As Paul Simon’s acoustic guitar fades out, the screen fades in on a close-up of Laurie Metcalf’s face. She looks distraught, fidgeting uncomfortably as she begins to speak.
“So, when Glenn and I first got married his parents gave us as a wedding gift, a little house that they had in Pennsylvania,” she tells us.
This is how the third episode of Louis C.K.’s surprise web series Horace and Pete begins. We don’t know who Metcalf’s character is. We’ve never seen or even heard of her before this. But as she continues to tell an increasingly disturbing story about her father-in-law, we are transfixed. The camera stays locked on her face for more than nine minutes until it finally cuts to Louis C.K.’s Horace, seated across the table from her. “Why are you telling me this?” he asks.
Metcalf’s riveting monologue, widely hailed as the television performance of the year, earned her an Emmy nomination for Outstanding Guest Actress in a Drama Series, an award that it would be criminal for her to lose. But the big surprise, to Metcalf and to those who follow these types of things closely, was that she also received two additional nominations for Lead Actress on HBO’s Getting On and Guest Actress in a Comedy Series for playing the mother of Jim Parsons’ character on The Big Bang Theory.
That’s right. Laurie Metcalf appeared in three separate television shows last year and all three performances earned her Emmy nominations.
Metcalf, who began her career at the famed Steppenwolf theater in Chicago, is no stranger to the Emmy stage. In the early ’90s, she won three consecutive Emmys for playing Jackie on Roseanne. Ironically, each of those three years she beat Seinfeld’s Julia Louis-Dreyfus, who is now favored to top her in the Lead Actress category this year, which would give her a whopping five consecutive wins for Veep.
After a busy and creatively satisfying year on television, Metcalf is now about to start work on Lady Bird, a new film written and directed by Greta Gerwig and starring Saoirse Ronan. She recently wrapped up a Broadway run of Stephen King’s Misery, opposite Bruce Willis, for which she received a Tony nomination, and is always looking for her next stage gig.
“I’ve been doing it nonstop for about the past five years and I don’t know what’s going to be my next theater project,” Metcalf tells The Daily Beast. “But I can’t wait to find out.”
Below is an edited and condensed version of our conversation, which includes spoilers for episode three of Horace and Pete. But if you haven’t seen that yet, stop what you’re doing and watch it immediately.
How did you find out you had received three Emmy nominations for three separate performances?
I wasn’t aware of when the announcements were happening, because I didn’t expect to be in the mix. And a friend texted me to say congrats on your Emmy nomination. And I thought, what would it be for? I had assumed that Getting On wasn’t still eligible, but I guess it must have just squeaked in, timewise, at the last moment. So I thought, oh, maybe it’s Horace and Pete, although I didn’t know if that was going to be eligible either. My friend said it was for Getting On, and I was really surprised and happy because I’ve always been so invested in that show. Even though it’s off the air, I was so brokenhearted to see it go. We all were. We’re still have withdrawal symptoms, the cast is, from that show. And then the friend called me back and said there’s two more.
It was amazing. I had a year in which every single project I worked on was so well-written. All three of them are unique in that way, the writing is outstanding.
Let’s start with Getting On. Dr. Jenna James was an incredibly specific character. Was she drawn from anyone you have encountered in your real life?
No, I just sort of took my clues from the script itself and from the showrunners, Mark Olsen and Will Scheffer. They were the ones who sort of coaxed me into how they saw the character. Obviously she’s anal and driven, with a horrible bedside manner. And misunderstood, or at least that’s the way I like to look at it. I don’t really find fault with her, except for the fact that she is just so driven, it creates a harsh way of dealing with people who just aren’t operating at her level. And she has very little tolerance for people who aren’t as 100 percent invested in their work as she is. She just doesn’t understand people who aren’t like that. A lot of people have told me she’s so mean, she’s funny because she’s mean. I just never saw it way. She would say that she’s the most caring person in the world. She has a blindside about the way she deals with people, which is so fun to play. I didn’t worry about it coming off too harsh because Mark and Will would always throw in one little moment of poor Jenna, I kind of get her now. They would throw in one little drop of humanity every once and awhile and I think that that would make her more tolerable in the long run.
You won three consecutive Emmys for supporting actress on Roseanne but this is your first nomination for a lead performance. Did it feel different to carry a show like Getting On in a bigger way?
Well, to tell you the truth, it was the show itself that put me into the lead category. Honestly, we were all co-leads on it. There was no lead actor on it really. So that was just sort of imposed onto me by someone who was making those decisions. I think of it as a supporting character. But it is always flattering to be thought of as any part of the show that’s helping to run the thing, whether it’s lead or supporting or guest appearance. Because my other two are in guest. And they mean just as much to me as the lead does.
Yeah, those two shows, The Big Bang Theory and Horace and Pete could not be more different in a lot of ways. One is a big network comedy and the other was an unpublicized web drama. Do those factors change the way you approach the characters in each?
