An Inside Look At The Life And Career Of Laurie Metcalf

Laurie Metcalf possesses one of the most recognizable faces on television, having played Jackie Harris on hit sitcom "Roseanne" for 10 seasons, then in the short-lived 2018 revival, and then again its spinoff "The Conners." That role brought Metcalf three Emmys (she won a fourth in 2022 for her guest spot on HBO comedy "Hacks"). Metcalf has also appeared in numerous other TV series, and received Emmy nominations for her roles in "3rd Rock From the Sun," "Monk," "Desperate Housewives," "The Big Bang Theory," "Getting On," and "Horace and Pete." She's also made an impression on the big screen with her Oscar-nominated performance in "Lady Bird," and, of course, as the voice of Andy's mom in Pixar's "Toy Story" and its sequels. 

A founding member of Chicago's acclaimed Steppenwolf Theatre Company, Metcalf has also remained active on stage, most recently starring in a Broadway revival of "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" A two-time Tony winner, she earned Tony nominations for her performances, too. Shifting effortlessly from film to stage to television, Metcalf has established herself as one of the finest American actors of her generation, throughout a career that's spanned six generations — and counting. To find out more about this wildly talented star, read on for more details about the life and career of Laurie Metcalf. 

Acting was not her original ambition

Growing up in the small Illinois town of Edwardsville, a career in Hollywood wasn't even something that was on Laurie Metcalf's radar. While attending college, she told the Los Angeles Times, she worked part-time as a secretary ("A good secretary," she declared) while majoring in German before switching to anthropology. It was during this time that she became bitten by the acting bug when, on a whim, she auditioned for a role in a college production. "Theater opened up a whole new world for me," she said. "It was a freedom I'd never known before."

Even though Metcalf demonstrated an innate aptitude for acting, she never envisioned anything would come of it. "Acting seemed like such an impractical thing to do," she admitted. She wound up dating actor Terry Kinney, who was in the midst of starting a theater company with fellow thespians Jeff Perry and Gary Sinise; Metcalf tagged along. From its humble origins in a school basement, the Steppenwolf Theatre Company grew to become one of the most prestigious in the country while launching the careers of Metcalf, John Malkovich, Joan Allen and others. 

Appearing on "Late Night with Seth Meyers," Metcalf explained how the ability to play so many different types of roles with Steppenwolf honed her talents. "Like, I would play John Malkovich's mother in 'True West,' and then I would bounce around and play his 13-year-old niece in 'Fifth of July,'" Metcalf recalled. 

She a cast member on SNL — but just for one episode

A lot of future stars emerged from "Saturday Night Live," and Laurie Metcalf is one of them. It is, however, easy to forget that she was once part of the venerable sketch comedy series, given that she only appeared in a single episode, in 1981 during the series' sixth season. A featured player, Metcalf most memorably appeared in a filmed sketch titled "Laurie Has a Story," alongside host Catherine O'Hara. "It is like a dream," she said of her ultra-brief time on "SNL" while speaking with Seth Meyers in a "Late Night" interview. "There's proof that I did do these things," she added, referencing photos of her on the show that Meyers displayed.

Recalling her brief stint in the "SNL" cast, Metcalf told Vulture that she and another actor, Emily Prager, were essentially brought in as interns. "We had not been added to the cast — we were there to be tested, you know," she said. As for why her time on the show wasn't longer, blame the 1981 Writers Guild of America strike, which shut down TV production for three months and cut that season of "SNL" short. When the show eventually returned, Metcalf was not invited back. 

However, she wasn't unhappy about the outcome. "Acting is scary enough, but doing it live on TV, that's got to be as stressful as it gets," she explained. "I was not cut out to do something like that."

She and her daughter both played the same character

Among Laurie Metcalf's many memorable performances was the recurring role of Mary Cooper, mother of oddball genius Sheldon Cooper (played by Jim Parsons) in mega-hit sitcom "The Big Bang Theory." While the show was still on the air, a prequel spinoff was launched, "Young Sheldon," chronicling the character's childhood in Texas. Cast in the role of Mary Cooper was Zoe Perry — who just happens to be Metcalf's daughter (from her first marriage to actor Jeff Perry of "Scandal"). 

