Laurie Metcalf may be best known for her multiple Emmy-winning performance as Jackie on TV’s Roseanne, but she is above all a creature of the stage, as befits a longtime member of Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theatre Company. At the moment, Metcalf is winning raves for her West End debut as the sorrowful, morphine-addicted Mary Tyrone in Long Day’s Journey Into Night opposite David Suchet, directed by Tony winner Anthony Page (A Doll’s House). Broadway.com spoke to the articulate and engaging actress about scaling the heights of Eugene O’Neill, returning to Broadway next fall in the new David Mamet play, The Anarchist, opposite Patti LuPone and what it’s like at this point in her career not to have a home—except on stage.
I’m talking to you on a matinee day, but your production doesn’t have any matinees. Because of the nature of the play, the cast is only doing six performances a week.
That was Mr. Suchet’s [co-star David Suchet] request when he accepted the role, because he knew it was a monster, and I got used to it very quickly [laughs]. The idea of me having to do a matinee today wouldn’t sit well right now, though it would have been OK had we never had that option. Later in the run, we’re cancelling the Wednesday night show and switching to a matinee because there are people who only like to go to matinees.
Your performance is as complete a Mary Tyrone as one can imagine. Was this offer a no-brainer?
When I heard I was on the short list, I just thought, “This is the chance of a lifetime,” which it absolutely is—and because I have never seen the play, I knew that I wouldn’t have that burden in my mind. Mary Tyrone is such a fascinating character as she is, and then you put her on drugs and there’s a prismatic effect that leaves so much open to interpretation. I’ve found this character one of the biggest challenges I have ever worked on and one of the most rewarding.
O’Neill’s text offers stage directions at almost every turn.
I had to ignore all that. They’re wonderful and full of imagery, and they definitely show you how he sees the characters, even though he never saw a production of the play, but too many of them are exactly alike; you can’t sustain it in front of an audience. The fun [for audiences] is to watch a character where they don’t know what the hell she’s going to do or say next. What’s crucial with Mary is to be able to play 100 colors, not just one. Even now, we’re finding that it changes night to night; what we’ve got is solid, but it has a little wiggle room.
Do you agree with the director Richard Eyre, who has called this “the saddest play ever written?”
I would have to say it’s probably the saddest one I’ve ever worked on. What puts me through the wringer is that not one of the Tyrones knows how to help either themselves or the other person. It kills me that the men in the show are so hopeful that all mom has to do is rely on her willpower, and when that doesn’t work, because it is never going to work, they feel let down and she feels doubly let down. She hates herself and doesn’t know why she can’t do it, and they don’t know where to go for help.
And yet, as with all great tragedies, the effect of the play is cathartic.
Yes, though I don’t know what it’s like to sit through because I haven’t sat through another one and I’ll never sit through ours. But it is cathartic for me as a performer: I get a huge second wind after it! It’s not after the show that I’m wrung out; it’s during it [laughs].
You have appeared in London before, at the National Theatre in 2001 in All My Sons.
I loved working at the National, but this had the cachet of being on the West End and it’s every actor’s wish list to do a play on the West End. Of course, I totally underestimated how difficult it was going to be. When I say rehearsals were maddening, they really were, believe me. Thank God I was by myself and got to come back to an empty flat every night since all I did was brood about this thing [laughs].
You seem to have made a renewed commitment to theater, starring in Detroit in Chicago and at least four plays on and off Broadway in the last few years [including Brighton Beach Memoirs and A Lie of the Mind].
The theater has always been by far my first choice, by far. I’ve been lucky enough to work in TV and a little bit in movies and as that stuff started to dry up, I found that I actually got on a lucky streak of getting cast in theater, which took me more and more to New York and to these absolutely wonderful parts.
So, no more TV series?
You know, if a TV show dropped into my lap out of the blue, I would have a hard time turning it down because there just isn’t the money in theater that there is on TV. But I don’t care to pursue the other stuff anymore. It’s really fun to be able to pop in and out of something or do The Big Bang Theory and hang out with those guys on a really fun set, but my heart is just in the theater.
What’s interesting is that you don’t seem to care where the work is, as long as it’s good, which doesn’t necessarily mean Broadway.
I work just as hard and have just as much fun whether in a 50-seat house or in a 1000-seat house. It’s a luxury to be in a tiny space every once in a while and a rush to be on a giant stage every once in a while.
Having acted on stage within the last 18 months in London, New York, and Chicago, where do you call home?
I actually don’t have a home anymore! I sold my house in L.A. and I don’t know what city I’m going to end up in. I’m like a theater gypsy right now, which is funny at this age [Metcalf is 56] but I never did it before because I always had a home base with Steppenwolf. So I’m doing it now; I'm doing everything backwards [laughs].
And you’ll be back on Broadway toward the end of this year in David Mamet’s new play, opposite Patti LuPone.
Yes, it’s a two-hander that David is directing called The Anarchist. It takes place in my office in a prison and Patti’s up for parole: she’s in prison, and I’m the prison officer.
Did you know Patti before getting this job?
No but I am a huge fan of hers. We’ve met, and the last time I was in L.A., she was doing a benefit. I went and David [Mamet] went, too, and we saw her perform, and, God, she’s fantastic!