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William H. Macy: Harleys and Ukeleles

October 24, 2012  |  1:48pm
William H. Macy: Harleys and Ukeleles

You hear the low rumble first. Then as the Harley draws nearer, you feel it in your chest. Over a hill comes a lone rider, helmeted, leather-clad. He pulls onto set after one more loud squeeze of the throttle, and dismounts. As he takes off his helmet to reveal a tassled mane of gloriously unkempt hair, you notice that on his back he has strapped—a ukulele? Then Bill Macy turns around to greet you, plucks a few notes, and the fun really begins.

“Yes, it really does add to the atmosphere,” laughs Ben Lewin, the director of Sundance award winner The Sessions, in which Macy stars with John Hawkes and Helen Hunt. He’s an eclectic ukulele player, says Hawkes: “He gets along with the Hawaiian style. He will also play the rock classics on it. Ben’s daughter, Phoebe, was around him, and I think she has grown interested in the ukulele with Bill handing it to her and showing her things. He’s a very generous guy. And of course he’s got daughters himself.”

It’s an image that combines many of the things that William H. Macy has become known for—playfulness, creativity, a family atmosphere, a giving personality. He’s also known, of course, for being one of his generation’s finest character actors. “I’d read his name for years in scripts,” remembers Hawkes, “like in the front of scripts of David Mamet plays, and things like that, before I had even seen him, I knew that he would be someone interesting and would not disappoint. And then many years ago we were in an episode of ER that was a live episode, and I met him briefly. He barely even remembers, but I was hugely thrilled by it because he was a favorite of mine at the time, and remains so, but I didn’t get to really meet him properly. He’s someone I had just held in the highest esteem, and on a very short list of actors that I always wanted to work with.”

Lewin was the man who finally made that happen, but he says he didn’t write the part of Father Brendan specifically for Macy. “You know, I never write with anyone in mind,” he explains, “because sometimes things don’t work out that way, and it kind of it gives me a cleaner run at the character. And then the process of casting becomes quite exciting because you are redefining the character. You’re rewriting that aspect of the script. I must say that at times, the idea of having an African American priest or a Latino priest occurred to me. I was looking for a way to say, you know, this guy is really different. Bill Macy came up as a sudden suggestion, and I hadn’t thought of him but then you know, in a millisecond, I said ‘Wow, yes, absolutely!’ When we met, I think that he really did understand the humor of the character’s situation and wanted to do everything to enhance that. So, you know, the chemistry of our first meeting, I think, was instant.”

Hawkes and Hunt were already on board at that point, and when Hawkes got word that Macy had signed on as well, he didn’t want to believe it at first. “You know it was quite a coup,” he says, “getting Helen Hunt involved, but it was such a low budget script and very much a labor of love for anyone who chose to be involved. So when I got a message from Ben that Bill Macy had been cast in our film, I called his voicemail literally two or three times that day saying ‘It’s the Bill Macy that is the Academy Award nominee, that Bill Macy, the guy in Fargo, right?’ I mean, I just kept thinking it must be some other William H. Macy that I was unaware of, because I couldn’t believe our good luck. But it’s also, on a personal level, really vindicating to read a script and be the first one aboard on it, and have others come aboard and accept the material that’s so worthy. It makes you think you may be a decent judge of material!”

Once Lewin started working with Macy, he saw what a great choice he had made. “Well, number one, he was not only thinking about his character. When he read the script he was reading the totality of it and seeing his character in that context. When we first got together, we fiddled with the script. We rewrote certain bits of it here and there, and he added elements to it which really had impact. There was a moment when he says ‘Love is a journey’ and then he paused and added, ‘That’s it, that’s all I’ve got,’ and that was really what cracked people up.”

That proved to be a recurring theme in Macy’s work in The Sessions. “I think he really has an ability,” continues Lewin, “to enhance moments that were only kind of partially realized. He would say, ‘I think we can make more out of this moment’ and he would show me how. In that sense, it was always ‘Wow, what is he going to do with that moment today?’ Some of it, we worked on in advance by altering the text of the script, but a lot of it was created on the day. That’s one of the most exciting things about working with a great actor is getting what you never planned on.”

