Laurie Metcalf loves Marion McPherson’s flaws. To many viewers, she’s the real main character of Greta Gerwig’s Lady Bird, an every-mom who’s prickly, passive-aggressive, warm, and worn-out. “She’s not crazy, she’s just — she has a big heart,” Lady Bird (Saoirse Ronan) tells her ex-boyfriend Danny (Lucas Hedges), defending her mother against anyone else’s expectations. On the morning of her Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actress, Metcalf told Vulture how she’s juggling awards season and her new play, and why she’s drawn to her character Marion’s mistakes.
Congratulations! I love Lady Bird so much. I’m so happy for you. How did you find out about the nomination, were you watching live?
Thank you! I was watching live. I was up early, kind of jet-lagged — I’m in New York. I got in last night because I’m starting work on a play today, Three Tall Women, by Edward Albee. Starring Glenda Jackson. I’m going into rehearsal.
Have you spoken to anyone from Lady Bird yet?
I sent a text really quick to Greta and Saoirse. I hope to get into contact with them after rehearsal today.
Lady Bird is so feminine, and it’s so real about mothers and daughters. What do you love about Marion?
I love her flaws, actually. Greta wrote such a wonderful character on the page, and I liked to lean into her flaws. I just trusted the material. She could still be ultimately likable or understandable, at least. Her passive-aggressive tendencies were all coming from a place of caring for her daughter. It just doesn’t always come out in the right way. I like the mistakes that she makes.
Have you seen Lady Bird with your daughters?
Not the 12-year-old, but I’ve seen it with my older daughter, Zoe. We shared some sidelong glances with each other throughout the movie. A lot of mothers and daughters, they say that when they see it together they actually have kind of an epiphany. They see each other different. That’s magical! It’s magical that this movie can do that, and that Greta accomplishes it with such a delicate hand. There are these little lines [in the movie] that make people look at one another differently. They don’t hit you over the head with it. They’re soft, and yet they resonate.
A moment that’s like that is when Marion yells at Lady Bird for not hanging up her Catholic school uniform after a school dance. Lady Bird asks her if she ever had a really great night out, and didn’t want to come home to a fight. Marion says “My mother was an abusive alcoholic,” and walks out. You can really feel the generational divide between these two women.
Yeah. There are little things that are just so surprising: “I want you to be the best version of yourself that you can be.” “Well, what if this is the best version.” They go by, but they really stick with you.
I also want to ask you about the letters that Marion writes to Lady Bird when she’s leaving for college. Marion never ends up sending them, but dad gives Lady Bird the crumpled-up drafts. How did those letters develop? Were those your own words, or did Greta write them?
When we were shooting the scene, I was writing ideas down just on my own. Dear Lady Bird … and Marion kept crumbling them up. I was writing down real ideas about Marion knowing how to talk to her daughter. And then I think in the movie, they show some of the letters, but those were not written in my hand. I’m sure Greta actually later on really did compose something that she wanted to show onscreen in the letters. I was surprised to see those also, to see what my character had written.
Anything big planned for after your rehearsal today?
No, no. This day couldn’t get any bigger! This nomination, and then first day of rehearsal, which is one of my favorite things to do. I’m set.
It’s a lot to juggle rehearsals plus awards season. How are you handling it?
Well, we’ll see! I didn’t plan on this at all. We’ll be in previews during the Oscars, so I’ll have to fly in real quick.