Azazel Jacobs and Tracy Letts On ‘The Lovers’, Writing Influences, and the Pressures of a Leading Role

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“The Lovers,” about a long-time married couple, Michael (Tracy Letts) and Mary (Debra Winger), who are on the verge of leaving one another. At the same time, they’re having and having affairs with other people without the knowledge of the other. Somehow they find their way back to each other, but it’s not exactly anticipated or stirs up some trouble. The film, which opens in theaters today, was written and directed by Azazel Jacobs. Jacobs and Tracy Letts spoke with me about “The Lovers,” the lack of communication that leads to all the film’s drama, different endings, and working as a lead in a film versus a lead onstage.

What were your influences behind the film and did you draw from any personal experience?

Azazel Jacobs: I definitely wanted to tell a story of stories you hopefully haven’t seen that much of, in a way that you haven’t seen. I thought that the concept was like a riddle because two people could be equally guilty in a way that would cancel out what they were potentially doing to each other. And I thought that was an interesting premise. Like if neither one actually proclaimed to be the victim or villain and it was an interesting way to start off. And I also wanted to tell a love story.

The first half of the film didn’t have a lot of dialogue in it. How deliberate was it for these characters to circle back to each other and not have solved any of their problems by the film’s end?

AJ: I guess I’m somebody who’s never actually solved problems in that way that they’re just solved and they’re never going to rise again. And I felt like that was a true depiction of life to me and life’s problems. You come up with solutions, or you come up with actions that deal with them, but not necessarily forever. In some ways, it kind of emphasized what the problem was: the lack of communication, or the lack of conversation. It gave us the backstory of the present, rather than us seeing the moment where they stopped talking. It’s the fact they don’t talk about these things that kind of let us know how they wound up in this particular situation.

Tracy, how did you get involved with the film and what was this experience like in comparison to your stage work?

Tracy Letts: I got involved with the film a couple of months before they started shooting. I had an offer and a script and we had a really nice conversation. I was not accustomed to getting offers to do this kind of work–a leading role, I’m a character actor, so it was a really cool opportunity and a really cool challenge to take on. How it differs from the stage work, I mean they’re such different disciplines. I have played lots of leading roles onstage and the truth is the work I’ve done on camera, the burden of carrying a story from beginning to the end that you have as a lead, yeah it’s something I’ve experienced onstage, but not something I’d gotten to do on camera before, so it was great fun.

Did you face any challenges?

TL: I remember the first time I met Debra [Winger] and we were talking in the makeup trailers before we did our first shot together, I was very frank with her. I said, “I’ve never been asked to do this before, I usually come much further down on the call sheet.” And she said, “Well, sure the responsibility is a little different.” Quite often, when you’re a character actor, your job is to come in and move the story along. You provide an important piece of information, but ultimately your job is to keep the story moving. She said, “The job here is you have to always find a way to be interesting in every scene.” And I’d certainly never looked at it like that before. Even playing leading roles onstage, that’s not the obligation onstage. But I understand what she meant. It was a unique thing for me.

I really enjoyed Jessica Sula’s role in the film. She kind of brought a bit of balance, coming into a family with a lot of problems, but from a third-person perspective. Do you feel like the main characters interacting with her brought them some perspective?

TL: I’ll you the truth, the scene I had with Jessica, the one where we’re drinking coffee and talking to each other is one of my favorite scenes in the film. Not just when we shot it, but also to watch the film. It’s just because of you’re saying. I do feel the outside perspective and I think it’s really important to have an emissary from outside of the family and outside of these extramarital affairs, and have these extra eyes on the situation. When I watch the movie now, I’m able to see my character through Jessica’s eyes. I think it’s a really important perspective and she’s a terrific actress. She’s just great.

Was there at any point in writing the script that there was a different ending planned?

AJ: No, it didn’t. I was just taking notes on what these characters were doing. It’s not a sensation I’d actually ever felt before when writing. Maybe it’s the simplicity of this premise, but inside this premise was this ending. It just had to be. At the same time, for me this is a happy ending in some strange way. Everybody does get something of what they want, maybe not in the way that they want it, but they do get a piece of it and that’s as much as you can really hope for.

“The Lovers” is now playing in theaters.

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About Author

Mae is a Washington, DC-based film critic, entertainment journalist and Weekend Editor at Heroic Hollywood. A member of the Washington, DC Area Film Critics Association (WAFCA), she's a geek who loves discussing movies and TV. She is also a voting member of the Black Reel Awards. If she's not at the movies, she's catching up on her superhero TV-watching, usually with a glass of wine in hand.

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