How 'The Conners' Will Move on Without Roseanne Barr: It 'Makes Me Choke Up,' Laurie Metcalf Says

Sara Gilbert, John Goodman and Laurie Metcalf are starring in the new Roseanne spin-off

When shooting began in August for the Roseanne spin-off, The Conners, Sara Gilbert, John Goodman and Laurie Metcalf found themselves dealing with loss both on- and off-screen.

“We have to react to what’s missing, but everything else is pretty much the same,” Goodman, 66, tells PEOPLE exclusively in this week’s cover story. Notably absent is matriarch Roseanne Barr, who agreed to have no involvement with the show after their hit reboot was canceled by ABC in May following a racist comment she made about a former White House adviser.

Jeff Lipsky

While the cast is now grateful to Barr for allowing the spin-off to proceed, embracing their new world without her was an adjustment. “It was awkward but not awkward,” says Metcalf, 63, of the first day back on set. “It was right but not right, wrong but not wrong. We were sort of looking at each other like, ‘How do you feel? How is everybody?’ Checking in.”

  • For more of the exclusive interview with Gilbert, Goodman and Metcalf — including behind-the-scenes photos — pick up this week’s issue of PEOPLE, on newsstands Friday

The show, which will reportedly kill off Barr’s character, allows the viewers and cast to process the absence of her character with honesty.

“Sara and I had this scene in the first show where we addressed the grief,” Metcalf recalls. “Sometimes when you’re an actor and you have to go to that place, you substitute something, but in this case there was no need to do that, because it was there. And it was real. And still makes me choke up, because that part of it’s been really hard.”

Eric McCandless/ABC

When the spin-off premieres, the Lanford, Illinois-based family will be moving on with honesty and humor.

“Any sadness that we feel over what we’ve lost we’re hopefully channeling in an honest way into the show,” says Gilbert, 43, who also serves as a producer. “And our show has always been able to deal with heavy topics, particularly for a sitcom. It’s been kind of built into the mix.”

Eric McCandless/ABC

As for future storylines, Metcalf would love to see Jackie “at work” in her new profession as a life coach, and Gilbert hopes to explore newly divorced Darlene’s dating life. Dan, as always, “just wants to be left alone,” Goodman says.

All three are now especially hopeful that fans “feel they’re on this journey with us,” Gilbert adds. “And we don’t want to let them down.”

The Conners debuts Oct. 16 at 8 p.m. ET on ABC.

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