That kind of collaboration between writer/director and actor can lead to tension, but Lewin says that didn’t happen with Macy. “I don’t think we ever disagreed about anything,” he insists. “I think that he enhanced things that I might have been a little bit more cautious about. When he turns up with a six-pack of beer, in the script, I had just written ‘Father Brendan appears in his street clothes,’ but he and the costume designer worked together to create a look which went beyond that. And not only was he in his street clothes, but he was in his jogging gear and he was sweating profusely. And I think he gave a very simple direction some real texture just by working on the costume. He’s a very circumspect actor and looks for all sort of details to create interest and create depth in character. And even simple things like wearing a bandanna around his head were really part of the way he did it. So, I was very grateful for that boldness that he brought to it.”

Hawkes was still a bit cowed by the prospect of working with one of his role models, but Macy put him at ease early on. “I was understandably a little in awe of someone who I held in such high esteem. But Bill is a disarming, warm, friendly guy. He was kind enough to have Ben and me to his home for grilled cheese sandwiches and soup to kind of talk about the script before we got started. That kind of laid the groundwork, and alleviated some of the stress and the nervousness that I felt working with a hero of mine. By the time we got to work, we were just two actors trying to serve the story.”

That story, of a severely physically handicapped man who begins to see a professional sex surrogate in an effort to explore his sexuality, could have been an exceedingly gloomy, depressing experience. Macy’s character—and natural personality – prevented that. “I felt like humor would be so hugely key,” remembers Hawkes, “in a film that’s so wrought with sadness at the outset, and potentially so somber and laden with sentiment. We were really trying to fight that, and the humor that Bill brings to the movie is just so incredibly needed and essential. We were so lucky to have him. He’s such an amazingly capable actor and I think that his timing and understanding of the material and really kind of truthful mining of the humor where it’s needed were so important, where less-skilled hands might have not served us nearly as well.”

Lewin agrees: “I think that what you see in the Father Brendan character are elements of the real Bill Macy. A sense of humor combined with a very real sense of compassion. And honestly, I think in fact, he’d make a great priest if the church would only let him.”

David Mamet: A Historic Collaboration

Macy has spent over thirty years creating unforgettable characters. One of his most long-standing and most frequent collaborators is David Mamet. Mamet also vividly remembers meeting Macy for the first time. “I actually was teaching at Goddard College,” he remembers. “He came in and we thought he was severely lost because he had a bunch of hay sticking out of his hair, he was wearing coveralls, and he had no shoes on. And he kept mumbling in some dialect, which, as he improved his speech, I later realized was actually English. So, eventually, having come north, he learned some more ways and his feet got accommodated to the notion of shoe leather. And many of the things that he said over the past 40 years, I’ve actually understood.”

That story is no doubt more than a bit apocryphal, but what’s in no doubt at all is that Macy, Mamet, and two friends went on to found a landmark theater company, the St. Nicholas Theater Company. “It was Billy and myself,” Mamet explains, “and Steven Schacter and Patricia Cox. And we were all like 20—I was probably 22, maybe 23. And it was just…we didn’t know any better! So, we started a theater company, and none of us had any money so we all worked at various jobs and took the money from the jobs and started the theater company. And, I wrote plays, Bill wrote plays and Steven wrote plays; we all took turns directing. Everyone took turns acting, except me. To this very day, Patty Cox, who has been one of the doyennes of the small-theatre movement in America, people will say to her ‘How do you start a theatre company?’ And according to her, she says ‘Well, you jump in, you say, I got a play, let’s get a space, let’s see if we can get some people to come.’ That’s all there is to it. It’s kind of the opposite of government funding for the arts. “

Macy went on to star onstage in Mamet classics like American Buffalo, The Water Engine, Oleanna and many others, and later to appear in Mamet’s films as well. They also co-founded a second theater company, the off-Broadway Atlantic Theater Company. It’s an intimate and fruitful partnership, says Mamet, that simplifies the process greatly for him as a writer: “Well, the thing about writing for a great actor who is also a great friend is, rather than writing the part for him, you just write whatever—you’re free to write whatever you want, knowing that whatever you write, he’s going to be great at. It’s like, I had a friend who was in Delta Force and he said the reason they train the kids so hard—the secondary reason is so they’re physically fit, but the primary reason is so that whatever the physical obstacle, their first thought will not be, ‘I wonder if I can overcome it.’”

They also share an unfussy approach to the work of acting. “Bill understands and I understand, because we started off from nothing, we might have had some preconceptions, but when you start your own theater company, you learn very quickly the first rule of the theatre is you gotta keep the audience in mind. That makes the difference between you having to take extra shifts in your cab next week. So whether an actor or director or producer, you learn that there’s no such thing as creating a character. It’s bullshit. There’s lines on a page and there’s acting. Billy told me, somebody said, ‘When you work with Dave, tell me about the rehearsal process.’ And he says ‘Rehearsal process is take one, and there’s no take two.’”

