This, in her own words, is how Laurie Metcalf became an actor: “I auditioned for a play and got in and then a handful of people started Steppenwolf and now I own a sweatshirt.”
Forty years after her college debut, Metcalf, best known for her TV work on Roseanne and The Big Bang Theory, still carries herself more like a stagehand than a star. On a recent morning, she arrived at an East Village rehearsal space wearing jeans, a T-shirt, and a gloomy gray hoodie emblazoned with the logo of Steppenwolf, the legendary Chicago acting company she joined in the mid-1970s. Her hair was lank, her face scrubbed of makeup, her quiet voice inflected with the occasional Midwestern vowel.
One of the most surprising and ferocious stage actors working today, Metcalf is now attempting a new take on a role that has shaken audiences for more than a century. In 1879, Henrik Ibsen unleashed A Doll’s House, a scandalizing play about Nora Helmer, a young wife and mother who leaves her family when she realizes that her first duty is to herself. Almost as soon as the play was produced, writers scrambled to author continuations and parodies. (George Bernard Shaw, Elfriede Jelinek, and Comden and Green have all made attempts.) The latest, by the formally inventive playwright Lucas Hnath (The Christians, Red Speedo) is A Doll’s House, Part 2, which begins previews at the John Golden Theater on March 30.
In Hnath’s continuation, Metcalf’s Nora has returned home fifteen years after she slammed the door on her bourgeois Norwegian household. Nora is a woman interested in, as she says in Hnath’s play, “the things women do and want and don’t want and don’t do. And the way the world is toward women and the ways in which the world is wrong.” In a series of scenes with her husband (Chris Cooper), former nanny (Jayne Houdyshell), and grown daughter (Condola Rashad), she weighs the choices she has made, the triumphs she has won, and the losses she has sustained.
While Nora traffics in open reckoning and reflection, these aren’t Metcalf’s personal enthusiasms. She’d much rather talk about the role than credits and debits in her own eventful life, which includes four children, two marriages, a hefty resume, and a shelf of Emmys. And even when she does discuss the role, she seems wary. Where has Nora been, what has she been doing, and why is she back? “I don’t know what I can say about it,” says Metcalf. “It’s unexpected.”
But when asked to talk about what makes Nora an exciting role, she answers in a rush of words. “She can be petty, she can be childish, she can be selfish, she can be very funny, she can be petulant,” Metcalf says. “But she’s also very courageous — she’s not going to take the easy route in life.”
Metcalf likes Nora’s brattiness, her stick-to-itiveness, her humor. She compared the Nora of the sequel to a child’s punching bag — hit her, and she stands right back up. “She’s not a quitter,” Metcalf says.
Neither is Metcalf. It takes tenacity to survive in the entertainment business for so many decades, especially if you don’t trade on looks, especially if you don’t gravitate toward wife or girlfriend roles, especially if your approach to your work is unsparing, hilarious, and deeply idiosyncratic. To watch Metcalf onstage — even in a flop like last year’s Misery — is to feel pretty sure she can do anything and to have no idea what she will do next.
As the playwright Bruce Norris, who worked with Metcalf on the black comedy Domesticated, says, “She’s the most cold-blooded actress I’ve ever met, with balls of hardened steel and the nervous system of a crocodile.” Offstage she can seem shy, muted, even a little awkward, Norris notes, “but once she starts performing, it’s sort of terrifying to behold.”
Metcalf didn’t plan on a career in theater. In college she tried out majors that seemed more practical: German, anthropology. (Maybe it’s a measure of her idiosyncrasy that anthropology seemed a pragmatic choice.) But after auditioning for one play, she was hooked.
After graduation she worked as a secretary by day, while at night she and other members of the nascent Steppenwolf — whose ranks included John Malkovich, Gary Sinise, Terry Kinney, and Metcalf’s first husband, Jeff Perry — would meet in a church basement in the Chicago suburbs and “try to make each other laugh or cry.” Over the next several years, they became an ensemble known for the depth, daring, and splendor of their acting.
