Laurie Metcalf, the First Lady of American Theater

It’s hard to say which Barr causes Laurie Metcalf more anguish: Roseanne or William.

As I sat down with the actress on a recent Sunday evening at Orso on West 46th Street, heads were exploding over the attorney general’s four-page memo summarizing the Mueller report as exonerating President Trump of colluding with the Russians.

Even though she has never done Shakespeare, Ms. Metcalf looked in this moment like she was in the third act of a Shakespearean tragedy. I promptly ordered some pinot noir.

“This is truly, truly upsetting and unsettling,” she said, “and this low-grade panic attack I’ve been living under just went to orange. I had such high hopes of him being out of office before 2020.”

Ms. Metcalf is on Broadway conjuring Hillary Clinton to John Lithgow’s Bill in “Hillary and Clinton,” a play directed by Joe Mantello and written by Lucas Hnath, whose play about another knotty marriage, “A Doll’s House, Part 2,” won Ms. Metcalf a Tony in 2017.

As Mr. Lithgow told me, “Trump is not addressed at all, but the idea of Trump hangs in the air all through the evening.”

“Hillary and Clinton,” which opens at the John Golden Theater on April 18 (and faced off against the real Clintons at the Beacon on April 11), is set in 2008 on the eve of the New Hampshire primary in a hotel room scattered with a room service tray, newspapers, sneakers, slippers and socks, a computer and a Toblerone candy bar. It is a prelapsarian time when the coming anarchy of Trumpworld was unimaginable.

But the entwined dynamics of the Clinton operation and marriage examined in the play are now seen as consequential factors in Trump’s implausible victory.

There are four characters: Hillary, Bill, Mark Penn (her chief strategist at the time, played by Zak Orth) and Barack Obama, the queen’s dashing young usurper, played by Peter Francis James. Because of the dynasty element and scorching power struggles, Mr. Lithgow said, the play reminds him of “The Crown,” the Netflix show in which he played Winston Churchill.

One thing hits you immediately as you watch Mr. Lithgow eat pizza and do a crossword puzzle and Ms. Metcalf sneakily pour a miniature gin from the minibar into her Snapple onstage: Our relationship to Bill and Hillary, who spent nearly three decades at the pinnacle of public life, is as complicated as theirs is to each other.

“I’ve never been in a play where the audience brought so much of their own political and emotional baggage to the experience,” Mr. Lithgow said.

The two stars, who have met Mrs. Clinton and supported her presidential bids, seemed uneasy about how the Clintons would react, and that the couple, who often go to Broadway plays, might show up one night. And indeed, Mr. Penn did come to a recent performance.

There are growls from Clinton allies, some of whom wish the play would just go away. Mr. Penn, for his part, said he found the play to be “a superb contemporary drama about relationships — not really what happened at all but what could have happened.”

Scott Rudin, the producer, who also knows the Clintons, sent the script in advance and invited them to a dress rehearsal with no other audience members present. (Nick Merrill, Mrs. Clinton’s spokesman, said the Clintons have “no plans to see the play at present.”)

“It would be impossible for an audience to watch them watch the play,” Ms. Metcalf said. “It would be tough for any of us to sit through somebody re-enacting our most private experiences on a stage, but ultimately I feel like I empathize, doing it.”

Mr. Rudin agreed: “I don’t think they’ll ever see it. If I were them, I wouldn’t see it. It’s an idea of them. It’s not literally them.”

The play’s premise is that it’s set in an alternative universe where it’s Bill and Hillary but it’s not. Or it is. It was originally written in 2008, after Mr. Hnath had been watching the Clintons on C-Span, but has been rewritten. Ms. Metcalf believes that knowing how Mrs. Clinton’s political career ended makes the saga more poignant.

Reading the play on paper, it was hard to conceive of Clinton fans liking it. It blends some things that never happened (Obama offering Hillary the veep spot if she would ramp down her campaign, and Obama trying to force Hillary out of the race by showing her some oppo research on Bill’s dubious money sources for his charity work) with some things that surely did, like scorching conjugal battles. The play drills deep into the codependent partnership: sometimes complementary, sometimes competitive.

“I’ve always been the breadwinner,” Ms. Metcalf said, referring to herself, but also Mrs. Clinton at times. “It plays with dynamics in a relationship.”

The barbs between the pair elicit gasps and murmurs from the audience mingled with startled laughter. Mr. Rudin likens the play to “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” by Edward Albee, which he said he will produce on Broadway next season, directed by Mr. Mantello, with Ms. Metcalf as Martha, Eddie Izzard as George, Russell Tovey as Nick and Patsy Ferran, who just won the Olivier award for best actress in “Summer and Smoke” in London, as Honey.

Advising Hillary to drop out, Bill says to her: “Don’t let them see you becoming a rotting corpse stinking up the place.” Hillary tells Bill, “You can’t help but make my thing about you,” acidly noting that she would like to get the Bill who’s famous for listening and empathizing because the Bill she gets “tramples me time after time.”

Bill tries to coach her on showing more vulnerability and torches her by saying, “When I ran, I won,” to which Hillary responds, “Oh, going there, are we?”

