John Wells, Meryl Streep, Julia Roberts, Julianne Nicholson, Juliette Lewis at Essex House for August: Osage County. Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze
Powerhouse performances by the Weston women of August: Osage County, Julia Roberts as Barbara, Julianne Nicholson as Ivy and Juliette Lewis as Karen circle around Meryl Streep as the matriarch, Violet Weston who has woven a large and dangerous web. The first time we see Violet, she comes down the stairs, cigarette in hand, as memorably as Gloria Swanson in Billy Wilder's Sunset Boulevard, though in an entirely different state of mind, dress, and posture. "My wife takes pills. I drink," is how Sam Shepard, who plays Violet's husband Beverly, sums up the main occupations of their lives. Nicholson's Ivy is the only one of their three daughters who still lives nearby.
In part one on director John Wells' chilling portrait of an American family, Meryl Streep said this about the casting of her family: "John was like god when he put this family together - he thought 'oh this will get messy!'"
The three Julis shine some more light here on the women in August: Osage County.
Juliette Lewis on Tracy Letts: "His characters are written so strong, they just leap off the page." Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze
Anne-Katrin Titze: When you read the script, you probably had an idea what your family members would be like. When it all came together what were some of the surprises for you?
Julianne Nicholson: I was surprised by people every day. First of all, seeing Violet for the first time shook me to my core. I had no idea. I guess I had a picture but I couldn't describe what that was. I was surprised by my reaction physically when she walked into the room. That was the joy about being there everyday. You never knew what was going to happen when. It was a thrill every day to see what this amazing cast came up with and how honest and true and moving and great it was.
Julia Roberts as Barbara, who fled Osage County a long time ago, assesses the Plains as "a state of mind, a spiritual affliction, like the blues," to her husband Bill (Ewan McGregor) only to be thrown into the physical reality of her family with the first hello, which is an assessment of her own weight and her 14-year-old daughter Jean's, (played by Abigail Breslin) development since the last visit.
No escape is possible, the female bodies will be scrutinized from straightened hair to the socks in the Birkenstocks.
Julia Roberts on preparing to be one of the three sisters: Well, your name had to start with J, U, L to be a Weston sister. We spent a lot of time together, getting to know each other. We didn't know each other at all when we started. By the time we began filming I felt very familiar and entangled with these girls in a way that seemed correct for sisters. I had made just enough happy experiences with them and had a couple of appropriate sisterly, like really-that's- what-you're-wearing kind of moments that made it all fall into place.
Letts made the Westons a family of poets. "He hired a cook. We never eat. It makes no sense." The pulse of the language cuts through disarray.
Julianne Nicholson: Approaching it, you just want to honour the words that are there. Tracy's [Letts, playwright and screenwriter] writing is very particular and so beautiful and actually has quite a rhythm to it. There was no improvising. You didn't want to mess with the rhythm and it feels and sounds very naturalistic but it's quite stylized and exciting. There's actually a lot of freedom when you know you can't stray from the line.
Julia Roberts with Julianne Nicholson: "We spent a lot of time together, getting to know each other." Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze
Beyond spoken language, there is movement. When the father's death is announced, Barbara fervently brushes her long hair in front of a vanity, while Violet dances an insane pill fueled dance.
Juliette Lewis answers a question about her approach to her character Karen who is not proud of things the audience doesn't know about: That would be more of an intellectual approach. I guess some people write diaries and back stories. I'm like into channeling. I'm not kidding. [Silence at the press conference turns into laughter, once Lewis makes it clear that she is kidding us, very much in tune with her character].
Third sister Karen arrives from Florida for the funeral with her new fiance Steve. Disaster shimmers through the worn thin surface of future plans.
JL: No, when I first read this script, immediately my heart just swelled and I completely understood everything about Karen. What one is not proud of is all relative. What she could not be proud of could be nothing for somebody else. Other people's pain is so individual. After being in touch with all those emotions of shame, anger, your wants, your joy, these are all like your watercolors.
Lewis goes on to explain the ambience and character of her experience with the director and screenwriter before the shoot.
JL: John [Wells] gave us this beautiful environment to pour out what we needed to to create these roles. He gave us a rehearsal period which is really a luxury on film these days. And then Tracy Letts, his writing, I was just floored. You've seen the state of cinema today. His characters are written so strong, they just leap off the page. I'm always struggling between being a realist and an idealist.
The "truth telling" the family indulges in has consequences.
Where are the sisters going at the end?
Julia Roberts: I'm going to Disneyland. I'm getting in that truck - or maybe Disney World. I don't want to say where I'm going. Barbara at the end…everyone that I've spoken to says 'Oh, I know exactly what she's thinking, exactly where she's going and what she's going to do. And I haven't heard the same answer twice.
Julianne Nicholson: I don't know where Ivy is going. I don't think Ivy knows where she is going. She is leaving and she'll figure out tomorrow where she's going.
Julianne Nicholson on Meryl Streep as the matriarch: "seeing Violet for the first time shook me to my core." Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze
Juliette Lewis: Belize… Now I am thinking about the last question. Karen to me represents so many people in life, women I've met. They are going to fight on the trip. He might hit on the waitress and then he might buy her a present. They might fall back into it or she might have an epiphany.
You can read what Meryl Sreep, Julia Roberts and Dermot Mulroney had to say about the film here.
Read more on Meryl Streep and the director John Wells in preparation, Chris Cooper on zeroing in, Margo Martindale's cooking, Abigail Breslin growing up fast, and screenwriter playwright Tracy Letts' secret to success, here.
August: Osage County opens in the US on December 25 and in the UK on January 17, 2014.