Janney and Metcalf, longtime friends, had been set against one another in every major Best Supporting Actress category this past awards season, with Janney’s monstrous mother in I, Tonya triumphing over Metcalf’s more subtly critical and cutting mom in Lady Bird (less publicized: a healthy number of film societies and critics’ associations awarded gongs to Metcalf).
Metcalf directed my eyes to what looked like an Oscar on a nearby table.
“A friend bought me it from a stall on the corner,” she said, smiling of the golden-hued statuette engraved with “World’s Greatest Superstar.”
“Allison and I go way back,” she said smiling. “We were both Oscar virgins. A lot of those nominees had been through this many times,” Metcalf said. “So, it was fun to go through the whole circus, the runaway train, with her. We would see a lot of each other at these events and award shows. She sent me a beautiful bouquet of flowers after she won the Oscar.”
Metcalf attended the ceremony in an impressively quick visit to L.A., having done two preview performances of Edward Albee’s Three Tall Women on Saturday, then flying cross-country, straight into hair, makeup, and the Oscars ceremony, and then back to New York on Monday, after watching Janney claim the biggest statuette of them all.
Metcalf, clad in a gray Three Tall Women hoodie, said she was fine with how things had gone. “I don’t like the idea of saying something on stage. It’s stressful, so when that doesn’t happen it’s OK.” Metcalf laughed. ‘It’s like, ‘Congratulations, Allison.’”
Is she competitive? “I am a kind of competitive person. I am competitive with myself. I won’t let anything go until I am satisfied with how it is.” That means if whatever she is in is received well, that’s great, and if it isn’t, that’s OK too because Metcalf has already met the standard she has set for herself, or made peace with her own performance.
She reads reviews with “one eye kind of squinting closed.” (That came with an impressive physical re-enactment of said squint.)
Not that Metcalf, 62, receives many bad reviews. Lady Bird, and the warm critical and awards appreciation shown to Greta Gerwig’s film, put Metcalf firmly back on the pop-cultural radar.
The film was the first in many years she had done, said Metcalf, and she is proud it did so well. Next to Gerwig—“an amazing director who also wrote a beautiful script”—and the film’s star Saoirse Ronan, Metcalf felt like “the newbie. I learned such a lot from them. I thought I’d dip my toe back into the film world, that this was a little independent movie no one was going to see. The next thing I know, cut to a year later, it’s just rocketing forward.”
More mass exposure is imminent. Roseanne, the TV series in which Metcalf played the daffy, deep and protective Aunt Jackie, returns to ABC on March 27 after a 21-year interlude, following its 222nd episode in 1997.
Metcalf is also back on Broadway, having won the Best Actress Tony Award last year for her role as the magnificently stroppy, funny and profound Nora in Lucas Hnath’s audacious Ibsen update, A Doll’s House, Part 2. In her Golden Theatre dressing room there is a little clump of knitting, and a half-completed jigsaw of a photograph of her oldest son Will piloting a snow-plough at their rural Idaho home.
Albee, as a writer most famous for Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, is “very slippery,” Metcalf noted of rehearsing Three Tall Women opposite Glenda Jackson and Alison Pill in a script she describes as “full of traps.”
“It’s been tough, and I didn’t understand my character for the longest time,” she said. “The audience has been very helpful, showing where the humor is, and where they are really captivated and where they are sitting back. Three Tall Women is kind of fascinating. I had never seen it itself, and I imagine the audience will find it very intriguing to watch the reveal of who these people are and how they interact in the second act.”
Metcalf has always been “lucky to bounce around” theater, film, and television, she said. While Roseanne made her famous, her first and true love is theater, having begun her career as an actor with the Chicago-based Steppenwolf Theatre Company.
“It’s where I started and therefore where I feel most comfortable,” Metcalf said of the stage. “I don't like the camera. I get very self-conscious with it, and then spend way too much time not looking self-conscious instead of being free as I do on stage to do my work.”
Metcalf felt this pressure of the camera constantly over nine seasons of Roseanne. “I never felt comfortable,” she said. The stress “narrowed” her performance a little bit, her aim to get the scene right on the first take, so the audience at the studio and home would see her performance at its purest.
