“I want two eggs and a full stack of pancakes—I want the Big Boy Special,” Tracy Letts informs the waitress in his flannelly baritone, “because I’m a big boy.” Letts—a ruddy 47 and north of six feet—is earning those pancakes, shouldering a pair of spectacular careers. In one, he’s a revered stage performer (theater lovers still chatter about his Kenneth Tynan in Orson’s Shadow); in the other, he’s a Pulitzer Prize–winning playwright (August: Osage County, Bug, Killer Joe). Plus, a body burns a lot of calories playing George in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? seven times a week. “Amy [Morton] and I both find ourselves eating a lot,” says Letts, referring to his co-star and fellow Steppenwolf Theatre trouper. He sleeps late, stuffs himself, and exercises to keep his stamina up. “If the play is taking some kind of emotional or psychological toll, I’m not aware of it. Or it’s compartmentalized.”
That last word sounds encased in faint, contemptuous air quotes: Letts is a guy who refers to scenework as “carpentry,” and while he’d be the last to claim Art is Easy—even though he makes it look that way—he doesn’t strike you as a tortured sort. Butcher-block handsome, with eyes melted mournfully at the corners, Letts is the personification of Chicago theater as it’s perceived by New Yorkers: unobsessed with irony and authenticity, immune to pseudo-Euro fuss, interested solely in charting a Northwest Passage to honesty. We need that in our diet, and Chicago, fortunately, does takeout.
That approach is part of what allows Letts to function at the tippy-top of his two fields, writing and performing. “I’m often sitting in the theater watching actors performing a play of mine and I think, Why the hell are they doing that?” he says. “Why do they have to wander in the woods and circle back to the truth? So I tried to apply that when I’m rehearsing as an actor. To remind myself, I don’t need to get all in my head about this! Though I’m sure I still do.” It’s one of the advantages of working in a close-knit theater company like Steppenwolf: “I mean, I hate some of those people—I really do—but most of them, though, I dearly love. That’s my home. That’s our tribe.”
Which isn’t to say Letts is all-work-all-the-time: “I’m a gambler, too, so whenever I lose a bundle—on sports, on horse racing—it’s a reminder that I have to get back to the computer, get back to work. I’m not gonna make my living as a gambler.” Words from a man’s man, and they hit the spot: Every once in a while, we crave a Big Boy Special.