Few people wear two hats around Broadway with as much authority and style as Tracy Letts, who is bringing all his experience on both sides of the footlights to his role as an imperious private school dean in the new film Indignation with an ensemble of top Broadway actors. Letts is both a Tony Award-winning actor and a Tony- (and Pulitzer-) winning playwright.
Letts won his playwriting Tony and Pulitzer as author of the biting family drama, August: Osage County. He won his acting Tony for playing George in the 2012 Broadway revival of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? opposite Amy Morton.
In other Broadway acting roles, such as one of the husbands in The Realistic Joneses and the shop owner in his own Superior Donuts (soon to be adapted as a TV series), the Chicago-based writer/actor showed himself adept at playing characters with a bland exterior, but upheaval and, sometimes, menace within.
That skill is abundantly evident in what will come to be regarded as one of the great movie scenes of 2016 with his performance in Indignation, which opened July 29. Written and directed by James Schamus, based on a novel by Philip Roth, the film co-stars Logan Lerman and Sarah Gadon, with a supporting cast of Broadway actors including six-time Tony Award nominee Danny Burstein and three-time Tony nominee Linda Emond, who play Lerman’s parents.
Set in 1951, Indignation tells the story of an idealistic young Jewish man named Marcus Messner (Lerman) who decides to escape his suffocating home life in New Jersey and his overly protective father, a kosher butcher, to explore a new world by attending a conservative college in the Midwest. He collides headlong with a variety of people different backgrounds, especially the school’s Dean of Men, Dean Caudwell, played by Letts. Caudwell operates by a moral and religious code very much at odds with Marcus’.
Marcus and Dean Caudwell lock horns in a scene in which Caudwell summons Marcus to his trophy-filled office and draws out about why he isn’t fitting in at the school.
The scene begins with Caudwell welcoming Marcus and showing an avuncular interest in his well-being. But as their conversation proceeds his questions become more probing, more personal about his family, his religion, his budding love life. Caudwell tries to get inside Marcus’ head and succeeds only in getting under his skin. It’s a case of Midwestern religious self-righteousness clashing with New York ethnic self-righteousness. Marcus becomes indignant, as the movie’s title suggests, which affects his life and the lives of everyone he knows in ways he couldn’t have predicted.
The film’s trailer shows bits of the confrontation scene and uses Letts’ dialogue from the scene as narration:
“That big scene is directly from the book,” Letts told Playbill.com. “It’s not only a compelling and remarkable scene in James’ screenplay, but also a compelling and remarkable scene in the book. I found the scene remarkable and challenging and daunting and fun and funny. James’ screenplay did not go through many—if not any—rewrites. As a first time director he wanted to make sure his screenplay was ready to shoot from.”
Letts said it was important that he not approach Caudwell as a villain. ”Everything he does is justifiable. I actually think that character is fond of Marcus. His desire to help Marcus and all his students is not only his job, but his charge as Dean of Men. I try to help the young man from the beginning of the scene. You have a lot of tools when you want to help somebody, not just kindly argument, but a little pressure, manipulations, tough love. All those things become arrows in his quiver. James told me: ‘Nothing you say in this scene is untrue. Marcus is the one who is dissembling over the course of the scene.’ So I didn’t have to worry about any hidden agenda.”
As for his young co-star Letts said, ”I had never met Logan before shooting. The first time I met him was at rehearsals. We worked the scene maybe one-and-a-half times—not a lot. The next time I saw Logan was when we were shooting. So Logan was always very fresh to me, and that worked for the film because the dynamic between Dean Caudwell and Marcus is the dynamic of people who don’t know each other very well. Logan impressed me from beginning to end. He’s such a terrific actor, really prepared. I don’t think James called a cut during any of our takes. Between each take James would whisper a direction, and we’d do it again.”
The scene gains potency because both characters are struggling not just for Marcus’ life as a student, but for his soul. Letts said its a struggle that was peculiar to the early 1950s, with the shadow of the Korean War and the growing Cold War hanging over every facet of life.
”There are reasons that the book is set in that period,” Letts said, ”and that’s one of them. It affects the terms of how we play that scene. There is something slightly performative about relations between the men in that study in that time period. I’m not his buddy, not his friend; I’m an educator, a shaper and molder of young lives. These are the roles we are expected to play as student and educator in that place and time. I remember that there was one take late in the day where I tried to give James something else. I dropped my tone to make it more conversational [more the way an administrator would act with a student in 2016]. I looked Logan in the eye and used a more muffled, more contemporary approach. Afterward James came to me and said, ‘I’m really glad I have that take. Now can we go back to the way you were doing it before?’”