‘Lady Bird’ Star Laurie Metcalf Might Be the Best Actress Working Right Now
After a Tony win and three Emmy nods in the same year, the ‘Roseanne’ alum is an Oscar frontrunner for her role in Greta Gerwig’s glorious indie ‘Lady Bird.’ All hail Aunt Jackie.
All around the country, people are calling their mothers.
It’s an emotional reflex after seeing Lady Bird, the coming-of-age masterpiece from writer-director Greta Gerwig, which stars Saoirse Ronan as the titular obstinate teen and Laurie Metcalf as her weary mother.
“I’ve had either daughters say I want to go back and see with it my mom, or mothers say I want to go back and take my daughter,” Metcalf tells The Daily Beast, calling during a break from production on the upcoming revival of Roseanne, the show that won the actress three consecutive Emmy Awards in the ‘90s. “I’ve even had fathers say I want to go back and take my teenage daughter.”
They might want to book their tickets early. Debuting in limited release over the weekend, Lady Bird’s sold-out screenings gave the film the best specialty box office weekend of 2017, and it’s the best ever limited debut for a movie directed by a woman. It also happens to be the best-reviewed movie of the year, earning a perfect score of 100 percent on Rotten Tomatoes. (Disclaimer: Lady Bird was released in partnership with IAC Films, which is owned by The Daily Beast's parent company.)
For Metcalf, whose performance as Marion McPherson is pegged to garner the actress her first Oscar nomination, it caps off an astounding run of superlatives and accolades. The past two years have solidified the case she’s been slyly building her entire career: Laurie Metcalf might just be the best actress working right now.
There’s the Tony Award for Best Actress she won in June for her performance in A Doll’s House, Part 2. There’s the three Emmy nominations she received in the same year last fall for her performances on Getting On, The Big Bang Theory, and Horace and Pete, the latter of which featured a nine-minute, single-take opening monologue that was crowned “the year’s best performance” by critic Alan Sepinwall.
And in the midst of it all, she’s returning to the role that made her a household name, the outrageous Aunt Jackie, when Roseanne returns to ABC in 2018, 29 years after it premiered.
Metcalf practically blushes through the phone when I bring all this up. “It feels great because I just plainly love to work,” she laughs. “I don’t do well with downtime.” She rambles a bit at the praise—“it’s crazy;” “it’s just flat-out luck;” “it’s the writing”—before letting out a humbled sigh: “It’s been a real high just emotionally for me, these last few years.”
For how prolific Metcalf’s acting resume has been in the decades since Roseanne, Lady Bird marks the first time in nearly a decade she’s acted in a film, since 2007’s Georgia Rule and the following year’s Stop-Loss.
Gerwig’s semi-autobiographical screenplay is set in Bush-era Sacramento, but crafts a story about a rebellious teen coming into her own that is rather timeless.
Ronan’s Christine “Lady Bird” McPherson is a sharply-drawn tumult of recognizable teen anxieties, yearnings, mistakes, sensitivity, and bluster. She’s flawed, as all teen girls are, but armored by the courage of her convictions, which she trusts to protect her even as she’s flailing.
As Gerwig tells it, the character—a Catholic schoolgirl in her 2002 senior year with pink-dyed hair, a cast on her arm from when she flung herself out of her mother’s moving car in protest, and a name she gave herself—crystallized after she came up with a single line of dialogue: “Why won’t you call me Lady Bird? You promised you would.”
While it’s Lady Bird’s journey we’re on, it’s her relationship with her mother that gives the film its beating heart. In fact, Gerwig’s initial draft of the film was called Mothers and Daughters.
Marion needles her daughter as much as her daughter needles her. They’re two peas in a pod who can barely stand to be in a room together. That’s how toxic their relationship is—because that’s how much they love each other.
“They go from zero to 100, the both of them,” Metcalf says. “The father’s character just says it plainly: ‘You guys are much too similar.’”
That they can’t see how similarly minded they are is a visceral bit of emotional torture for anyone in the audience who can recall their own sparring with their mothers, or mothers flashing back to arguments with their daughters—verbal warfare that seem to erupt spontaneously and escalate too quickly for either party to realize what’s happening.
“There isn’t one character who is constantly triggering the other,” Metcalf says, pointing out how crucial it is that, for all their antagonism, Gerwig scripted scenes depicting their natural patterns of lovingness, albeit pre-bickering while shopping for homecoming dresses or at a graduation dinner.
“Those are sprinkled throughout, but there’s just enough of them so that when you do see them in another fight you realize that they’re just in this dysfunctional moment that they can’t get out of,” she says. “They can’t break this habit that they’re into, where they’re looking for the other person to say the exact wrong thing. When you’re looking for it, then it’s going to happen.”
It’s an achingly familiar pattern, one that most of us can recognize in our own relationships—Metcalf included. People are walking out of Lady Bird screenings emotionally ravaged by how directly the characters speak to them. Try not only being a mother yourself, Metcalf says, but also playing the one in the film.
The arguments between Lady Bird and Marion were painful to shoot. A climactic scene that Metcalf shot in a car at an airport near the end of the film was so devastating that Metcalf asked Gerwig to limit shooting it to only a handful of takes.
Metcalf herself has seen three of her own kids through the teen years—her oldest, Zoe Perry, currently stars in Young Sheldon as the younger version of Metcalf’s own Big Bang Theory character—and her youngest daughter, Mae, is 12-years-old and about to go through the process herself.
“I have been through battles that have been as highly charged as the ones in the movie with my own kids,” she says. “It was hard to watch the movie when you see your character saying lines to the child that are really hurtful. You have to think my god, what have I done in my own life? What’s come out of my own mouth in a battle that I wish I could take back?”
She lets out a big Laurie Metcalf laugh. “I’ve had some reflection on that.”
There’s something comforting about talking with Metcalf. Maybe it’s because we just watched her play someone who, for all intents and purposes, is a great mom. Maybe it’s because we’ve grown up watching her on Roseanne so she feels familiar. There’s something endearing about her adherence to old school empty maxims when it comes to talking to the press—roles are “a gift,” casts are “like a family”—yet she’s hardly milquetoast.
While diplomatic, she’s still dishy. Look to a recent appearance on Bravo’s Watch What Happens Live With Andy Cohen for example. Grilled about her famous former co-stars, she reveals Lindsay Lohan didn’t come out of her trailer the day Metcalf was on set for Georgia Rule—“I was there on a mess day”—Madonna took her role on Desperately Seeking Susan (the film that gave both their first big-screen roles) “so seriously,” and Roseanne didn’t want to walk around the set so they had a motorized wheelchair for her to use.
She hoots when we bring up the fact that Aunt Jackie, with her steeliness and unabashed wackiness and insecure loneliness and fantastic statement sweaters, has evolved into a veritable gay icon.
In fact, she’s discernibly giddy at the mere mention of the Roseanne revival. It’s timely, and not just because the series will naturally tackle Donald Trump—this is 2017, and this is Roseanne Barr, after all—but because, all these decades later, the show will still be one of the few family sitcoms to even attempt to reflect what life is like for a family in the lower-middle class.
“Weirdly, the freakiest thing about returning to the Roseanne set is that it’s like no time went by at all,” she says. “We’re all shocked. Again, look, I’m doing a project that is with people at the top of their game again. You know? It’s another part of this lucky streak that I’ve been on weirdly, where I get to revisit a show that was at the top of its game that many years ago.”