Laurie Metcalf is the Steppenwolf Company actress who plays the 12-year-old daughter in "Coyote Ugly" at the Terrace Theater. She's the one who bites the head off a fish.

"I don't actually bite the head off," she says. "I put one of the fins in my mouth and rip it off. It tears off a big piece." She has her preference in fish, too: "The bigger the better. That way I can get a better grip on the fin."

Metcalf, who has played such sensitive roles as Laura in "The Glass Menagerie" and Frankie in "Member of the Wedding," does not find her role gross. "It doesn't bother me," she says. "If I was in the audience seeing it, I'd just think it was funny."

"Coyote Ugly" is about a family that has been living for too long in un-splendid isolation in a trailer on a desert. Her character's older brother has returned with a "normal" wife, and the play is basically about the interaction between the wife and the weirdos. "I don't think it's meant to have a big message," Metcalf says.

She can play a 12-year-old because she's "built like a tomboy," although with the birth of her daughter 20 months ago she added a few curves. "The actors who play my parents are also 30, so they aren't playing their ages either. We figured the play was so weird it didn't matter."

Metcalf has been with Steppenwolf since its inception 10 years ago, founded by a group of actors from Illinois State University. Since then they have gone from having to take "day jobs" to pay the rent to supporting themselves, and have won critical renown to the extent that the company won a special Tony award this year. "That was great," Metcalf says. "Especially because it came with a check, which we didn't expect."

Some members, such as John Malkovich, are becoming well known for work outside the company. Metcalf herself had a small part in the film "Desperately Seeking Susan," and she won an Obie for her performance in the company's production of "Balm in Gilead," which moved from Chicago to Off-Broadway for a long run. Success and fame have brought larger audiences and recognition, but also some problems, she says.

"The last few years it's been hard to get everybody lined up to do a production because people have been getting individual offers. But everybody came back for at least one show last year." Metcalf plans to spend more time in New York but wants to remain a member of the company. "We'll probably go back and forth. I don't know if I can afford to live in New York."

The company's choice of plays is guided by the fact that it was founded by actors "looking for juicy roles," she says. They have taken turns being artistic director. "Somebody does it until they get burned out." Metcalf has no interest in taking the reins, but her husband, Jeff Perry, who will be appearing in "Streamers" here in July, had the job for three years.

Her character in "Coyote Ugly" reminds her of being 12 years old and "thinking you have some sort of powers. You put these little hexes on people, and when something comes true you think you did it. This girl is really into voodoo and even cannibalism. I love it." Miscellaneous

Liviu Ciulei, who has revitalized the Guthrie Theater over his five years as artistic director, will be leaving that post at the end of the next season to work on other projects. He plans to return to Minneapolis as a guest director . . . The Round House's Mark Jaster will be spending the summer in Ann Arbor, Mich., assisting Marcel Marceau in his Master Class Mime Seminars . . .

The Women's Theatre Group, a collective of six women from London, is performing its play "Pax" at the Theatre Project in Baltimore through July 14. Call (301) 752-8558 . . . "In the Belly of the Beast," at the Kennedy Center, has been extended. Additional dates are: July 2, 3, 5, and two performances July 6. Tickets to canceled performances of the play will be honored on these additional dates . . .

Source Theatre's festival has taken on an international note with the addition of an Irish play, "The Winter Man," by Niall Montgomery, and "Apotheosis of the Void" by Romanian-born Frenchman Georges Astalos. The 10-day festival will include performances of at least 16 plays in the company's two theaters, and will wind up with a 12-hour marathon of readings July 28. The festival includes playwrights from California, Canada, Baltimore and Washington. The winner of the contest is Joe Martin, whose "The Dust Conspiracy," about a landlady obsessed by violence and her vigilante boyfriend, will be performed July 26-28. Call 462-1073 for details. %&%?%&'Chorus Line' Anniversary

"A Chorus Line" celebrates its 10th anniversary on Broadway in July. According to Variety, it still generates about $1 million a year for the original producers, Joseph Papp's Public Theater. One reason for its financial success, reportedly, is comparatively low overhead -- i.e., no stars.