William H. Macy’s performance as a bumbling (and very polite) North Dakota criminal made him a household name…and earned him an Oscar nomination. Since then he’s made memorable turns in “Magnolia,” “Seabiscuit,” and many other films…including this year’s indie hit “The Sessions” (as the sympathetic priest-counselor to John Hawkes’ virgin poet.)
On the small screen, Bill stars in the Showtime series “Shameless” – a comedy-drama about a poor family in Chicago’s southside. His patriarch, Frank Gallagher, is about as selfish, narcissistic, and substance-dependent as they come…which can make meeting strangers a little uncomfortable. William chats with Brendan playing being down-and-out (and still funny), Steppenwolf stages, and the most annoying decision ever made by TV execs.
Brendan Francis Newnam: You get to act out in every possible way, playing the eccentric deadbeat Frank. Seems like it’s a lot of fun…?
William H. Macy: Oh yes. It’s a dream job, and I love playing this despicable character.
Brendan Francis Newnam: Is it easy or hard to play a drunk deadbeat.
William H. Macy: You know, this season more than any other something has come up, which is, when I’m acting the thing, when we’re doing it, it’s just great fun. It’s a romp.He’s shameless, he’s inebriated to some degree all the time, and I just can’t tell you how fun it is to be so far outside the box.It’s hard for me to do something that’s inappropriate.
Brendan Francis Newnam: That’s true.
William H. Macy: But, I watched the second episode last night and I kind of got my feelings hurt.
Brendan Francis Newnam: How so?
William H. Macy: Well, he’s such an awful guy. You know, when you’re acting it’s great fun, and then when you sit back months later and watch it, he’s so despicable it makes me feel sad.
Brendan Francis Newnam: It can make even the viewer feel sad. There’s parts of this season where at one point he pretends his son has cancer so he can try to score free tickets to a basketball game which he can sell. You have kids yourself. Is that kind of when you watch that, do you get angry at the character that you portrayed?
William H. Macy: Yeah, and I think it’s probably in the DNA of all actors that we all want to be the hero in a piece, and there are times when Frank is sort of a glorious anti-hero, and I love that. It’s a more complex role than I ever thought it was going to be.
Brendan Francis Newnam: This show deals with the recession in a pretty direct way. Jobs are scarce, the city’s crumbling, yet I imagine in Hollywood people are kind of insulated from people like the Gallaghers. As an actor asked to play someone from kind of a different part of society, how do you prep for that, and how do you make sure you’re being authentic.
William H. Macy: I didn’t prep for the character per say, and that’s sort of been my MO my entire career. I don’t know if it’s right or wrong, but that’s what I do. My thesis has always been every bit of information I need with few and rare exceptions in on the page.
Brendan Francis Newnam: You don’t research the characters. Is that like non-method acting? What is that?
William H. Macy: Well, I say no. It’s a debatable point, and I start talking about acting technique and the history of it and I can literally see the will to live drain out of people.
Brendan Francis Newnam: This is public radio. Don’t underestimate.
William H. Macy: All right. We say method, we think Stanislavski, and in this country it was Sandy Meisner or Lee Strasberg, and there were two schools of thought. And one of them is how are you feeling about what’s going on onstage, and the other one is what are you doing about what’s going on onstage.
Brendan Francis Newnam: Yeah.
William H. Macy: I subscribe to the second, what are you doing, and let how you’re feeling about it- to a large extent, go hang.
Brendan Francis Newnam: All right.
William H. Macy: It will take care of itself. So, to that extent there are times when I think you need to learn skills and learn about a lifestyle that you don’t know about.If you’re gonna play a doctor you have to learn how to scrub properly- things like that that I think are legitimate, but the whole notion of becoming the character, I’ve always found confusing.
I don’t understand it. And the few actors that I’ve worked with who take that to the max and really try to become the characters are just impossible to be around. They’re mentally ill. The scene’s over and they’re still doing some bizarre thing when you really just want to dish and talk about what’s for lunch.
Brendan Francis Newnam: Yeah, you’re like Mr. Lincoln, can we just go have some quinoa at the catering table?
William H. Macy: It strikes me as silly. Having said that I thought Daniel Day Lewis was just magnificent.
Brendan Francis Newnam: He was magnificent, he was magnificent.
William H. Macy: Different strokes.
Brendan Francis Newnam: You’ve thought a lot about theater. You started a theater group with David Mamet in Chicago back in 1972, is that right?
William H. Macy: David was my teacher. I met him in college, and he was just barely out of school and he taught an acting class, and my friend Steven Schachter, the three of us moved to Chicago, and so off we went and we started the St. Nicholas Theatre, and we created a very successful theater that ran for about 10 or 12 years. Steppenwolf took over that building, which I put that theater in with my bare hands.
Brendan Francis Newnam: Wow.
William H. Macy: I’m a bit of a carpenter.
Brendan Francis Newnam: You were actually featured on the cover of a woodworking magazine- isn’t that correct?
William H. Macy: That’s true. It’s one of my only covers. They were gonna do it the month before but a power planer made it instead of me.
Brendan Francis Newnam: Well you can’t blame them for a power planer.
William H. Macy: No.
Brendan Francis Newnam: I mean, that’s impressive. Look, we have two standard questions on our show, and the first one is, what question are you tired of being asked?
William H. Macy: The whole notion of Frank is so despicable- how despicable do you think he’s going to get? Some variation on you’re so awful- is there nothing you won’t do?
And it kind of hurts my feelings. I say, “Yeah come on. Leave me alone. I think he’s funny. I like the guy. Who are you gonna hang out with?” My character is fun. I grab life and eat it up.
Brendan Francis Newnam: That’s one way to put it. We have another question that we ask each of our guests, and that is, tell us something we don’t know. It can be something about you, or it could be kind of an obscure fact about the world.
William H. Macy: I might have said this before in an interview, but it never got printed because I’m the only one that cares, and it’s not something we don’t know, it’s something we’d never thought of.
Brendan Francis Newnam: Okay.
William H. Macy: You know when you’re watching television and at the bottom of the screen they have all these people run in and jump around try to get your attention and announce what’s coming next, and it always happens right at some climactic moment?
Brendan Francis Newnam: You mean those overlays where they have the characters from the next show coming up?
William H. Macy: Yeah, and it used to be just a scroll announcing it, but now they have- they shrink the character down so he or she is about a quarter of the screen, and they’re leaping around waving their arms trying to get our attention.
Brendan Francis Newnam: It’s absurd.
William H. Macy: Somebody made that decision. There was a guy who said- or a gal who said I think this is a good idea. Somebody said that’s a good idea. Somebody said this is what America wants.
Brendan Francis Newnam: I’m guessing that’s not the type of person you’d hang out with- a person who makes that decision.
William H. Macy: No.I just want to meet him or her. I just want to say, “Really? Really? Look what you’ve done.”
Brendan Francis Newnam: I think you should find them, and then they’ll be in a meeting or a party, and you just run up to them and interrupt them and say something completely-
William H. Macy: Or wait until they’re giving a speech and just go up with some cards, you know? I’ll be performing in Shameless next weekend.