When the 2019 Tony nominations were recently unveiled, it was no surprise to see that Laurie Metcalf was recognized in the Best Actress in a Play category for her turn in Hillary and Clinton, Lucas Hnath’s imaginative look at what might have happened behind closed doors between Hillary and Bill during her failed 2008 presidential primary bid. Or, as one review called it, “Couples Therapy, for the Audience.” In Hnath’s alternate universe, John Lithgow, who plays Bill, still wears disturbingly short running shorts, but Hillary has none of her usual guards up. Secretly spiking her Snapple with minibar booze, Metcalf’s Hillary lets it rip—about Bill’s infidelity, her own lack of “likability,” and her whippersnapper opponent, Barack Obama, played by Peter Francis James.
The play, and the Tony nod, are only the latest achievements in the golden era of Laurie Metcalf. While she may forever be known as Jackie, the neurotic backbone of the Conner family on Roseanne (and, later, The Conners), Metcalf has gracefully pivoted from sitcom star to a multi-award-winning fine actor of her generation. She was Oscar-nominated for playing Saoirse Ronan’s no-nonsense mom in Lady Bird and, while a longtime stage actor, has blossomed into the Meryl Streep of Broadway, winning two Tonys in the last two years, for 2018’s Three Tall Women and 2017’s A Doll’s House, Part II, a sequel to the Henrik Ibsen classic, also written by Hnath. Vogue caught Metcalf before a recent Tuesday night performance to talk about the Tonys, the Clinton marriage, and the prospect of Hillary sitting in the audience some day.
Congratulations on your Tony nomination.
Laurie Metcalf: Oh, thank you very much.
You’re coming off winning back-to-back Tonys. What do you feel now when you get nominated? Is there any sense of ‘been there, done that’?
LM: It’s always special. I’ve been there a handful of times now, but I didn’t start really coming to New York to do theater until quite late, as far as my career was going. I was always either at Steppenwolf [Theatre] in Chicago or doing TV on the West Coast. So I’m still excited to be invited to the party. It’s always such an honor, well, first of all, for a stage actor to be able to perform on Broadway, and then [to] be recognized by the Tony committee is the ultimate high.
I’m curious how this play, Hillary and Clinton, was pitched to you. I’m just thinking, ‘How would you like to play Hillary Clinton in an alternate universe?’ might be a weird one.
LM: Lucas’s titles always are intriguing to me. When I saw the title of A Doll’s House, Part 2, I thought, This is either going to be the worst thing I’ve ever read or one of the best things I’ve ever read. I thought it was so cheeky to title it that way. And then, Hillary and Clinton, I was also really intrigued by the title. It’s set in 2008, and I think that if you would say the name ‘Clinton,’ then you would think of Bill. And Hillary was Hillary. And now, you say ‘Clinton’ and I think half the people might think of Hillary. Like Mark Penn tells her [in the play], ‘You’re not Hillary Clinton. You’re just Hillary, and that’s your story.’ Her story got shaped by her relationship with him. And she might have had a very different story otherwise.
At the start of Hillary and Clinton, you very clearly tell the audience it’s set in a parallel universe. Why is that important to the play?
LM: I think it’s a really well-done set-up to the final moment where we see Hillary on the stage by herself, again, on the microphone. She comes to the realization that she’s living in one of these parallel universes where she’ll never win. But she says she continues to fight. And I find it so touching that—it’s kind of the definition of a tragedy, I guess. The character that’s standing up there doesn’t know what the future holds for them, but the audience does. And despite her assuring us in that last moment that she’s going to continue the fight, we all know what’s ahead of her in the next 10 years.
What was your perception of Hillary before this? People seem to have an opinion about her, one way or the other.
LM: Mine was always a really positive opinion about her. I knew, even though we’re not impersonating them, that the character would also possess her intelligence and her passion and her strength. And then also little nods to what some people might think of as character flaws.
What were those, in your mind?
Metcalf: Well, to me, sort of a tenacity or an unwillingness to . . . to accept an opinion that’s different than your own. But these are traits that you find in really, really strong people. And they’re fun traits to play in a character because they can come off as negative, but I think it’s really, just, they exist because the character herself has such passion about what she wants to do. I’ve heard criticisms of her being entitled, but it comes from such a drive to want to achieve a goal, so that you can really dig in then and start the work that needs to be done. Just someone who hasn’t lost her passion about the work itself. I really admire that about her.
Were you hesitant to take it on in any way, because she’s a real, living person who lives an hour away [from Manhattan]?
LM: The only anxiety was that you feel a responsibility to pay tribute to this character. You feel that extra responsibility with a nonfictional character than you do with one where you could just take any liberty at all. And then as far as her seeing it, I always knew that it would be very hard. If I put myself in their shoes, it would be really hard for me to sit through actors doing a moment chosen out of my life by somebody I don’t know who decides to write about it. But I would hope that if she did see it, she would know that it’s done with the utmost respect and admiration.
You and John Lithgow, and the actors who play Barack Obama and Mark Penn, do not do impersonations. You don’t wear a blonde, short wig or a pantsuit or any typical signifiers of Hillary Clinton. What was the thought process behind that decision?
LM: That was always in the script from the very, very first draft. Lucas never wanted impersonations. It would become too easy to make it like a sketch, or take the audience out of it, weirdly, like, ‘Oh, he’s not doing a very good impersonation.’ If you just eliminate it all together, I think it’s easier for the audience to make the connection with me. If I had thought that we were supposed to do impersonations of them, I would have stayed away from [the play]. But because Lucas stipulates that we not, I thought, ‘Oh, this will be really interesting in that John and I, all four of us who play real characters in the play, can interpret them as fictional characters in this alternative universe.’ There’s a free pass to explore what we’ve all wondered about, which is [Hillary and Bill’s] relationship and conversations that happened behind closed doors.
One of the things Hillary and Bill banter, or fight, about in the play is the idea of ‘likability’ in politics. There’s a striking moment where you, as Hillary, tell Bill that it’s sad that people remember him as nebulously likable, but they don’t even remember his policies. And she points out that some of them don’t age that well, like ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.’ Is fictional Hillary trying to tell us that ‘likability’ is overrated?
LM: Bill says to her, ‘People don’t vote with their brains.’ They never do. We kind of can’t. It’s just built into us that we gravitate towards people that we are attracted to and not just superficially, but there’s some sort of pull. So, I think it’s very hard to ignore. It’s just inherent. But I think that if we’re aware of it, then we can be conscious of, ‘Wait, am I just backing this person because I like something about them that doesn’t have anything to do with what they’re telling me?’
Hillary and Bill are both big alpha personalities and characters. The play made me wonder: Can two people who are so ambitious really be together in a relationship and have it survive?
LM: Well, they’ve made it work despite horrible odds against them, I would think. But I’m sure that there is a bond that happens when you are the only two people in the world that have shared huge events in your life that have been documented and the rest of the world knows about. Nobody else in the world has been through it except that other person.
You wear a Patagonia fleece and slippers for the majority of the show. Is this one of your most comfortable costumes ever?
LM: It really is. I have to be the only actor in town who goes into my dressing room and immediately gets into costume because it’s more comfortable than my street clothes.
This interview has been edited and condensed.