Delivering The Goods
One day a homicidal politico with vengeance issues, the next a sweet and supportive father raising two daughters on his own. Thus goes the life of Matt Letscher, whose ability to inhabit any role has made him one of Hollywood’s go-to character actors.
With more than 40 television roles in 20 years-many of them recurring-along with 25 film credits, 16 theatre productions, and a writing career that includes two plays produced at celebrated regional theatres, Letscher has been a very busy man since graduating from the Department of Theatre & Drama with a BA in 1992.
His last few years have been particularly active, with multiple projects requiring him to repeatedly switch gears. He recently wrapped his second season as a cast member of CW’s The Carrie Diaries, as the widower-father of the teenaged Carrie Bradshaw and her sister. The taping of the first season followed on the heels of his recurring role as the vice president’s chief of staff, Billy Chambers, in the first season of ABC’s Scandal. The two parts couldn’t have been more different: Chambers is a vindictive and dangerous killer cloaked in all-American boyish good looks; his features are the only quality he shares with the kind and loving Tom Bradshaw.
“It’s been a real pleasure to go back and forth between those two worlds,” said Letscher. He admits, with some reluctance, that his reputation opens doors. “There’s a level of ‘this guy’s done it enough, we know he can deliver.’ But there’s a flip side too; once they feel like they know you, they feel like they know you in a certain way. So to have two shows where I’m doing something very different is a nice plus.”
Although he himself is a father (of two boys), he gives large credit for the believability of his Carrie Diaries character to Amy Harris, the show’s creator and writer who, he says, writes the father-daughter relationship with great care and honesty. As for Scandal, he said, “It’s a thrill ride, it’s a theme park ride, and it’s really fun. And beyond that, the cast and the crew, Shonda Rhimes [the show’s creator] and the writers are all so inclusive and supportive, you just feel really at home on the set, which is rare; it doesn’t happen like that all the time.”
He would know, having been on many dozens of sets over the years, including the Spike Jonze film Her (which won Jonze the Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay), playing the estranged and overbearing husband Charles to Amy (Amy Adams). “That was a wholly unique experience,” he said. “Spike Jonze is a visionary. The days I spent on set were usually full of surprise and discovery and all the things that you get into this racket for in the first place.”
Letscher had the chance to work with another celebrated director, Atom Egoyan, when he filmed Devil’s Knot, which was released in May. Starring Colin Firth and Reese Witherspoon, the film is based on the true story of three teenage boys in West Memphis, Arkansas who were convicted, in 1994, for the murders of three young boys, despite lack of evidence. (They were released in 2011).
Playing Paul Ford, the attorney for one of the accused boys, Letscher describes the shoot as “kind of a dream…to be able to work with a director of Atom’s caliber.” He also lauded the cast, singling out Firth, whom he calls “an actor’s actor.” “He’s at the top of his game right now, he won an Oscar, he’s a movie star, but that all came kind of late to him. As a result, he has this really down-to-earth and gracious quality that’s just a delight.”
It’s a description befitting Letscher himself, who is humble, generous in his praise of others, and appreciative of the opportunities he’s been afforded. “I’ve been really fortunate to bounce around different genres, different mediums. And I have no desires, outside of continuing to do what I’ve been doing.” His career, he adds, has allowed him to do everything that he ever imagined when he was studying theatre at Michigan.
Letscher, who grew up in Grosse Pointe, came to U-M with an uncommitted interest in theatre. But after taking a master class with Uta Hagen, following his freshman year, “I realized how doomed I was,” he said. “She redefined the whole idea of acting for me and what it was as a craft. So I went back in my sophomore year with a real mission to commit myself to the theatre for the next three years. I did play after play after play. Ann Arbor has so many opportunities to offer an actor who’s willing to commit himself, whether it’s through the department or student organizations. I just kept myself really busy and loved my time there; it was invaluable.”
His first professional role, in 1993, was with The Purple Rose Theatre Company in Chelsea, Michigan, where Jeff Daniels cast him in his play The Tropical Pickle. He later recommended Letscher to director Ron Maxwell for the film Gettysburg. Letscher got the part, moved to Los Angeles, and has been steadily employed ever since.
Not coincidentally, Letscher’s first play, Sea of Fools, had its premiere at The Purple Rose in 2007. His second play, Gaps in the Fossil Record, was staged at L.A.’s Pacific Resident Theatre Co-Op, a renowned staging ground where artists workshop their productions.
Writing has become an important part of Letscher’s creative life. He has several manuscripts underway and in recent years has begun exploring independent television, in which content is created outside the traditional framework of major networks and studios. In 2010, he and fellow SMTD theatre alums John “Nipper” Knapp (BFA ’92) and Andrew Newberg (BFA ’93) won the Best Writing Award at the New York Television Festival for their original TV pilot Gentrification. The trio has shot several other projects as well, which they show at festivals around the country.
Currently taking a short break between projects, Letscher is enjoying the spring as a full-time dad and looks forward to playing a part in the 100th anniversary of the Department of Theatre & Drama in 2015. He feels it could be a catalyst for increasing alumni involvement. “It would be great to really solidify a strong network of alumni support both for the program and for these kids going out in the world and getting started. That kind of support can be invaluable.”
Letscher returned to campus last fall for an informal 20th reunion with some of his classmates, which, in addition to football and reminiscing, included a Q&A with students. “It was so gratifying, so moving to go back there all these years later and meet these kids, who are so full of passion and energy and really ready to jump into the pool,” he said.
He does have some advice for this year’s theatre & drama graduates, however: “It’s really simple: just get ready to work hard,” he said. “Get ready to take advantage of every opportunity you can. A lot of people enter the business with an idea of how things should go for them, and when it doesn’t happen that way, they’re unprepared to adapt. As a young actor entering the business today, you have to take advantage of as many opportunities as you can, and that means just being willing to work your butt off. And if you do, people will respond.”
By Marilou Carlin, director of communications and editor of Michigan Muse.