Mamet also has a great story about the high regard Macy is held in, within, the business. “You know, I’ve known him-Jesus-almost 40 years,” he says. “We’ve been working together, we were real poor and happy together. But something happened with Billy I’ve never seen happen to another actor. I was shooting a show on a stage in Valencia: The Unit , the TV show. He was shooting for one day on another show, down at a different stage at that studio. He came up to visit me and as he walked on the set, the crew burst into applause. I’d never seen that happen before. I mean, you know, the actors and directors and writers, we’re all brain-dead fantasists. But you can’t fool the crew.”

Gary Ross: The Actor’s Director

Gary Ross is another frequent collaborator; Macy has appeared in three of his films, beginning with Pleasantville. “He was on ER at the time,” remembers Ross, “and I knew his work also from Atlantic Theater. I had seen him on stage and I’d always been an admirer of his work. Bill just has this astoundingly unique instrument; he’s not like any other actor you’ll find. There’s something so arresting and completely individualistic about him, and so distinct. And for the character in Pleasantville, it was really perfect. It was a guy who was trapped in the role of this rigid businessman, but needed the emotional depth underneath it to break out of that, ultimately. And he had to project incredible resolute strength and profound weakness at the same time, which Bill was really great at. You know, Bill seems perfect for that. I just loved his performance.”

Ross went on to cast him in Seabiscuit and The Tale of Despereaux. The former was an especially fun role. “When I was writing Seabiscuit,” Ross says, “I added this character that was sort of an invention. He was this fast-talking kind of Walter Winchell racetrack tout. Actually, it was the most fun I had writing in that entire movie, was writing that dialogue. It was this series of mixed metaphors and malapropos, and I wrote it for Bill.”

Like others, Ross also found Macy to be a calming influence on set. “ You know,” he muses, “I find with really great actors that there’s a confidence that comes from their professionalism that makes them very relaxed and a lot of fun to work with, you know? He’s playful, he’s fun, he’s relaxed, incredibly professional. He’s so good and so confident in his talent that there’s no sort of, there’s no drama beyond the text. He had these amazing bowling pin cufflinks on Pleasantville that I kept trying to steal from him through the entire show. I would swipe them and then he’d get them back. It was just one of those funny things on set. And he gave them to me on his last day.”

Ross is fascinated by the ukulele playing as well. “Yeah, it is an eclectic mix of tastes, isn’t it?” he says. “You don’t see a lot of guys on a Harley with a ukulele. That’s true.”

Shameless: A Family Function

Macy has been seen most often over the last couple of years on the small screen as the lead in the U.S. version of Shameless. Paul Abbott, who created both the British and U.S. versions, was thrilled about landing him for what is a tough role to navigate, in the alcoholic, paranoid lead character Frank. “I couldn’t believe our luck getting William H. Macy,” he raves, “because he’s a fucking world-class film star. Frank doesn’t know what he looks like from the outside; he actually believes every word he says, with that kind of psychotic narcissism he’s got. It’s our biggest weapon to make him more loveable, because he thinks he’s being cheated by his kids who are robbing him blind. He thinks he’s hard done by, and the stronger he believes it, the more we’ll love him for not understanding what his own flaws are. He’s an antihero with so little perception of what makes him chronically repulsive.”

Despite playing such a resentful character, costar Emmy Rossum says Macy still livens up the set. “He’s not a brooding, dark, method actor,” she says, “who needs to walk around in the haze of alcoholism all day in order to pretend that he’s this character and really believe it. He really can just at a moment’s notice, just put it on like a coat. He’s so intelligent and so mature, but at the same time, he’ll laugh and tell you, you know, very kind of silly, dirty jokes. And then the second they call ‘Rolling,’ he snaps into character and it just kind of seamlessly comes out.”

The family depicted in Shameless may be incredibly dysfunctional, in other words, but the Shameless family is decidedly not. “I’m sure you know about his passion for motorcycles,” says Rossum, “and all the trips that he takes with the boys from Shameless. You know, the family atmosphere that he has in his home life is really something he brings to work. He invites us all over to his house and we’ll watch the first episode live on TV when it airs, all of our cast and some of the crew at his house, and Felicity makes cocktails, and it’s just such a warm environment. You know, you walk around in your bare feet in their home, and that’s just kind of the real person that he is.”

