Metcalf began her career with the Steppenwolf Theater Company and frequently works in Chicago theater, including the 1983 revival of Balm in Gilead. A ten-time Emmy Award nominee, she won three consecutive Emmys for Roseanne from 1992 to 1994. In 2012, she starred as Mary Tyrone in a London production of Eugene O'Neill's Long Day's Journey into Night at the Apollo Theatre. She has received a Theatre World Award and two Obie Awards for her Off-Broadway work. A four-time Tony Award nominee for her work on Broadway, Metcalf won the Tony Award for Best Actress in a Play in 2017 for her role in A Doll's House, Part 2.
Metcalf was born in Carbondale, Illinois, the eldest of three children, with her brother James, and sister Linda, and was raised in Edwardsville, Illinois, which she has said "isn't anywhere near a theatre". Her father, James, was the budget director at Southern Illinois University-Edwardsville at the time of his sudden death in 1984, and her mother, Libby, was a librarian. Her great-aunt was the Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Zoë Akins. She is an alumna of Illinois State University, class of 1976.
Metcalf worked as a "damn good" secretary while in college and thoroughly enjoyed seeing a pile of paper in the to-do box on one side of her desk move over to the completed side by the end of the day, as she often zoned in on the task at hand and worked through lunch. She originally majored in German thinking she could work as an interpreter and then in Anthropology before accepting that majoring in Theatre was her true passion, and has said that theatre work also involves the interpreting and studying human behavior. She has described herself as hideously shy, yet found the courage to audition for a few plays in high school and was "hooked", yet never considered acting as a career because of the unlikelihood of it actually leading to regular work.
Metcalf attended Illinois State University and earned her Bachelor of Arts in Theater in 1976. While at ISU, she met fellow theater students, among them John Malkovich, Glenne Headly, Joan Allen, Terry Kinney, and Jeff Perry, the latter two of whom, along with Perry's high school classmate Gary Sinise, went on to establish Chicago's famed Steppenwolf Theatre Company. Metcalf began her professional career at Steppenwolf, of which she was a charter member. Metcalf went to New York to appear in an Off-Broadway Steppenwolf production of Balm in Gilead at Circle Repertory in 1984 for which she received the 1984 Obie Award for Best Actress and a 1984–85 Theatre World Award (for best debut in a Broadway or Off-Broadway performance). Metcalf was praised for her performance as "Darlene," and was specifically singled out for her tour de force twenty-minute Act Two monologue.
There's a moment when Laurie Metcalf—who plays this poor young thing that comes to the big city and hangs out at this greasy spoon diner where the play is set—is talking about her once boyfriend who is an albino; I think it's a monologue of about five, six, seven minutes. Just to sit there and watch and hear Laurie unspool that story, it just brought tears coming down your eyes—oh, boy, it was something.
Thereafter, Metcalf relocated to New York City and began to work in both film and theater, including such productions as David Mamet's November on Broadway in 2008.
Through June 2009, Metcalf starred with French Stewart in Justin Tanner's play, Voice Lessons, in Hollywood before beginning rehearsals to play Kate Jerome in the Broadway revival of Neil Simon's semi-autobiographical plays Brighton Beach Memoirs and Broadway Bound, directed by David Cromer. The former production's run, however, lasted for 9 performances in October 2009, while the latter was canceled prior to opening.
Voice Lessons, however, with its original cast intact, went on to two more runs—one Off-Broadway in May 2010, and another in Hollywood in May 2011.
In September 2010, Metcalf returned to Steppenwolf and starred in Lisa D'Amour's play, Detroit.
In March 2011, she appeared Off-Broadway in The Other Place by Sharr White. She won the 2011 Lucille Lortel Award, Outstanding Lead Actress, and the 2011 Obie Award, Performance for The Other Place.
In 2012, Metcalf joined David Suchet in a West End production of Eugene O'Neill's Long Day's Journey into Night, for which she was nominated for the Evening Standard Theatre Award for Best Actress.
The Other Place transferred to Broadway in 2013, with Metcalf reprising her role and earning Tony and Drama League nominations. She starred with her real-life daughter, Zoe Perry.
In October 2013, Metcalf performed with Jeff Goldblum in Domesticated, by Bruce Norris at the Off-Broadway Mitzi Newhouse Theater of Lincoln Center. She was nominated for the 2014 Lucille Lortel Award, Outstanding Lead Actress in a Play; the 2014 Drama League Award, Distinguished Performance; and the 2014 Drama Desk Award, Outstanding Actress in a Play for Domesticated.