As Perry told the Chicago Tribune, producers knew her parentage when she auditioned for the role. "I was lucky enough to get the audition, and they knew I was Laurie's daughter going in because one usually does — that stuff always seems to precede the person, right?" she said, adding, "I've obviously got genetics working in my favor — our voices are similar, our mannerisms are even pretty similar."

Appearing on "Late Night with Seth Meyers," Metcalf admitted the situation was a pretty unique one. "This can't have ever happened anywhere," Metcalf exclaimed. "I know mothers and daughters have played mothers and daughters, and maybe they've played the same person in a flashback maybe. But this is on two concurrently running shows." The experience, she admitted had led her to approach her "Big Bang Theory" role from a whole new perspective. "I look at Jim differently," she explained. "I know him now as the little boy on 'Young Sheldon.'"

She prefers stage to screen

Despite her considerable roster of screen credits, Laurie Metcalf has maintained an affinity for the stage. As she told Vulture, the slow pace of film, in particular, has never really been a good fit for her. "It's not one of my favorite ways of working," she revealed. "I prefer theater."

In fact, she added, being able to spread herself between film, television, and theater has allowed her to prevent any of the three mediums from becoming stale for her. "What is great is to be able to bounce around between theater, film, and TV so you don't get super down on any one. Because I'd hate for that to happen," she said. "I have such a passion, mostly about theater, that I want to protect that. So it's good that I can go off and do other things."

Her extensive theater work has certainly not gone unnoticed. As reported, in 2018 she won a Tony Award in the Featured Actress in a Play category for her performance in "Three Tall Women" — her second consecutive Tony, having won the previous year for portraying Nora in "A Doll's House, Part 2," one of just six actors to achieve that. She was nominated again in 2019, for "Hillary and Clinton," but didn't win; if she had, Metcalf would have been the first actor ever to win three Tony Awards in consecutive years.

Laurie Metcalf has dreamed of doing a musical

In addition to her decade with Steppenwolf Theatre Company, Laurie Metcalf has starred on Broadway 10 times. Not a single one of those plays, it should be noted, was a musical. A key reason for that, she revealed in a 2019 interview with "And The Tony Nominees Are...," was that she doesn't believe she possesses a strong enough singing voice. However, appearing in a musical remains something she'd love to check off her bucket list. "It's my dream to be in a musical, I'd have to scream-shout something," Metcalf said. "I'd love to know what that feels like, to do that 11 o'clock number and have a big orchestra kick in underneath you." 

Of course, unlike a standard play, musicals must require vocal training and learning complex choreography. "Nathan Lane always tells me, you know, it's like a hundred times harder than a regular play, and I believe him," she added, "but I still would really love to have that experience."

Metcalf finally got her chance — sort of — the following year when she appeared in the musical "Hell on Earth." As Broadway World reported, Metcalf starred alongside 20 teenage actors from the Bay Area in the one-night-only musical, which focuses on a group of teens making the leap from middle school to high school and all the puberty-fuelled angst and anxiety that comes with it.

The five-year rule she maintains about her film and TV work

Some actors enjoy watching their own performances onscreen, others don't; Laurie Metcalf can be placed in the latter category. In fact, she told the The Washington Post, she chooses to maintain a "five-year rule" when it comes to viewing her own screen work. "Anything I did on film or TV, I would not be able to watch it for at least five years after I was done," she explained. "It would give me a chance to forget what I'd done, to stop beating myself up for the many, many hours spent telling myself, 'Oh, I should have done this on that line.'"

It was 2017's "Lady Bird" — for which she earned her first and so far only Oscar nomination — that she decided to make an exception and watch the film ahead of her self-imposed five-year timeframe. "So I squinted watching my part," she admitted, "but the rest of it I was as moved and touched by the film as everyone around me was."

"Lady Bird" aside, that period of time allows Metcalf the necessary distance that both prevents her from becoming self-critical and allows herself to appreciate what she's produced. "In five years, I have found that I've let it go," she told Vanity Fair. "I've forgotten the lines. I watch episodes of 'Roseanne' now where I don't even know what the ending's going to be."

She characterizes herself as a 'creative-a-holic'

Interviewed by the The New York Times, Metcalf was asked to confirm a previous statement describing herself as a workaholic. She chose, however, to go with a different characterization. "I can't even call it work," she explained. "I'm a creative-a-holic. I love the tearing into new material." 

