Letts: Yeah, she has a magnetic quality! People want to be in the same room as her. She fosters a really smart, warm environment.
Sims: Had you worked with Metcalf or Ronan before? Because obviously the McPhersons’ family bond is crucial to the story being told. How quickly did you guys establish that chemistry?
Letts: Well Laurie and I are both members of the Steppenwolf Theatre Company; I’ve known her for 30 years. I’ve seen her on stage a hundred times, she’s seen me a hundred times. Weirdly, we had never worked together! But we have a shared understanding about how the work should be done, and Laurie and I just fell into husband and wife straight away. Saoirse I was more concerned about because I didn’t know her at all and we didn’t get any rehearsal, but we just clicked from the first time we met. I don’t really believe chemistry is just an accident, but Saoirse and I recognized what the movie needed and what the relationship between father and daughter was, and we had a good old time.
Sims: Was it a movie that, when you were making it, you recognized was a special project? Because when I saw it for the fist time at the Toronto International Film Festival, I think it had an element of surprise.
Letts: No, you just can’t predict how people are going to respond to stuff. You always go into [a project] with the understanding, “I think this is really good! I hope other people think so, too!” I will say, because the script was so strong, there was a bit of a sense of a safety net. [You’re thinking,] “I can only fuck this up so bad.”
Sims: Your character in Lady Bird is telling this story of the early 2000s and the dot-com crash. Did you think about that period of time? It’s impressive what a historical document this film is considering that it’s mostly about a young woman in high school.
Letts: Very clever, that Greta Gerwig. It’s just little extra seasoning, that she has this overview of the middle class during that time. It was very recognizable to me; my parents were both Okie school teachers. I remember very well what it was like to have a family that had to be very conscious about money, the way most people do. It’s not what the movie is about necessarily, but it is an essential ingredient.
Sims: Moving on to The Post—that film came together almost impossibly quickly.
Letts: There was a sense of urgency in the way it came together, but once we were on set, it’s not like people were running around and tripping over cables. We were in the rhythm of making a movie.
Sims: Did Spielberg suggest you read Kay Graham’s memoir or anything like that to play the part of Beebe?
Letts: Yeah, I didn’t have the time for all that kind of stuff. For me, it’s like, the dramaturgy is on the page. What it became about for me was, my character loves this woman [Graham], and he’s going to try and support her. That was the goal for me. [The producers] sent me all this research material, Kay Graham’s autobiography, and several other books. And I’m a very slow reader, so I thought, “Well, she’s the chairwoman of The Washington Post, I’ll start this Washington Post book.” And I think I got up to Teddy Roosevelt in the history of the Post, and then I had to go to work!