Theater

Laurie Metcalf’s Four-Decade Overnight Success

It takes a lot of sweat to make acting look so effortless

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On a cloudy Thursday in March, I climbed two narrow flights of stairs to reach Laurie Metcalf in her dressing room in the Golden Theater, on 45th Street, where she’s appearing in the Edward Albee play Three Tall Women alongside Glenda Jackson and Alison Pill. There’s something simultaneously awe-inspiring and humbling about the backstage bowels of a nearly 100-year-old Broadway theater. On the one hand, you’re standing on the same hallowed ground where Glengarry Glen Ross made its Broadway premiere, where Falsettos and Avenue Q opened, where Mike Nichols and Elaine May helped shape a new era of comedy. On the other, to get back there, you have to enter through a dank alley squeezed between two buildings and filled with dumpsters.

It’s a humble ingress, but that suits a workhorse like Metcalf. “It’s always daunting to tackle a classic, because in the back of your mind you see ‘classic’ and you think you should be precious with it,” she says. “That you can’t be a little bit goofy, or you can’t show a sense of humor about your character unless it’s dictated by this classic script. But it’s fun to throw that out the window and look for it.” She sits with her legs crossed in the small but cozy room outfitted with a grey couch and a vanity mirror above a narrow dressing table. A side table holds a half-finished jigsaw puzzle made from a photograph of her grown son plowing a snowy field in Idaho, where Metcalf, who grew up in southern Illinois, owns property. The heat pipes start coughing just as I’m about to turn on my voice recorder, and when I jokingly complain, she gets up to turn it off with a look of such genuine concern I immediately regret opening my mouth.  

True to its title, Three Tall Women — for which Albee won a Pulitzer Prize in 1994 — features three women credited only as “A,” a wealthy but ailing woman in her 90s, played by Jackson; “B,” A’s caregiver, in her 50s, played by Metcalf; and “C,” a woman in her mid-20s (Pill) who works for A’s law firm. In the first act, set in A’s ornate bedroom, the two younger women listen and interject, with varying degrees of patience, as A reflects on her life in a series of monologues; in its second half, the play shifts to a more metaphysical space, and all three women debate the merits and drawbacks of the different stages of their lives. It’s both darkly funny and undeniably melancholy.

Three Tall Women’s director, Joe Mantello, has described Metcalf (favorably) as a “monster,” an actor who “supplies you with such a variety and wealth of choices, and she doesn’t need a lot of guidance.” But, sitting within the pale-yellow walls of her dressing room, in jeans, a grey hoodie with the play’s logo screen-printed on the front, grey slippers, and zero makeup, Metcalf doesn’t look so scary. She looks both attentive and deeply absorbed by the task at hand — this interview, sure, but mostly the evening performance that begins in just under two hours. She reaches for her dog-eared copy of the script, stuffed with loose-leaf pieces of notepaper. “It’s been slippery,” she says of the run of preview performances, which ends when the play officially opens on Thursday. “Some of the emotions go from high to low really quickly. They’re very jerky. We went down a lot of blind alleys, trying to make it more naturalistic than it wants to be.”

Making something inherently artificial look natural is Metcalf’s superpower. It wasn’t too long ago when it seemed Metcalf had already reached a summit in her career, achieving in just 18 months the kind of success most actors would be lucky to manage over the course of a career. She was nominated for three Emmy awards in 2016, for turns on Horace and Pete, Getting On, and The Big Bang Theory; nine months later, she won her first Tony award, for the role of Nora Helmer in A Doll’s House, Part 2, Lucas Hnath’s adaptation of the famed Ibsen play. But now, the 62-year-old is wrapping up another whirlwind month. Not only is she starring alongside one of her idols, Jackson, in a Broadway production of an Edward Albee play (her first); she’s also reprising her role of Aunt Jackie in the buzzy new reboot of Roseanne, which returned to ABC this week 21 years after the groundbreaking sitcom went off the air.

And then there was the weekend earlier this month when she had to jet to L.A. to attend the Oscars, for which she was nominated for Best Supporting Actress — her first Academy Award nomination — in Greta Gerwig’s Lady Bird, for her role as the title character’s devoted but brittle mother.

“Yeah, that was a tough one,” Metcalf says of the weekend of the Oscars, chewing on the drawstrings of her sweatshirt. “That’s like a dream. We did two shows, we did a two o’clock and an eight o’clock on a Saturday. The Oscars are on Sunday, so Sunday morning I went very, very early to the airport and my flight was delayed for two and a half hours. And everybody in L.A. is waiting for me to show up at this hotel room so I can get into hair and makeup and cost—” she stops herself. “I said ‘costume.’ It is a costume! So I landed, went straight there, went to the ceremony, didn’t go to any parties, came straight back to the hotel room, and got up the next day and came back.”

