Tracy Letts on the ‘human element’ of ‘Ford v Ferrari,’ playing Henry Ford II [Complete Interview Transcript]

Tracy Letts has a juicy supporting role in James Mangold‘s new film “Ford v Ferrari” as Henry Ford II, owner of the Ford Motor Company in the 1960s. Letts is also co-starring in Greta Gerwig‘s new film “Little Women,” his latest collaboration with the director after “Lady Bird.”

Letts recently spoke with Gold Derby senior editor Zach Laws about what drew him to “Ford v Ferrari,” the appeal of working with directors like Mangold and Gerwig and what’s happening with his new stage play, “The Minutes.” Watch the exclusive video chat above and read the complete transcript below.

Gold Derby: Tracy, what’s so interesting about this movie is that the big selling point is that there’s a big race at the end of it, but really it’s about the relationship between these two men played by Christian Bale and Matt Damon, and all of the other characters who either help or hinder their mission to build this really great car. Was that what attracted you to the film, this interplay between all of these characters as opposed to the big racing scenes?

Tracy Letts: I don’t know anything about racing. I don’t know anything about cars, sports cars, any cars. I don’t really care about racing, so the attraction for me was not the big race but in a sense, the big race could be a lot of different things. It could be a basketball game. It’s a sports movie and it definitely falls in the sports genre, but those movies succeed or fail based on the human element in them and the human element in “Ford v Ferrari” is really strong. The characters are really well-written. We understand what all of the characters have invested in this outcome of the race, and that’s huge. That’s what appealed to me. When I read a script, all I’m looking for is quality of the writing, quality of the dramatic writing. The writing in the script of “Ford v Ferrari” is really strong. That’s what made me choose to do it. I thought the script was really strong and I thought the humanity at the center of this was profound.

GD: Certainly the role you play is a very juicy one and very central to the drama of the action. You play Henry Ford II. Talk a little bit about Mr. Ford and the way that he’s presented in this screenplay.

TL: I didn’t really know anything about Henry Ford II. I didn’t know anything about the story. I get asked to play a lot of hard-ass guys. I get asked to play a lot of, the Coen brothers call it the man behind the desk. I get asked to play that part a lot. There always has to be something about it that’s more interesting to me than just that. The fact is that he’s a captain of industry, he’s the president of, I think, the second largest corporation in the United States at that time, and the enormous weight of his family name, the legacy that bears down on a guy like that, he’s also presented as a guy with insecurities, vulnerability, some of it petty and some of it deeply human and understandable. That was really what appealed to me. If it had just been this monument, the monument of the man behind the desk, I would not have been interested in that. But again, the script does such a good job of showing what these guys had invested in this race, because the movie ultimately is about friendship and it’s about collaboration and it’s also about endeavor, what it takes to endeavor to do something great and the kind of friendship and connection that’s forged between these men coming together to build this car and win this race.

GD: You mentioned his family legacy and I think one of the interesting elements of this movie is how the specter of Ford’s father looms large in his mind all the time and how it affects a lot of his decision-making in many different ways. Can you talk a bit about that?

TL: Ford’s father, it’s a weird thing in that family that Henry Ford II is actually Henry Ford’s grandson. They would skip a generation with that and Henry Ford II’s father was Edsel Ford. The Ford Motor Company a few years before this movie was set had had a disaster with Edsel. It had been a real embarrassment, one of the great corporate embarrassments in American history, really. The Ford Motor Company was really floundering. I can’t imagine the kind of pressure you would feel if your name was Henry Ford and if that’s your name on the steering wheel, on the front of every automobile, especially if you find that the corporation that you run, you’ve gone into this business, the family business, the corporation you run, its sales are flagging, your product has started to be viewed as square or unsexy. I can’t imagine the pressure a guy like that felt and it’s one of the reasons for the innovations that came about as a result of the development of this car to go into this race. The Ford Motor Company is such an intrinsic part of not just automobile history but American history. Yeah, I can’t imagine the weight of that, or rather I should say, I had to imagine the weight of that. That was kind of the job in playing Henry Ford was to imagine the weight of that.

GD: Did you any kind of research outside of the screenplay to get a sense of who the guy was or did you have everything you needed from the script?

