Apr 11, 2016

Dangerous Nerves: Laurie Metcalf

This interview originally appeared in the April 12, 2001 issue of Back Stage West.

"How's my light?" asked Laurie Metcalf as the cover photo for this story was being taken, and then she realized aloud: "That's the first time I've asked that in my career. My characters are never the kind who worry about their light."

That's a double-edged testament to the niche this brilliant fortysomething actress has carved out for herself, first at Chicago's Steppenwolf Theatre, of which she was an original member, then on New York stages, in film, and in series TV, most notably Roseanne and currently Norm. On screen, her barely contained manic energy gets her cast consistently as the sister, the co-worker, the sidekick, the nutty lady next door—she's made her career as a character actor, in other words. And like most great character actors, Metcalf honed her talent on the stage, so that even when she's cast essentially as "herself"—as so many actors are in TV—she delivers more than a bundle of quirks and nerves. Her acting conveys a strong point of view, a perspective on human striving and failing, that comes through whether the role is a big departure from her personality.

That strong point of view would seem to have been with her from the start, and it could emerge in the most unlikely ways: Her Steppenwolf colleague Glenne Headly told Back Stage West last fall that she first saw Metcalf do one line as a maid in Tom Stoppard's The Real Inspector Hound: "All she had to do was say, 'Black or white, madam?'" recalled Headly. "She conveyed so much about that character with that one line. She was a very hateful maid, and it was so funny. I thought to myself, This person has comic genius. And I hadn't really ever seen it in person, onstage. I got scared for a second because I thought, She's that good—and on just one line."

Indeed, while Metcalf won three Emmys for playing Jackie, Roseanne's comically neurotic sibling on that long-running sitcom, there's a sense that folks without regular access to a Chicago stage over the past two decades haven't seen her best work. We've read about her take on Laura in The Glass Menagerie (as a clumping, slightly deranged cripple), about her searing portrayal of the young hooker in Balm in Gilead, and about her legendary double-casting in Libra as both Lee Harvey Oswald's mother, Marguerite, and Oswald's frightening associate, David Ferrie. However, L.A. theatre audiences have only seen her sympathetic turn in Garry Marshall's Wrong Turn at Lungfish and in a handful of unlikely roles in Justin Tanner's stoned screwball comedies at the Cast Theatre.

Now, at last, we get the chance to see Metcalf assay a meaty role in a world premiere at one of L.A.'s major resident theatres: She'll appear in Jane Anderson's Looking for Normal, starting this week at the Geffen Playhouse, as Irma, the wife of a man (played by Beau Bridges) who undergoes a sex-change operation. "It has a chance of being a really, really interesting production," she told me, early in the rehearsal process under director Ron Lagomorsino. And, while the roles of Jackie and of Laurie Freeman (on Norm) are essentially versions of the real Metcalf, Irma, though Midwestern, has qualities and views "that are very hard for me to identify with, so that's interesting to work on."

Interesting to work on—this could be the phrase that sums up this Midwestern former secretary's work ethic and questing intelligence. When we met with her recently at the Geffen, where her Steppenwolf colleagues Randall Arney and Stephen Eich serve as artistic director and managing director, respectively, we mentioned another Steppenwolfer, John Mahoney, who recently appeared at the Geffen in The Weir. She mentioned the many projects Mahoney has going and called him good-naturedly "a workaholic." That seemed as good a place to start as any.

Back Stage West: Are you a workaholic, too?
Laurie Metcalf: Yeah, I am. I'm getting away from it now, though. I guess it started coming straight from college, when we all formed the company and had tons of energy. We just weren't happy unless we were rehearsing a play during the day and performing a different one that night, overlapping constantly. We didn't know what to do with ourselves when we weren't doing that. It probably comes from that. But as I've gotten older, I've mellowed a little in my workaholicism. I'm able to enjoy some time off, y'know?

