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William H. Macy Goes for Broke (and Drunk) in Showtime's Shameless

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William H. Macy. Portrait by Leslie Hassler.

William H. Macy has a voice that could sell needles to a porcupine. He can say the word "Golly" and have it be rife with unspoken meaning and depth. When applied to the drunken and profanity-laced dialogue in Shameless, Showtime's most-watched dramatic premiere in seven years, the effect is disconcertingly dazzling.

Famous for delving into the darker depths of the human condition, Macy once said, "I'm completely hooked into the imploding WASP role."

His eyes are of a light blue so emotionally transparent that you can almost see his internal organs at work underneath. Unblinking and huge, they convey a sense of desperation, humiliation, agony, and occasional glory, making audiences squirm in their seats with anxious delight.

In his acting, Macy tells the truth about himself, and about humanity, in so raw a way that sometimes it's all we can do not to turn away from the screen. He's not afraid to show the desperate and ugly places that the rest of us spend our whole lives praying that no one else will see. And the irony is that this ability is incredibly beautiful. It has transformed him from a character actor into a leading man.

Oscar nominated, he is best known to film audiences for Fargo, The Cooler, State and Main, The Spanish Prisoner, House of Games, Oleanna, Boogie Nights, Magnolia, Jurassic Park III, Wag the Dog, and Seabiscuit.

In Shameless, Macy plays a Chicagoan working-class father to six whose extreme alcoholism has become a kind of profession. Macy describes Frank as "extremely hardworking"--at not actually working. He lives happily from his meager disability checks, a settlement from an accident in a poultry factory. "Slammed in the ribs by a headless flying chicken," Gallagher announces proudly in the first episode. "I was lucky. Almost missed me."

Macy is an original Mameteer, i.e. a student, collaborator, and theatre-founder with writer-director David Mamet. After doing 50 Off-Broadway plays in New York as a character actor, he moved to Hollywood in '91. His first romantic lead and nude scene came at age 53, a time when most actors are retiring their Speedos, with The Cooler. And Shameless has now taken him into a whole new arena of undress. After showing us what he looks like on the inside for years, turns out, he's pretty beautiful on the outside too.

Shameless has a stellar cast, including the incomparable Joan Cusack. Is it true that you once babysat her growing up and now in Shameless she has you handcuffed, naked, to the bed?
Oh, what a tangled web we weave. (Laughter)

What does the rest of your life look like once you've lived through that kind of sexual predicament on screen?
I've got an eight-year-old and a 10-year-old and they're wondering why there's a picture on the refrigerator of Daddy wearing fur pasties handcuffed to a bed.

You're playing Frank Gallagher who has six kids but whose raging alcoholism causes a major divide in his relationships with them. Does having children of your own change how you look at Frank?
Only once this season, have they written something for Frank that I protested. I said, "You've gone too far." And we did reach a compromise. But I've been very cautious about saying "my character wouldn't do that." Because after very many years in the business, I've learned that if you're doing your job well as an actor, you put on blinders towards your character. You quickly realize that it's your job to fall in love with and defend your character. And that's why you can never listen to the actors about rewriting the script. Because if you're doing your job well, you will try to take out everything that makes your character look bad. And if you do that, there ain't no drama. I've been hesitant to take anything out. I mean, I head-butt my own son, in the second episode. And I played it completely unapologetically. I really love the fact that Frank is dangerous. He may be a boffo clownish fellow a lot, but there is something dangerous about him, and I'm desperate to keep that part alive. He's sort of the 2011 version of Archie Bunker. There's nobody I haven't insulted yet.

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William H. Macy. Portrait by Leslie Hassler.

