Laurie Metcalf’s Hillary Clinton might or might not be your Hillary Clinton. It certainly isn’t the historical Hillary Clinton, as playwright Lucas Hnath so intriguingly writes in the early moments of Broadway’s Hillary and Clinton. Think alternate universe, some other dimension where a Hillary might have reconnoitered in some platonic ideal of a drab hotel room with her semi-estranged husband Bill, hashing out what is to be done as a brash newcomer on the national scene named Barack is proving to be more of a challenge than anyone could have imagined. No one named Donald appears on stage. (Read Deadline’s review of Hillary and Clinton here.)
Tony-nominated for the sixth time (she’s won twice: Three Tall Women in 2018 and A Doll’s House, Part 2 in 2017), Metcalf (TV’s The Conners, Roseanne, among many others) recently spoke to Deadline about her Hillary, about collaborating with Hillary director Joe Mantello (they also teamed on last year’s Three Tall Women, and will again on next season’s Who’s Afraid Of Virginia Woolf?) and playwright Hnath (A Doll’s House, Part 2).
Lucas Hnath’s Hillary and Clinton, starring Laurie Metcal and John Lithgow, directed by Joe Mantello, is playing on Broadway at the Golden Theatre. This interview has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.
Deadline: I saw Hillary – the real Hillary – on Rachel Maddow’s show after I’d seen Hillary and Clinton, and I have to say I felt an empathy for her I don’t know if I’ve ever quite felt before.
Laurie Metcalf: I’m going to tell the playwright that. I think that he’ll be very flattered.
Have you gotten that response from other people?
Metcalf: I haven’t actually talked to anybody who’s seen it whose feeling about her changed, but I do get the impression that it happens.
I suspect everyone brings their own Mental Hillary to this play. What kind of reaction have you gotten more often – from people who say yes you nailed it, or no, this is not my Hillary?
Metcalf: The word that I’ve heard from audience members throughout is cathartic. That it’s pleasurable to hear her put into words stuff that maybe we wish she could have screamed out into the universe but she couldn’t. I think Lucas gives her permission to say some of the stuff that we just wish she could have vented, but she couldn’t, you know. She’s, like, not allowed and so, I don’t know, maybe it was just seeing her unleash on either Mark or Bill is cathartic in that sense.
When you come out at the beginning and you talk directly to the audience before you step into the Hillary character – was that scene there from the beginning of the play’s development, or added later as a way to clarify what we’re about to see?
Metcalf: The monologue was always there and Lucas had always insisted that we’re not doing impressions anyway, that the play is intended to be an actor who is playing Hillary. So, [in the introduction] she’s not yet made the transformation into [the Hillary] character yet. And then it was Joe’s idea to give the actress a microphone because a microphone does something immediate I think, like there’s an intimacy that you can’t get just from projecting from the stage, and then when the microphone goes away, we’re easing ourselves into the play. And then I throw the newspapers aside and boom, we’re in the play. So we kind of broke it down into how to switch from that setup of the alternative universe into [being] right in the middle of a scene that’s already happening. I love how Joe decided to do it, and then, on top of that he also added the business with the microphone not being there at the top. [When Metcalf, as the actress who will play Hillary, first appears onstage, the mic that is supposed to be waiting is missing]. He wanted the play to start with a bit of a misstep. And he also hates entrance applause, you know? So he wanted to get that out of the way.
Interesting to hear about how a bit of business like that serves multiple purposes.
Metcalf: It accomplishes a couple of things. The audience gets to acknowledge the actor and then the actor does something that’s a little off by this mistake of the microphone not being there, and so, by the time I come back with the microphone people are already, like, what’s happening? This is an odd beginning and Joe really liked that. It gets us into this little lecture that they’re about to hear, which sets up the rules of what you’re about to watch. It wasn’t until about halfway through previews that we decided to go back on the microphone at the end.
And also, we used to end with the set not receding, so it was just me and John standing in the center together, and the lines were the thing. We both stood there together and I said, “I’m fighting to win but I can’t win,” all that stuff at the end, and there was half a second – I don’t think we ever did this in front of an audience even, but in tech when the stars come out, it started to snow on us, which had been an image that Joe wanted to see. He decided to cut it at the end. So the ending changed quite a bit. I mean the lines didn’t change, but the visual really did. I love going back on the microphone at the end.
As soon as you said snow, my first thought was of Joe’s scene as Louis in Angels in America, when he’s standing alone on stage and it starts to snow.
Metcalf: I think that he thought of Hillary and Bill standing together at the end in exile together. Maybe that’s where the snow idea came in.
In my review I wrote that Trump, who of course is never mentioned in the play, is in fact a sort of ghost note in it, that he’s there somehow. Or do I have Trump Derangement Syndrome?
Metcalf: Well, most people have said that yes, that ghost note is definitely there. I mean, we’re revisiting 2008 and yes, she’s not doing well and she can’t figure out why and so he hovers over all of that. I find that last moment of her standing there on stage all alone talking about how she’s fighting to win and she knows she can’t win and all of us know what’s in store for her in the next 11 years. I find that so heartbreaking. Maybe that’s why you felt the empathy for her a little bit, you know? She has been through a lot.