At one point, Hillary tells Bill: “You don’t want to see me get this job,” adding: “You don’t want to be eclipsed, because you know that given the chance I will eclipse you.” She notes that “Most people — that general public you’re so fond of — they actually can’t name one thing that you did in office that wasn’t that ‘one thing.’”

As it turned out, during the two performances I watched, the audience didn’t seem turned off by the portrayal of Hillary. Ms. Metcalf, who like Hillary grew up in Illinois and has what Mr. Mantello calls “Midwest practicality,” was able to bring humor and humanity to the role.

“We only would have done this play with her,” Mr. Rudin said. “I think people love the character in the play even though the play is not a love letter to Hillary.”

He said he considers Ms. Metcalf “the best actress in America.”

I read her something she once said: “I like to play those characters that are so egotistical and driven, that it’s like they have blinders on,” adding that, “you end up weirdly rooting for them. They become endearing in their myopia.”

Does that apply to Hillary?

“Yes,” Ms. Metcalf said. “I like her refusal to kowtow, her ‘Hit me again, I’ve been through it all and I’m still moving forward.’ I hope you get a sense of that in the play because she deserves that respect, I think.”

Bikinis or Briefs?

The actress is 63, close to the same age that Hillary was in 2008. She is slight, with short brown hair and dimples and just as cool as you hope she will be. I tell her that her legs look great in the scene where she’s changing her clothes to meet Obama.

“We had an underwear discussion,” she said, talking about her theatrical soul mate, Mr. Mantello. “And Joe said, ‘Look, I don’t know about the lady stuff.’ And I said, ‘Frankly, I don’t either.’ The costume designer kept rattling off different colors of underwear, and Joe and I kept looking at her and saying, ‘No, it’s white. It’s white and it’s big.’ It’s like, c’mon. She’s a certain age.” Ms. Metcalf wears her own tennis shoes.

She and Mr. Lithgow first developed their chemistry back in 1998 when she guest-starred as a crazed love interest in “3rd Rock From the Sun.” In the play, he sports Clintonesque running shorts. “They’re short,” Metcalf said, laughing. “In fact, when he steps over me when I’m lying on the floor, it’s like. …” She makes one of her famous rubbery faces.

Mr. Mantello, who also directed Ms. Metcalf in “Three Tall Women,’’ for which she won a Tony in 2018, said that she lacks “an actor’s vanity.” (Also, unusually, a personal publicist.)

“She doesn’t squander energy and talent on today’s lethal combination of endless self-promotion and humble-bragging,” he said. Whenever he sends her a play, he said, she is eager for a chance to wear a bad wig or padded butt and maybe a fake nose. “She’s always looking for the opportunity to vomit onstage,” he said.

(“If I can work it in, I’ll work it in,” Ms. Metcalf said, shrugging, when I asked her about the vomiting.)

Mr. Mantello said the two best performances he has ever seen were Ms. Metcalf as a sweet but dim prostitute in “Balm in Gilead” in 1984 and as a woman having a secret affair with her father-in-law in Louis C.K.’s web series, “Horace and Pete.”

Sam Gold, who directed Ms. Metcalf in “A Doll’s House, Part 2,” is equally effusive: “If you were to create the perfect actor with A.I., if would be Laurie Metcalf.”

She is the anti-diva, only “throwing a bit of a fit” if she sees a director is mistreating or scapegoating subordinates. She avoids social media because, she said, she has a slightly addictive personality and she doesn’t want “to go down the wormhole.” She is monkish when she’s working, abiding by a simple rule: Bring your A game, no matter what.

“A lot of people on stage and screen are posing, thinking they’re cool, thinking they’ll make a lot of money,” said Ethan Hawke, who directed Ms. Metcalf in a 2010 revival of “A Lie of the Mind,” by Sam Shepard. “Laurie’s heart is so pure. It’s like watching Jimi Hendrix play guitar.”

Ms. Metcalf dresses mostly in T-shirts and hoodies handed out by the shows she’s in. Low-end swag-bag dressing? “Yeah, so the better the project,” she said, laughing, “the better I look.”

Ordinarily, she likes flannel shirts so she doesn’t have to wear a bra. But for our interview, she has put on her “de facto dress-up sweater,” mustard yellow with a bird and a heart on the sleeve, given to her by Sara Gilbert, and her Target jeans and Ugg boots. She has a knit cap she bought on the street with a pompom that looks like a lint ball.

“I don’t want to have anything dry cleaned,” she said. “I want to throw it in hot water.”

She waved off the producer’s offer of a town car to walk to the theater from her residential hotel on the Upper West Side.

“I have a really small house in Burbank, very nondescript,” she said. “I don’t really care where I live. I chose it because it was within walking distance of the high school my kids wanted to go to. I don’t want to own anything I have to worry about getting messed up or broken. Everything in it is from Ikea and Target.”

She also has a ranch in Idaho, where she spent a year being “ranch woman” when “Roseanne,” in which she was featured as the title star’s neurotic sister, Jackie, first went off the air in 1997, after nine seasons. She raised sheep, had them sheared, spun the wool into balls of yarn and knitted socks.

