One of Steppenwolf’s charter members, Laurie Metcalf tore up the stage as a damaged innocent sucked into big-city sex, drugs, and doom in the company’s 1984 production of Balm in Gilead. In 2010, a quarter century after collecting an Obie Award for that performance, Metcalf was awarded a second Obie, this one for her portrayal of a damaged mother in the Ethan Hawke–directed play A Lie of the Mind. We chatted with the Carbondale-born, L.A.-based actor about the lure of live theatre, her recent “devastating” Broadway experience with the director (and longtime Chicagoan) David Cromer, and her latest project, Lisa D’Amour’s Detroit, at Steppenwolf.
Q: When you joined Steppenwolf in 1976, your nickname was Crazy Pants. Has the ensemble grown up?
A: We have not matured. I’ll tell you that. The common thing that drew us all together was this idea of throwing something on the stage that was completely wild and cutting edge. We’re still about that. And I’m still gravitating toward the same things I did 35 years ago—dancing around in an orgiastic way and throwing up all over people.
Q: That’s a scene from Detroit, right? You don’t actually throw up on people in real life?
A: That is a scene from Detroit.
Q: You’ve specialized in playing fringe dwellers. So what made you want to play Detroit’s Mary—a housewife in a cookie-cutter suburban subdivision?
A: D’Amour’s writing is so juicy. The characters act in these childishly inappropriate, sexual, and violent ways that I find fascinating. It’s funny and very disturbing at the same time.
Q: Mary reminds me a little of Jackie, your character from the TV show Roseanne. She’s tough outside, vulnerable inside, and off kilter.
A: There are similarities. I like to call this kind of woman a victim with attitude. Mary is someone who goes for what she wants full throttle, 150 percent. And yet—she’s not quite right. Something’s off.
Q: Theatre is so arduous compared with movies and TV. Why keep putting yourself through the wringer?
A: I don’t like working in front of a camera. Onstage I’m the one in control—I’m not at the mercy of how an editor chooses to put the scene together later. I can do things onstage that I would never do in real life. It’s very freeing.
Q: Sometimes too freeing? I’m thinking of your work with David Cromer on Brighton Beach Memoirs and Broadway Bound. They were supposed to run in rep for a year on Broadway, but Memoirs closed after a week, and Broadway Bound was canceled before it even opened.
A: That was devastating. Including the way we found out. We got a note half an hour before we had to go on with Brighton Beach. That was so completely insensitive.
Q: Wait—you got a note? The director didn’t break the news to you all personally?
A: No. Anyway, it hit me really hard. I was depressed for weeks and weirdly emotional. I did my day-to-day stuff, but I’d break into tears just walking down the street. The only thing that pulled me out of it was getting A Lie of the Mind.
Q: Would you work with Cromer again?
A: I don’t want to say anything about that. You move on. I was a mess for a while, but it wasn’t the end of the world. Overall, I’ve been so, so lucky. I played a part in the beginning of Steppenwolf, which was huge. Then I got to be part of Roseanne, which was also huge. And I’ve done Toy Story. So there are these three wonderful companies I’ve been a part of since they began—TV, movies, and stage. I look at that, and I realize how fortunate I’ve been.
GO: Detroit runs September 9th to November 7th at Steppenwolf Theatre; 312-335-1650, steppenwolf.org.
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Photograph: Ryan Robinson
Hair and Makeup: Beth Follert with artists by Timothy Priano using Stila Wardrobe Stylist: Sage Reed Bracelet: Robin Richman Dress: Shernett Swaby