In 2016, Laurie Metcalf got a call to act in her first film in a decade. “I thought, Oh, this is a little independent movie, a great way for me to stick my toe back in those waters,” says the Carbondale native, who spent part of her hiatus on Broadway, winning a Tony for A Doll’s House, Part 2. But that little movie, Lady Bird, became a runaway hit, and her role as the tough-loving mother earned her an Oscar nomination for best supporting actress.
After getting her start in Chicago in the ’70s as an original member of Steppenwolf Theatre—along with the likes of John Malkovich, Gary Sinise, and ex-husband Jeff Perry—Metcalf broke out as the neurotic sister on Roseanne, a role she’ll reprise on the show’s reboot, which premieres March 27 on ABC. Amid a career renaissance, Metcalf, 62, shares her key influences.
I Love Lucy
I was fascinated by the way it was shot. I wanted to see what made that wind-up toy run. What was behind those walls? Were there people watching it? Was it happening in front of a miniaudience? Never in a million years did I think I’d be doing that myself.
The thrill of getting her first laugh
In high school, I got a small part in the play Auntie Mame. During our first performance, I accidentally got a laugh on a line. I loved the rush, but I was confused as to why it happened. I had to figure out what I had accidentally done in order to re-create it. That’s really when I got hooked on acting.
The original Steppenwolf ensemble
If I’ve ever had a mentor, it was those people. We learned from each other. We challenged each other. We were doing roles that no one else would cast us in—roles that were age inappropriate or we had no business doing—but we did them anyway to make each other laugh. That made us better.
The Glass Menagerie
We did this play when Steppenwolf was still in a church basement in Highland Park. I played Laura. I wanted her to be more disturbing than I had ever seen it portrayed, because I knew Tennessee Williams’s sister [had been diagnosed with schizophrenia]. This was a character there was zero hope for. It became the first really personal role for me.
A Woman Under the Influence
When we first started Steppenwolf, this movie had just come out. It was raw, messy, vibrant, unexpected, almost invasive. It was so invigorating to watch. It had muscle to it. We all watched it on the edge of our seats as a brand-new little theater company, thinking, Now this is what we want to do!
Her 12-year-old daughter, Mae
I love taking her to see a musical that I already know. It’s so fun to watch anything you’ve known and loved, or take for granted, through a kid’s eyes. You can’t experience something so purely again.
When I’m between jobs, I get out of focus. I don’t know where to put my energy. So I’ve always had a jigsaw puzzle or a crossword puzzle going, or a knitting project. It’s hard for me to wind down, so these things become Zen-like for me.