By Marc Snetiker
Updated November 24, 2015 at 12:00 PM EST
Joan Marcus

Laurie Metcalf isn’t playing crazy. Returning to Broadway as villainous Annie Wilkes in the new stage adaptation of the 1990 film Misery, the actress isn’t relying on outrageous monologues and frantic outbursts to delight the audience. Those are in frequent supply, sure, but Metcalf also faces a task of filling in the gaps of an iconic role — alongside an equally buzzy scene partner in Bruce Willis, making his Broadway debut beside her, no less.

As Annie, Metcalf is writing between the lines. Whether she’s using a typewriter to do so is irrelevant.

“If I can find just two or three drops of vulnerability or empathy for her, then I’m golden to go as nuts or crazy or hysterical or violent as I want,” says Metcalf, who returns to Broadway as her acclaimed HBO show Getting On enters its final season. “Those little drops go a long way. And I don’t have to worry about being a monster because I don’t think that she is, and hopefully, with laying in a couple of those moments, she’s not in the eyes of the audience.”

But it’s hard to shake the crowd’s assumptions of the very monstrous Annie Wilkes, an irrational, volatile, oft-headbanded zealot who was immortalized onscreen by Kathy Bates in 1990. Annie’s a villain, to be sure, despite her seemingly generous hospitality in nursing her favorite novelist Paul Sheldon — the creator of her favorite character, Misery Chastain — back to health following a snowy car crash. As Annie brings Paul back to the level of health she deems appropriate, it becomes clear that he’s no safer in her erratic care than he was lying on the side of the road.

In Stephen King’s novel, she’s “a woman full of tornadoes waiting to happen.” Bates won an Oscar for the role in the film adaptation (penned by William Goldman, who here writes the script), but Metcalf’s original interpretation — she hasn’t seen the film since it came out — adds a third layer of construction to a character who’s now bounded book, screen, and stage.

“It’s such a theatrical character, which makes it a great fit for the theater,” says Metcalf, who accepted the role as an offer — “I don’t know what I would have even done in an audition room” — after Elizabeth Marvel (House of Cards, Fargo) dropped out due to scheduling conflicts. “I was attracted to the weird humor in it,” Metcalf recalls. “There are a lot of really bizarre laughs.”

To be clear, they’re chuckles borne from Annie’s extreme unpredictability and the audience’s own familiarity with the character. The laughs start almost immediately after Metcalf reveals herself onstage in the outfit, which she calls full “1987 Midwest religious” garb. “I know that people are going to think of Kim Davis, but either you embrace it or go against it, and I just thought, well, let’s just embrace it because it feels so right,” says Metcalf of Ann Roth’s costume and wig design. “I also didn’t know that there were going to be such great reactions to the famous lines from the movie. When I said, ‘I’m your number one fan’ and it got a reaction, I thought, ‘Ohhh, okay, well, log that.’”

Joan Marcus

In knocking elbows with her onstage counterpart Bruce Willis, Metcalf found a fellow theater lover and a Hollywood veteran. Neither had met before the production, but their chemistry clicked almost instantaneously: “I love to be in the room with him because he loves the work and so do I. He’s generous and big-hearted. We’re really, really on the same page with each other, and we’ve said to each other, ‘I just wouldn’t want to do this with anybody else.’”

Much of their onstage chemistry is give-and-take — director Will Frears calls it almost orchestral — but while Willis spends most the play stuck in a wheelchair, Metcalf has a much larger task of entering and exiting Paul’s bedroom with vividly reversed dispositions, leaping from ebullient to catastrophically angry within seconds.

One thrill is unwrapping the diagnosis of why Annie is the way she is, though Metcalf is reticent to fall back on any one label. “I, for a little bit, went down the road of researching all kinds of mental illnesses or, like, religious fanatics,” she says. “But to label her is to open the door to say, well, then there’s a fix for her, if she had the right medication. You want to keep it vague that she just can’t find a place.”

She continues: “To me, it’s a hint at how she was raised, or her failed marriage, or what her relationship to her mother was. I’m thinking that her upbringing was very turbulent and that’s why she has these mood swings, and that’s why there’s no ‘in between’ for her. Only good and bad. You do one bad thing, you’re a dirty birdy. ‘Good’ is an interesting word for her. You must be a good man or you never could have created a character like Misery Chastain. But then he kills her off, and now he’s dirty. But maybe he can be saved.”

He can also be hobbled. The film’s climactic moment — in which Annie decides to stop Paul’s healing by sledgehammering his ankles into oblivion — draws the kind of nervous gasps and giggles from the audience that actors can only dream of. The audience’s delight only aids Metcalf’s performance.

“I like it because they like it,” Metcalf gushes. “I want it because they want it.”