As an example, she described a scene she'd filmed in the first season of "Roseanne" in which the director told her she didn't have to keep acting during the parts of the scene when she wasn't going to be on camera. That advice, she admitted, simply didn't compute with her own creative process. "That's the strangest thing I've ever heard! What would I do, just drop out? Just pull the plug and go dead for a while as they're sitting two feet away from me?" she said incredulously.

As an artist who chases creativity, it's not surprising that Metcalf has continually surrounded herself with other creative people throughout the course of her career. "I just have been so lucky to have crazy good material, ensembles that everybody's at the top of their game," Metcalf said during an appearance on the "Popcorn with Peter Travers" podcast (via "Good Morning America"). "From 'Lady Bird' and 'A Doll's House, Part 2,' and 'Three Tall Women' now and 'Roseanne,' I'm just surrounded by all this creative energy."

She's addicted to puzzles

A 2018 profile by The New York Times on Laurie Metcalf revealed that she's something of an aficionado for solving puzzles. Not only does she begin each day with a crossword puzzle, she also tends to keep a jigsaw puzzle in play whenever she's at home. Jigsaw puzzles, in fact, are part of her pre-performance ritual before stepping onstage. As she explained during an appearance on "The Late Show with Stephen Colbert," she'll typically arrive at the theater about 90 minutes before showtime, then hole up in her dressing room to run through her lines. "I always have a jigsaw puzzle going on a little cardboard table in my dressing room ... I find that it kind of focuses me." 

In addition to puzzles, Metcalf's other hobbies include knitting and crocheting. In fact, noted The New York Times, she's even learned how to spin wool. "You have to learn it in your hands, and then once you do, you don't have to think about it anymore," she explained. "It keeps my hands busy, which keeps my brain busy, and I can just sit and run lines or obsess about school lunches or whatever loop I find myself in."

She has no interest in being a celebrity

Laurie Metcalf is a famous actor, yet she's not one of those celebrities who constantly pops up in the tabloids, or is photographed by paparazzi exiting some Hollywood hot spot. That's because she's simply not interested in the trappings of fame. That was particularly true in the wake of her "Lady Bird" Oscar nomination, which plunged her into Hollywood's annual orgy of media events and interviews associated with award season. "It's not my jam," Metcalf told Vanity Fair, explaining she's far more comfortable working than she is with the associated hoopla. 

"Being in a rehearsal room, for me, is like being on crack. It's what I crave," she explained. "It's where I feel the most creative and where I have the most energy. This other side of it is not like being in a rehearsal room. It's the opposite. And I like to hide behind the character. I like to let the work speak rather than to have to talk about it."

Of course, she's become more comfortable with her fame over the years. Back in 1995, she was considerably less so. "I almost never give interviews," she told the Los Angeles Times at the time. "It's not because I want to play hard to get. It's just that I never seem to have anything interesting to say."

She married (and divorced) her sitcom boyfriend

Laurie Metcalf has been married twice, and divorced twice. Her first marriage was to actor Jeff Perry (known to fans of Shonda Rhimes' "Scandal" as Cyrus Beene), a founding member of Steppenwolf Theatre Company. Metcalf and Perry wed in 1983, and shortly after welcomed daughter Zoe. Unfortunately, by 1992, the once-happy couple divorced.

In 1992, Metcalf met actor Matt Roth when he was cast in a six-episode stint on "Roseanne," playing Fisher, the new boyfriend of Metcalf's character, Jackie. As the storyline progressed, viewers learned that Fisher was abusive, and had beaten Jackie. Off camera, however, Roth and Metcalf fell in love, and ultimately got married in 2005. 

In 2011, E! News reported that Roth filed for divorce after six-and-a-half years of marriage, citing the always-popular "irreconcilable differences" as the reason. Court documents, however, indicated that their relationship had been over for some time, and that the two had been separated since 2008. At the time, Roth was asking for joint custody of their three children.

The fateful way she was cast in Roseanne

Laurie Metcalf won rave reviews (and an Obie Award) for her performance in the 1984 Off-Broadway production of "Balm in Gilead." That performance also captured the attention of casting directors seeking actors for a new sitcom centered around standup comic Roseanne Barr. "[Producer] Marcy Carsey told us about her before the show was cast," Barr recalled in an interview with the Los Angeles Times. "She said, 'We've got the greatest actress in the country to play Jackie.' We were psyched."

