material in it, but I was up for the challenge and I’m sure glad I did it.

I recognise given some of the roles I had been playing in film and TV, why they had wanted me for this part, to play this authoritative figure, I had been doing some of that. Both my parents were University teachers and I was well steeped in knowledge of college life, even though Indignation is set in a different time to when I grew up, but there were a lot of things about the character that I really loved and responded to so me choosing to do this thing turned out to be the right idea.

Dealing with an adaptation so close to the author, had you had much experience with the catalogue of Philip Roth and how did you prepare for such a role?

I have read some Philip Roth, I’m certainly no expert but I’ve read a few books of his and I’m greatly respectful of the writer. It’s no secret that his work has never been easy stuff to adapt for the screen, and there are a lot of reasons for that. He is writing books, not things meant to be turned into movies. It’s not necessarily a natural translation to go from the page to the screen. As far as my preparation went, like I mentioned I came onto the project very late and I had an enormous amount of material to learn and there was no time for a lot of esoterica, I had to learn the lines. So for me a lot of the preparation came about just making sure I was cold on script, I used to be quick study with lines, since I’ve gotten older it’s a little tougher and that was some pretty dense material.

It’s a very dialogue heavy film, aside from the scenes you were directly involved in, what were the themes and scenes that interested you as an actor and as someone who has watched the finished product?

When I watched the movie, I saw it in front of a full audience at Sundance and I was certainly captivated by the film, you know those young actors Logan (Lerman) and Sarah (Gadon) are so terrific, they not only possess a lot of the qualities we associate with people who star in movies, the truth is they’re very soulful actors, and so I appreciated all that they brought to the project.

A project like Indignation, nobody is getting rich, nobody is going to come up with Marcus Messner action figures, it’s a pretty low-key project, it’s an adult project and it’s a film by adults for adults. I appreciate that in the world of comic book blockbusters that we’re living in, it’s nice to be a part of that. I really appreciate how though they are young actors, how they signed up for a project like this, out of love for their roles.

 

There are captivating moments between your character and Logan Lerman’s character in the eighteen-minute verbal confrontation – the standout scene of the film – can you talk about how you prepared for such a sustained and wordy scene as well as any challenges you faced when shooting it?

I’m fortunate in that I’m a veteran of the theatre, and at the time I became involved with Indignation I wasn’t that far removed from having performed Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? on Broadway where I did the role for a couple of years, and that was very dense, challenging material, a lot of lines, very word heavy.

For me the first part of preparation is knowing the lines, and not just knowing them but knowing them backwards and forwards. When the camera is in your face and the lights are on you and you’re sweating through your make-up and you have another actor across the table.. when the pressure is turned up like that, it’s even tougher to hang on to [your lines] so a lot of it for me came from being really cold with that material.

Beyond that, some understanding of who this guy is, what he wants, his genuine affection and respect not only for Marcus but for all his students. I think that Dean Caudwell for his flaws – and he has some – cares about the welfare of his students and that he sees that as being a part of his charge, that used to be a big part of higher education and with a lot of people that’s still the case today.

For me a lot of it was just about caring for and loving the guy across the table, wanting the best for him. Logan came in to the room very well prepared and was deeply respectful of the process and we went at it that day. We shot that scene all day long, we shot it in one day, James [Schamus let us do it all the way through every time, he did not stop us, I don’t think he ever called cut, we always performed the scene from the beginning all the way through to the end, probably upwards of thirty times over the course of the day.

He would change the camera angle and then go again and by the end of that day James gave the editor four and a half hours of filmed material, which is a terrific amount to get from one day. Logan and I were both exhausted from the concentration that’s required, but as much is made of the length of the scene, which is very unorthodox to have a film scene take that long, but as soon as we were done and everybody started clapping themselves on the back about the length of the scene I kept saying ‘well this is good, it doesn’t matter how long it is, it’s still good’ the point is it has to be good and then we won’t care how long it is, people won’t notice how long it is. So I care more about the escalation of the fight, the escalation of ideas, and the skin we have in the game, the more the scene goes on the more we seem to have to lose in dealing with each other, that became very important to me.

There was some obvious anger and anti-Semitism coming from your character in response to Marcus’ denial or religion and social cohesion and I love how well this is hidden behind the Dean’s concern for Marcus’ academic future. What was it like working with such restrained emotions and thought processes?

I made the decision for myself that the anti-Semitism that is present is inherent in the system, but it’s not about an individuals anti-Semitism. It’s not as if Dean Caudwell was sitting on the other side of the desk thinking ‘I don’t like Jews or I hate this Jewish kid’, in fact, I think he has a lot of affection for him. I think that the anti-Semitism present in our film at the time was absolutely systemic, and just a part of that college life that is depicted in the movie. Making a decision like that makes it easier for me to play the role, then I don’t have to stand in judgement of him, if he’s a guy who’s living and working within that system, so clearly given the anti-Semitism, he is a victim of his own ignorance.

After the promotional run for this film what are your plans as an actor? Are you working on anything else at the moment?

I’m about to shoot a film Greta Gerwig has written and is making her directing debut. It’s a film about her growing up in Sacramento and Saoirse Ronan is playing a young Greta Gerwig and I’m playing the father of the film, so that’s next for me. Also a TV series called Divorce on HBO with Sarah Jessica Parker, I’m a series regular on that show, which begins here in the states in fall.

Indignation is screening in Australian cinemas now. You can read our film review HERE.

Transcript by Jake Tired; interview and introduction by Chris Singh.