BACK STAGE WEST
April 12, 2001
Laurie Metcalf is an acting triple threat: She makes big
choices, keeps them real, and comes up funny.
by Rob Kendt
"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.
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
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
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.
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
Metcalf: I've never read a part that I didn't want to play. I want to play them all!