Returning to Jackie 21 years later “wasn’t like riding a bike,” said Metcalf, then paused. “It was like riding a bike in really a really surreal environment. Twenty years had passed since we were in the same room together, and it just seemed like a year’s hiatus. Everything around us, the set, was the same. All those people were back together. It was so surreal watching the scenes I wasn’t in, seeing the real history that these actors had with each other, John [Goodman] and Roseanne, the two girls [Lecy Goranson, the original Becky, and Sara Gilbert] who really grew up there. It’s such a rich history.”
Jackie ended the original run of a show as a lesbian, and has been pictured in the new season wearing a pink pussyhat and “Nasty Woman” T-shirt.
Metcalf told The Daily Beast that she doesn’t know if Jackie is still a lesbian; neither her sexual orientation nor Jackie’s job is known, she said.
Metcalf said that the pilot dealt with the election, and presumably conflict between Jackie and Roseanne, the character, who is a Trump supporter just as her creator is too, as Roseanne Barr stated in January. Metcalf revealed the whole season would not focus on the election, but that the polarization it had bought explained why Roseanne the character and Jackie had not spoken for a year.
“The election caused a rift in this family, like it has in a lot of families,” said Metcalf. “But what the writers did, which I thought was smart, was do what they always did, which is to take really large subject matter and reduce it to being about the family again. What is it about these sisters that runs deeper than the actual election?”
Metcalf looked down and shook her head when I asked if she supported Trump, and as for discussing her political differences with Barr added, “We didn’t get into it on the set, and I’m not on social media so I haven’t seen anything on there. There are other issues the episodes deal with: the opioid epidemic, health care, and ageism when it comes to choosing a facility for Roseanne and Jackie’s mother to live in.”
Jackie is her same chaotic self. “She’s gung-ho about a lot of things she knows nothing about,” said Metcalf, smiling. “Still bouncing around jobs, dating whoever. And you kind of see Becky falling into that same world in her 40s now.”
The cast remain very close, she said, “although we don’t talk all the time or hang out.” They will all be coming, separately, to see Metcalf perform in Three Tall Women.
Growing up in Carbondale, Illinois, Metcalf did not have an artistic background, though an aunt she never met, Zoë Akins, won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama for her adaptation of Edith Wharton’s The Old Maid, later made into a movie starring Bette Davis.
At high school, the shy Metcalf summoned up the courage to audition for a role in a production of Auntie Mame, but decided she was not going to be “the sucker” who followed an actor’s life. She majored in German, and thought she would be an interpreter at the UN.
“A bit of a hermit,” she took great pride in being a secretary. But then she met, having a completed a Bachelor of Arts in theater at Illinois State University in 1976, a group of actors—Gary Sinise and John Malkovich among them—who would establish Steppenwolf. “They cracked open this self-confidence in me. In my mind I could hide behind the character. I was not me. I was somebody else.
"These eccentric and creative people were a real eye-opener. They did have ambitions, they did think ‘We can start this company.’”
Metcalf recalled the first summer of performances, in a church basement, performing four one-act plays. “Two were successful, two were not. I was in the one that was not,” she said, laughing. Fortunately, she said, only friends and family came to see them perform; it took a while, she recalled, for Steppenwolf to accrue enough of a reputation that the judges of the Chicago-area Joseph Jefferson Awards would come to see their work.
“It took years,” said Metcalf. “But it wasn’t like we had a deadline, we were just amusing, challenging ourselves. If we only had 10 people watching, it was fine. We were doing what we wanted to do.”
A standout and much-praised performance in The Glass Menagerie, where Metcalf played the fragile daughter Laura Wingfield, was a breakthrough moment for her. “I made it just different enough to make it special,” she recalled. In 1985, she won her first New York stage awards for her performance in Lanford Wilson’s Balm in Gilead, for which, she said, she is still recognized by theater devotees on the streets around Broadway.
It was Sinise who helped push Steppenwolf forward, literally in getting it into Chicago proper, Metcalf said. He became famous himself, and while Metcalf did not nurse dreams of similar stardom, she did head to Los Angeles after appearing in a minor role in Desperately Seeking Susan. “I was in the right place at the right time,” she said. Within two weeks she had booked Roseanne, and bought her first car.
