Playwright Tracy Letts on writing, acting, movies

Even before his 2008 Pulitzer Prize and Tony Award for "August: Osage County," Chicago-based actor and playwright Tracy Letts was no stranger to Atlanta theatergoers. Since his performance as George in "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" at the Alliance in 2004, four of his plays have been produced here: "Killer Joe" and "Bug" at Actor's Express; "Osage County" at the Alliance; and "Superior Donuts" at Horizon.

Moviegoers can get a second taste of Letts' work, after director William Friedkin's 2006 version of the paranoid thriller "Bug." He and Friedkin reunite on the twisted -- and NC-17-rated -- drama "Killer Joe." Matthew McConaughey plays a sinister Texas cop and hit man who makes life hell for a trashy trailer-park clan that includes Emile Hirsch, Thomas Haden Church and Gina Gershon.

Q: What's the hardest part about adapting your plays for the screen?

A: Your chief instrument when writing a play is the spoken word, but the focus in a film is the visual image. The hard part is taking something that's language-based in nature and making it visual without losing what it's all about.

Q: Talk about working again with William Friedkin.

A: I couldn't have asked for a better collaborator or mentor to sort of introduce me to and guide me through the world of movies. He's always been incredibly gracious and generous and deferential to writers, whether it's making a film of Harold Pinter's "The Birthday Party," or even just insisting that his version of "The Exorcist" be called "William Peter Blatty's The Exorcist."

Q: How active a role do you have in the filmmaking process? Do you spend much time on the set?

A: No. That's partly because the writer is just about the most useless person on a film set. I'd probably only get in the way and slow things down. I've always respected that the buck stops with the movie director. Once I turn over my script, it becomes a William Friedkin film, not a Tracy Letts screenplay.

Q: What recollections do you have about working here at the Alliance?

A: I have nothing but great memories about Atlanta. But the truth is, doing such a difficult role in such a difficult show, it wasn't the kind of job that allowed me a lot of time for slacking off, taking it easy and sightseeing or whatever ... I'd never been quite as panic-stricken as I was working on that play. (Co-star) Margo Skinner gave me some very encouraging advice. If you're really suited for the role, she said, then this will be just a first stab at it, something you can use to teach you how to do it even better in the future.

Q: Was she right?

A: Yes. A few years ago, I played George again at Steppenwolf opposite Amy Morton (who directed him at the Alliance) and then we took the show to the Arena Stage in D.C. This fall, we're finally going to be doing it on Broadway.

Q: How does writing challenge or reward you differently than acting?

A: Writing is a more private creative process ... The job of an actor seems more practical or understandable to me somehow. As a writer, you're operating on such an unconscious level. It's much more mysterious to me.

Q: Have you ever played one of your own characters?

A: I've always felt I should keep the two things separate. I wouldn't be as good at either job if I were trying to do both. Once, though, in the original Chicago production of "Killer Joe," I was thrust on stage to cover two performances for the leading actor. Words can't describe how painful that was or how self-conscious I was about it.

Q: Does winning a Pulitzer or a Tony put any extra pressure on you in terms of what you write next?

A: Well, there's pressure to deliver work of the same caliber, but another way to look at it is that the pressure is off, because you have nothing to prove, really. I can do whatever I want, and that's a great feeling.