I did do a lot of years of multi-camera sitcoms, so I guess I’m trying to compare them in that sense. Like if I took my character from Big Bang and had her do just a monologue across the table from Sheldon, it would be a comedy but the size of it wouldn’t be much different. The fact that you know you’ve got four cameras aimed your way versus one camera locked down just on your face, it kind of dictates the size that it’s going to be. But it’s a very minimal change in the acting. The groundedness of the characters is the same. The amount of work you put in is the same. Playing off your partner is the same. All of that is the same.
As someone who’s done so much great theater, Big Bang Theory is shot in front of an audience, while Horace and Pete was essentially a filmed play without an audience. Did that change things for you?
Yeah, when I first saw the episodes of Horace and Pete that Louis C.K. was putting out, I thought oh my God, this is a play. And I was amazed at how the ensemble was clicking. It looked like they were halfway through a run, that they were in week six of a two-hour play, because people knew where their overlaps would be. The rhythm and timing of it was just like a play. Mine was different, because it was just the two of us. And I had the luxury of not having to project it out to a five hundred seat house. And then it’s weird in Big Bang, because you do have an audience there but you go back and repeat and they give you lines to throw out and you’ve got the warm-up guy. And you take your curtain call at the top of the show. It’s way different from theater.
Your monologue in Horace and Pete was rightly hailed as one of the best television performances of the year and is so unlike anything that’s ever been on TV. How did Louis C.K. approach you to play this part? What was his pitch?
It was sent to me through my agent. And it said Horace and Pete on it. And I knew that Louis C.K. was connected with it somehow. But no one knew of the project yet, so I didn’t know if he was directing it, I didn’t know if he was acting it. I knew it was two people in the scene after I read it and I thought, who would be the guy? Is it him? I don’t know. But I was so intrigued by the writing. Then I found out that not only was he going to act in it, he was going to direct it and produce it. And he wrote me an email saying, if you would like to do this, I just ask that you not say anything about it until I start releasing them. I was doing a play at the time, so my only day off was going to be on a Monday. He said we could shoot it on a Monday and we’ll shoot it in about a month. And I said good, because it’s going to take me about a month to learn it, which it did. I worked on that thing so hard, oh God, because I knew he’d probably want to do it in one shot. And so I knew that I had to know it backwards and forwards. And that’s what we did. We shot it on a Monday for no more than three hours, I think. He gave excellent notes and was an excellent scene partner. And the writing was just obviously, amazing. So I was just in the right place at the right time for that one.
After you had read the script, what was your first reaction in terms of who this person was and how you wanted to approach the material?
The material itself was really daunting, because I thought, OK, as the story’s unfolding, first of all you’re not sure why she’s telling this story. And so I knew that it would be intriguing to watch for a while. And then what really got to me was the second half of the scene where it’s more of a dialogue, where you find the places where this couple are still united over their children, whether it’s in a good way or a bad way, it’s in a strong way. And they always will be. I loved how he wrote their relationship. I loved how there wasn’t judging of each time the other one had cheated. It was just, help me through this. You did this and I’ve forgotten about it, now please help me through this because I’m in the middle of it now. It was such an interesting way to show who was the mother of his children. So creative. But I knew it would be a hell of a challenge, because it was very complex. And he helped me find a lot of levels to it.
You mentioned Louis C.K. gave you some really good notes. What was some of that feedback?
When I first came in, I thought it’s got a giant mislead going on at the front end of it, because she seems like she’s just chattering about her father-in-law. He does this and he does that and he’s really sweet. So I thought that the way into it was to lean into that mislead and then have it take a turn down the road. And he said no, I think it would be better if right from the top, it’s more of a confession. You don’t need to mislead anybody. You’re just right in the thick of it from the top. And so with that adjustment, that was really helpful.
He asked you and the rest of the actors to keep the project secret. Once your episode came out, did you start hearing from people about it?
Yeah, I did. I gradually started hearing from people as word of mouth kept going and going. It was only word of mouth. I would start hearing from people who were friends of friends. It’s exactly the way he wanted to have the word about it spread. And at first, I didn’t know what to expect. I didn’t know how it had turned out. I didn’t know anything. I had a great, really intense, challenging, fun day doing it. And then I just went back to my play and I didn’t hear anything until I started to hear from people I knew, saying, oh my God, when did you do this and how did you do this? This is unique and fascinating and bizarre and sad.
Did you watch it?
I have watched it. I usually don’t watch myself but I have seen it.
Was that a bizarre experience since it is just you in close-up for so long?
Yeah, definitely. I mean, it’s never pleasurable. But I wanted to see it because I had no idea, truly, how it had turned out. I loved the way he shot it. I loved that he doesn’t do the reveal of himself until his first line. And I loved that because it was so small and just the two us and we only had to focus on each other. We were really connecting.