Laurie Metcalf is in her dressing room. Walking into her re-decorated space at Broadway’s Golden Theatre, the taupe walls and neutral furniture, accented with pops of color from a seafoam and gold throw pillow and a brilliant purple orchid (a gift from Betty Buckley), bathe the actor in calm—like sitting on the inside of an ornamental topiary. “You feel very pampered here,” Metcalf says. There’s a puzzle partially complete on a card table, her rippled and worn script to Edward Albee’s Three Tall Women on the counter. Like Metcalf herself, this place is about focus and the work.
It’s 4:45 PM before a 7 PM Tuesday evening performance and she’s not just early for an interview. Metcalf and her castmates, Tony nominee Glenda Jackson and Alison Pill, meet at 5:15 every Tuesday to run their lines of the show in its entirety, a “warm-up” after their day off, before stepping onstage to do the real thing. (For all other performances—even on a two-show day—they “only” run the first 15 pages.)
You had said on opening night that the play wasn’t necessarily clear on the page, that it was a harder one to find. What made it that way?
Laurie Metcalf: It was really hard, and I don’t know if that’s indicative of all of Albee—because this is my first Edward Albee play—and the fact that it’s very nonlinear. It’s ideas. It’s relationships, but there’s no business. There’s very little stage direction, and the ones that are in here are small pause, shrug, smiles tolerantly, gentle proud, emotional things. So the first act was really difficult for me. I needed a lot of help from [director] Joe [Mantello] to find what the business was going to be, and I didn’t know what form it was going to take until we got to previews, and the audience helped me find also a lot of the humor in the caretaker part of the first act because I went down a wrong path for quite a while thinking, “Well, I am paid to be attentive to her.” But if you play the reality of the room, it’s tedious and it’s maddening, and there are times when they want to kill each other and times when A is totally dependent on B and appreciates her and probably doesn’t even know what she’d do without her, although she’d never admit it. That spectrum was fun to find.
Once I loosened up and started looking for ways to create the reality of the room, whether it’s zoning out during something that I’ve heard a million times to playing cards to putting on slippers because it’s a certain time of day, none of it’s in here. I found it fun but daunting.
In terms of “finding” it, how does that manifest in a rehearsal room, in a preview period? What are some of the things that you’re trying and then that you’re feeling the reaction to that guides you?
LM: When the audience came in, they spotted a lot of the humor that I had missed. The second act was more understandable from the beginning. We are the same person of different ages, and that discovery was making sure that each of us—that I didn’t accidentally play that I already knew some information from the future that I wouldn’t have had. It’s all 100 percent autobiographical—every reference became more and more alive when we realized that everything in it he lived or observed.
You mentioned how influential director Joe Mantello is—
LM: When you see his productions mounted, every part of it makes sense: the music, the lights, all the performances, the set, definitely. All of the people that he works with, and he always has a hand so it's of a piece.
What does he bring out in you specifically, not just the piece?
LM: I rely on his eye. He's, you know, that's the director’s job, to sit out and see, tell you what you can't see and then also keep track of the full story. From day one of working with him years ago, I trusted his instincts and his taste, and I know that he knows how to speak to actors and it seems simplistic, but it's really rare. I trust him completely, I don't have to put up any barriers, I don't have to question anything. If he tells me something in the rehearsal room, I know that it's true. We're both from Illinois, and we have kind of a similar work ethic, and we love to be in the rehearsal room.
I like going to work in a rehearsal room and bringing a lot of ideas when I know that that's what the director is bringing in too. Neither one of us will walk away from something until we're both satisfied. I think we both like to think outside the box also. Surprising choices. Finding humor where there probably isn't any and finding the heart where there isn't or where it's not apparent.
What have you learned from Alison and Glenda—what they're doing that has brought out a certain aspect in your character?
LM: We're co-dependent on each other and especially when things are clicking along and we're overlapping and the dialogue is very glib to begin with, it's not unlike Doll's House. The ideas come fast and furious in sections, but then it's broken up with monologues. We go down and meet in Glenda's room and we run the first 15 pages at a clip. I like to do it no matter what so even if the company wasn't doing it, I would do it by myself. I run the whole thing by myself.
What's the thing that you wanted to make strong in your B? She's foot-forward with what aspect of her?
LM: She's in the prime of her life. The wheels haven't come off yet. She's got a drink in one hand and the cigarette, the image of that, in the other. She and her husband have worked out whatever their relationship is. She's at her strongest when we're seeing her in that decade that I represent—at her most solid and maybe happiest. Fulfilled in the ways that she wants. I wanted her to be strong. In the rehearsal room, I remember that I was having a lot of anger come out and Joe said, “No, you don't need it because you're—that's not where you are at, you know, in your life right now. You've got the drink in the hand.” In my monologue I had moments where I was very angry in it. He said, “You like to come at a part wearing boxing gloves.” And he said, “But in this role, you have to fight with razor blades.” I said, “Oh, okay. That’s different.”
The boxing gloves especially brings to mind Doll's House, where we had the set as a metaphoric boxing ring. Misery saw you onstage and you were wrestling that literally...
LM: Wrestler, boxer, and now I'm some sort of…fencer.
Aside from A Doll’s House, you also had wild success with LadyBird. Is this all just coincidental timing?
LM: It's coincidental that I got flooded with all this great terrific writing at the same time. Coming off of these two, two-and-a-half years, just so bountiful of the parts that I was asked to interpret and material that I got to work. And the directors and the, you know, the ensembles I got to be in. Each project was just the A-Team.