"You want my wife to not feel bad about interrupting,” says actor and playwright Tracy Letts. I’ve just told Letts, 54, and his wife, actress Carrie Coon, 38, that they should feel free to chime in on any question I ask, no matter whom I address it to. “So this is an interview about marriage?” adds Coon.
The couple met in 2010 when they were cast together in a revival of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? at Steppenwolf, where Letts is a longtime ensemble member (Coon joined last winter). By the time that production transferred to Broadway in 2012, they were an item; they were married in 2013, and Coon gave birth to their son, Haskell, in 2018.
The pair have worked together frequently: Both appear in Steven Spielberg’s The Post and in the second season of USA Network’s The Sinner, and Coon has twice returned to Steppenwolf to perform in Letts’s plays. She’ll be back this month, starring in one of Letts’s earliest scripts: a revival of his 1996 thriller Bug, in which she will take on the role of a drug addict who falls in with a paranoid Gulf War vet.
Here, they discuss collaborating as spouses and what it means to have a theatrical home base in Chicago.
What was the spark for this new production of Bug? Was it something the two of you brought to Steppenwolf?
Letts:Not at all. It was actually brought up by me a couple of seasons ago when we lost a show and were looking for something to replace it. We didn’t wind up doing it then, but it got me and Anna [Shapiro, Steppenwolf’s artistic director] talking about the possibility. As a kind of small, intense play, it’s very much written in the classic style of Steppenwolf, or Chicago storefront theater. I don’t think it’s ever been seen in an auditorium as big as Steppenwolf’s main stage.
Coon:When this conversation was happening, I wasn’t in the ensemble yet. The names they were kicking around were celebrity names. Tracy was talking to Anna about it on the phone one night, and I said, “What about me?” And then I immediately put my hand over my mouth because I didn’t really want to do it, because I think it’s terrifying.
I like how you say the people they were talking about were celebrities, as if you’re not.
Coon:[laughing] Well, I hate to inform you that as an actor, I can’t get a play off the ground today in New York City. So I’m not considered a big draw. And there are only about 10,000 Leftovers fans. My fan base is small and select.
This is your first production at Steppenwolf since joining the ensemble, but you’d done so much there that it felt like you were already part of the company.
Coon:I remember a couple of times when I went to the Steppenwolf gala, the longtime company members would say things like “Oh, are you coming back for the meeting?” And I’m like, “No, because I’m not in the ensemble.” It’s any actor’s dream in Chicago to be added. It’s such a storied group. I had resigned myself to the idea that it wasn’t going to happen for me — I figured I was now too old — so I was very surprised when Anna asked me to join and then offered me this part.
Letts:And I was surprised too. I have to recuse myself from those conversations. I’ve advocated for a lot of people over the years, but I just can’t advocate for my wife. It had to be somebody else’s idea.
You’ve frequently worked together at Steppenwolf, but what does it mean to both be fully part of it now, even as you’re working more elsewhere?
Coon:I was surprised how moving it was in the moment. I didn’t realize how much I lacked an artistic home until I was invited to have one. We have been on the road for the last several years; our child has been to more countries than the average American. And he hasn’t lived in our house in Chicago more than 10 weeks of his whole life. It’s not that strange for me to be working with Tracy, because we’ve collaborated many times. There’s never trepidation about whether or not that process will be successful, because we always enjoy each other in that capacity, right?
Letts:Oh, I much prefer when you’re at work. It makes my life better.
Coon:But we love Chicago and love an excuse to be there more often. The success we’re enjoying right now could change at any moment. It’s nice to know that we have a place to go when Hollywood stops calling.
Tracy, you’ve written at least half a dozen plays in the decade or so since August: Osage County, many of which have premiered at Steppenwolf. How does having that home-base ensemble to write for affect your output?
Letts:The truth of the matter is, August: Osage County, if I wrote it now, there’s no way it goes straight to Broadway with that cast in a commercial production. It just couldn’t happen. That’s how much New York theater — and particularly Broadway theater — has changed in just 12 years.
Coon:The thing is, you’re supposed to get movie stars and celebrities to be in your plays to satisfy investors. But rarely are those people able to carve out time to be part of an ensemble. And the work that Tracy writes is almost always contingent upon having strong ensembles. He’s not writing two-handers.
Carrie, you’re usually the first to read Tracy’s scripts as he’s working on them. What are those conversations like?
Coon:It’s really sweet because whenever Tracy finishes something, he always says, “Do you think you’ll have enough time to read this today?” And I say, “Yeah, I’ve got some time.” And he says, “Well, you think you could read it right now?” He gets really nervous, and I set up somewhere and he’ll bring me a glass of water. And then he goes away. But not so far that he can’t hear, like, when I’m laughing or not laughing. When I finish, he always wants to know, “Where did you laugh?” And I’m always so moved that he cares what I think, ’cause I think he’s really smart.
Details:Bug Jan.23–Mar. 8. Steppenwolf Theatre. Lincoln Park. $20–$122. steppenwolf.org