Family feud

Meryl Streep, Julia Roberts, and Dermot Mulroney on August: Osage County.

by Anne-Katrin Titze

Meryl Streep on the cast:
Meryl Streep on the cast: "John [Wells] was like god when he put this family together - he thought 'oh this will get messy!'" Photo: Claire Folger © TWC

The cast of John Wells' chilling portrait of an American family, August: Osage County, including Meryl Streep, Julia Roberts, Julianne Nicholson, Juliette Lewis, Margo Martindale, Chris Cooper, Abigail Breslin, and Dermot Mulroney, gathered at Essex House New York on Central Park South during Thanksgiving week to celebrate the upcoming Christmas day US release of their film. Sam Shepard, Ewan McGregor and Benedict Cumberbatch were conjured up by Meryl Streep. Julia Roberts got the parakeets and wanted to set straight her relationship with Dermot Mulroney on the set, while he spoke about a most memorable dinner scene and who has the best coffee.

Screenwriter and playwright Tracy Letts, who won the Pulitzer Prize for August: Osage County tells the story of the Weston family, who assemble resentfully in their rural Oklahoma home at the time and place of the title to let loose the individual and collective demons that plague them. Meryl Streep's Violet Weston is the matriarchal lynchpin, a centre of ill will and revulsion.

Chris Cooper and Margo Martindale - the Aikens:
Chris Cooper and Margo Martindale - the Aikens: "We were very lucky to have each other." Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

Julia Roberts splendidly plays Barbara, one of Violet's three daughters who left the family behind out of sheer survival instinct. In the car, when she returns with her husband and her own daughter (Ewan McGregor and Abigail Breslin) to deal with a family emergency concerning her father (Sam Shepard) she recounts the story of the mysterious death of three parakeets in her mother's house. Even tropical birds could not stand the heat - or the fury of Violet Weston.

Anne-Katrin Titze: A question for Meryl Streep. What is your relationship with tropical birds? [Silence] Nobody gets it?

Julia Roberts: I get it! I get it! I totally get it. You know what? I haven't heard that question yet and I've heard about ten thousand questions - so well done! So Meryl, what is your relation with tropical birds?

Meryl Streep says in a fantastically real bird voice, more seagull than tropical: Kyow, I don't know. [now in her real voice] This is always such an interesting process.

More upsetting for Streep than being referred to as a bird killer in August: Osage County was the gaze of her fictional husband.

MS: For me some of the most upsetting scenes we shot very early on. It was with Sam Shepard [Beverly Weston, husband to Violet], who is a person, a writer, I really have always admired and admire as an actor. To look at him in close-up and see his loathing of me, that was really hard. You know, you get old, you look old, and you still think that maybe there's this spark of love from this person who's gone through everything. And to look at his eyes and realise that he'd rather be dead than looking at me, that was brutal. That set the tone for my dealing with his death and everything afterwards.

Meryl Streep in bird voice to Julia Roberts when asked about her relationship to tropical birds:
Meryl Streep in bird voice to Julia Roberts when asked about her relationship to tropical birds: "Kyow, I don't know." Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

Meryl Streep's performance makes your blood run cold. Violet's violent mood swings, the horrors on and off medication, create the perfect monster for a Christmas time movie.

MS: It wasn't the most joyous experience, from my point of view it was hard to feel that way about everybody. That was miserable. It [the filming] was also during the election and also television is very odd out there [in Oklahoma]. You can feel very disembodied, in the whole process it's important to make a connection beyond, outside the set. Also, I was smoking non-stop which really makes you feel shitty.

At the heart and in the belly of the film, sits a dinner that connects them all.

Dermot Mulroney about four days of filming a dinner scene: Those four days on the set were the most memorable I've had in 28 years doing film acting. No offense Julia. [referring to their previous film work]. Let me correct that, some of the most memorable. You can see why. This is a famous scene already from the play. To tell you about that scene would be to tell you how you are supposed to play in movies. You're supposed to go straight through, with everybody there, in a real place, in a real state in a real town. All that was provided for us. The words will stand for centuries, now that we filmed it, people long after we're dead will be enjoying Tracy's [Letts] movie. I felt all of that coming into this and just as we stepped into the house, of course you leave it on that porch. My character comes in happy-go-lucky… I was thrilled to have one of the ugly people in this play.

Meryl Streep goes on to explain the intricate emotional dynamics for her.

MS: Every single thing about this piece is… I wish Ewan [McGregor as Bill Fordham] were here and Benedict [Cumberbatch as 'Little' Charles Aiken] because we were all absolutely integral to this thing working or not. Chris's character [Cooper's Charles Aiken], I felt, was someone he would imbue, and he did, with his enormous humanity and compassion. And I knew the audience would love him. And I knew that they would hate me in equal measure and that is the story. It's a balance of all these characters. You turn your eyes from one to the other. It's all affected each person - what you give, you get. What you get, you give. It only works if you're together. This person [pointing to Margo Martindale who plays her sister Mattie Fae Aiken] we have a speech and it says that she has my back. I always always always felt that because she made me feel that way. We were very lucky to have each other. John [Wells] was like god when he put this family together - he thought 'oh this will get messy!'

Julianne Nicholson, Juliette Lewis, and Dermot Mulroney on the Weston dinner scene:
Julianne Nicholson, Juliette Lewis, and Dermot Mulroney on the Weston dinner scene: "Those four days on the set were the most memorable I've had in 28 years…" Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

Julia Roberts and Dermot Mulroney had worked together before.

JR: Dermot and I have been friends since My Best Friend's Wedding [directed by PJ Hogan in 1997]. We became great pals then and when he called me that he had gotten a part in this, we squealed like little girls, both of us. We were so exited for each other and to be back together. Dermot, even when he had the day off, would come by at six o'clock in the morning.

DM: Her coffee was a lot better than mine…. I started my day with a coffee with Julia because I adore her and love her. We would whisper in each other's ear on the set. And then I'd kiss her good night. Imagine that!

JR: That's really not going to go well in print!

DM: On the cheek.

JR: Get that straight people!

Streep exposes how you sometimes have to fight for for your laughs.

MS: Every character I've ever played is about 5' 6'' and weighs about the same. I tried to look sicker and thinner than I actually am. But I don't think about things that way. To me one of the most excruciatingly funny scenes in this is the prayer. It is honestly, beautifully, earnestly given to the best of his [Chris Cooper's Charles Aiken] ability. It reminded me of church, there is no laughter like the laughter when you have to hold it back. The humor is more about the pain. Every single one of these actors here came to the first reading, a copy of the original play in their back pocket with their laughs and every cut… It's like you come together with your friends and say "At Thanksgiving, I have to tell you what my mother said, god oh my god," and you tell the story that was not funny when you were there. But your telling, that's how you transform your life, if you can't laugh about this thing…

Meryl Streep with Julia Roberts and Ewan McGregor:
Meryl Streep with Julia Roberts and Ewan McGregor: "I tried to look sicker and thinner than I actually am." Photo: Claire Folger © TWC

Read about the three sisters, Barbara, Ivy, and Karen, played by the three Julis (Julia, Julianne and Juliette) on being surprised, working through channeling, and where they are going - all here. Plus there's more, with production secrets spilled, here.

August: Osage County opens in the US on December 25 and in the UK on January 17, 2014.

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