Laurie Metcalf talks playing Hillary Clinton on stage: 'I feel a responsibility'
In Lucas Hnath’s play Hillary and Clinton, audience members are challenged to see an iconic political pair anew. The script calls for actors to not do impersonations; the prologue warns that the story is imagined, not factual. “We’re doing this in an alternative universe,” explains Laurie Metcalf, who plays Hillary Clinton in the production. “We don’t look like them. We’re not trying to be them.” But here we are in 2019, with a splashy, star-studded new work purporting to depict 48 hours in the lives of Hillary and Bill Clinton during the 2008 presidential primaries. How can audiences leave their personal feelings at the door?
“Everybody has their opinions about them,” Metcalf admits, and Hillary and Clinton certainly skirts familiar territory. It takes place in New Hampshire, with then Senator Clinton desperate to revive her campaign for president and clashing with her husband (John Lithgow) over how best to proceed. But Hnath, whose searing sequel A Doll’s House, Part 2 won Metcalf her first Tony in 2017, initially wrote Hillary and Clinton a decade ago during a transformative election year. When the Broadway opportunity arrived this past summer, the 39-year-old playwright decided to do a complete rewrite in the haze of 2016 (and another Hillary Clinton defeat).
At its heart, Hillary and Clinton explores a marriage, and Metcalf feels a responsibility to get that right. EW caught up with the actress just as previews were getting underway. Speaking from her dressing room, Metcalf touched on the Clintons, what she hopes audiences take away, and more. Read on below. Hillary and Clinton opens April 16 at the John Golden Theatre.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: You’ve just started previews. How’s it going so far?
LAURIE METCALF: It’s been really informative. They tell us so much, like with any show. With this one, it’s been crucial to find out where each laugh is. There’s a lot of laughs in the show — like with all of Lucas’ stuff, which is one of the reasons why I love his writing. To hear how the audience is digesting this information, and how it dovetails or not with what they feel about the Clintons. We’re still in a learning process on it. I hope to find out even more in the next few days.
So let’s get right into that: people’s feelings about the Clintons. Given everything, the title alone is fairly provocative. What kind of story about Bill and Hillary are you hoping to tell?
The play is ultimately about a marriage — their marriage, specifically, but it’s also universal in the topics that it touches on. Some people are going to come in with preconceived notions of both what they think the Clintons are like at home together, out of the public eye, and also what they think that Lucas’ play is going to be like. I can’t read what their personal feelings on the couple [are], but it’s been interesting to see how they are accepting of the fact that we’re doing this, according to Lucas’ script, in an alternative universe. They seemed fine to go with the flow with us on the fact that we’re not imitating them. We don’t look like them. We’re not trying to be them.
So what’s the dynamic you’re keying into, exactly?
It’s a complicated relationship that they have with each other, and it’s also a complicated relationship that we all have with them. Whatever we as individuals are bringing, our preconceived notions, I think Lucas is being able to stir those up and have these characters vocalize what we’ve imagined that they’ve said to each other, and some other things that we probably had hoped that they might’ve shared with each other. But we’ll never know. It’s cathartic in that way, to feel like Lucas’ version of the couple is being given this production, so that we can end up, I think, knowing them more than we did. It’s funny, it’s hard to talk about. We don’t know them; we know certain things about them. Everybody has their opinions about them. The play [reminds us] that what they’ve been through together is really powerful — there are very few people who walk the earth who’ve lived a life like theirs. The bond that they must have because of that shared history is really strong. It has to be. There are no other people that have been through what they’ve been through.
So how have you decided to approach the character, given how much of a public figure she is?
John Lithgow and I approach it as actors tackling two roles that we would from scratch, whether or not they were historical figures. That has been freeing. That we can put our own spin on what we think the characters may or may not be like. We’re not beholden to matching clips that you can dig up [featuring] them, or the way they sound and move. If we had to impersonate them, I certainly would not be playing this part, because I could not do that to begin with.
Do you feel pressure?
Yes. I feel a responsibility. What I want to capture is an essence of the character and the marriage. At the end of the play, I feel a real connection with the both of them. I’m hoping that I can help bring that out, because I think that the characters and the writing both deserve that. I think that is working. I think that’s coming through. That there’s an empathy with them at the end of the play.
You say you feel connected to them. What about them, specifically?
There’s a power struggle that goes on, and those are always fun to play — flips back and forth. There’s betrayal, obviously, which is fun to play. And hurt from betrayal. There’s expectations that are not met in a marriage. And then there’s what’s really fun to play, which is the humor. The things they say to each other that I find really shocking. I haven’t gotten any direct feedback from audience members so I don’t know if they find that also. Lucas has a way with, of course, being very unpredictable. And I’m really enjoying the playing humor of it. It’s kind of like a musical piece in the sense that there will be a lot of energized scenes that pop back and forth and are very glib and quick and nimble. And then characters are able, then, to launch into [almost] soliloquies or a monologue that are so well-written that I think, when I listen to them, I just hang on every word. I’m such a fan of Lucas’. There’s nothing in the play that we don’t remember happening or them going through. But as it’s coming up in front of us or the audience, there is a bit of a shock factor to it all. But again, I might be talking out of my ass [Laughs].
This was rewritten in the haze of 2016, of course. How does the feeling of the play change, for you? What emotion is it leaving you with?
It’s very melancholy. What’s really apparent here, doing it in 2019 and it being set in 2008, is we know what has happened in the meantime. When we leave the Clintons at the end of Hillary and Clinton, these characters don’t know what’s in store for them. But we do.