Actress Laurie Metcalf does not do fancy. Her boxy white handbag hails from Target, “my favorite place to shop.” In a cozy Theater District cafe, she appears in a blunt-cut bob, jeans, sneakers, an oversize sweater, without a dab of makeup, a glint of jewelry.
Metcalf prefers to work the same way, not letting artifice — “a shell” she called it — distract from the work. But she is in the midst of an Oscar campaign. The strategy involved would give George Patton pause. So she consented to doing a glamorous photo shoot a few days before the interview. On her one day off.
“A dream job is to walk right past hair and makeup” and sail onto the stage or set, said the critically acclaimed actress who, at the age of 62, finally finds herself on the cusp of mainstream stardom.
“I would win in the contest of who’s had the best year,” she admits of her movies-theater-television hat trick: an Oscar nomination, the first in four decades of acting, for her performance as the exasperated mother, Marion, in the film “Lady Bird.” A 2017 Tony Award as returning Nora in “A Doll’s House, Part 2.” A nine-episode revival next month as beleaguered Jackie in “Roseanne,” the role she last played in 1997 and that snared her a trio of Emmys.
“I’d like to think that it’s karma,” said Metcalf, one of the earliest members of Chicago’s illustrious Steppenwolf Theatre, where she performed in dozens of plays. “I’d like to think that, having treated every single project as the most important one in that moment, and having worked your ass off, and given 150 percent to each one, that maybe there’s a little payback.” She raises a glass of pinot noir in a toast to her marvelous year.
“It feels like ‘What the hell took everyone so long? What have you been looking at?’ ” said Jim Parsons of ‘The Big Bang Theory,” where Metcalf has a recurring role as the pious, shade-tossing mother of his character, Sheldon. “She brings it every single time at an intense, always fascinating, realistic and grounded degree.”
The Oscar nomination arrived the day Metcalf began rehearsals for the upcoming Broadway revival of Edward Albee’s “Three Tall Women.” (She accepted the role before even reading the Pulitzer Prize-winning play — her now warped, water-stained, scribble-infested copy perched by her elbow on the cafe table — for the opportunity to work with co-star and British acting titan Glenda Jackson.)
This will be her first time attending the Academy Awards. She said, “I watch the Oscars in my pajamas like everybody else.”
It has been a strong movie season for female characters of a certain age who exhibit grit, raw emotion and little makeup. “For me, it’s not new,” Metcalf said. “That’s my literal comfort zone.”
She was raised in Carbondale, Illinois, home of Southern Illinois University, her alma mater. After graduation, she joined an extraordinary group of talented actors and directors at Steppenwolf, including Gary Sinise, John Malkovich and Jeff Perry, who became her first husband. “In the beginning, because we were all the same age and there weren’t many plays that we could all be in and be the same age, I would be John Malkovich’s mother in ‘True West,’ then his 13-year-old niece in ‘Fifth of July,’” she recalled.
The plays and ensemble were terrific. The income was not. “I was always a secretary in the early days, before we decided we were brave enough to join Equity and see if this thing has any legs,” said Metcalf, who quit temping at age 28. The next year, she appeared in Steppenwolf’s New York production of Lanford Wilson’s “Balm in Gilead” to rapturous reviews. A “tour de force” declared the New York Times.
She went on to become primarily a stage and television performer. Her first movie was “Desperately Seeking Susan” (1985), a performance that still displeases her. “I guess you could call it a glamorous role,” she said of her role as the sister-in-law of the lead, played by Rosanna Arquette. “I felt like I was playing a caricature.”
She can’t recall her last movie role before “Lady Bird.” It was “Stop-Loss,” a decade ago, one day’s labor. She has no personal publicist.
After a glass of wine and appetizers, she will consult with a stylist — “a word I never thought would come out of my mouth,” she said, flicking it like a piece of indeterminate foreign food — for the Oscars luncheon in Los Angeles that Sunday. “They knew that they had to get me one. They did not trust me at all to put myself together.”
Designer Christian Siriano, a fan who’s now a friend, offered to create the gown for the Oscars ceremony. “I don’t know what it’s going to be like,” said Metcalf, who didn’t even specify a color for a dress that will be seen by a massive global audience. “But I trust him.”
