Tracy Letts talks ‘The Lovers,’ ‘Homeland,’ theater and more

Tracy Letts has amassed a career of great renown as a Pulitzer-winning playwright and a Tony-winning actor, so even though he’s been working steadily in film and television for the past several years, it still requires something of a mental recalibration to see him headlining a movie.

The 51-year-old, who won the Pulitzer for “August: Osage County” and the Tony for the 2012 production of “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf,” stars opposite Debra Winger in the new movie “The Lovers,” opening Friday, which tells the story of a disconnected married couple’s reawakened passion for each other right as both parties are on the verge of ending things.

Written and directed by Azazel Jacobs, it unfolds in many respects like a silent film, relying heavily on the physicality of the characters and the tension in their silences to convey the depths of their experiences.

For a theater veteran like Letts, then, it offered an intriguing opportunity.

“To see a script that had a lot of white space on the page, a lot of room for things to happen, a lot of interaction, very little dialogue, especially in the first half of the film, seemed like not only an opportunity but also a challenge for the actors,” he says. “Especially for somebody like me, who’s just accustomed to working in the theater and so accustomed to dealing with loads of language, to suddenly be asked to do this without all that was really unusual.”

Letts’ recent on-screen acting work has included an extended stint on “Homeland” and small roles in movies like “Elvis & Nixon,” “Indignation” and “The Big Short.”

“The Lovers” stands as the biggest part he’s played in the movies, and he says the experience of being on set every day with a relatively small ensemble of actors created a feeling akin to that of rehearsing and performing a play.

“When you’re a day player, or you get hired for the week or something, you always feel like the new kid at school and it’s not a welcoming feeling. If you’re somebody like me who’s grown up in ensemble theater it can be a very disorienting and kind of frightening place to be,” he says. “So again to go to work on this film and frankly be higher up on the call sheet and know that I’m going to be there really from the beginning of the movie to the end of the movie, there’s just a comfortable level there.”

When it comes to his first love, the stage, Letts has kept up his prolific writing habits. He’s got two plays at the Steppenwolf Theatre in Chicago, where he has been a member for decades.

“Linda Vista,” about a 50-year-old man moving into a new apartment while he’s stuck in a post-divorce rut, is running through the end of May. “The Minutes,” described by the Steppenwolf as a “scathing new comedy about small-town politics and real-world power,” runs later this year before transferring to Broadway in 2018. But as far as acting goes, he hasn’t done any since the Broadway production of “The Realistic Joneses” in 2014, and don’t expect to see him back up there hitting the boards anytime soon.

“ ‘Homeland’ led to a lot of other things and a lot of other opportunities. So I’m absolutely riding that wave,” he says, adding that “Virginia Woolf” exhausted him. “This is the longest I’ve ever gone without acting in a play onstage since I was 15 years old and I have to say I’m really enjoying it,” he says. “I go to see a play right now and I don’t have those feelings of jealousy.”