Why 'Winning Time' Was Too Fun for Tracy Letts to Pass Up
The playwright and actor didn't want to miss the opportunity to act with an old friend and run around in the Los Angeles sunshine.
Before Tracy Letts took on the role of Lakers head coach Jack McKinney on Winning Time, HBO’s glitzy saga of the “Showtime” Lakers of the ‘80s, he turned down a few parts that didn’t fit with his schedule or the demands of his COVID-era family life. Letts is married to Carrie Coon, the star of HBO’s other recent coastal period piece about money and power, The Gilded Age, and they have two young children, which has streamlined the way he makes decisions about his acting career. Pretty quickly, he knows what’s doable and what’s not. Like McKinney, who arrived from Portland with a strategy for transforming the Lakers offense, he has a system.
After watching the Winning Time pilot, which was shot prior to the casting of his part, Letts recognized the series could be something special. He knew John C. Reilly from his days doing theater in Chicago, and he had previously worked with producer Adam McKay on The Big Short. He liked that the part (mild Lakers spoiler) would only last one season, with McKinney getting sidelined by a tragic bike accident. “I turned to Carrie and I said, ‘I’ve gotta do this, right?’” he recalls over the phone. “She was like, ‘Oh yeah, absolutely. This is too good.’ So I did it.”
Letts, the playwright behind works like Killer Joe, Bug, and the Pulitzer Prize-winning August: Osage County, is best known for his stage work and is currently starring in the Broadway production of his play The Minutes, which premiered in 2017 at the Steppenwolf Theater in Chicago. (He won a Tony Award in 2013 for Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, a revival he starred in alongside Coon.) But he’s carved out a distinct lane onscreen as a character actor in recent years, playing Saoirse Ronan’s father in Lady Bird, Henry Ford II in Ford V. Ferrari, and, most recently, a snooping mystery writer in the erotic thriller Deep Water. McKinney, an egghead managing egos on and off the court, is a natural fit for his particular set of skills.
Letts saw that when he read the scripts. "I’ve been in the business long enough to know I’m not the first offer, so I’m so grateful to whoever turned it down so it came my way because it was such a great part," he says. "[The part is] so important to this one season." As McKinney makes his recovery and the show builds toward the finale, I spoke with Letts about the physical nature of the role, his memories of navigating LA as an actor, and whether he's ever thought about putting his own spin on the sports movie.
Thrillist: McKinney is a very intellectual character: He has this system that he wants to test out, and he wants to prove that his theories are correct. At the same time, this is a very physical role. You’re running, biking, and recovering from an injury. Was that mix part of what drew you to the role?
Tracy Letts: That was just fortuitous. The pandemic started and we went into our quarantine and, like most people, I was sitting on the couch every night and eating a pint of ice cream. Then we found out we were having another baby. I’m an old dad. I’m 56 now. When we found out we were having the baby, our second child, I was like, “Jesus, I’m this fat blob on the couch. I gotta get up and do something.” So I started running.
I had been running for a few months, and I had dropped some weight. I wasn’t really focused on dropping weight—I’m just trying to keep in some shape because we’ve got these young kids. So I started running, and when they sent me the scripts and I saw that the guy was a runner, I was like, “I can do this! I’ve been doing this!” If they had called me six months earlier, I might have been like, “Oh man, I don’t know if you want to see me running around out there.” So I showed up, I put on the short shorts, and I was like, “Let’s do it. Let’s run.” It was fun to get out and run and do something physical.
I have to say, one of the great joys of doing this job is so often there isn’t any physical element. Quite often, we’re talking heads in these things. But the Lakers show, given the nature of it, you’re surrounded by a lot of physical activity. Those days where we shot game scenes, I could sit there and watch those guys having shoot-arounds all day. It was so great to watch and fun to be a part of.
The most recent episode, "Invisible Man," focuses on the Boston and LA rivalry. Do you have memories of the Bird-Magic time period?
Sure, I watched Bird vs. Magic in the NCAA finals. I remember that very well and their years of competition. I’m not a Lakers fan and I never was, but I always cheered for the Lakers over the Celtics because where I come from in Oklahoma we hate the Boston Celtics. So I would always cheer for Magic over Bird. Always.
I remember those times very well. But I’m a Bulls fan. I never got too worked up about the Lakers. I moved to Chicago when I was 20 years old, and a couple years later they drafted Michael Jordan. My Bulls fandom is solid.
