Tracy Letts is an American playwright and actor. His play August: Osage County won him a Pulitzer prize and a Tony award in 2008, and his performance as George, in Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, earned him another Tony in 2013. He played the duplicitous head of the CIA in Homeland, and is now in Steven Spielberg’s new film, The Post, alongside Meryl Streep and Tom Hanks. Letts plays business manager to Streep’s Katharine Graham, first female publisher of the Washington Post, and to Hanks’s Ben Bradlee, the paper’s renowned editor. The film, set in the 1970s, is about the leak to the press of US government secrets about the Vietnam war. When the New York Times was silenced by a court ruling, the Washington Post risked its existence in order to publish the story.
Does The Post serve as a modern parable?
The reason for the movie is where the US is right now as a country. The story it tells is about the importance of the first amendment [prohibiting any abridgement of freedom of speech]. This defines us as a country. It’s a shame that we have to keep reminding ourselves of its importance, that we have to stay so vigilant. But it cannot be taken for granted. Everybody who made the film felt an urgent need to get it out there now.
How will it register in Trump’s America?
Who knows? But one hopes we’re not preaching to the choir – that there is an understanding that we all are the choir. All of us make up the United States of America. It’s not about throwing rocks at the other side. It’s about reminding us to take a step back and agree that without the protection of the first amendment we cease to exist. It’s under attack in this country. People need to recognise that.
In the film, you play Katharine Graham’s financier sidekick. What was it like acting alongside Meryl Streep?
Fantastic. Most people who act opposite Meryl are intimidated by the sheer body of work she’s completed. And it’s not hyperbole to say she’s one of the all-time greats. But I’d worked with Meryl on the film of August: Osage County and was able to feel a little more at ease. I knew what a lovely person she is – she has charm, a sense of humour and is easy to talk to. But beyond that, the reason Meryl is so good is because she works really hard. She is very prepared and in the moment.
Was it fun being part of that recreated newspaper scene. Would you have ever fancied being a journalist yourself?
I’m so admiring of journalists’ hard work, but it strikes me as a gruelling and thankless profession.
August: Osage County – a sweepingly dysfunctional family drama – must be a hard act to follow. What is your new play about?
The Minutes has just opened with the Steppenwolf company – my home stage – in Chicago. It’s a political piece about a city council meeting in a small city. It has a cast of 11 and is 90 minutes long. I hope it will come to London.
You once said that, as a writer, you like to hide. Is acting a way of doing that?
As an actor I love it when people don’t know I’m in something. “You were in that?” That makes me feel I’ve done my job well.
You grew up in Durant, Oklahoma, and have said it was an unhappy childhood…
This idea has become overblown. I had a great relationship with my family. But I wasn’t a good fit for the town. I felt like an outsider. There was not a lot for a kid like me to do.
“Don’t do anything” was one of your 10 commandments as a path to creativity. The art of doing nothing is hard, isn’t it?
Very hard – it’s an act of will. But I always benefit from it.
How often do you manage to do nothing?
You might be surprised [laughs].
You stopped drinking 20 years ago. Do you see yourself as still having an addictive personality? And is work an addiction?
Absolutely. If there is something one can be addicted to, I am addicted to it. But I’ve been in recovery for over 24 years, and hopefully will be beyond today. Am I addicted to work? Yes. I fill holes in my time and my essence with work.
“Addict” is a dirty word. Would “obsessive” be fairer?
Probably. When AA started in the US, one reason for the anonymity was the shame associated with addiction. It’s time we stopped demonising addiction. The truth is that many fine people have found themselves addicted. It’s not a question of the quality of a person.
Your mother is a writer. Is there a writing gene?
If there is, I’ve got it. Both my parents were English teachers. When my mom retired, she became a writer. When my father retired, he became an actor [starring as the grandfather in August: Osage County]. They were in their mid-50s when they started their second careers.
You once said writing is better than acting…
Writing is harder, but once you have the thing written, you get to go home. As a stage actor you have to stay out there, do it eight times a week. Acting is very hard in that sense.
You are married to the actor Carrie Coon. Is married life good for a writer or is it easier to be solitary?
Having the right partner makes everything easier. I’m lucky to be married to Carrie. I’ve written more since being married to her than previously in my life. She has freed up space for me to write.
I see you as a subversive. Is this how you see yourself?
Yes – it’s that outsider feeling. I still have it [laughs]. It’s my sense of humour, and the sense of humour I respond to in others.
Can you answer The Post’s toughest question: “Would you go to prison to stop a war?”
God – you have thrown this brutally hard conundrum at me in the last moment! I want to say I would but… I wouldn’t.
• The Post is released in cinemas on 19 January