And Rossum has a specific claim that, while hard to believe of any actor, might just be true about Bill Macy. “I’ve never really seen him in a bad mood. In the three years I’ve worked with him, I’ve maybe seen him pissed off or annoyed or tired, but I’ve literally never seen him dislike anybody or be in a bad mood. He’s just fundamentally good; he just loves life, he loves his family, he loves his job. He loves getting in there and playing and creating. Yeah, he’s just a really good person.”

And does he play the ukulele? “Oh yeah,” she laughs, “he brings it almost every day. He makes up silly songs for the characters to sing. He makes up funny dances that sometimes we actually do music videos to. He just has a desire to be creative, to constantly create, and that never seems to go away.”

A Wealth of Signature Roles

Over the course of a career spent creating memorable characters, it’s hard to choose a favorite. Many would agree with Emmy Rossum in pointing to his role as Bernie Lootz in The Cooler. “I love his work in that film. Some scenes that he did with Maria Bello on The Cooler, I just re-watched it and I was just so struck by how powerful he was. I think that decency is just inherent in Bill’s personality. I think he’s a kind person and I think that that really shines through anything he does. At least he always makes us able to empathize. We can always understand his character why he’s doing what he’s doing. His characters never comes across as just totally bad.”

Bello herself agrees. “When people ask me what was my favorite acting experience,” she says, “I always say The Cooler. It was like for 3 weeks, playing in the best and biggest sandbox in the world. I was so lucky to have a playmate like Bill in that sandbox. Some actors work from a place of structure and intensity, and from their minds, but Bill brings a complete playfulness and child-like imagination to his work. Plus he plays a great ukelele, can drink me under the table and looks really good naked.”

Ross points to the Mamet film Wag the Dog, where Macy’s performance stands up to excellent turns by Dustin Hoffman and Robert DeNiro. “It’s just an astounding performance. There are so many moments with Bill. You know, I always hear the line in my head, ‘Two things I know. There’s no difference between good flan and bad flan, and there is no war.’ I mean, Mamet just killed that screenplay. It’s maybe the best political screenplay ever written. And Bill has so many great moments in it.”

Hawkes comes back to possibly the critical favorite, Macy’s astoundingly textured led turn in the Coen Brothers classic Fargo. Like Macy’s character, Hawkes is from Minnesota. “You know, it’s not an easy accent; it can easily be overdone. The film as a whole, obviously, it’s just incredibly delightful and satisfying, and Bill’s just at the center of all that. He’s I think originally from Georgia, and that’s a very different accent. He spent a great deal of time in Vermont, which may be getting a little closer, but obviously he did his homework in finding the sound of that character and even the look on his face just felt…of the land. That’s not an easy thing to do—just to become someone from there.”

But the performance, of course, went farther than just learning an accent flawlessly. “Mr. Lundegaard was such a hapless… uh, how do I put it?” Hawkes says. “You know, we’re taught where I’m from to not be ostentatious, to not make waves. It’s to blend in, and Lundegaard felt that. I felt that there too. And I don’t know if it was something Bill was even trying to do, but it was in his performance all the way through. It was such an uncomfortable character. It just all seems necessary to telling the story, to serving the story in the best way. That’s, I think, Bill in a nutshell. He’s a very intelligent actor and he can make things look easy, but he’s put a great deal of thought into every role he plays.”

“What can you say?” agrees Ross. “It just keeps coming. There are not many people that sustain this much good work over this long a period of time. Each performance is unique, and each performance is exciting and you know, the screen kind of lights up when he’s on it. It’s like his instrument is so unique and yet, all the characters are very distinct from one another. But there’s something so arresting just about watching Bill onscreen that, you know, if a movie is on in the room, your head sort of snaps to it the minute Bill comes onscreen.”

So what’s the secret? “I think that people sustain a long career like this,” explains Ross, “when they love what they do. And I think the reason that Bill was able, been able to sustain such good acting for so long, is that, you know, he loves all the right things about the job. He loves to act, he loves a good part, he has confidence in it because he enjoys it so much and it shows.”

Macy Speaks

Macy’s devotion to the project at hand is evident; he’s at Sundance and all he wants to talk about is The Sessions. Still called The Surrogate at this point, it’s creating a lot of buzz at festival. It will go on to win two pries here—the Audience Award for Best Narrative Feature, and the Jury Award for Ensemble Acting. Only one night earlier, Macy saw the finished film for the first time, and he’s still raving about it.

