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INTERVIEW : She's No Mere Sister Act : Laurie Metcalf is known to TV fans as sibling to the turbulent star. Now she's traveling about 3,000 miles away from Roseanne. But it's not what you think. (Really.)

April 23, 1995|Lawrence Christon | Lawrence Christon is a Times staff writer. and

It's hard to tell what Metcalf thinks of these kinds of accolades; that is, if she disbelieves them or doesn't think she deserves them or writes them off as the requisite celebrity backslapping accorded anyone riding a hit show. From her demeanor, it appears almost as if they belong to someone else (when she discusses her characters, she often looks pointedly away, as though they were rounding a corner down the street).

She is nothing if not self-effacing.

"I almost never give interviews," she said recently during a rehearsal break in North Hollywood. "It's not because I want to play hard to get. It's just that I never seem to have anything interesting to say."

This is partly a regional characteristic. Metcalf was born in Carbondale, Ill., and raised in Edwardsville, a small town (pop. 10,000) not too far across the Mississippi River from St. Louis. To the northeast lies Chicago. To the west, you would have to feel, lies Lake Woebegon or similar hamlets where immodesty ranks as a capital offense.

At 39, Metcalf is the oldest of three children. Her father was comptroller at Southern Illinois University. After he died in 1984, her mother went to work as a librarian. Metcalf's childhood and the place she spent it in were held in such long seasons of quiet non-event that they are difficult for her to remember.

"It was fun in the summers," she says. "We biked. At home it was gather 'round for 'The Ed Sullivan Show.' No big trips. A big trip would be to the Ozarks. A really big trip would be to New Orleans."

The actress's personality seems sturdily constructed out of the cardinal Midwestern virtues of laconism, moderation, sincerity and a bone-deep conviction that self-reference constitutes the height of vulgarity. Even her dry laugh is an expression of watchful restraint. Not a promising portrait of a young artist.

"I was an office secretary for a long time," she recalls. "A good secretary," she adds, with an uncharacteristic note of pride, as though she'd be willing to take a letter on the spot and would have it back to you in minutes, with perfect spelling and punctuation. "I thought my acting career would consist of going over to St. Louis for one audition. I'd get turned down, and I'd never go to an audition again. Acting seemed like such an impractical thing to do."

A few weeks before she left for New York, she was sitting at an outdoor table of an Italian restaurant in a nearby strip mall, dressed in faded jeans, scuffed-up running shoes and a white T-shirt embossed with small colorful shapes of whales. An unprepossessing figure, pale, dry, pleasant, businesslike. Nothing wasted or impulsive.

"I was shy," she says of her early life in Edwardsville. "I wasn't a curious person. I was content to be a good student and do everything by the rules. I was conventional, practical. I lived a structured life, where you can see your accomplishments. I think my personality is more suited to that."

To gain some idea of what life in Edwardsville must have been like, one of the first things that struck Metcalf when she went off to college was the strange, almost foreign accents of her new classmates. This was at Illinois State University, in the distant realm of Normal in the central part of the state.

Metcalf was a German major (for a while, she thought she would become an interpreter), then switched to anthropology. As a sweet treat for her academic rigors, she went over to the theater department and signed up for a role in Joe Orton's "What the Butler Saw" and discovered that she had absolutely no stage inhibitions--in this instance, she had to walk out in her underwear.

"Theater opened up a whole new world for me," she says. "It was a freedom I'd never known before."

A young man named Terry Kinney, prominent in the school's drama department, caught one of Metcalf's performances and predicted a big future for her. She became just as warmly disposed toward him; they began dating.

Kinney and several of his friends had been holding earnest discussions about starting their own theater. In 1976 one of them, Gary Sinise, struck an irresistible deal with a Catholic school in his hometown of Highland Park, about 25 miles from Chicago up the Lake Michigan shore. For one dollar a year, they could make their own theater in the school basement.

"Basically we wanted to control our own work and not be at the mercy of conditions most actors have to go through, going to New York or Los Angeles and working as waiters while waiting for a break," Sinise said during a break while filming HBO's "Truman" in Kansas City, Mo. "Basically, we formed a collective. We wanted an actor's theater where we could all do the most interesting things we could find. It didn't matter if the plays were very good, as long as the roles were." In search of a name, someone glanced at a book one of the cast members was reading. It was "Steppenwolf."

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