It’s hard not to love a mother-daughter relationship like the one between Zoe Perry and Laurie Metcalf, who are nothing but supportive of each other’s work. When you add on top of that the fact that they both play the same character -- Mary Cooper -- across two different shows, it’s even more endearing.
For Perry, playing Mary on Young Sheldon, the CBS spinoff of The Big Bang Theory, on which Metcalf plays an older version of the character, is the actress’ first breakout role after years of TV guest spots (including a recurring role on Scandal, which starred her father and Metcalf’s ex-husband, Jeff Perry). She gives what the New York Times called “the show’s most invested performance,” while The Hollywood Reporter celebrated the “heart that Perry brings to the role.” No, there’s no impersonation happening here -- just welcome, uncanny similarities to a role she happens to share with her mother.
For Metcalf, playing Mary has already earned her an Emmy nomination, but it hasn’t stopped her from delivering her best with each subsequent appearance. She also delivered as Jackie on the short-lived revival of Roseanne -- which was canceled after ET spoke to the two actresses -- and onstage in Three Tall Women, which has earned her her fifth Tony nomination. This all comes in the same year as her first-ever Oscar nomination for playing a stern but caring mother to Saoirse Ronan in Greta Gerwig’s Lady Bird.
In a conversation with ET, Perry and Metcalf discuss the kick they get out of playing the same character, what it would mean to make history at the Emmys and how their relationship has evolved now that they’re peers.
ET: I wanted to start with the conversation that you two had when Zoe first decided to pursue acting as a profession.
Zoe Perry: Oh, gosh, do you remember?
Laurie Metcalf: Yeah, not a proper conversation. That's yet to be had. I've got to talk her out of it sooner or later.
Perry: There's still time.
Metcalf: But when she was younger and I was doing Roseanne, she spent a lot of time hanging out in the wardrobe room with us all and, you know, playing with Michael Fishman. I think she caught the acting bug and wanted to try it herself, and her dad and I decided we didn't think that would be a good idea for a kid that young, so we told her that she was gonna have to wait until after high school to get an agent and to actually to see if that was something that she wanted to do. We just felt that it might be too stressful for a kid that age that was pretty shy and quiet. We didn't want to put her in a position where she had a role and had all this responsibility all of a sudden. She was fine with that, and funnily enough, all during high school she didn't want to act and in college didn't want to either. Then, she fell in with a bunch of theater freaks who messed up her mind and dragged her into there. The theater is seducing.
It seems that the theater has played a large part in both of your careers.
Perry: Along with being around the Roseanne stuff, I've been following my mom and my dad back to Steppenwolf [Theatre]. When I was younger, I was living in that green room and accompanying them to all the different theaters that they worked at. So, that has always remained a nostalgic place for me and also one of great admiration. I was just so grateful that that passion they have for theater translated to me, because I always loved seeing it. Growing up and to be able to do it now is such a pleasure as well.
Zoe, you're 33 now and Laurie, you were 33 when you started on Roseanne. Do you guys feel like there's parallel at all between your careers and do you take stock in how each of you have come so far?
Perry: It's a trip. It feels very surreal -- and didn't we also find out with Jim Parsons that he was the same age when he booked Big Bang?
Metcalf: Yeah, I think so, too.
Perry: We all think it's just surreal, especially to be portraying a character that she's already established and done so well.
Metcalf: Yeah, that’s a whole nother layer to the way our --
Perry: The meta of it all.
Metcalf: -- Our careers have mirrored each other.
I was curious, in addition to both of you playing Mary, Zoe played Jackie in flashbacks on Roseanne. What was it like being on opposite ends of the spectrum of the same character?
Perry: For Jackie, I was so young and without any real training or background, so that was its own funny little fluke. But with Mary, it's been such a treat to explore this iteration of this character because I think what producers Chuck Lorre and Steve Molaro have done -- which is so smart -- is that they've created a different tone for this piece, and their scripts are so good and solid always that I don't have to work much at trying to establish something that lives in the Big Bang world. That's already there for me, and I know that I have something actually at my disposal, like having a similar voice to my mom and mannerisms. I don't have to try too hard at that and I can just really play the reality of the scenes, which are beautifully written with a lot of heart and nuance. It's been freeing to not really think about the background too much of it -- or I guess the foreground, since I'm in the past.
Metcalf: The character itself has changed over the years. The writers are really astute in the way that they write her. She’s different at age 33 than at age 62.
Has your own mother-daughter relationship informed your acting choices or your career as a whole for either of you?
Perry: For me, she's always been such an inspiration because not only is she incredibly talented -- I might be biased -- but she's always been such a good example of having a really strong work ethic and taking pride and value in the work that she does. That in and of itself has been a real great.
Metcalf: I think you always saw growing up that it was about the work. It wasn't about all the perks that go with it.
Perry: That was such a benefit of having her and dad, and being around a lot of the Steppenwolf actors, because they all came for the passion of the work. That other stuff was ancillary, and so I credit them with maintaining a kind of groundedness through all their success when I was growing up, and being a good model that way, too.
Zoe, do you think your career would be what it is now if you didn’t have the support that your mother provided and this vocal cheerleader that she's become?
Perry: I can't imagine what it would be. There's no way to separate it. I don't discount the privilege that comes with being the kid of two very great actors. All I can say is I'm very grateful that I've had their examples. And it's fun to get to share it with them.
Is it intimidating at all knowing what your mother has accomplished both onscreen and onstage, and then finding your own space in the Hollywood spectrum?
