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Laurie Metcalf's personal journey of 'Lady Bird'

Laurie Metcalf's personal journey of 'Lady Bird'
Amid the mother-daughter bickering in "Lady Bird," writer-director Greta Gerwig "included moments of heart where they do support each other. It wasn’t always as contentious as this and it won’t always be," says actress Laurie Metcalf. (Associated Press)

The easy flow of dialogue and low-key authenticity of Greta Gerwig's "Lady Bird," and the writer-director's background in improvised indies, led to speculation about how much of her movie had been ad-libbed.

Laurie Metcalf, collecting awards-season laurels, including an Oscar nomination, for her role as the protagonist's exasperated mother, knows exactly how much:

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"Zero. Which is a testament to what she wrote," says the three-time Emmy winner and multiple Tony nominee. "Greta's writing is so precise, you just hook into the scene. It's streamlined. There's not an ounce of fat on this movie.

"She would have scenes where we could overlap because she wanted to shoot it in a master or something; she wasn't worried about [us] stepping on each other's lines, like the opening scene in the car. It was orchestrated, so it was so much fun to do."

That car scene, with its surprising ending (a spoiler for those who haven't seen it), beautifully sets up the wide-ranging mother-daughter dynamic between Metcalf's Marion and Saoirse Ronan's Lady Bird that is the bedrock of Gerwig's semi-autobiographical comedy-drama.

"I love the [emotional] scope of it," Metcalf says of that rough ride, "going from crying, to bickering, to lashing out, to the giant exit."

That volatile chemistry roils throughout the film, as when Marion and Lady Bird look for a dress at a thrift store for a school event.

"We've got some bickering going on, and it's mounting and could go haywire, and then it's, 'Oh, we've found the perfect dress, yaaay!' And everything is immediately forgotten," Metcalf says.

Actress Laurie Metcalf
Actress Laurie Metcalf (Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times)

"Some people say that sort of sums up a mother-daughter [relationship] because they can be at each other's throat and then it all falls away and it's like it never happened."

Metcalf didn't have to do much research to understand the relationship's wild swings.

"I had a teenager in the house and two out of the house. What rang really true was the butting of heads and the strong-willed nature of those two characters. Coming from a place of heart but coming so aggressively at each other. I think the father says, 'You two are so much alike.'

"They're operating at such a dysfunctional level, and probably have been for a couple of years; they're both on hair-trigger responses of getting their feelings hurt and lashing out. I understood that part of it," she says, laughing. "We've lived it."

Then there was the calm — the love — between the outbursts.

"Greta included moments of heart where they do support each other. It wasn't always as contentious as this and it won't always be. And a little bit of those softer moments go a long way in the movie. Because she put those in, the battles can be fierce."

Lady Bird can be a maddening kid, but Marion isn't always Mom of the Year, either.

"I tell you, it really was startling when I would hear my character say some of these things, the criticisms," says Metcalf. "This was lashing out at a child who is, granted, making you crazy. But I have many, many harsh things I say to her, which to me are truthful; they're not said just to be mean.

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Saoirse Ronan and Laurie Metcalf in a scene from the movie "Lady Bird."
Saoirse Ronan and Laurie Metcalf in a scene from the movie "Lady Bird." (A24)

"But hearing them come out of my character's mouth made me realize I've said harsh things to my own kids … Yes, it's all coming from a place of love, from heart. But when you want something so badly for someone else, you become aggressive about it …"

The actress pauses, then admits, "It's coming from anger also. Greta just hit the nail on the head."

All that complexity and precision could be summed up in one of the final scenes. Marion drops Lady Bird off at an airport for her first-ever extended absence, leaving in yet another cloud of discontent. Marion then drives off on an emotional journey — captured in a continuous shot.

"I knew Greta wanted to do it in one take, so it was my job to go through the beats," Metcalf says, drawing a diagram on a napkin: Marion's circular driving route.

"Here's the drop-off point, and I've got to get all the way around to here. Right around here, I'm still mad," she says, laughing heartily as she makes a hash mark about a quarter around the circle. "I'm still so pissed off at her that I can't bear it.

"Then right about here [about halfway around], I see the 'Return to Airport' sign, then I'm sort of having some regrets about how the past month has been, where they haven't really spoken with each other. Then here comes the decision to go back, and here comes the hope, the exhilaration of 'Maybe I can make it, maybe I can make it.' Then park, and run inside.

"You don't need a picture of me for the article; just take a picture of [the diagram] – 'The Journey of "Lady Bird,"'" she says, laughing.

Saoirse Ronan, nominated for Best Actress, center, with Laurie Metcalf, left, nominated for Supporting Actress, and Greta Gerwig, right, nominated for Directing and Original Screenplay during the Nominees Luncheon for the 90th Oscars in the Beverly Hilton Grand Ballroom.
Saoirse Ronan, nominated for Best Actress, center, with Laurie Metcalf, left, nominated for Supporting Actress, and Greta Gerwig, right, nominated for Directing and Original Screenplay during the Nominees Luncheon for the 90th Oscars in the Beverly Hilton Grand Ballroom. (Al Seib / Los Angeles Times)
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