The Cast of ‘August: Osage County’
Talks Bonding, Surprises, And Humor
By Erin Whitney
Every family is dysfunctional to some degree, but the chaotic, hilarious, and unsettling drama of the Weston family in August: Osage County is hardly something you’d experience at your Thanksgiving dinner. The film, which is directed by John Wells (ER, The Company Men) and adapted from Tracy Letts’ Pulitzer Prize-winning play, follows the family as they’re reunited at their Oklahoma home for a sudden crisis.
It’s no surprise when her three daughters, Barbara (Julia Roberts), Ivy (Julianne Nicholson), and Karen (Juliette Lewis), dread returning home. Ivy avoids her mother and aunt’s (Margo Martindale) pestering questions about her love life. Barbara, the proclaimed favorite child, attempts to conceal her own relationship troubles as she drags along soon-to-be-ex-husband Bill (Ewan McGregor) and daughter Jean (Abigail Breslin) for the trip home. And Karen, the free-spirited, buoyant one races into town—literally—with fiancé-of-the-moment Steve (Dermot Mulroney), your typical douchey guy in a red Ferrari.
When Beverly (Sam Shepard), known for both his poetry and alcoholism, goes missing, his drug-addled wife Violet calls upon every family member to return home. His absence becomes clear over the course of the film as Violet’s true self unfolds, a woman who uses her family as punching bags more than crutches. Played remarkably by Meryl Streep, Violet, who is also battling cancer, buries her life-long suffering with a miscellany of prescription pills, which only emphasize her cruel underbelly.
As expected, much bickering, bitching, and all-out fighting ensue, but those unfamiliar with the play will find the story surprisingly original, if somewhat melodramatic. August isn’t a typical dysfunctional family drama, as it juggles a hefty load of serious topics and features a fantastically performed dinner table scene that is sure to become a classic. What makes August: Osage County stand out is that it’s at once both theatrical and cinematic, dark and funny; a difficult feat to accomplish when transitioning from stage to screen. At the film’s press conference in New York last month, the cast, director, and writer sat down to discuss the movie.
Letts, who adapted for the screen, said one of the most important things for him was that the comedic elements of the play remained intact. “I always felt that some of the secret and success of August: Osage County was the humor,” Letts said. “Quite often when plays are turned into films, the humor is lost.” For a drama like August, which deals with drug and alcohol abuse, infidelity, suicide, and another serious subject revealed near the end, it’s necessary to have comedy to ease the tension. Letts believed that as long as the audience was laughing, they’d keep listening.
While Streep has made us laugh in past roles, her Violet gives no such pleasure. The cold and aging woman is one of the most wretched characters the actress has played. Streep shared that initially she hesitated to take on the role for its heavy emotional weight. “I think as an actor you’re supposed to want to go into the house of pain over and over and over and over again,” Streep said.” “But really, it’s not something that’s fun. And I resisted doing this initially, the part, because of that.” While it may have been a trying character to play, Streep brings such varied depth to Violet as her drug-fueled temperament peaks and descends. Throughout many scenes, Violet will switch from laughing along with family members to suddenly attacking them with her biting tongue.
“The viewer who watches her world,” co-star Chris Cooper said of Streep, “really has no idea the talent that we observe per take, because she brings such variety.” Cooper went on the describe how Streep, who he previously worked with in Spike Jonze’s Adaptation, would constantly keep the cast on their toes. “It’s a great lesson. This is the second time I’ve worked with her; I’m still learning.” Streep chimed in and jokingly replied, “You’ll never learn.”
Nicholson, who plays the most humble of the Weston sisters, further echoed the daunting power that Streep’s Violet emanated. “Just seeing Violet for the first time chilled me to my core,” Nicholson said. She also described that throughout filming there was a constant element of surprise on set, adding, “It was a thrill everyday to see what this amazing cast came up with.” While the Weston family may not get along too well in the film, the large cast of August: Osage County bonded as a real family off set. Since the film was shot in a real home purchased in Osage County, Oklahoma, the cast moved into nearby townhouses during production. Margo Martindale, who plays Violet’s sister, Mattie Fae, said, “We actually became a family together, watched television together, cooked together, ate together, worried about Hurricane Sandy together.” Roberts also shared how her, Nicholson, and Lewis bonded off set as sisters, pointing out the one commonality each actress shared. “Well, your name had to start with “JUL” to be a Weston sister,” Roberts said laughing. She described that by the time they started shooting, the three of them had some sisterly moments of, “really-that’s-what-you’re-wearing?” that helped them feel more connected.
Having such a huge cast of renowned actors, a film like August: Osage County could easy come off as disjointed, strained, or self-indulgent. However, the ensemble is believable and entertaining as a family for which the audience can feel both love and hate towards. That well-rounded equilibrium of joy and pain, like and dislike, and tragedy and humor is not only integral to the story of August, but also makes it such an enjoyable and relatable film. When comparing Cooper’s compassionate Charles, Violet’s brother-in-law, to Violet, Streep said, “I knew the audience would love him and I knew that they would hate me, but in equal measure.”
“And that is the story,” Streep said. “It’s about a balance.”
August: Osage County opened in theaters everywhere on Christmas Day.