Last updated: January 07. 2014 11:11PM - 1106 Views
By Amy Longsdorf Weekender Correspondent



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The characters who populate “August: Osage County” are a dysfunctional bunch who take their cues from the pill-addled, cancer-stricken matriarch Violet Weston (Meryl Streep), a woman who seems to hang onto life in order to give her nearest and dearest a tongue lashing or two.


Over the course of the movie, which is based on the Pulitzer Prize-winning play by Tracy Letts, the Westons (Julia Roberts, Juliette Lewis, Margo Martindale, Chris Cooper, and Julianne Nicholson) come together after Violet’s husband (Sam Shepard) mysteriously vanishes. The heat hits 100 in Oklahoma, the shades come down in the sprawling Weston home, and out comes the viciousness.


Onscreen, the Westons might be toxic to each other, but off-screen, it was a different matter altogether. The cast members bonded to such a degree that, at Streep’s suggestion, they all holed up side by side in a condo complex behind a car dealership in Bartlesville, Okla.


“We lived in town houses all hooked together, and we did a lot of socializing,” says Martindale, who plays Streep’s sister in the film and is best known for her turn as the murderous Mags on “Justified.”


“We actually became a family together. We watched television together, cooked together, ate together, laughed, worried about Hurricane Sandy together. … It was an incredible experience that really made for the perfect environment for this ensemble of actors to do this beautiful screenplay.”


While most of the movie takes place inside a house that could easily have been recreated on sound stages, director John Wells was adamant about shooting “August” in Oklahoma in hopes that the loneliness of the plains would seep into the actors’ psyches.


“It took the actors 45 minutes to get to the location every day, and along the way, you’d see cows or the occasional wild horse,” says location manager Joe Guest, who resides outside Bangor, Pa. “It’s really the middle of nowhere. It’s hard to be any more in the middle of nowhere than [Pawhuska, Okla.].”


Adds Wells, “We found it’s actually quite claustrophobic to be in these small homes in these vast landscapes. So what we were trying to do was create that same sense of having this very claustrophobic place where everyone is stuck and a long way away from everyone else and match the claustrophobia in the home.”


Being so isolated forced the actors to draw together. Roberts took advantage of the fact that her onscreen sisters Juliette Lewis and Julianne Nicholson lived right next door.


“We spent a lot of time getting to know each other,” notes Roberts. “We didn’t know each other at all when it started, and by the time we began filming, I felt very familiar and entangled with these girls in a way that seemed correct for sisters.


“I had made just enough happy experiences with them, and we had a couple of appropriate, sisterly, “Really? That’s what you’re wearing?” kind of moments where I felt like it was all going to fall into place.”


Every Sunday, there were also get-togethers at Wells’ house, where he’d show dailies and invite members of the crew to mingle. Even producers George Clooney and Grant Heslov joined in the communal fun, setting up their offices in a converted barn behind the film’s main location.


As congenial as making the movie was, the subject matter required the actors to dig deep. In the film, which has already netted a handful of Golden Globe and Screen Actors Guild nominations, nobody is spared from betrayals, suicides, incest, and illness. And the sicker Violet gets, the more acid drips out of her mouth.


Roberts says the film was exhausting on every level. “I’ve never worked so hard in my life, and I’ve given birth to three children. It was like a mountain to climb every single day, and the only way to climb it, we discovered, was holding hands, whether we liked it or not.


“We would work all day and go home and shower, and then all run to Meryl’s house and start practicing for the next day. Because you had to have that momentum going really about 19 or 20 hours of the day or else it would just leave you. And it was the best acting experience of my life.”


Streep got a taste of the film’s bitterness early on when she shot a scene with Shepard, her onscreen husband.


“For me, one of the most upsetting scenes… was with Sam Shepard, who is a writer and actor that I’ve always admired,” notes the actress. “To look at him close up and see his loathing of me was really hard.


“You get old and you look old, and you’re just old, and you still think that maybe there’s a spark of love from this person who has gone through everything with you, and to look in his eyes and realize that he would rather be dead than look at me, that was brutal. That set the tone for how I chose to deal with his death in every scene afterwards.”


Another challenging aspect of the role for Streep was deciding just how zonked out Violet should be on the pain killers she pops like candy.


“One of the things that really interested me was where she was [during] any given point in the cycle of ‘pain’ and ‘pain relief,’” says Streep. “Since we were shooting out of order, I kind of had to map it out, in a way, just so I’d know what level of attention or inattention I could bring to my fellow actors.”


Speaking of those fellow actors, Cooper admits to being wowed by Streep’s talents. The first time the pair worked together was on “Adaptation,” for which he netted a Best Supporting Actor Oscar. This time around, Cooper plays Violet’s brother-in-law and is treated to Violet’s wrath during an explosive dinner table sequence.


“The viewer, who watches [Streep] work, really still has no idea the talent that we observe per take because she brings such variety,” says Cooper. “And, at the dinner table scene, for instance, she’d bring, of course, her drug-addled side, but she’ll also bring… the mean, mean underbelly and the confrontation.


“She’ll just mix it up, and we never know what’s coming at us, and that keeps us on our toes. It’s a great lesson. This is the second time I’ve worked with her, and I’m still learning.”


 
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