How do you create a twenty-year family history with your cast, actors who are virtually new to you?
It's a function of the writing, and the casting. John Levy cast this thing, and he did a brilliant job. Our pilot was directed by Mark Mylod who also did the English pilot. He did a couple of cool things. We were encouraged to hang out in the house. We had a day off, and they sent us all out to play miniature golf. There were batting cages there, and the grumpy old actor in me thought, "What the fuck, what do you want from us, you want us to do some big improv? I don't think so!" So we get to miniature golf and we hardly know each other at that point, and Emma who plays my younger daughter, who is just adorable, she was in front of me and she took a shot and missed. So we gave her a do-over and she missed again. We gave her another do-over. We gave her about seven do-overs and then I thought, "Okay, that's enough." And I pushed her out of the way and I played through. And it was later in the day that I thought, "Wow, they're smarter than I am. That's Frank all over!"

So you found the character of Frank through miniature golf. Are you a good golfer? Or a competitive golfer?
There is a bit of healthy competition between myself and the lads. They of course handed me my ass.

Many of our shows about addiction show the shame, misfortune and poverty. Do you feel that this show embraces and celebrates these attributes?
Joan Cusack goes on and on about this, how poisonous shame is in our lives and that we are shameless, she sings. We're shameless. The family is shameless and they don't have any apologies. They are living on the socio-economic edge without apology or embarrassment. I love that about them.

Do you think something beautiful can be found in dysfunction?
I think it is beautiful. I'm very moved at the end of so many of these episodes when the family gathers around. There's a couple of scenes-- one of them where the family starts to get split up and, oh man, do they circle the wagons. There's another one where young Ian, it turns out I'm not really his Dad, and he goes looking for his father. There's a beautiful speech where he says to his brother, Lip, "You're angry at dad, I'm not. He's my dad. I've got brothers and sisters, I like the way things are. This is my family, for better or worse, and I like it." It's really moving.

How did you come to the project? Did you find them? Were they looking for you?
They found me, but I was looking for them.

I love that.
I wanted to do a series. My wife is on a series (Desperate Housewives) and she loves her job, and I wanted to do one too. If I'm going to be honest about it, I would say, the best stuff being done anywhere is being done on television. So many of the films being made don't hold a candle to what networks like HBO and Showtime are doing. Silly comedies that come out don't come close to 30 Rock, or The Office. Those are really fantastic.

The Office is another great example of an English show adapted for American audiences that became spectacularly its own. Is this similar?
Yes, ours has done the same thing. It is at once the same but completely different. We're cannibalizing their scripts so the plots are similar, and they've mixed it up a bit, but it's the same show, the same characters, and yet it is completely different. It is completely American. I think if you didn't know, you might think that the American version came first. It's kudos to Paul that the story is bigger than the setting you put it in. This family rings so true, that you could probably do a French version! As they say, "A pint's a pound the world around!"

What is your stance on watching roles you know you're going to play? Did you watch the English pilot of Shameless?
I know John Wells through the ER days. And he sent me the script. I'm pretty impulsive, when something good comes along I jump on it. I jumped on it almost immediately, and said yeah, I want to do it. And then, I watched the British version, the pilot and I shot our pilot. And when it was picked up I watched their first season. I'm a little reticent to watch any more of them, because they are so good.

Just like when you play Stanley Kowalski...
You don't want to watch Marlon Brando. If I write for it next year, which I hope to do, I probably will watch the whole season. Because that's the template from which we're drawing all of these plots.

You are incredibly supportive of your wife Felicity Huffman's career. You seem so excited about her as an artist, encouraging her to succeed and to do her own projects. How does it work having two serious actors in the house?
We are lucky. We grew up on stage together in New York. We were both members of the Atlantic Theatre company, which still exists. We like talking craft, we talk about the scenes, we share our work together and actually criticize each other and help with each other's work. If I get stuck, I'll call her and she'll call me right from the set. And we both just love technique and breaking things down. As far as her career, we've both been fortunate in that it's not been difficult to respect each other. It must be terribly difficult when you're married to someone whom you love, but you don't have respect for them, for their work. But thank goodness, we are not in that situation. I saw Transamerica and to this day I don't know how she did what she did. I thought I knew her so well, and yet to see that work, I don't know where it came from. It's a mystery. Felicity loves to say that when you see good acting, brilliant acting, it seems effortless and inevitable and when you see bad acting it seems inescapable.

