Laurie Metcalf has won three Emmys and a Tony Award in her nearly 40-year year career, but the veteran stage and screen actress still feels uncomfortable in front of a camera. “Even after all those years on ‘Roseanne,’ I have a real fear of cameras. They make me inhibited,” Metcalf, 62, said on a recent afternoon in Los Angeles. “I think ‘Why don’t I know where to put my hands?’ All of a sudden the spotlight is right on you and every pore on your face in high definition and you think, ‘Oh this is all I can think about.’ I can’t just turn it off. You’d think after all these years I’d be used to it!”
Metcalf has figured out ways to work around the phobia, but this year she’s also found herself even more out of her element with the nominations and awards attention being given to her work in “Lady Bird.” Not only is it her first film in a decade, but it’s the first time she’s had a serious shot at getting an Oscar nomination (she’s already gotten supporting actress nods from the Screen Actors Guild, Golden Globes and Independent Spirit Awards).
In the film, Metcalf plays the mother, Marion, to a 17-year-old girl, Christine (Saoirse Ronan), who has begun systematically rejecting everything her mother has given her — from her hair (which she has died pink) to her name (she demands that everyone call her Lady Bird). Marion, meanwhile, under stresses from work and a general dissatisfaction with how their lives have turned out, is trying (sometimes poorly) to navigate this moment of teenage selfishness and motivate her daughter. The story is loosely based on writer and director Greta Gerwig’s own life growing up in Sacramento. And much like real life, a single scene can turn on a dime. For a moment, Lady Bird and Marion are connecting and all of a sudden they’re fighting again, or vice versa.
“They’re misinterpreting each other. They’re looking for buttons to push. They’re passive aggressive,” Metcalf said. “We know that Marion and Lady Bird have a strong relationship, but it’s just dysfunctional at this particular moment that we’re watching. But it hasn’t always been like that and they’ll grow out of it.”
Metcalf laughs that she still feels like she hasn’t had that much experience in film and says she relied on others to “steer” her through the movie. And yet one of her most memorable scenes in the film is one where she is entirely alone, circling the Sacramento airport and having an emotional change of heart during the loop. It’s the kind of scene that looms on a production schedule for an actor.
“Greta said she wanted to do it in one take and that scared me,” Metcalf said. “I thought ‘I’ve driven around this airport and that’s a long way. I don’t know if I can be interesting for that long!'” The execution was a complicated dance of both trying to physically drive while only being able to see out of a sliver of windshield with the camera set-up obstructing most of the view, and also being able to go through the emotional trajectory necessary (i.e. at this turn, the anger sets in, but by this sign you’re deciding to get back and feeling hopeful and oh, don’t forget to put the car in park before you jump out). And it’s one that pays off beautifully.
The indie has earned $26.3 million in its nearly seven weeks in theaters as it continues to expand across the country. While Metcalf might have some impostor syndrome with her recent success in film, her co-star Ronan is only in awe. “Everything she does is groundbreaking. People talk about her performances the way they talk about Meryl Streep. And Laurie has always been attracted to good work. You can tell she’s never done it to get more exposure, she’s never done it for any other reason than she wants to do good work,” Ronan said. “She enriches everything that she’s in because she’s genuinely in it. I just think she’s magic.”
Metcalf only met Gerwig’s mother during the last two weeks of filming — far too late to inform any character choices. But it was revelatory in its own way. “I saw her mother watching her daughter as the director of this movie happening in her hometown. I saw a really strong relationship and I could imagine the parallels,” Metcalf said. “I was able to see, ‘Oh that’s where we’re headed. Look at Greta and her mom standing in the parking lot. Things will be fine.'”