There were fights, sure, over who got which roles, over who was dating whom, over who had to clean the bathroom, over “who had to direct, which was the shit job that no one wanted to do,” Metcalf says. She learned a lot in those years, playing characters who were older and characters who were younger, infusing many of them with the near-manic verve that has become one of her trademarks. Metcalf specializes in women who put a lot of energy into seeming not nearly as out of control as they are.
Metcalf came to New York in 1984, when Steppenwolf arrived with their production of Lanford Wilson’s Balm in Gilead. Playing a desperate, sunny sex worker, Metcalf astonished critics and audiences with a twenty-minute monologue about her romantic history, a performance that won her an Obie. The director Joe Mantello, who has since worked with Metcalf on November and The Other Place, saw that production several times. “It really changed everything for me,” he says. “She was this unique creature, capable of breaking your heart, making you laugh out loud, being absolutely terrifying.”
Also in the audience were casting agents who then offered her the part of Jackie, the lovably hapless sister on Roseanne. Metcalf almost didn’t take it, too worried she’d be subsequently typecast. But the casting people told her she’d be crazy to turn it down, and eventually she agreed. She’s still grateful that the show’s writers made Jackie and her fellow characters so nuanced. “I had enough wiggle room within that character to not just have to be Urkel,” she says. “I got lucky. I dodged that bullet.”
Work has continued fairly steadily, which isn’t always the case for female actors in their fifties and sixties. If she now mostly plays moms on television and, as she says, “the crazy lady” in movies, the theater still offers more variety: Clarice, the harried speechwriter of November; Juliana, the embattled scientist of The Other Place; Mary, the morphine-addicted mother of Long Day’s Journey Into Night; and now Nora, complicated and contradictory, injured and implacable.
As Hnath, the playwright, writes in an email, Metcalf is able to capture both the play’s sophisticated arguments about freedom and responsibility, and its humor. “Laurie,” he writes, “finds this place that sits in between — sky-high stakes but deeply funny.”
Metcalf doesn’t really understand her acting process — “I can’t even break it down,” she says — but she’s practical rather than mystical about it. She has always thought of acting as a job, she says, “the best job in the world, but a job.” With every new part, she challenges herself to “make it the most fun ride you can for an audience — I put that on myself. That’s my job, to be as creative and interesting and challenge myself until closing night, to make it the best for them.”
Anna D. Shapiro, a Steppenwolf director, describes Metcalf as “the best stage actor anyone has ever seen,” but one who can disappear back into herself as soon as the curtain falls. “The rest of us are absolutely wrecked by what we have been watching her do, and she’s ordering a pizza with green olives,” notes Shapiro. “I think she’s a superhero, actually.”
Metcalf doesn’t always feel like one. If she has fearlessness onstage, she says, it’s because she’s hiding behind a character. “It’s whatever the character’s doing, not me,” she says. “It gives me a false bravery that I might not really have.”
And offstage she has moments of doubt. Like Nora, she has felt conflicted about work that takes her away from her family, particularly her eleven-year-old daughter, who lives in Los Angeles. (Metcalf’s other daughter, the actor Zoe Perry, appeared with her on Broadway in 2013, in The Other Place.)
Because Broadway has nearly always meant leaving her kids, Metcalf has been very careful about the projects she’s chosen, but even so, she says she feels “the guilt and the loneliness and the sadness and the questioning: Should I be doing this job?” At least this is a play her younger daughter can see — she had to stay in the dressing room during Metcalf’s recent run as the psychotic Annie in Misery — and, hopefully, one that doesn’t upset her too much, unlike Long Day’s Journey and All My Sons, which, according to Metcalf, “kind of freaked her out.”
It almost certainly isn’t the last time she’ll see her mother perform onstage. Metcalf seems to need theater as much as it needs her, and even while helping craft a rich character like Nora she’s perpetually on the lookout for new roles and old ones. “There are just so many that I look forward to doing,” she says. “There’s probably never been a play I’ve read that I didn’t want to play some character in it.”
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