TL: I keep joking that I didn’t do anything because I don’t do a lot of research as a matter of course. I often find it unhelpful. I’ve done it in the past and sometimes I find that I’m more beholden to the research than to the job I have in the script, the screen work in the script. The more I’ve been thinking about it the more I realized, “Oh, I actually did do some research.” It was mainly library-style research. I did not go to Detroit and I did not meet members of the Ford family and I did not go sleep on a factory floor. I did not learn how automobiles work. I did not take a mechanics class, nor did I learn how to ride horses or live on yachts. Nothing like that. But I did read some books about Henry Ford. I read the story of this race, I watched the documentary that the Ford Motor Company commissioned about Le Mans in ’66. But Jim Mangold, the director and I, we never felt the need to try to do a Henry Ford II impersonation. He wasn’t so present. We don’t have a lot of associations with the way he looked or sounded. We thought, “It’s gonna be silly to try to do an impersonation of a guy most people won’t have associations with.” It’s not playing Johnny Cash or Elvis [Presley] or something like that. I got the period haircut, I got the good costume, the nice suits, and then we walked on the sets. The production design of this movie is amazing. My first scene in the film was shot in my office and as soon as I walked in the office I saw the grandeur of this office and that it was all real, not like there were two walls and a couple of walls of blue screens. It was all real. You walk on a set like that and you feel like, “My work is done.” I don’t have to do anything. I don’t have to act powerful. It’s all here for me. It’s right here at my fingertips.

GD: It really is great production design work. I was surprised to learn that they recreated that racetrack over several different locations. The amount of research and work that went into recreating all these different tracks and all these different offices is really something to behold in this movie.

TL: It’s a great bunch of boys. We had a great time but we had it easy compared to all of the work that was going into the movie, all the pre-production that went into this film that allowed all of us to walk onto a set and have all that work done for us. The set they built at Agua Dulce here in California, the set they built for the Le Mans grandstand, it was an enormous grandstand. There were hundreds of extras in it, there were 40 race cars, there were 40 stunt drivers, an amazing group of stunt drivers, there were 20 principal actors. All these people going through hair and makeup and catering. All of this happening all day long. I don’t know how Jim keeps his mind around all that stuff. For the actors, it just makes it so easy to be out there on the tarmac and to feel the heat and to feel the crowd and to hear the engines roaring and to smell the gasoline. You don’t have to do anything. It’s all right there.

GD: You’ve mentioned Jim Mangold a couple of times and I think this is your first time working with him. You’ve worked with a lot of really great directors throughout your career. What’s it like working with Jim Mangold? What does he give you as a director that helps with your performance?

TL: There’s no weakness in his game. He’s got the big picture and the small picture. He can master all of that stuff we’re talking about, all the different locations, the grandeur of the set, the size and scope of this movie. It’s such a big movie. But he’s also so good at scene work and working with actors and psychological realism and providing the character with a psychological underpinnings to play the scenes. He knows what he’s doing. He’s hilarious. He’s loud. He’s profane. He’s the opposite of Greta Gerwig in his temperament. Not in his skill level but in his temperament. They’re almost polar opposites, but god, I love him. Sometimes when you get a guy who screams a lot it’s because he doesn’t know what he’s doing or he’s insecure, so screaming is to make up for that. I’ve dealt with that before, but that’s not the case with Jim. That’s just his personality. He’s excited. He’s good-natured. He’s self-effacing. He’s inspiring. He’s an inspiring leader. When you get on a set like that, it’s not like he’s just a director. He’s a leader. I told Jim then and I mean it still to this day, I would follow Jim into battle. He inspires that kind of devotion among his people.

GD: You got to do a lot of scenes opposite Christian Bale and Matt Damon. Talk a bit about those collaborations.

