In “Lady Bird,” Laurie Metcalf is a middle-class mom who fights with her daughter — and in Metcalf’s hands, it’s a tour de force. She has a particular gift for locating the intensity in what could be mistaken for mild-mannered women. (See: three Emmys for portraying little-sister Jackie on “Roseanne.”). However, it took Greta Gerwig’s “Lady Bird” to get Metcalf back on a movie set for the first time in nine years.
Nevertheless, she’s now a favorite for Best Supporting Actress Oscar this March for her portrayal of Marion McPherson, half of the stubborn, Sacramento mother-daughter duo that defines “Lady Bird.” An overscheduled nurse, Marion knows that her husband (Tracy Letts) and their high school senior, Lady Bird (Saorise Ronan), depend on her paychecks; retirement isn’t on the horizon, even if she’s starting to lose friends to cancer. Her off hours revolve around Lady Bird, for whom she cooks, cleans, chauffeurs, shops, and rescues, whether it’s with pretend househunting or a Dreamphone-pink arm cast.
However, the first scrawl on that cast is “Fuck You Mom.” Lady Bird does everything she can to distance herself, including celebrating Thanksgiving elsewhere, plotting to attend an East Coast college, even lying about which home is hers in Sacramento. Lady Bird rejects just about everything her mother has provided, including her name and hair color.
But the film is not about a saintly mother and a wicked daughter. Audiences who gave “Lady Bird” the best specialty debut of 2017 last weekend (and a 100 percent fresh score on Rotten Tomatoes) exited theaters adoring both women, particularly Lady Bird. Marion’s worldview is harsh: She thinks she’s raised a “snob” and worries that the parents of Lady Bird’s classmates view the McPhersons as “trash.”
Metcalf’s work ethic is formidable: She runs every single line she has in a play immediately prior to each performance, including “A Doll’s House: Part 2,” the Broadway show that delivered her fourth Tony nomination and first win in 2016. (This summer, I discussed the play with “Halt and Catch Fire” star Kerry Bishé, who described Metcalf as “so spectacular,” even miming how whenever Metcalf sat, it was with an arched back and her knees spread very wide. “To watch her take up so much space… was incredibly powerful,” Bishé said).
Scott Rudin produced the play; he also produced “Lady Bird.” “I think that I was on his radar,” Metcalf said (a massive understatement). He gave her the script, which led to a phone call with Gerwig. “I really loved the writing,” she said. “I was going through sort of a wonky teenage moment myself with one of my kids” — she has four, the eldest being “Young Sheldon” actress Zoe Perry — “and so I could really relate to that on the page.
Laurie Metcalf at the 2017 Tony Awards, where she won Best Actress in a Play for “A Doll’s House, Part
Most scenes between Marion and Lady Bird devolve into fierce arguments, but with that many fights Metcalf knew they couldn’t all be the same. “It was interesting to break them down and see who’s lighting who’s fuse on this one,” she said. “Where’s the passive-aggressive behavior coming from? To try to parse it that way was a lot of fun. And Greta knew how to modulate the fights, and she would either ask [us] to turn up the heat or turn it down, whatever it needed, because obviously she was looking at the movie as a whole, and not just the scene that we were working on that day.”
“I think we all felt at the end of each and every day — cast and crew — that [Gerwig] was proud of each and every one of us,” she said. “And also that she trusted each and every one of us to do the job that we were there to do on that day…Everybody wanted to support Greta, and be on Team Greta.”
Gerwig presented Metcalf with a tricky challenge for the film’s emotional climax, a journey-within-a-journey at an airport: She wanted to do it in one take. “I thought, Oh, I don’t know if I can be interesting enough to watch for that long,” said Metcalf, perhaps forgetting the nine-minute monologue she leveled at her on-screen ex-husband (Louis C.K.) last year on “Horace and Pete,” or that in her award-winning arrival to the New York theater scene — 1984’s off-Broadway “Balm in Gilead” — she spoke for 20 uninterrupted minutes.
Besides breaking down in tears and running through crowds, Metcalf remembers the difficulties of having “this giant camera mounted on the hood of the car, and then really driving the car — so I’m having to be really careful — and then there’s two police cars on either side of me to keep cars from cutting me off, and I can barely see around the big camera, so I’m hugging the window so I can see through the crack of where I’m driving.”
Metcalf’s last day on the “Lady Bird” set brought back the car once again: She picks up her daughter, who collapses into the passenger seat, feeling dejected by a boy. “Should we do our favorite thing?” Marian asks. What follows is “one of those little charming moments Greta knows how to write,” touring sprawling homes on the market, equipped with open floor plans, the latest appliances, and multiple bathrooms. The bickering is forgotten; we don’t hear what the characters say, but they are beaming, partners in a white lie to the oblivious realtor. “It leaves you wondering,” Metcalf said. “What if we could afford a place like this? What would our lives be like?“