“I was destroyed,” he says. “I wept like a baby. Then I got myself together, and then when Ben got to the stage, I started weeping all over again. But what occurred to me that I wasn’t weeping for the character Mark; I was weeping for humanity. I was weeping because it made me feel good to be human. I mean, I didn’t feel so sorry for the character. He got to spend a bunch days in bed with Helen. I don’t know if he deserves our pity.”

Macy is especially enthusiastic about the film’s treatment of sexuality and disability. “I loved that it brought up a subject which is perhaps a little icky and it did it in such a non-emotional way,” he says. “It was so easy to watch. There was no titillation there. It was a legitimate point, you know what I mean? I did a film once in where I played a guy with cerebral palsy and so I got involved with United Cerebral Palsy, UCP, which is one of the best organizations around. They advocate for people with disabilities in Washington, and they’re really effective. And so for two years, I was their ambassador and I helped people with disabilities. And I saw two things. First they wanted independence. They wanted to get a job and pay their own rent and live alone. No matter how bent up they were, that’s what they wanted. And number two, which is perhaps number one, they wanted to meet someone. They wanted to fall in love. They wanted to get laid. They so wanted that, and it’s an easy subject to sweep under the carpet when you just see these people. Over 60 percent of the people with cerebral palsy, it doesn’t affect their brain—their bodies are just all bent up. So you would look at these people who have such difficulty speaking and they’re all bent up like pretzels, and they’ve got a wickedly cool sense of humor. And you think, ‘Well, I want you to meet someone, but just to be blunt, how would that work?’ And I love that film sort of unemotionally and without embarrassment dealt with it.”

Of course, both those things disabled people want have to do fundamentally with the idea of self-identity. “I think you’re right,” Macy agrees. “Felicity says, ‘It’s the way you communicate, isn’t it?’ She said she realized that I will feel lonely and distant from her when we go a long time without making love. And I guess that’s true, especially for men. It’s our way of communication. Yeah, we’re not good at putting things into words.”

Far from being just a dramatic exploration, Macy sees political implications as well. “Me personally, I wish the whole reproductive rights question, whether you’re for abortion or against abortion, I wish part of that discussion was how we could take care of people with disabilities. Because if every baby gets born, there are going to be a lot of people with disabilities, a lot of people, so that’s got to be on the table. And if you say that every baby has to be born, then you have to shut the fuck up about your taxes. We gotta take care of these kids. We can’t just warehouse them. They have rights as human beings. If that’s what the argument says, then we gotta figure this out and I think this film speaks to that so eloquently about it without being an issue, you know what I mean?”

The film also gives Macy a chance to portray a sympathetic priest, not exactly a fixture in Sundance films. But recently there seems to be an opening at the festival to exploring religious issues. “I think the Catholic Church must be pleased with this film,” laughs Macy. “The priest is a good guy, falls on the right side of this question. People who are…consider themselves uber-progressive and liberal, have to be careful because you can find yourself saying, ‘The Nazis have to be able to march in Skokie,’ and yet you make fun of Tebow. It’s a big country, you know? I think there’s room for everybody. I’m not a particularly religious person myself, but I don’t have the right to make fun of someone who is. I do have the right to scream bloody murder when they try to impose restrictions on me because something violates their faith. But we gotta be careful that we don’t turn the tables. I mean, you’re exactly right. It’s good that Sundance is opening up a little bit because we’re supposed to be getting…we’re just not even talking to each other anymore. We just cop attitudes about people. The way we used to with guy with long hair and the guy with short hair even though they thought they knew each other just because of the length of their hair.”

Macy sees faith and ethics as relatively straightforward. “For me, personally, I’ve always felt we all know what’s right and what’s wrong. We do. Deep down, it’s pretty clear. I mean, the questions really boil down to a couple of simple questions. And you know the answers.”

Harleys and ukuleles. It’s a perfect picture of the atmosphere Macy brings to a film set. He’s incredibly accomplished, and deadly serious about his work and the issues it explores. But he’s gentle, playful, loving. It’s a picture of a man in balance, a man in full. “Yeah, you don’t often hear the words ‘Harley’ and ‘ukulele’ in the same sentence,” says Hawkes. He pauses for just a moment. “I think we could stand to hear it more.”

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