Before becoming the Meryl Streep-Julia Roberts movie, August: Osage County was an immensely successful, Tony-winning stage play. And, in some ways, the actors on hand for the film version recreated the experience of doing theater, Chris Cooper explained in an interview last month.
Cooper plays the kindly uncle Charles Aiken, one of the few truly good souls in this tale of a highly dysfunctional Oklahoma clan led by matriarch Violet Weston (Meryl Streep), and the secrets they harbor. In the movie's centerpiece scene, in which Charles says an almost painfully awkward, prolonged grace.
"A night or two before the beginning of the dinner scene was to be shot, we went over to Meryl’s, had pot luck dinner, and got at her dining room table and sat at the general positions the way the cast would be seated," Cooper said. "Very theatrical. We ran lines, ran lines, ran lines. Now, you have to accomplish in this little rehearsal what you rehearse over a months period or more doing the stage play." Theater also seeped its way into the film in other ways. "Movement, blocking and timing was very theatrical and it was loosely set," he said. "You had your blocking, you had your movements, trays dishes past at certain times. You set that, but loosely in that each take is going to be slightly different."
Cooper hadn't seen the play before committing to the film version, though he looked to Tracy Letts' original work, which runs about an hour longer than the film version. (Letts adapted his own work for the screen). "[I] certainly read it a number of times to make sure that nothing in the screen version had been eliminated that could tell me more about the character," he said, though he added: "I think Uncle Charlie pretty much made it all the way."
The film, Cooper explained, was mostly shot chronologically, which is not usually the case, so the cast knew they would gather as the dinner scene was coming up. All housed in Bartlesville, Oklahoma, a sense of community was important to the production and was a specific concern of Streep's and director John Wells'. Cooper explained he, Margo Martindale (who plays his wife, Mattie Fae), and Streep would get together often.
"Primarily Margo and myself, we spent a lot of time over at Meryl’s, having dinners, everyday talking about what was accomplished that day, talking about our work, and rehashing it because I guess we’re still enthralled, mystified by this business and what we do. We just love to talk about the minutiae of these characters and what we came up with."