TL: It’s a little boring. We all got along so well. All the guys on this movie are dads, and dads of young kids. There was just no nonsense. Everybody got along so well, everybody’s very generous in all senses, generous with a compliment, generous as a scene partner, generous with their time. There was a real spirit of ensemble and generosity on the film. I know that bad behavior makes for better stories but the truth is that I’d always much rather be in a movie like this. Everybody’s great. Those guys have very different ways of working. I don’t know enough to say what their way is, I just know that it presents very differently when you’re acting opposite them. Matt appears as if he’s rolled out of bed, had a cup of coffee and walked onto the set ready to go. Now, I know that there’s more to his preparation than that, but that’s the way he presents to his scene partners and it’s great. Christian presents very differently. He’s in the thing. He is the guy the whole time that he’s on-set. Once you realize that, acknowledge that, you give him the space to do that. Again, it makes it so easy to act opposite him. They have different styles but they’re both such great actors. They’re not just great movie stars, charismatic movie stars. They are that too but they’re great actors. It’s a real pleasure. Like I said, a little boring, sorry.

GD: Actually, I was at a Q&A for this movie and somebody asked Jim Mangold, did Christian and Matt get into a real-life race at the end of the movie and he said, “I wish I had a more exciting answer for that, but unfortunately no. All very cordial throughout the whole thing.” I wanted to ask you a couple of other things before I let you go. You mentioned Greta Gerwig and you are appearing in her next movie, “Little Women.” Talk a little bit about reuniting with her and Saoirse Ronan for the film.

TL: I would do anything that Greta asked me to do. I would do anything to act opposite Saoirse. They’re just two of my favorite people in the world. Greta is a great artist. When she wrote “Lady Bird” and I read the script for “Lady Bird,” I found it remarkable, not only how well it was written but that there was a big idea at work in “Lady Bird” and when I saw the film, that big idea that was presented in the screenplay was in the movie. The movie is the movie that she wrote. I could say the same is true about “Little Women.” She had sent me the script to read. I don’t know if she was looking for comments or notes but it was perfect. It’s a brilliant adaptation of something that’s been adapted a lot. That’s not easy to do. It’s so beautiful and profound and contemporary. She’s found a way to contemporize that story without betraying Louisa May Alcott’s book. It’s a remarkable piece of work. So when she calls me and she says, “Do you wanna play a part,” I just say, “Where do I go? Tell me where to go. Tell me what to do. I’d do anything. I don’t care.” I love to be a part of something that’s so well-written and to do it with Greta and Saoirse, I’m telling you, you just wanna be on that set. It doesn’t matter if you’re actually doing anything or not. It’s a great place to be. You just wanna be around them.

GD: I don’t know how much about the movie I can talk about at the moment, but I will say it’s very interesting, the dynamic between you and Saoirse in this film compared to the one in “Lady Bird.” It’s really interesting to see you two playing a completely opposite dynamic from what you had last time.

TL: Yeah, I think that was probably part of Greta’s design. She’s talked about how she has a kind of wish that she could put together an ensemble of actors who would work together again and again. If I got a chance to be part of that ensemble, if I am a part of that ensemble, I’m very happy about that. Yeah, the idea that Saoirse and I could in some way echo or spin the relationship we had in “Lady Bird” is all the more fun for us. I saw the movie myself for the first time a week ago and I was blown away. I just think it’s a great, great film.

GD: You also had another stage success as a playwright with “The Minutes,” which brought you another Pulitzer nomination. Just talk a little bit about the success of that show and what that most recent Pulitzer nomination meant for you.

TL: “The Minutes” is gonna go to Broadway. We’re gonna start rehearsals at the end of January and we’re starting previews sometime in February and we’re gonna open on Broadway March the 15th. I’m excited to have a play on Broadway at any time but I’ve seen “The Minutes” in production and “The Minutes” works. When you see them up on their feet and they work and they have the impact on an audience that you’re hoping for, you wanna share them with a wider audience. I’m eager to present “The Minutes” to Broadway audiences. I’m eager to get back to work on it. These plays always benefit from multiple productions, get a chance to ruminate about them for a long time and then get back in and do some rewriting and get into a rehearsal process again and start to fix some of the things that bothered you the first time. I complain a lot about the length of time it takes for me to get a play to New York but the truth is that these plays always benefit from a long incubation period. For those who don’t know, it is a 90-minute play set at a city council meeting, 11 characters. It’s 90 minutes of real time. Starts here and ends there and it’s a good old time.

GD: I certainly hope to see it when it comes to Broadway. Tracy Letts, it’s always a pleasure to talk to you about all the things you’re acting in and all the things that you’re writing. Thanks again for your time.

TL: Thank you!

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