She was then cast in the role of Annie Wilkes in the Broadway production of Stephen King's Misery, opposite Bruce Willis. The play premiered on November 15, 2015. It received mixed reviews from critics, however Metcalf's performance was widely acclaimed. She was nominated for the Tony Award for Best Actress in a Play, her third Tony nomination overall.
Metcalf returned to Broadway in A Doll's House, Part 2 by Lucas Hnath, which opened in April 2017. She received critical acclaim for her performance and earned nominations for the Tony Award for Best Actress in a Play, the Drama Desk Award, the Drama League Award for Distinguished Performance, and the Outer Critics Circle Award, winning the Tony Award.
Metcalf has performed in roles that range from very large to very small in many films, including Desperately Seeking Susan (1985), Making Mr. Right (1987), Miles from Home, Internal Affairs, Stars and Bars, Beer League, Mistress, A Dangerous Woman, Uncle Buck, Blink, The Secret Life of Houses, Treasure Planet, Toy Story, Runaway Bride, Bulworth, Meet the Robinsons, Georgia Rule (2007), Fun with Dick and Jane, Leaving Las Vegas, Scream 2, Stop Loss (2008), and Hop.
Metcalf has often appeared against type in both film and television; in JFK (1991), she played a dramatic role as one of Jim Garrison's chief investigators. She appeared as the murderous mother of Billy Loomis in the horror film Scream 2 (1997); and portrayed real-life Carolyn McCarthy in the television movie The Long Island Incident (1998).
Metcalf has appeared in several television series, including being a cast member for a single episode of Saturday Night Live—the final episode of the show's tumultuous 1980–1981 season. In 1981, she appeared as a feature player on the first Dick Ebersol-produced episode of Saturday Night Live following the firing of Jean Doumanian. She appeared in a Weekend Update segment about taking a bullet for the President of the United States. Because of the sketch show's severe decline in quality at the time and the 1981 Writers Guild of America strike, the show was put on hiatus for retooling. Metcalf was never asked back to be a cast member.
Metcalf is perhaps best known for her role as "Jackie", the multiple-careered, low self-esteemed, amiable sister of the title character in the hit series Roseanne. Her performance garnered her three consecutive Emmy Awards. Roseanne ran from 1988 to 1997, and Metcalf appeared as Jackie over the show's entire run.
She subsequently appeared with Norm Macdonald on The Norm Show (or Norm), which ran for three seasons (1999–2001), and was also a regular character on the 2003 Nathan Lane series Charlie Lawrence, which was cancelled after the airing of two episodes. Metcalf has made guest appearances on Absolutely Fabulous, Malcolm in the Middle, My Boys, Dharma & Greg, Frasier, The Big Bang Theory, Without a Trace, 3rd Rock from the Sun, and Monk. She was nominated for the Emmy Award as Outstanding Guest Actress In A Comedy Series for both of the latter two listed roles.
She took a recurring role on Desperate Housewives—for which she received Emmy (also in the category Outstanding Guest Actress In A Comedy Series) and Satellite Award nominations— and also appeared alongside her ex-husband Jeff Perry in an episode of Grey's Anatomy. In fall 2008, Metcalf starred in the CW dramedy Easy Money, as the matriarch of a family of loan sharks. The series was canceled after three episodes.
Metcalf starred in HBO's Getting On during its run from 2013–15.
On April 28, 2017 it was announced that a revival of Roseanne was in the works and that Metcalf along with most of the original cast and some of the producers would return for the limited series that was being shopped around with ABC and Netflix the front runners to land the show. On May 16, 2017 it was confirmed that 8 episodes would air mid-season in 2018 on ABC.
In 1983, Metcalf married Jeff Perry, co-founding member of Steppenwolf Theatre Company. They had a daughter, Zoe, in 1984, and later divorced, in 1992.
Metcalf later began a relationship with Matt Roth, the Roseanne co-star who played her abusive boyfriend, Fisher. By November 1993 they had a son, Will, and eventually married. They also worked together on occasion, as in the 1994 feature film thriller Blink and the 1998 drama Chicago Cab; they also appeared together in an episode of Desperate Housewives. Their daughter, Mae Akins, was born in 2005 via surrogate. They had a second son, Donovan, whom they fostered at six years old in 2006 and permanently adopted. On November 26, 2008, Metcalf and Roth separated. In September 2011, Roth filed for divorce, citing irreconcilable differences. In May 2014, the divorce was finalized.
She has self-disclosed as a workaholic and that she is hard on herself during rehearsals. She has often said that she prefers theatre to any acting medium as it is where she feels most comfortable.
Sources: TCM; Film Reference; Rotten Tomatoes; AllMovie
Sources: Film Reference; Rotten Tomatoes; AllMovie
Sources: Emmy Awards; Golden Globe Awards; Tony Awards