After lending her talents to more than two dozen films, from Desperately Seeking Susan to the Toy Story franchise, Laurie Metcalf is finally a movie star.
Metcalf, 62, stars in Greta Gerwig’s celebrated coming-of-age dramedy Lady Bird as Marion McPherson, tough-loving mother of the titular teenager (Saoirse Ronan). But the three-time Emmy winner is already returning to her small-screen blue-collar roots as the endearingly neurotic Aunt Jackie in ABC’s upcoming Roseanne reboot.
Also back on Broadway this spring in a revival of Edward Albee’s Three Tall Women, Metcalf revisits some queer detours en route to her EGOT—even if she’d prefer to be home in her PJs.
Lady Bird has been lavished with accolades. You’ve won numerous critics’ awards, and you’ve been nominated for a Golden Globe and a SAG Award for your performance. Has it all gone straight to your head?
It’s made me a completely different person. [Laughs] No, but I couldn’t be happier, because it was such a personal movie for everyone involved. Greta really set the tone and made it feel like it belonged to all of us.
You’re primarily recognized as a television and theater actress. How does it feel to be lauded for a film role?
It does feel different. I feel like I’m sitting at the adult table all of a sudden, and I’m just trying to soak it all in. What are the odds, the first time you stick your toe back into film after quite a few years, that it’s received in such a magnificent way? I’ve been lucky many times in my career to be in the right place at the right time.
Marion in Lady Bird is memorably described by another character as simultaneously warm and scary. Is that a fair assessment?
I wasn’t necessarily going for that, but that’s how Greta envisioned and wrote the character, so I think the audience sees that line as a pretty apt description. The mother-daughter scenes are very antagonistic, because they’re both stubborn and they know how to push each other’s buttons. But there are also moments of heart layered throughout the movie, and a little of that softness goes a long way.
Could you relate to that complicated and contentious mother-daughter relationship?
Yeah, I related to the passion of some of those mother-daughter fights, because I’ve had teenagers in my house at different times. It was really jarring when I watched the movie, hearing my character say certain things to her daughter that I knew were meant to be supportive and kind, but they came out as the antitheses of that. It’s shocking how that can happen with your kids in the heat of battle.
The audience gets to know Lady Bird as she makes the transition from high school to college. What were you like when you headed off to Illinois State University?
I wasn’t as rebellious or ambitious as Lady Bird, and I didn’t have her wanderlust. I was content to stay in Illinois for college, just venturing about 150 miles north of where I grew up in Edwardsville. I was very shy and a bit of a hermit, so getting up the nerve to audition for theater was always the crack in the door that helped me meet people and be more social.
Sounds like you were a snooze.
[Laughs] Yeah, I was extremely boring. Even still, if I had my druthers, I would just stay home wearing pajamas all day long.
Among Lady Bird’s rites of passage, she falls for a boy who turns out to be gay. Did that ever happen to you?
Oh, sure. When you’re in the arts, I think that’s probably a given. Because you meet these guys who are funny, caring, passionate, and actually want to hang out with you. What could be better than that?
What was your introduction to the LGBT community?
In my little theater group at ISU, and then certainly as I expanded into Steppenwolf in Chicago, my eyes were opened up to all different kinds of people that just weren’t available to me while growing up in my tiny Southern Illinois town. I was a fish out of water, so it was a real learning experience.
In the 1990 thriller Internal Affairs you played Sgt. Amy Wallace, a lesbian character that film critics and historians have praised as remarkably sympathetic and respectful for the era. Did it feel revolutionary at the time?
I don’t remember it being a big deal because I was on the inside looking out, just doing an interesting role. The backstory is that the part was written for a man, but then I met with the director, Mike Figgis, who wonderfully decided to give it to a woman. It would’ve been a throwaway part otherwise, but by changing the sex and sexuality, suddenly it became crucial and unique. I was thrilled to do it.
You also played a lesbian speechwriter in David Mamet’s November, which opened on Broadway in 2008, opposite Nathan Lane as a president who’s a racist, sexist, dimwitted homophobe. That was rather prescient, wasn’t it?
Oh, I’d love to see that revived now. Isn’t it time? I got such a kick out of playing that character—she was really the heart of the play.
Speaking of revivals, you’re returning to the role of Jackie Harris for the upcoming 10th season of Roseanne. In the 1997 series finale, Roseanne, who has two gay siblings in real life, revealed in a voiceover that she’d fictionalized much of the story and that Jackie was actually a lesbian. Did that surprise you?
No, not at all. People ultimately like Jackie and wish her well, but she was always flip-flopping, struggling to find herself, struggling to find a job, and struggling to find a relationship that worked. So it made sense in the finale that Roseanne would see Jackie the way she did.
There were hints, of course, like the scene in which Roseanne describes lesbians as wearing flannel shirts and faded jeans, and that’s exactly what Jackie has on.
[Laughs] I remember that. I loved that scene.
Did those finale revelations influence your performance when you revisited the character?
In the pilot of the new season, we had to address everything that happened during that last season—winning the lottery, Dan dying, Jackie coming out. The challenge was finding a way to justify all that and then move on. What we’re doing now is a throwback to the old family dynamics.
So no girlfriends for Jackie.
No. But we’re lucky to have Sandra Bernhard back, so there’s still LGBT representation on the show.
You’ve been involved with other LGBT-inclusive projects, like when you played the mom of a gay son in the short-lived sitcom The McCarthys. But when my friends and I dissect your career over cocktails, the characters most often discussed are Mrs. Loomis in Scream 2, Carolyn Bigsby in Desperate Housewives, and your Annie Wilkes in Broadway’s Misery. I guess we like you unhinged.
I know, right? When you listed those characters, all I could picture was me wide-eyed and wielding a weapon, half-cocked and set loose! I have so much fun playing mad, unpredictable women, so I’m thrilled to know those characters come up in conversation. The support from the LGBT audience is really comforting to me. To be chosen by them is very flattering, because it’s such a discerning group.
You’ve won a Tony and three Emmys. If you were to win an Oscar for Lady Bird, how would you earn a Grammy to achieve EGOT status?
I don’t know! I’ve always wished that I could sing. I’d love to do a musical, because I just want to know that feeling, that rush of having the orchestra behind me as I interpret a song and belt it. But I can’t sing. I guess I’ll have to skim the list of categories to see how I can get a Grammy without singing.