“Horribly time consuming and not worth it in the long run, by far,” she said.

‘I Don’t Want to Share’

Ms. Metcalf started out working as a legal secretary in Chicago to support herself while she acted at Steppenwolf Theatre, the famous Chicago troupe, where talent like John Malkovich, Tracy Letts and Gary Sinise blossomed.

She briefly joined the cast of “Saturday Night Live” in 1981, the disastrous year when Dick Ebersol was in charge, but her one sketch, “Women From Mars,” got cut just before airtime.

She won three Emmys in the 1990s for her role as Jackie. Tom Werner, one of the creators of “Roseanne,” said they originally intended to hire Ms. Metcalf for a small role in the factory where Roseanne worked. But they were so impressed, they asked her to come back the next day and read for the sister role.

“I can read it now,” she replied.

They asked her if she needed 15 minutes to prepare.

“No,” she said. “I’m happy to do it now.”

“I’ve seen a lot of talent,” Mr. Werner said. “But I still remember how extraordinary it was to flip from one character to another in a nanosecond.”

The last three years have been Ms. Metcalf’s time. “It all started clicking,” she said, a success she views as karma because she has worked so hard for so long.

Besides her two Tonys, she got a best supporting actress Oscar nomination for playing the angry, controlling mother in “Lady Bird,” directed by Greta Gerwig. In a fun bit of casting, Ms. Metcalf plays Jim Parsons’s mother on “The Big Bang Theory,” and her daughter Zoe Perry plays the same character in the prequel, “Young Sheldon.” Ms. Metcalf is the voice of the mother in the coming “Toy Story 4,” a preview of which made her cry.

Yet she prefers the stage, she said.

“The camera has always intimidated me,” she said. “It’s so close. It shows every tic. I have to work really hard to hide that I’m scared, so I kind of shut down a little bit and I don’t feel as free as I do when I’m on a stage. Like I would never do a nude scene on camera, but I would do a nude scene in the theater. It’s not permanent. It’s like a shared experience between just those people.”

Ms. Metcalf is single, after being married and divorced from two actors. I paraphrase Tom Stoppard’s line from “The Real Thing”: “To marry an actor once is careless but twice is inexcusable.”

She laughed. “I worked all the time, and I only knew other actors,’’ she said. “But actors are also, you know, initially, really charismatic people.”

I suggest she get a younger boyfriend.

“No,” she said, flatly. “I’m done. Done. I so love being on my own. And in hindsight, I always did. I’m not cut out to share a life with somebody. I don’t want to compromise. I don’t want to answer to anything. I don’t want to share. I’m very much a hermit anyway. Kids and acting are the only things that get me out of the house. I do a lot of car-pooling.”

She has four children; the youngest, a 13-year-old girl, is the last one at home.

“It’s a horrible constant guilt trip that never ends,” she said. “But they have forgiven me a lot. And some part of me wants to think that it’s good that they see me doing something I absolutely love and I throw a hundred percent into it.”

Ms. Metcalf has talked very little about the debacle with Ms. Barr’s racist tweet that shut down the successful reboot of “Roseanne” last year.

“They made that decision in five minutes,” she said, looking pained. “And we were all looking so forward to coming back. The numbers were incredible. Top of its game. And I was here in town doing ‘Three Tall Women,’ and I had a show that night, so I was just sitting at home and I had CNN on. That’s where I heard about it. The scroll at the bottom said, ‘Roseanne’ show canceled.’ And I thought, what happened? And then as soon as I saw what she wrote, I was like, ‘O.K., yeah.’

“I don’t consider her cut out of my life. I never will. But what happened, happened. And we haven’t spoken since it happened.”

She said she was the last to sign on to “The Conners” because she was “scared to death” that it would fail. But then, “we all wanted to do it for the crew, for those 200 people who counted on the work before it blew up.”

After TV Roseanne was killed off with an opioid overdose — “I AIN’T DEAD, BITCHES!!!!” the real one tweeted — Ms. Metcalf and Ms. Gilbert filmed a scene in the kitchen during which they broke down as they talked about how much they missed her.

“It was one of the only times in my life as an actor where I didn’t really have to do a substitution to get to the emotion of it,” Ms. Metcalf said. “It was true. We missed her. We were mourning her in that scene. It was rough to go through.”

(For her part, Ms. Barr recently told The Washington Post that Gilbert “destroyed” her life and the show when she tweeted that Ms. Barr’s racism was abhorrent. “She will never get enough until she consumes my liver with a fine Chianti,” Ms. Barr said of Ms. Gilbert.)

The day after we meet, Ms. Metcalf is finally getting a day off. What will she do?

“I will not be leaving the apartment,” she said. “I will not be taking a shower. I will have enough food stocked up to eat. And just putter around and read a little bit. I will watch the news, although …”

She remembers her unhappiness with the other Barr.

“God,” she said, as she grabbed her knit hat, “I just flashed on that again.”

Maureen Dowd, winner of the 1999 Pulitzer Prize for distinguished commentary and author of three New York Times best sellers, became an Op-Ed columnist in 1995. @MaureenDowd Facebook

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