She prefers to concentrate on the work. When she’s in a play, she runs through the entire script before each performance. “It’s boring and lonely,” she said, “but I feel if I don’t do it, even on a two-show day, something bad will happen.”
Her preference is for new plays. She is that rare actor who admits to harboring zero interest — none! — in tackling Shakespeare.
“It sounds blasphemous,” she said, in a near whisper, “but I don’t get it. I just don’t get it. I like contemporary, bare-boned writing. I don’t like having the language that I barely understand get in the way of me interpreting it over to an audience. It’s this barrier that I don’t want to have to attack.”
She appears to have never earned a bad review. Her “Lady Bird” performance revealed “a remarkable combination of grit, vulnerability and panicked concern,” raved The Washington Post’s Ann Hornaday. “One of the great stage actresses of our time,” noted The Post’s Peter Marks last spring.
“Three Tall Women” director Joe Mantello once said of her that “I will go anywhere anytime to work with you again.” More than three decades ago, she was the second actor cast on “Roseanne,” after the title character and creator, Roseanne Barr.
The producers, said Barr via email, “told me that she was the greatest actress they had ever seen, and I came to agree with them.”
“Lady Bird,” directed and written by Greta Gerwig (nominated for both directing and original screenplay Oscars), changed everything. The role of Marion, Metcalf believes, came her way at the suggestion of impresario Scott Rudin, producer of “Doll’s House” and now “Three Tall Women,” the architect of the Metcalf renaissance.
“I could respond to the material immediately, the butting of heads with a teenage child in the house. I was so taken with the amount of heart that Greta managed to infuse into this complex mother-daughter relationship,” Metcalf said. She plays opposite Saoirse Ronan, who, at 23, received her third Oscar nomination. Marion, Metcalf said, “is not the ogre, the monster in the room. It’s a balance that I found beautifully written.”
The movie premiered last year at Telluride and caused Metcalf to break “my five-year rule. Anything that I did on film or TV, I would not be able to watch it for at least five years after I was done. It would give me a chance to forget what I’d done, to stop beating myself up for the many, many hours afterward spent telling myself, ‘Oh, I should have done this on that line.’ So I squinted watching my part,” she said, shrinking a bit on the banquette, “but the rest of it I was as moved and touched by the film as everyone around me was. As we were exiting, I heard so many people say ‘I have to go and call my mom.’ “
When actress and director first met, “Greta pulled out a cardboard box filled with memorabilia from her high school years. It was at that moment where I thought, ‘I’m the mom of a real teenage girl,’ ” said Metcalf, who is twice divorced — both times from actors, Perry, who plays Cyrus on “Scandal,” and Matt Wolf, who portrayed Jackie’s abusive boyfriend on “Roseanne” — and the mother of four, ages 33 to 12.
Having children spaced so far apart “wasn’t brave,” Metcalf said. “It was — what would I call it? — confused.”
Her eldest, Zoe Perry, will be her Oscar date. Perry sounds uncannily like Metcalf and was cast as Mary Cooper, the mother on the “Big Bang” spinoff, “Young Sheldon.”
“This can’t ever have happened in the history of anything, playing the same character decades apart, and we’re mother and daughter,” Metcalf said. Perry’s even the same age, 33, that her mother was when she started on “Roseanne.”
Metcalf appeared on three seasons of HBO’s woefully overlooked “Getting On” as the harried, clueless stool-sample expert Dr. Jenna James. “I like to play those characters that are just so egotistical and driven, that it’s like they have blinders on. I find them really funny because they don’t care what’s in their way,” she said. “They’re just going to get what they want, and you end up weirdly rooting for them. They become endearing in their myopia.”
Awards season “has been this ride for the last couple of months,” she said. “I’ve gotten to meet a lot of actors that I’ve never gotten the chance to meet before. Willem Dafoe, Sam Rockwell, Octavia Spencer, Sally Hawkins, Richard Jenkins. It’s like we’re in the same class. We’re having a shared experience.”
“I’m trying to enjoy the moment,” she said. It’s going to go away.”.
Despite the accolades and nominations, she doesn’t have another movie lined up after her three-month Broadway run.
“I’m not worried about it. Fortunately, in the theater, there are many roles to age into,” she said, before rushing off to meet the stylist she never imagined needing.