Perry: Much more so when I was younger, which I is also something else for I thank you for: letting me have some space to just grow up and not pursue this when I was younger. Unlike the kids on my show, who really do have a passion for it -- I think their parents are really great in that they don't push them or anything -- they are kids who are really invested and enjoy what they do. I didn't have that kind of passion at a young age. I was interested in watching it, I wasn't interested necessarily in performing. So I'm grateful to kind of find that passion myself, as an adult, because it was really mentally strenuous and I don’t think I would have been mentally equipped for it, honestly.
Laurie, for you, on the other side, you don't have to be as vocal and as supportive as you are of your daughter. What is it about your relationship that makes you want to speak up and take pride in what Zoe's doing?
Metcalf: Well, I'm just watching the show and I'm a big fan of it and I love to talk about it. I think it's fascinating that we are playing the same character and a lot of people still don't know that. They don't know that we're related. Sometimes, when I'm on a show we'll end up talking about that and I hear people in the audience say, “Oh, my God, I had no idea.” I like the shock value of being able to deliver that little tidbit of information. I also like the fact that Zoe and I are peers now in what we do and she came to see me in Three Tall Women --
Perry: She was so good.
Metcalf: -- I was grilling her backstage in my dressing room, like, “Now, what did you think? You can be honest. Tell me the truth. Did this come across? Did this work? What am I doing wrong?” You know that stuff never goes away. Now I have another peer in the family that I can turn to and get advice from.
What is that like now that you two are peers? Can you really be honest with each other about acting?
Perry: For me, just thinking back to the first time we got to share a stage together when we did the Other Place [on Broadway, from December 2012 to March 2013] -- it was such a lucky experience for me because I know what she's capable of. To get to rehearse with her and experience that side of it with her was just such a treat because she's such a pro and she's also really generous and she's also immensely respectful. It was a cool moment for us because we did get to experience something like that. I mean, you can't separate your own relationship, but she kind of managed to in a very loving way and I appreciated that.
Metcalf: Well, thank you, my dear. We hadn't worked together onstage really. I had already done the role and Zoe hadn't, so I had that advantage of already having a whole run of a show under my belt. So it flashed on me before we went into rehearsals -- Was I going to be overprotective of her? Was I going to be overly critical of her? -- because I had done all of my heavy lifting already and she hadn't had that advantage. But it became really clear in rehearsals that I didn't have to have those kind of concerns at all. It just was peers working in a room together from scratch on a fantastic project.
Because of that dynamic that you two have, is it easier to be more blunt or more honest with each other, like, about one's acting or how to make adjustments?
Metcalf: I think with me, it's the same with any other co-worker or any other co-actor, there's a very fine line --
Perry: You don't want to get into someone’s head.
Metcalf: -- When actors talk to each other, you don't ever want to cross that line because it can be really destructive. There's that professional courtesy that we have to each other that we don't get destructive with each other in the kind of criticism that is only criticism and wouldn't be ultimately helpful.
Perry: But again, she's been a good role model for that as well. That's all stuff you learn by doing. When you have good examples, that's something you can model, or hope to.
Lady Bird is such a fantastic film and role for Laurie. I was just curious about how each of you saw that dynamic between Saoirse and Laurie's characters.
Metcalf: I think we were giving each other a lot of side eye when we watched it together.
Perry: We were?!
Metcalf: In Toronto at a film festival, when we saw it together.
Perry: I think I might have patted her leg a couple of times -- certain key moments.
Metcalf: A lot of mother and daughters have come up to me and said that they had a mini-epiphany and were able to see the other person's viewpoint for a second. That's a real piece of charm that the movie is able to offer because of Greta's writing and directing. But you know, I've said things in the movie that I've said in real life. And seeing them in the movie was a bit shocking.
Perry: Not quite.
Metcalf: No, not verbatim. But you know, it was that kind of tough love or wanting to motivate your kid but doing it so aggressively and not realizing that's the way it's being received. I think we've been in those situations. But I'm sure all parents and children have. When we were exiting the theater, I heard people saying, “I have to call my mom.” That's when everybody in Lady Bird understood it was very universal and was affecting a whole spectrum of people that were watching.
Perry: That's what good art feels like to me, is that you get a real great window each person's perspective.
Have you had a chance to watch any of the new Roseanne episodes together and relive that experience with each other?
Perry: I have not gotten to see them on TV yet, or screen them ahead of time. I got to go to a number of the tapings after work and see what I could. There's such a nostalgia factor, obviously, with this show for anyone who grew up watching it as I did. It really taps into the original feeling of what that show achieved, which was, again, a window into a different perspective, and it just does it so well.
Zoe, what is it like to watch what Laurie is going through now with her career and the accolades that she's received? What is it like for you to watch this trajectory and to see what's happening now?
Perry: It's amazing. I'm so proud of her. But a lot of the time, I'm like, “Hey, everybody, welcome to the party,” because I've always known how incredible she was and made so many people laugh. I just love her getting the accolades that she deserves, and getting the attention she deserves. I couldn't be more proud. She's always done amazing work and recently it’s being broadcast to a larger audience and a different audience and I just couldn't be happier. I want more.
Laurie, on top of everything going on, what would it mean if you two were to make history being nominated together and share a moment at the Emmys together?
Metcalf: I hadn't even thought about that. You're blowing my mind. Can you catch us both as we faint? If we were both nominated for the same character -- I mean, that's never gonna happen. That's so insane. It would be so funny. You know we've gone --
Perry: I put my money on you, mom.
Metcalf: -- We've gone to a number of ceremonies together, over the years. Zoe has always gone as my date. So I look forward to going as her date.