I tend to associate you with Chicago and Oklahoma, and New York to an extent. But this is such an LA show. As an actor and writer, what’s your relationship to LA?
I love LA. I moved out there for four years. I’d been living in Chicago for about 11 years, and then in 1997 I moved out to Los Angeles for four years and I moved back to Chicago in 2001. I had a tough time of it in LA. I didn’t work a lot. That’s when I did my Seinfeld episode and Drew Carey and some other sitcom guest spots and things like that. It wasn’t enough work to keep me happy. So the business was tough on me. But I always liked the city. In fact, in recent years, as Carrie and I have worked more and more in film and TV, I’ve tried to talk to her about LA as a possibility. But she won’t hear of it. It’s not going to happen.
But I’ve always liked LA. I’ve got a lot of friends in Los Angeles. I love going out there. There’s no place you would shoot this show other than Los Angeles—it feels so Los Angeles. That was a real part of the appeal to me. To go out to LA and spend time out there and make the show.
You knew John C. Reilly from when you both lived in Chicago. Do you remember when you first met him?
I do. I met him at a party. I think it was a party for people who were graduating from the Theater School at DePaul, where he went to school. A friend of mine was going to the school there. That friend of mine was a roommate of mine, so a lot of people think I went to school at DePaul. I didn’t actually go there. My roommate did and the party was always at our place. So I met John at a party there. He did a production of Grapes of Wrath at Steppenwolf, which is one of the first shows I saw in town. He played the brother Noah in that production, and he was fantastic. And we had some mutual friends: Rick Murphy, who is still a dear friend of John’s, was an acting teacher, and I knew Rick.
I’ve known him for 30-plus years. We go years at a time without seeing each other, but when we see each other, it’s always nice. And he’s such a superb actor and a great presence on the show. So beautifully cast. It’s funny, too, because Michael Shannon is also a dear friend of mine and he had been originally cast in the part. I’m not entirely sure what happened there. Either way, I felt like they were in good hands with that role, so that was also part of the appeal.
When you’re working with someone you’ve known for so long, does that make it easier to do the scene?
It’s fun because I know the guy and we can chat between takes about mutual friends and this and that. It’s fun in that regard. It’s also a situation where you want to bring your best game. Right? You don’t want to let yourself or him down. We’ve got this opportunity to act together after all these years. I’m sure it’s the first time I’ve ever acted with John. So to be able to play a scene with him was just great fun.
Somebody said, “You meet everybody three times.” Everybody that you know in your life, you will know them three times over the course of your lifetime. I don’t know if that’s true. But it felt like that with John. Like, oh, this is one of the times that we know each other. To come together over this project was great fun.
You also share a bunch of scenes with Jason Segel, who plays assistant coach Paul Westhead, and you have such a specific dynamic with him. You’re both playing these characters who are very in their heads, but in different ways.
We hit it off instantly. Instantly. Within an hour of being with each other on the set, we were deeply involved in personal conversations. He’s become a dear friend and he’s just a lovely man. We had a lot in common. When we were first together and shooting those scenes at training camp, Jason and I were working together for a little bit and that was all great fun. Then other people started to filter in and Jason turned to me at one point and said, “My god, there’s all these men.” And I said, “I know. It’s not an environment in which I typically thrive.” We had a shared laugh over that because it could be at times on this show—as you’d imagine, recreating an NBA environment—very male-centric. I think Jason and I probably prefer the company of women. It took a little getting used to. But it was a bunch of great guys, and we had a great time.
You were in Winning Time, and you were recently in Ford V. Ferrari. As a writer, have you ever found yourself thinking about a sports story you’d want to tell, or does the genre not interest you at all?
I guess not at all. I’ve never thought about it until you said it. But I guess not really. I certainly enjoy it. When it’s done well, which I think this Lakers show is, the show does a really beautiful job of illustrating what each member of this ensemble has invested in the outcome. That’s what good sports stories do, I think. We understand what the personal investment of these people is.
In that regard, it’s not really about sports. It’s about community and systems and character. That’s what this Lakers show does really, really well. After you get past all the bells and whistles of Adam’s style or 1970s fashion or hair and makeup or the music, what you’re really left with are some really great, interesting, compelling characters. That’s what makes the show good. That’s the not-so-secret ingredient.