“I didn’t know if I should take the role of Jackie,” Metcalf recalled (the role would go on to win her two Primetime Emmys). “I thought, ‘If this takes off, do I really want to be known as the person who only plays this person? The casting directors told me I would be crazy if I didn’t take it, so I did. The show quickly went into the Top Ten. I had feared a badly written show and character. But it was so well-written. They started writing to our strengths, once they found out what our strengths were.”
It may not seem radical now, but issues and moments—from lesbian kisses to domestic violence—were raised and aired in ways then-radical for TV.
“That was the beauty of Roseanne and Roseanne herself. It could go dark, it could do issues,” said Metcalf. “It was a more realistic family than you’d see on other sitcoms. The clothes weren’t from Barney's. The show could support that kind of writing. It was willing to sacrifice laughs to make a show about something.”
Barr herself was a polarizing figure, with reports of clashes with writers, producers and the network. “There were a lot of writers in and out,” said Metcalf, but the cast did not experience conflict with her. “We laughed all day long. Sometimes a script was handed in and it would flat-out rejected by her, so if you’re a writer your experience may have been different.”
As for the Barr of 2018, said Metcalf, “I think she thinks she’s mellowed a little bit, maybe because of her grandkids…”
And has she, I asked.
“Maybe a little,” Metcalf said smiling, “but she also she doesn’t have to fight for anything. There are no fights to be had. Back then she had to fight for everything, like having two women kiss in a bar.” For the 2018 reboot, “If it gets received well, everyone would love to do more episodes,” Metcalf said. “Hopefully, depending on how it premieres Tuesday, I think everybody would love to come back and do it again. The vibe on the set was wonderful.”
She hopes, after Three Tall Women ends its run, to return to do more episodes of Roseanne should it be picked up for more episodes.
Metcalf likes to keep busy working; if not, she said with a wry laugh, “promoting the work.” “I like to stay busy. I don't do well with downtime. I don't really know what to do with myself. I’m not very good at relaxing. I think I’m wound a little too tight for that.”
Twice married and divorced, she is single. “I’m happy,” she said. “I’m very happy with my lifestyle like that.” She has four children, Zoe (Perry, an actress in Young Sheldon); Will, snow-plough pilot, jigsaw star, and an aspiring writer; daughter Mae Akins, “who has a belting Ethel Merman voice”; and another son, Donovan, “who has no interest in acting at all.”
“It has always been hard,” she said of parenting as a full-time actor. There have been, indeed are now, periods of time when she has been separated from her children.
“I didn't do much out of town work until the oldest kids were pretty much older,” she said. “But you can’t get away from the guilt factor, no matter what age your kids are, whether you’re in town or out of town. You’re still somehow not managing to do everything 24/7.” Mae will be coming to see her mother in New York City soon (and yes, musicals for this Merman-in-training have been booked).
In recent months, on the award circuit, Metcalf has been heartened to see the support, practical and emotional, around the #MeToo and #TimesUp campaigns, particularly the Time’s Up Legal Defense Fund.
Metcalf said she had never experienced sexual abuse or harassment herself. “But it was rampant. Women didn't have a support system to go to. Now every show you do, there’s a sexual harassment talk. None of that was happening back then. You wouldn't know who to go to complain to about anything at all. The fear was you could lose your job.”
She hopes the campaign extends from Hollywood into more regular working worlds.
Metcalf hasn’t noticed a lack of roles for older actresses, although she isn’t sure if that’s because of the excellent roles coming her way, or if there are just a good number of roles out there.
She particularly enjoys working on new plays, like A Doll’s House, Part 2, with its mixture of profanity and period dress, and the constant changes to the script by playwright Lucas Hnath. “The audience is the last piece of the puzzle,” she said of what is missing from the weeks of rehearsal; every night their energy feeds and changes the actors’ performances.
For Metcalf, and those who enjoy watching her—whether on or off Broadway in the award-nominated The Other Place a few years ago, or on TV in the brilliant comedy-drama Getting On, or as a demented killer in one of the Scream movies or Uncle Buck, or even utterly unhinged in Misery—the pleasure often comes from giving a sympathetic edge, or at least a convincing bell of psychological clarity, for even the most unsympathetic and loopy characters.
“I’m in all of them,” she said of this growing gallery of memorable creations. “I’ve been some of them sometimes too.”
Three Tall Women is at the Golden Theatre, 252 West 45th Street, New York City, booking through June 24.