chat room

Laurie Metcalf on Playing Hillary Clinton and Her Very Brief SNL Stint

Laurie Metcalf. Photo: Charles Sykes/Invision/AP/REX/Shutterstock

Laurie Metcalf has appeared in a Broadway production at the John Golden Theatre for each of the last three years. This year’s show, Hillary and Clinton, reteams her with Lucas Hnath, the playwright from her first play at the Golden (A Doll’s House, Part 2, 2017), as well as the director of the second (Three Tall Women, 2018), Joe Mantello. Both plays earned Metcalf Tony Awards.

Like the 800-seat Golden, Hillary and Clinton is an intimate play, capturing a few hours in the life of Hillary Clinton on the eve of the 2008 New Hampshire primary. This Clinton, the character (who is a Hillary Clinton but maybe not the same Hillary from our universe, as we learn), is confined to a hotel room throughout the play, pondering her life’s meaning with Bill, played by John Lithgow. Metcalf’s Hillary is often exasperated and conflicted, a contrast to Metcalf herself, who is charming and self-effacing.

In between Hillary and Clinton’s midafternoon and evening performances recently, Metcalf remained in her dressing room. We spoke with her to discuss the play and her varied career, including her very brief stint as a Saturday Night Live cast member.

Much of Hillary and Clinton focuses on questions involving luck and destiny. What do you see as Hillary Clinton’s political legacy as a public figure?
I think she will always be known as a politician who cared passionately about the work and fought for women’s rights and never quit. She kept going in the face of a lot of adversity.

You’re playing such a powerful and well-known woman, though the play is fiction. Did preparing for this have you thinking about your own legacy at all — either in theater, or film and TV?
I hadn’t! I don’t know, I guess in the same mode, I’d want to be remembered as someone who was all about the work and who’s poured their heart into making something the best that it can be — giving 110 percent when you need to.

As a woman who’s been in the public eye for 30 years, were you able to relate any of your experiences or perspective?
I have been around that long now, as she has, and the microscope she’s been under, mine is miniscule compared to hers. I admire the way she’s able to focus on what the work is and want it always based in merit. I wish things were based in that system also, but they’re not always.

But I’m different in that I get to hide a lot more. I don’t present as myself, which is much more vulnerable. The way I’m seen is hiding behind a character. It takes a lot of bravery to always show up as yourself and let people judge you and not, in my case, the work I’ve submitted. I don’t need to be personally invested like she does.

Congratulations on your recent Tony nomination, by the way.
Thank you.

You’ve obviously won the last two years, and you could set history as the first person to win three times consecutively, if things go well this cycle.
I predict that I will be cheering for Elaine May as I sit in my seat.

That would be great to see her win.
It would be. I saw her performance, and she was absolutely breathtaking. She made it look not even like acting. She did some sort of disappearing magic act inside that character. I was thrilled to see her in The Waverly Gallery.

You were so great in Lady Bird, it had not occurred to me that that was your only onscreen appearance — outside the Toy Story movies — this decade. Are you making a deliberate choice to prioritize theater and TV gigs over film work?
No, I just never really cracked into the film business. It’s not one of my favorite ways of working, so that was fine with me. I prefer theater. So nothing was ever planned. I mean, I just sort of went with the ebb and flow of where the work was. I kind of think I hadn’t done a film in 20 years, because the one I did 10 years ago [Stop-Loss] I had maybe two to three lines in. I don’t even really count it.

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. 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.

As a ’90s kid, I remember there was a time, even outside Roseanne, you could pop on the TV and see you in Uncle Buck and JFK. Do you have a favorite project you worked on?
I’ll tell you, one of my favorites was — what was the name of the movie with Andy Garcia?

Internal Affairs?
That’s what it was. That one I had a great time doing because I partnered up with Andy. That part was written for a male, but Mike Figgis, the director, gave it to me. So I was Andy’s gay partner. I thought that was a cool twist on what it had originally been written as.

And you have a cameo in Figgis’s Leaving Las Vegas.
I played a landlady. I came in for only a couple of days, maybe one day.

… I think [Internal Affairs] might’ve been the first movie I ever did. Oh, no, no — that was Desperately Seeking Susan.

The Madonna one!
Yeah, that goes way back. That was a lot of fun. That was a good learning curve for me because I’d never done anything except for theater. I hadn’t done TV or film. So getting that film was a big deal for me. And I think I only got it because I was in town in New York doing a play. The casting directors were really into theater; that movie had a lot of theater actors in it.

What was it like working with John Hughes and John Candy on Uncle Buck?
Oh God. That was, first of all, a lot of fun. They worked so loosely. That was new to me also. Like, being encouraged to ad-lib a little bit, which I have sort of a phobia about — I don’t trust myself doing that, I’d rather stick to the script. They were both so generous with their time with me, as I was still so new to it all. I guess I have done more movies than I thought!

Next up: The Conners has been renewed, and then you’re starring in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? What do your next couple of months look like?
We’ll wind up Hillary and Clinton, then I’ll go straight into The Conners in August, I believe. That’ll take about three months — August, September, October, November — no, longer than that. We’re going to do at least 13 of them, maybe more. Then I’m due back in New York in January to start Virginia Woolf.

On Twitter recently, a clip was shared of your “Weekend Update” segment from 1981 where you’re interviewing people on the street.
Huh, yeah.

Do you have any memories of working on SNL, and how that segment came to be?
You know, it seems like a dream because it was so long ago and it was a whirlwind five days I spent in New York. I think it was my first trip to New York ever. I didn’t know anybody and I was put up in a hotel. They put me in a business suit and sent me out on the street with a little mini–camera crew. I was so out of my element; I had no idea what I was doing. But I know that I did it because there is proof, there is footage. When I see that, I realize I was very naïve and brave about it in a way. Like, Okay, you want me to do this? Okay, let’s go.

So that wasn’t your idea, or something you pitched?
No, no.

In your recent New York Times profile, they referenced a sketch you were in, “Women From Mars,” which was cut. What do you remember about that sketch?
It was me and Emily Prager. We were both interns on the show. We had not been added to the cast — we were there to be tested, you know. Obviously [the sketch] didn’t work because they cut it before airtime. Which was a huge relief to me because I was scared to death. Acting is scary enough, but doing it live on TV, that’s got to be as stressful as it gets. I was not cut out to do something like that. First of all, you feel so under-rehearsed anyway. You have to be really loose and really confident. I don’t necessarily have those two traits. Live TV is completely nerve-racking to me. I really admire people who can do it.

So you wouldn’t host SNL? Have they ever broached you about doing it?
No. I don’t think I could anyway. I would have nightmares about it before and after.

Laurie Metcalf on Hillary and Clinton and Her Brief SNL Run