At the time, Metcalf's screen credits were sparse, consisting of an uncredited bit part in Robert Altman's "A Wedding," her one-episode appearance on "Saturday Night Live," and a small role in the Madonna-starring "Desperately Seeking Susan." Seeing her fellow Steppenwolf alum find success in Hollywood, Metcalf figured she'd head to Los Angeles and see if she could follow a similar trajectory. "I thought: 'I'll give it two weeks.' The two weeks I chose, they were casting 'Roseanne' and the same casting directors had cast 'Desperately Seeking Susan,' so I was literally in the right place at the right time," Metcalf told The Guardian

Speaking with the Los Angeles Times, Metcalf's "Roseanne" co-star John Goodman offered gushing praise. "My first impression of her was 'My God, this woman will do anything,'" He said. "The choices she makes are astoundingly brilliant. She won't go for the safe or the tried-and-true."

Why she prefers to play flawed characters

Two of Laurie Metcalf's most notable roles, Jackie in "Roseanne"/"The Conners" and mom Marion McPherson in "Lady Bird," are illustrative of the type of characters to which she tends to gravitate. "I want characters that lead with their flaws. They're not afraid. They are driven and selfish," Metcalf explained in an interview with Backstage. "I find those characteristics really funny, and you kind of end up rooting for those people because they care so goddam much about what they want — and you better get out of the way. It [is] weirdly endearing."

That was also true of Dr. Jenna James in the bleakly funny HBO comedy "Getting On," whose self-image is wildly at odds with the way her co-workers see her. "Jenna James, oh my god do I miss playing that! I loved — I miss 'Getting On' so much," Metcalf told E! News, reiterating her love of embodying a deeply flawed character. "It's fun to lean into the flaws and not shy away from them because you trust the material."

When creating her characters, Metcalf can't help but invest every atom of herself, and it's something in which she takes a certain degree of pride. "You pour yourself into your work, you invest yourself 150 percent, and when you do, you sleep well at night," she explained to the The New York Times.

What she learned by playing Hillary Clinton

Laurie Metcalf earned a Tony nomination for her portrayal of Hillary Clinton in the play "Hillary and Clinton," with John Lithgow in the role of Bill Clinton, which imagines her 2008 bid for president in an alternate universe in which it was Clinton, and not Barack Obama, who won the Democratic Party nomination. 

Portraying the former First Lady, Secretary of State, and presidential candidate in the play proved to be an eye-opening experience for her about the rigors of politics and the ferocity of a presidential campaign. "I don't know how people endure that. I can't imagine how grueling that is to put yourself through a year-and-a-half of that kind of pressure and being under the microscope every day, all day. It doesn't seem like people are built to do that," Metcalf mused during a visit to "The Late Show with Stephen Colbert." 

However, Metcalf also noted that the Hillary Clinton she portrayed in "Hillary and Clinton" is not the Hillary Clinton. In fact, playwright Lucas Hnath specifically instructed both her and Lithgow to steer clear of attempting to impersonate the actual Clintons. "I was able to approach it like I would any fictional part," Metcalf told Parade. "But I loved the premise of the play being set in an alternative universe so that this Hillary may not be the one you think you know."

She's played the same role in three TV shows over the course of four different decades

There's no denying that Laurie Metcalf, whatever she accomplishes career-wise in the future, will always be identified with Jackie Harris. Jackie, in fact, is Metcalf's most enduring character, given that she played the role throughout the original television run "Roseanne" from 1988 until 1997, and then reprised Jackie in the series' 2018 revival. In the midst of the original "Roseanne" run, Metcalf also played Jackie in an episode of "The Jackie Thomas Show," starring Tom Arnold, the then-husband of "Roseanne" star Roseanne Barr.

When Barr's infamous 2018 tweet led to the cancellation of the high-rated "Roseanne" revival, Metcalf continued to play the character in that show's subsequent spinoff, "The Conners" — meaning that she's played Jackie in three different series, in three different decades. "But Jackie is so close to my own personality that I still feel self-conscious playing her. She's someone I haven't solved," Metcalf told the Los Angeles Times back in 1995. 

More than 25 years later, Metcalf weighed in on the character's ongoing evolution in an interview with Associated Press. "The writers started writing to each one of our different strengths. So I'm assuming that one of my strengths was to be this victimized loser who didn't have a clue that that's what she was to begin with," she explained with a laugh.