ICYMI: Laurie Metcalf has been busy. She won a Tony last year for A Doll’s House, Part 2, and is nominated again now, this time for her role alongside Alison Pill and Glenda Jackson in Three Tall Women. The play is all about the choices we make in life and how they make us who we are.
Metcalf’s made some amazing choices herself in the last few years. On top of her Tony nods, her performance in Lady Bird earned her an Oscar nomination. This year she also made a triumphant return to Roseanne — and might get her own spinoff now that the hit show has been canceled. Broadway Spin caught up with Metcalf about her career so far and why she never (ever!) wants to direct.
Broadway Spin: Wasn’t one of the first shows you did Auntie Mame in high school?
Laurie Metcalf: I had three lines or something. On opening night, I accidentally got a laugh on one of the lines, and I wasn’t expecting it. It kind of threw me for a second, but I wondered, “How did it happen?” I didn’t like that I didn’t know how I did it. I wanted to figure out why I got a laugh with that particular delivery so I could do it again. Then I kind of figured it out and got a laugh at the other performances. I think that is what hooked me. I thought, “I like this.” I like to control it. I like knowing what I’m doing. I find the whole technical side of acting fascinating. To this day I’m always figuring out, “Why did I miss that laugh last night? Oh, I know, because I didn’t emphasize the right word in the lead-up to it. Or I came in too quickly.” Usually it ends up being about timing.
BS: In the 1970s you, Terry Kinney, John Malkovich, Jeff Perry and Gary Sinise formed Steppenwolf Theater in a church basement in Highland Park, Illinois. Did you have any sense that the company would be so successful?
LM: We took a leap of faith. There was no master plan for how long we would do it or where it would take us. We just initially started out wanting to put some one-acts together for the summer. Then it just kept building and growing. I don’t know that I would have stayed in the acting profession if I hadn’t done it with that particular group of people.
BS: A theme in Three Tall Women is thinking about the past and your journey to the present. Is there something you wish you knew when you were starting your career?
LM: If I could go back, I would tell my younger self, “You can depend on this passion that you have for acting. You’re not going to lose it.” I would have liked to have known at 25 that years down the road the passion would not diminish; that I would get the same rewards working in the theater as I did at my younger age.
BS: Doing Three Tall Women, you were not able to consult with playwright Edward Albee [who died in 2016]. Is there something you wish you could have asked him?
LM: During rehearsals I would have had a lot of questions. I found the rehearsal stage to be really hard; it was a really difficult play to learn. I think we all stumbled around for a long time in the rehearsal room. But as Joe [Mantello], our director, got to know the play, it started making more and more sense to us. All the humor in it was, to me, not always apparent in the script. It was fun to find once we got an audience in there to help us. I am glad that we struggled along on our own. I really like what we ended up with, how our production fits together and how the three of us work together.
BS: What do you like about playing the caretaker?
LM: I love playing the reality of the frustration of that job. Some of the humor comes out in how they [her and Glenda Jackson’s character] have a contentious but codependent relationship. That is a lot of fun to play for an audience. Edward Albee really captured the conflicting emotions of the caretaker. And in the second half I like playing the woman, right in the middle, age-wise. She is sitting at a really comfortable time in her life. She doesn’t know what the future brings for her. Like I say in the play, “I’m the one that has the 360-degree view of where this character is at in this particular moment.” I like playing the one in the middle.
BS: Your daughter, Zoe Perry, is playing your The Big Bang Theory character, Mary Cooper, on the show’s prequel, Young Sheldon. Have you given her advice?
LM: I don’t give her advice for the same reasons that I don’t direct plays; it is a real skill to be able to talk to a fellow actor and not mess them up, and I don’t have that skill. So I don’t give her advice on portraying the character. But it has been fantastic to know the Young Sheldon story and see the history. Now, when I go on The Big Bang Theory, I feel I have more information to draw on for my character because of Young Sheldon.
BS: What did you say when she told you she wanted to be an actress?
LM: She was flirting with it when she was very young, but I didn’t want her to go into it at that age. I think it’s too stressful for a kid. So I didn’t let her audition for anything back then. In high school, she forgot about it and didn’t want to do it anymore. So it wasn’t an issue. When she went to college at Northwestern, she fell in love with the theater crowd. She ended up auditioning for a couple of things, got in them and stuck with it. It was kind of a natural progression.
BS: What do you like to do when you are not working?
LM: I still have a young one in junior high, so I do the mom thing. And I like to do jigsaw and crossword puzzles, things that keep my mind active. I also like knowing what my next project is going to be, so I can start learning the lines and daydream about how I might play it.