BSW: I've read that you started acting when you were young, putting on plays with neighborhood kids.
Metcalf: They weren't even plays; I'd never been to a play. They were sort of lip-synching to records. The choice of records was very limited. For some reason we had an album of the musical Gypsy, and so I learned the songs from there and would lip-synch them and charge money.

BSW: So you've felt the urge to perform since you were young?
Metcalf: It is odd that I was doing that at such a young age—under 10—because I was so shy. When I went to high school, there was a drama club, and I was too shy and horrified to audition for anything, but I did, finally, in my junior year, work up the nerve to audition. I got in a play. I found the auditioning was the hard part. The play—I just sort of had a connection to it. It was very broad, the character, which I guess sort of colored how I still go about things. It was a comedy. I got a couple of laughs in a very small part in, I think, Auntie Mame.

I wouldn't say I was hooked, though, because I went to college as a German major, not knowing what the hell I was going to do with that. Being as practical as I am, I thought that I would never, ever major in theatre, because it was a dead-end street financially. I knew what the odds were. When I did hook up with my fellow Steppenwolf actors in college, I was in my junior year. We all formed the company in Highland Park, and I ended up majoring in theatre sort of by default.

BSW: Was that when you got hooked?
Metcalf: By then I was. My daughter is 17, and she's looking at colleges, and she's sort of flirted with the idea of being an actress. I know she could do it if she wanted to, but she wants to find if she likes something better. I sometimes imagine that I was hooked on acting from the beginning—but then I look back and realize, no, in high school it was really a take-it-or-leave-it kind of thing, because I was focused on what I should major in to make a living.

BSW: Are you encouraging your daughter's interest in acting?
Metcalf: Well, I had a pretty cushy ride. I wouldn't have done it on my own. I did it with a group of people who had all the ambition as a group; there was someone holding my hand the whole way. I know that I would be a secretary in St. Louis right now if it weren't for Steppenwolf. I'm absolutely sure of it. In fact, I did enjoy being a secretary very much. That was my day job when we were starting the company. I could type really fast. If my daughter Zoe does end up acting at all, it'll probably be the same way, just dabbling in it; then if she dabbles in it, she might get hooked.

BSW: You mentioned your broad approach to roles, and I think of the production of The Glass Menagerie I've read about. I wish I could have seen that.
Metcalf: I'd love to see that, too. It fit us to a tee when we did it. I remember my character, Laura, saying, "I'm going to be 23 in June," and that was me. I didn't just play her with the physical defect—we went all the way with it. There was something mentally very, very wrong with her. Sometimes when you see the show done, Laura is very pretty, and maybe if she parted her hair on the other side she'd have a boyfriend. This Laura, when you saw her from the very beginning, had no hope at all. It made it more devastating for everybody.

BSW: But can you talk about your approach to roles? You call it broad, Gary Sinise calls it "wacky."
Metcalf: I do attack roles 100 percent. When I do that, I have a lot of energy. Usually, onstage is when I have the most energy in my life. The rest of the time, I'm pretty… I don't know, I have pent-up energy in me all the time, and when I'm onstage, boom, it comes out. Having all that energy and trying to rein it in a little and making sure that it's at least real, the performance becomes, I guess, in a drama sort of aggressive, or in a comedy pretty out there. I don't know how to do any role I have unless it's just full force. A character like the lead in Pot Mom—y'know, she's all doped up, so physically, in some scenes, I had to be more relaxed than others. But usually I can find some point where all of that physical energy comes out. I like to, technique-wise, put a spin on things, do an odd line reading somewhere—do something when you least expect it.

BSW: It sounds like that would make you a strong auditioner—in terms of making strong choices about a part and committing to them.
Metcalf: Commitment—it's true. If you commit to something, you show the people you're auditioning for how that part should be played sometimes. You change people's minds.

