It was the monologue that launched a thousand casting calls. In 1984 Laurie Metcalf made her New York stage debut, appearing alongside her Steppenwolf peers in John Malkovich’s revival of Lanford Wilson’s 1965 play Balm in Gilead.
And in a sea of odd, unsympathetic characters, who ranged from heroin addicts to hookers in an upper Broadway café, it was Metcalf who stood out from the crowd. Just as all the buzz is occurring on stage amid overlapping conversations, Metcalf’s Darlene, a naïve whore, brings all the noise to a standstill with a 20 minute-monologue, one which New York Times critic Frank Rich declared at the time was “one of the year’s most memorable theatrical events”.
“In a play full of sad people, Miss Metcalf’s prostitute, Darlene, is the most pathetic—stupid, sweet and doomed. In her marathon stream-of-consciousness monologue, she reminisces to another whore (the excellent Glenne Headly) about her married past in Chicago—all the while wrapping tragic events within the most inane and trivial digressions. Miss Metcalf’s delivery of the speech, in which Darlene’s good-natured gregariousness fights a losing battle against her unarticulated desperation, is a tour de force.”
That monologue opened the floodgates for Metcalf. Not only was she promptly casted in Susan Seidelman’s Desperately Seeking Susan and Making Mr. Right, but Metcalf built connections with those films’ casting directors, Risa Bramon Garcia and Billy Hopkins, a duo who also tapped her to audition for ABC’s Roseanne, a gig that lasted 221 episodes.
When it comes to blending humor with incisive drama, Metcalf is arguably the most dependable, nuanced performer out there. And she’s been prized by directors across film, TV and the stage for exercising such traits in a stock of working class characters—from her three-time Emmy-winning breakout role as Jackie Harris on Roseanne, which she’ll reprise this March in the comedy series’ limited return on ABC, to her first Supporting Actress Oscar-nominated turn as Marion McPherson, the grounded, but disappointed mother to an ambitious Catholic high school senior (Saoirse Ronan) in Lady Bird.
“I never felt that I was typecast,” says Metcalf about her 40-year-plus career which has included such parts as New Orleans Assistant D.A. Susie Cox in Oliver Stone’s JFK; social worker and Norm MacDonald’s best friend in the ABC sitcom Norm, and the uptight, self-centered Dr. Jenna James on HBO’s Getting On for which the actress received her tenth Emmy nomination in a comedy series.
“I gravitated toward roles that might be working class; ones which I could personally identify with,” says Metcalf. “That’s where my niche ended up being and I never wished that I could reinvent myself in a way that would open up different roles for me.”
In capturing the turbulent relationship between a daughter and her practical mother in Lady Bird—one which was inspired by filmmaker Greta Gerwig’s own life—the truth lay in the comedy, whether it was a car fight that heightens to the point that Lady Bird throws herself out of her mother’s moving vehicle, or Marion organically quelling her daughter’s bickering in a thrift store when she unveils the oh-so-right pink dress from the rack. Gerwig has described both Marion and Christine “Lady Bird” as two sides of the same coin, and in doing so, had both actresses get the same type of straight-slant hair cut. Before we know that they’re at odds, we open on mother and daughter asleep in bed, peacefully, facing each other on a bed. There are no better lines to couch their tug-of-war then when Marion instructs her daughter, “I want you to be the very best version of yourself that you can be,” to which Lady Bird rhetorically responds, “What if this is the best version?”
Extols Gerwig about Metcalf’s talents: “She is a powerhouse emotionally, and she has a way with language that I think is astonishing. I write very specifically, and I don’t like to have the words changed at all, and she is an actor for whom words help her grow a character. I think this comes from her extensive theatre background. Language and character are deeply intertwined for her, and she plays lines like a virtuoso musician. She is in full control and also lets the music take over. It’s utterly thrilling to watch.”
In order for Lady Bird to sing on the screen for Gerwig, having the pic’s theatrical-like language syncopate with its editing was key, and having someone such as Metcalf in her arena took the pic’s laughs to another level.
“We’d work through every single line in every single scene. It was proper table work, like you do in the theatre. She is so rigorous and clear, and she would ask questions that would give me keys to the character that I didn’t know I needed. Laurie was the one who clarified Marion’s ability to be warm and funny with everyone else in her life, and how she struggled with her daughter. She made bright lines of triggers for certain fights, and also for moments of tenderness. She embroidered every moment with meaning. She defined when a discussion was one they had had many times before and when it was brand new. She never let any line or moment or word be vague. She made my film infinitely better and richer.”
