Roseanne Conner’s baby sister, Jackie Harris, is sitcom TV’s most psychologically complicated character. She used to be a cop; these days she’s a truck driver. She was briefly a blond; now she’s a reddish-brownhead again. As Laurie Metcalf plays her on Roseanne, Jackie’s the inverse of Rosey: thin, unmarried, unsure, unsettled, and always trying to outmaneuver an unhappiness rooted in a lousy relationship with her mother and a tangled involvement with her successfully settled, meddlesome older sister. At least this season there’s hope: Jackie recently began seeing a psychotherapist, and dragged Roseanne in to see her, too.
That Metcalf brings such poignancy to the Conner party is a tribute to the understated talent of the 37-year-old actress. ”I like the fact that [Jackie] can be a lot of different things,” she says with understatement in her sparsely decorated dressing room on the Roseanne set. In repose there’s a coiled wariness about her not unlike that of the character with whom she has become so identified. Even after four seasons on TV’s No. 1 sitcom, Metcalf says she’s least comfortable working in television and most comfortable when she’s on the stage, where she has been a member of Chicago’s renowned Steppenwolf Theater for 16 years.
Working with Steppenwolf colleagues (the company includes John Malkovich, Joan Allen, Gary Sinise, and Glenne Headly), Metcalf grabbed critical / attention in New York in 1983 with her stunning performance as a runaway hooker in Lanford Wilson’s Balm in Gilead. The role brought her a 1984 Village Voice OBIE Award for Best Actress, an agent, and movie offers: She moved to New York and made her feature film debut as Ros-anna Arquette’s sister-in-law in 1985’s Desperately Seeking Susan. ”I played a nymphomaniac, whatever, yeah,” says Metcalf with her essence-of-Midwestern inflection (she grew up in southern Illinois and attended Illinois State University in Normal). More wacky-woman roles followed in Making Mr. Right, Stars and Bars, and Uncle Buck, and a few dramatic roles, too, notably in 1990’s Internal Affairs, and as a member of Jim Garrison’s staff in JFK. (Her subplot role as a drug addict in Frankie & Johnny didn’t make the final cut.)
But along the way, after four years in New York, too many sublet apartments, and not enough money to support herself and her daughter, Zoë, now 8, Metcalf moved to Los Angeles to look for work. (She’s divorced from fellow Steppenwolf actor Jeff Perry.) ”I found this audition and happened to get it,” she says. ”I’d never thought of doing TV before.” Now Roseanne has brought Metcalf mass recognition and money enough for a house in the San Fernando Valley, with room for visits from her boyfriend, Chicago-bred actor Matt Roth.
And now Metcalf is warily coming to accept the strange medium of television. Besides, she can always go home again: While Roseanne is on hiatus this summer, Metcalf will go back to Steppenwolf in Chicago and do Alexandra Gersten’s My Thing of Love. Like Jackie Harris, she’s always looking for a change.