I became a very weak auditioner, actually. I'd been doing theatre with my own company for I don't know how many years before I auditioned for a job outside that actually paid money. We were in New York, doing Balm in Gilead, and I had an audition for my first movie. I didn't have an agent. It was for Desperately Seeking Susan, and it was a fun audition; we had to improv a little. I was relaxed. I'd never had to audition in the 10 years prior because we just cast ourselves. I got the part; that was great. Then I got an agent, and he told me how much the part paid, and it was a staggering amount to me at the time because it was movie money, not theatre money. From then on, I would choke in auditions because I knew what was riding on it. I was a single mom at the time, and it became too important. That importance outweighed the fun of the actual audition. Ever since then, I've had a mental block about auditioning.

BSW: Because of the stakes?
Metcalf: Even though they don't matter to me anymore, something got a little tainted for me back then, and I've never been as loose as I had been before.

BSW: Did you ever have a career plan as an actor—theatre, then film, then TV?
Metcalf: No. I never had a plan.

BSW: So you moved to L.A. when you got Roseanne?
Metcalf: No, I moved out here without anything. I moved out here, granted, not just to do theatre but thinking maybe options would be better for movies than in Chicago. By that time, I had done a couple of small movie parts. The only reason I went in on Roseanne was because it was being cast by two CDs, Risa Bramon and Billy Hopkins, who cast me in Desperately Seeking Susan, and I really love their casting because they really get out there and see a ton of people and use fresh faces. They said, "I think you'll like this role." But they hadn't even really written the sister's part yet, so I had to audition with Roseanne's material for the show.

TV hadn't crossed my mind. I don't know why. I never had a plan or had my eye on something. I got the part and I didn't really know what I had. Billy and Risa sat me down and said, "This is a great opportunity for you; you're not realizing it right now, but you will. You need to take this job." So I did. I had this stigma in my head about getting locked into one character for five years that you would be typecast in forever. Not that that's a bad thing; it's not a bad thing at all. I would just hear other people say it was a bad thing.

BSW: So how was it?
Metcalf: It was the best job I ever had. It was with a group that was kind of like a little theatre group—kind of raunchy, kind of incestuous, just like the one I was coming out of. We had fun every day. I liked everything about working in TV except for the tape day.

BSW: Why?
Metcalf: I learned to realize that I don't like cameras. I still don't. So, even though we had nine seasons on Roseanne and we've had two and a half on Norm, Fridays for me are just a tiny bit traumatic. I don't like the pressure of it. I love the rest of the week, the rehearsing and the hanging out with people. But tape day. It's just knowing, I guess, that this one take that you're doing is the one they're going to use and it's permanent. That's why I like theatre, I guess. I'll always prefer theatre over anything else. That's just a fact. I think it's because it's where I started and I feel more comfortable in it. I feel more in control in it. I feel more prepared when I do it. I like the instant feedback. I like everything about theatre.

BSW: We interviewed Glenne Headly last fall, and one thing she said about you was, "The funny thing is, Laurie says that she's always really scared. But she seems, definitely, to have the most at-ease performances."
Metcalf: I am actually at ease in a play. She knows I'm ill at ease in movies and TV; I'm doing everything I can to cover up my being totally self-aware, monitoring myself. It becomes not fun. The performance is all about covering up that other thing. I can be free and loose during rehearsals, and then on Friday, half of me shuts down and it becomes a task to copy what I did on those days when I was feeling more confident, and it's all because there's a camera staring at me. After all these years, I can't get past it.

BSW: Even with single-camera work? In features?
Metcalf: Well, a movie is so out of sequence and you probably haven't rehearsed anyway, and if you can't figure out why your character would say a line, they just change it for you. You're like, "Wait, wait, wait! I could figure it out if we maybe could do it in sequence once. But OK, you want to change it, that'd be easier." I guess I also feel more free onstage, more confident onstage, because it's just a one-time-only shared experience between about 500 people and then it doesn't exist again. I can do anything onstage. I can be nude onstage. I can be mean and cruel and anything the part demands, because that's where I feel it's really not me.

