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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

Metcalf was there at the base ment beginning of an ensemble that would become one of the most prestigious in the country; it included Oscar nominees John Malkovich ("In the Line of Fire," "Places in the Heart") and Sinise ("Forrest Gump"), and Jeff Perry, whom Metcalf married. (Now divorced, they have an 11-year-old girl, Zoe. She also has an 11-month- old boy, Will, by her current companion, actor Matt Roth.)

"It was like 'Peyton Place,' " Metcalf recalls bemusedly. "We were left alone for 10 years. We were free to do anything. You could get naked. You gave everything, even in roles you had no business doing. I played a 12-year-old in 'The 5th of July.' I played the mom in 'True West,' which I still couldn't play."

"From the beginning, you could see that Laurie didn't have to say a lot to get her meaning across," Sinise said. "She had great natural ability. Her work seemed effortless. She had an uninhibited quality, yet she was very simple, very clear."

Steppenwolf gained national attention with a 1982 production of "True West," the Sam Shepard play. The inevitable pressures of success began to pull the group apart as individual careers began to take off. Metcalf's performance two years later in "Balm in Gilead" was the talk of New York's theater cognoscenti. ("The reports on that performance are legion," Goodman says. "A lot of my friends told me about it.") It led to roles in two Susan Seidelman movies: "Desperately Seeking Susan" and "Making Mr. Right."

She also played a lesbian cop in "Internal Affairs." On the drive to rehearsal after lunch, she looked out the car window and remembered with some amusement a scene in which Andy Garcia's eyes follow a pretty woman in the street. "I watched her too."

Of "My Thing of Love" she says: "I play a frustrated housewife who's intelligent and uses sarcasm to get around the walls she's put up. She has a hard time being vulnerable. She's in a box of her own making and doesn't know how to get out. It's written in a way--pedestrian? Is that a good word? Yet remarkable things happen that are right out of classical tragedy. It's shocking what people will resort to in extreme situations. And I like that within the lines there are a million ways to play around with meaning. This character covers a lot of ground."

Metcalf invited the reporter to sit in on rehearsal; her reasoning was clear in a flash. It's one thing to talk a game and another to play it. Her scene started with the morning she discovers her husband and his mistress in bed. Metcalf waits for them to wake, and in that moment and in the ensuing dialogue, you saw her snap into focus and understood what her peers mean in describing her. She was vivid. She brought a complex of emotions up to a clear, controlled surface. She was passionately alive.

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