A Mother-Daughter Love In 'Lady Bird'

Nov 25, 2017
Originally published on November 25, 2017 4:32 pm
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SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

"Lady Bird," Greta Gerwig's film, is earning plaudits. It's a love story - the vexing love between a mother and a daughter who really do love each other but spend much of their time bickering.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "LADY BIRD")

SAOIRSE RONAN: (As Lady Bird) I want to go where culture is, like New York...

LAURIE METCALF: (As Marion) How in the world did I raise such a snob?

RONAN: (As Lady Bird) ....Or at least Connecticut or New Hampshire, where writers live in the woods.

METCALF: (As Marion) You won't get into those schools anyway.

RONAN: (As Lady Bird) Mom.

METCALF: (As Marion) You can't even pass your driver's test.

RONAN: (As Lady Bird) Because you wouldn't let me practice enough.

METCALF: (As Marion) The way that you work - or the way that you don't work, you're not even worth state tuition, Christine.

RONAN: (As Lady Bird) My name is Lady Bird.

METCALF: (As Marion) Well, actually it's not, and it's ridiculous.

RONAN: (As Lady Bird) Call me Lady Bird like you said you would.

METCALF: (As Marion) Just - you should just go to City College.

SIMON: The film stars Saoirse Ronan, as the 17-year-old daughter who rechristens herself Lady Bird. Tracy Letts is her father. The city of Sacramento is the town she can't wait to flee. And as her mother, Laurie Metcalf, the three-time Emmy Award winning actress for her signature role in Roseanne, perennial Tony Award nominee for her stage work and a member of Chicago's Steppenwolf Theatre Company. She joins us from Burbank, Calif.

Thanks so much for being with us.

METCALF: Thank you, Scott.

SIMON: People who see this movie - from the first, they see the mother and daughter are both strong-willed and kindhearted. So why can't they get along?

METCALF: Yeah, we're seeing them at this little sliver in time where they are just butting heads constantly. Each one is triggering the other. There's so many buttons to push. You get the feeling that they've not always been like this and they'll outgrow it also. But this is the moment when we see them. And the butting of heads was a fun thing to play, I will say. I have a teenager in my own home, so I could draw.

(LAUGHTER)

SIMON: Yeah.

METCALF: I had wells and pools of experience to draw on in that arena.

SIMON: Yeah. There's almost a throwaway line that is all the more powerful for it that your character, Marion, the mother, has when she just says - well, my mother was an abusive alcoholic. Is it hard for children to see their parents - maybe especially their mother - as someone who was once a child and in some ways always still is a little bit somewhere?

METCALF: It is, yes, for everyone. And you don't even consider it until you're much older and have gone through the teenage years yourself. And then maybe you are a mother. Maybe that's when it clicks in, you know, that - oh, so my mom was only, you know, so-and-so age - 23, say, 27 - when I was, you know, this child who was completely dependent on her. There are a lot of women who come out of the show and - the show - I've done too much theater - out of the movie. And...

SIMON: You haven't done too much theater. As one of your fans, let me tell you, you haven't. But go ahead. All right.

METCALF: They say immediately, I've got to call my mother or I've got to call my daughter or I want to see this with my mother or daughter.

SIMON: Yeah. Maybe you can explain this to me (laughter) as much as a mother as an actor. Marion, your character, is working double shifts at a psychiatric hospital which becomes particularly tough after her husband loses his job. And we see the mother at work a couple of times where she is thoughtful and understanding with the people she works with and patients especially. And you sort of wonder, her daughter doesn't get the kind of break that...

METCALF: Right. You know, I think Greta was so smart to write in those tiny little tender moments because, you know, the fighting just could get old after a while 'cause that's all the mother and daughter do. But yes, she wants her daughter to succeed so strongly that I think that she thinks that if she shows her any kind of softness - which I think Marion interprets as maybe as weakness even - that it's not pushing her daughter in the ways that Marion thinks that she should be pushed.

She talks about not liking her daughter's work ethic in that first scene in the car. And I think that Marion has such a strong work ethic that she can't see anything else and that if she's afraid that if her daughter just stops in her tracks, she'll never develop. And she's scared of letting her leave the nest, you know, without certain skills. I think everything between them is sort of based in fear.

SIMON: Some of the most charming scenes in this film that don't feature you are the high school students who are auditioning for their high school musical.

METCALF: (Laughter) Yeah, I wish I could have done that. I wish I could have been (laughter) - I could have auditioned in that scene.

SIMON: Were you - was that you as a kid in Carbondale, Ill.?

METCALF: I was still much too shy at that point. I did get up the nerve to audition for a play, which was "Auntie Mame" - not the musical but the play version.

SIMON: With Patrick Dennis, as I recall. Isn't it?

METCALF: Yes, yes. And so I was hooked right then and there, but I was still too practical to think that I would ever make a living at it. So I went into other things in college until I met my buddies at Steppenwolf.

SIMON: Yeah. What hooked you?

METCALF: Well, I got a laugh. And actually, looking back, it was an accidental laugh. I didn't know what I did was funny.

SIMON: Can you remember what that line was or what your physical shtick was that got the laugh?

METCALF: (Laughter) I played a very, very tiny character I think named Gloria Upson who was supposed to marry Auntie Mame's son. And she said something like - oh, we live at Upson Downs.

SIMON: (Laughter) See, I'm laughing.

METCALF: I probably didn't...

SIMON: It's got to be your delivery 'cause it's not much of a line, yeah.

METCALF: Maybe. But, yeah.

(LAUGHTER)

METCALF: I think it was the true naivety that I said it with that earned me the laugh. And then I decided - oh, I've got to figure this out more. I can't just throw you know, juicy lines like this away. I've got to understand what I'm doing to make it work.

SIMON: Can you tell us anything about the return of "Roseanne" next year?

METCALF: It's really been a throwback, you know. It's not trying to break any barriers. It's really a throwback to the scripts and the show being small and really about the family still, even though they've now been lifted out and plucked into 2017.

SIMON: Yeah. I wondered if John Goodman was going to return and they would say, you know, that he were in the shower or something or whatever they...

METCALF: Well, they do get around it, you know. They have to in the first episode because we can't do it without him. The kids are grown. They have kids of their own. Everybody's in the house. Walking back onto that set - you know, from - this is horrible to say out loud, but from the first pilot that we did, it's been 29 years.

SIMON: Oh, mercy.

METCALF: Shocking.

SIMON: Yeah.

METCALF: And walking back onto the set, it was like no time had passed, which was very creepy. But I guess it's like riding a bike. I mean, we spent nine years together. Growing up together, especially the kids - and having kids...

SIMON: Yeah.

METCALF: ...On the show. And it was like no time had passed. It was just fortuitous. It was just meant to be, I guess.

SIMON: So last "Lady Bird" question - do you tell yourself that mothers and daughters or fathers and sons should see this film?

METCALF: Yeah - and sons and daughters of all ages. It's not necessarily the teenage years, you know, that people are relating to. But it's like a change. It's like watching somebody start to evolve and grow their wings, you know, and - but not really knowing where she wants to go - just wants to be different, just wants to leave and burn behind her everything that she's known. And it's not until hindsight when she actually leaves Sacramento and looks back that she realizes how much she actually loved the place.

SIMON: Laurie Metcalf - she stars alongside Saoirse Ronan and Tracy Letts in Greta Gerwig's film "Lady Bird."

Thanks so much for being with us.

METCALF: Thanks, Scott.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CRASH INTO ME")

DAVE MATTHEWS BAND: You've got your ball. You've got your chain tied to me tight. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.