Being part of New York’s theater scene, Metcalf is naturally on Scott Rudin’s radar, and it was through the EGOT-winning producer that she came to Lady Bird. After reading the material, Metcalf exclaimed to Gerwig, “I could identify with the butting of heads having had a teenage girl in the house. There were a lot of tender moments between the two on the same page; comforting each other, looking at houses together or having a Christmas morning together. She found a delicate balance between the two whereby one wasn’t the button or the pusher.”
But more than feeling it on the page, there was coincidentally an echo of Metcalf’s life in Lady Bird. Similar to the film’s young protagonist, who felt confined by the small-town of Sacramento, CA, Metcalf grew up in Carbondale (home to Southern Illinois University where Bob Odenkirk studied and honed his comedy chops) and Edwardsville, Illinois. While Lady Bird would ultimately fly to the Northeast for grander artistic aspirations (a mirror of Gerwig’s segue to Barnard College and ultimately great acting career), Metcalf would ultimately attend Illinois State University, where her peers included Malkovich, Headly, Joan Allen and Terry Kinney, friends who she’d continue on with to Chicago to solidify the city’s signature Steppenwolf Theatre Company.
Similar to Lady Bird’s roots, Metcalf recalls hers as “working class”. And much like Metcalf’s Marion warns Lady Bird about choosing the right path in life, acting for Metcalf “wasn’t looked down upon” when she was young; rather, it “wasn’t a thing you would consider” as a career.
“Supporting yourself as an actor was as far-fetched as anything imagined,” Metcalf recalls.
“Lady Bird doesn’t know that she’s on a mission, doesn’t know what’s in for her. I felt that way in Carbondale and Edwardsville. I wanted something and didn’t know what,” she says, adding that college, much like it was for Lady Bird, “was a changing moment for me too.”
Amongst the greatest of turning points in Metcalf’s career would be her run as Roseanne Barr’s on-screen sensitive, underachieving sister Jackie on Roseanne. “I remember doing this pilot in a little bubble, then having it explode,” says Metcalf, “It leapt from number five to number one and stayed there week after week. Nobody was prepared for that.”
For Metcalf, Barr and John Goodman, Roseanne repped the first time that any of them had ever starred in a TV sitcom. Metcalf and Barr’s pairing would be one of ultimate complements: as strong as one was in theatrical acting, so the other was in comedic timing.
“Roseanne always had her pulse on what people were going to respond to. She knew her way around the material. As a scene partner, she was always everything you could wish for in the moment,” says Metcalf. Heading for a revival, in its new incarnation Roseanne will tackle today’s issues, specifically how and why the working class voted Donald Trump in as the President of the United States (which both Barr and her alter-ego actually did).
Teasing out her arc over the series limited run which premieres on March 27, Metcalf explains, being coy, “There’s no mention of Jackie’s love life. Basically, she’s still doing the same thing, which is bringing laundry over to Roseanne’s house to hang out there.”
In the days leading up to her appearance at the Dolby Theatre on Sunday, March 4, Metcalf has been working hard with Glenda Jackson and Alison Pill in the revival of Edward Albee’s 1994 Pulitzer Prize-winning drama Three Tall Women, in which three different actresses play the same woman at different ages.
Last year, Metcalf won a Tony for Best Actress for her turn as the lone Nora in A Doll’s House, Part 2, Lucas Hnath’s follow-up to Henrik Ibsen’s A Doll’s House. While the obvious question for any Oscar nominee is their next project, Metcalf has been too busy with Three Tall Women to even sift through material. “Being in a play eats up five months of your time,” she insists.
Three Tall Women opens on March 29 at Manhattan’s Golden Theatre and reteams Metcalf not only with Rudin, but also director Joe Mantello who directed her in Sharr White’s 2011 play The Other Place. In fact, Mantello was a drama school grad in 1984 and saw Metcalf three or four times in Balm in Gilead; an experience which reportedly changed the way he felt about acting.
Says Metcalf, “We’re all in a play that doesn’t necessarily have rules to it and allows you to make your own rules.”
For Metcalf it was a great opportunity to collaborate with Jackson, the two-time Oscar winner of A Touch of Class and Women in Love. One of the cadences that the trio of actresses have been working on is “finding similarities to latch on to, which is very subtle. It’s a reminder to the audience that we’re the same person at different moments in life.”
Again, another example of how the actress turns the ordinary into the extraordinary.