According to Metcalf’s co-star Alison Pill, the first day of rehearsals for Three Tall Women also happened to be the morning of the Oscar nominations. “I’m sure other actors would have brought some of that energy into the room,” Pill says. “But Laurie is an actor for whom the most important thing is building a character that serves the show and building an environment that serves the ensemble. So within minutes the Oscars were pushed to the side. I’m not sure many other actors would be capable of that.”

Metcalf lost to Allison Janney, who won for her performance as another tough mother in the Tonya Harding biopic I, Tonya. But if Metcalf was disappointed, she didn’t show it. Frankly, she doesn’t have time for that. She’s more comfortable plugging away in a dark, cramped theater than sunning herself in the spotlight, and she approaches her career with the steely-eyed focus of a sharp shooter. Doing press for Lady Bird while rehearsing Three Tall Women, she says, was “distracting.” “But, you know, that came and went,” she adds. “I’ll never have another March like this in my life, I know that.”

Will Frears, who directed her in the 2015–16 Broadway adaptation of Stephen King’s Misery — she snagged another Tony nomination for that one — recalls directing a play in 2004 for the legendary Chicago theater company Steppenwolf, which Metcalf and a group of fellow actor-friends founded in the 1970s. He didn’t meet her then, but, he says, “People spoke of her in these hushed tones.” Years later, when Frears was preparing to cast Misery, he drove out to meet Metcalf in the Hamptons, where she was doing a play. He was stuck in traffic and tried frantically to call her, to no avail. Finally, he arrived at the diner where they had planned to meet, and she told him not to worry — and that she’d left her cellphone at home. “You’re already the most impossibly cool person I know,” he recalls thinking.

Once they were rehearsing Misery, Frears was struck by Metcalf’s levelheadedness. “There’s no airs,” he says. “I think she wore the same flannel shirt every day in rehearsal.” She writes down notes in a steno pad after run-throughs, and talks about moments in the play she hasn’t yet “problem-solved.” Metcalf doesn’t dismiss the recognition her work has received in the past couple years, but she approaches it gingerly, as if not to disturb the foundation of her labor that it rests upon. “It’s satisfying when you get compliments from peers,” she acknowledges. “It all depends on if you feel like whatever you’re being acknowledged for, that you actually did do a good job on it — that you gave 150 percent, you poured everything that you could into it.” She finds freedom in theater, where no one is shoving a camera in your face; she feels self-conscious when she’s being filmed, and for nine years on the original run of Roseanne, from 1988 to 1997, she’d “shut down a little bit” on tape day.

All three actors in Three Tall Women give formidable performances, but when I saw the play, I was struck by how instinctive Metcalf’s performance looked — every word she spoke sounded like her own. When I mention this, her eyes widen and her face lights up. “Oh, that’s a huge compliment!” she says. “That’s the goal of interpreting, you know, is to make it look spontaneous and in the moment.” She pauses, pleased. “You didn’t see the typewritten words above my head!”

It takes a lot of sweat to make acting look so effortless — particularly comedic acting, which rarely earns performers the same kind of accolades as a dramatic role. But Metcalf is extraordinarily skilled at digging out the humor hidden in the most seemingly banal words. “She carves out every single moment to find the funniest delivery, the science behind the comedy or pathos of it,” Pill says. “These are small moments, but she will obsess and try things until it’s perfected.” Michael Fishman, who played youngest child D.J. Conner on Roseanne, was just six years old when the show began, and became close with Metcalf’s oldest daughter, Zoe Perry. (Perry’s father is Jeff Perry, another Steppenwolf co-founder; Metcalf has three other children with her now-ex-husband, Matt Roth, who played Jackie’s boyfriend Fisher on Roseanne.) Fishman told me he watched some of Metcalf’s best work on set take place when the camera wasn’t even on her, and he spoke of her meticulous method of adding layers of detail to a scene, even one in which she barely speaks.

“There’s an episode in the new season where she’s frustrated, and she’s cleaning up crumbs on the table,” he says. “She’s sweeping them into this little pile and you can just feel it building as the scene goes on, and as everybody walks away she’s building it and building it and building it, and she looks around and there’s nowhere to put them, and she takes the whole pile and just whacks it with the sponge and wipes them across the room. It was so perfect for the frustration she had throughout the scene, and it’s not in the script.”

Fishman adds, “I think she was underrated for a while because people didn’t fully grasp how detailed and nuanced she was. I think people have realized now. The secret’s out.”

I leave a few minutes before my time’s up, because Laurie Metcalf has a schedule to keep, and I’ll be damned if I get in the way of all that greatness. She goes over the script at 6:30 each evening before the show, saying every one of her lines out loud. “It’s very lonely,” she says. “But it’s a good mental and vocal warm-up.” I thank her for her time and slip back out into the alley.

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