Almost everything I've done, at least on TV, which is where I've worked the most, it's kind of just me. I have nothing to hide behind. Jackie dressed like me, looked like me, talked like me; they would tinker with myriad different jobs, and whatever they would see where I had strengths in comedy, they would just accentuate that. But basically it was just me. Same thing on Norm. It's more like having to stand for a portrait. It's you. There's nothing to hide behind like there is, for me, in theatre.

BSW: Glenne Headly also said she felt we hadn't seen the best of Laurie Metcalf—that you're more versatile than we know. Do you think you're too versatile for your own good?
Metcalf: I think I'm probably thought of in film and TV as actually very limited—the comic relief. I've been lucky to do a few small parts that have been dramatic in a couple of movies. Internal Affairs was straight. JFK. But I'm wrapping up my movie career.

BSW: Really?
Metcalf: My God, the competition now for roles everywhere is so strong because there isn't that stigma about TV anymore, so there's major film people coming to work on TV, and jobs are so few and far between, anyway. If I do happen to get offered some small film role, I do think twice about it, because I don't really enjoy the process. What I do enjoy is working with somebody I wouldn't necessarily have the opportunity to work with anywhere else, like Laurence Fishburne [Always Outnumbered]. That becomes the interest to me now, rather than the part.

BSW: How did your association with playwright Justin Tanner start?
Metcalf: I read a little blurb about a play called Pot Mom that sounded funny. I took my daughter and a friend. I love little tiny, 50-seat houses. We liked it so much. And there's one part in the play where the characters are watching TV, and I heard my own voice. They had used a clip of Roseanne and Jackie talking back and forth on TV. I thought, "Now, they didn't do that just because I'm here. That must be part of the play." And it was. In fact, Justin told me later he was thinking maybe he should cut it, seeing that I was in the audience, thinking I'd think it was sucking up or something.

Anyway, we liked it so much that we waited out front to see the actors. I told one of the actors, "I love this little tiny space. Tell the playwright if he ever needs anybody to fill in, any time…" and she said, "Well, he's right here." And there he was; he's so shy. He was like a nervous wreck. We talked for a while. And he took me up on it: He called me, this was a lot later, he was going to remount Pot Mom and would I play the friend, and I said, "Of course." It's a great style, with the overlaps a mile a minute, especially in that small space. I had to work really hard to get up to speed with the rest of the cast.

BSW: Then you took the play to Chicago. How did it fare at Steppenwolf?
Metcalf: Not well. It was kind of an experiment to see if his style could translate to a bigger theatre. It was 200 seats, a big old empty black box, a difficult space. The style is tougher to duplicate in a larger space. The other experiment was to cast kids in the roles of the kids, rather than 30-year-olds. It becomes not as funny. It's a little bothersome. It really changes the tone.

BSW: Do you have any advice to young actors? What do you tell Zoe?
Metcalf: Dabble in it. Get a boyfriend in it. Make a group. Have the group lead you to the next step. I'm not a good person to ask for advice, because I did it the haphazard, cushy, accidental way. No plan, no aggressiveness. Because we were that little incestuous group for so long up in a suburb of Chicago where nobody knew us or came to see us except for relatives for quite a while, we would play parts that we wouldn't get cast in in any other place. And we did get better because of that. I owe a great deal of credit for that to our audiences, for allowing us to play 13-year-olds and 80-year-olds and sort of going along with us, humoring us, in those kind of stabs in the dark. We got to stretch; I played the mom in True West. That did make us all better.

We had a connection through a shared sense of humor and a big willingness to give 100 percent, not knowing what was going to come of it. It was just going to be for the summer. That's another reason I'm a bad person to ask for advice. Who knows if we'd be further along—the company, the theatre itself as it exists in Chicago right now, with its millions-of-dollars budget and great, fabulous, state-of-the-art theatre that we built from the ground up, and the type of directors that we attract to come in and the fact that it's got a worldwide reputation—who knows if we'd be further along if we had, right out of college, planned for all that? I kind of doubt it. We would've busted apart.

BSW: Are there still great roles you want to play?
Metcalf: I've never read a part that I didn't want to play. I want to play them all!