Your acting has always appeared as a kind of fearlessness. With Frank I feel like you've been given a license to kill, to just go forth and decimate. How do you become unafraid, and let people see so much?
I don't feel like a fearless person, I feel like a fearful person. But for whatever reason, I guess I feel the least fearful under imaginary circumstances.

I think it's the human condition, we're all stuck with that lot. But in your performances, you show the fear.
Well, David Mamet was my teacher and mentor.

So it's true, after a career-long collaboration, that he was your teacher first! What did you think when you first met David Mamet?
It was outrageous. Everyone wore military clothes in those days, it was 1971 or '72. Vietnam era. We all wore military gear. But he was the only guy I had ever seen in fatigues that had been ironed and tailored. (both laugh) He was outrageous and outspoken and brash and at first glance we all thought "Well, what an asshole", and that we would not go back to the second class. I mean, he said outrageous stuff like that we had to show up on time.

How dare he?!
Can you believe it? And not only did we have to show up on time, he locked the door at 5 minutes of! So we thought, "We don't know who died and left you in charge." But for some reason, we all went back. And by the third class it became apparent that he was the smartest guy I had ever met. He's a rootin' tootin' walking talking genius. He said, "You will never feel prepared and you will never feel anything but a fraud. The difference between you and civilians is that actors march forward anyway and talk loud." Everybody gets shy and tries to hide their humiliation. Actors march forth into it. And for whatever reason, and probably the reason is Dave Mamet, I embrace that and I love the insecurity, it makes me really live. I like it when everyone gets quiet and it's my turn to talk and no one gets to go home until I get it right. That pressure brings me alive somehow.

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William H. Macy. Portrait by Leslie Hassler.

One of the magical things about your acting is that you are completely willing to go to all of the achingly uncomfortable and frightening places, emotionally. Does discomfort make for better acting?
One time, a big movie star walked up to Dave (Mamet) and said, "I'm uncomfortable with this moment." Dave said, "Oh, you are? I'm happy for you." And walked away. And Dave's point is, you better jolly well be uncomfortable, that's what I spent all my time trying to do, is write a moment that makes you uncomfortable. Dave probably said that if you find yourself comfortable on stage you're doing something wrong.

And then you formed the St. Nicholas Company, with Mamet.
In Chicago, way back in the 70's, and it was wildly successful. And he was just getting serious about writing at that point. The first big one was American Buffalo.

So, in a way, you knew Mamet pre-writing?
Almost. He had written a play called Camel, which I had never read. He had written a bunch of sketches called Sexual Perversity in Chicago, but it wasn't as it exists now. Stuart Gordon, in Chicago, did a production of it. And he's the one who talked Dave into culling the thing and making it into a cast of four. When he first wrote it was for thirty, it was everybody in our entire acting class.

These times are legendary for the rest of us, those beginnings in Chicago.
Well, even then, I knew. I kept saying to my mates, during that Chicago time, "These are the good old days." I also knew that we were extremely fortunate. I mean, I had the keys to the city. I owned the theater! I could take girls back there at night!

Speaking of romantic moments, when you are truly respected as a serious stage and screen actor and then suddenly they demand that you take all your clothes off, this late in the game, what does that mean? What does that tell us about your career trajectory?
How bout that? Golly. I don't know. I'm trying to put a stop to it, because I love this country, and I want to keep it beautiful.

Strongly disagree, you're a naked national treasure. Do you channel any former imbibing ways or vices into playing Frank?
I graduated from high school in 1968 and so I've --

Survived the drug-fueled sixties?
(laughs) done my share, and your share, and my wife's share, I did a lot of people's share. I do have some experience with that, so, I got pretty good at being toasted.

Honestly, it's hard to say where we'd be without those years, because Frank's drinking appears to be so real.
I'm so flattered that you noticed, it is hard to play. The episode I haven't seen yet is the one where I become sober. I can't wait to see how that's different. One of the things I love about doing a series, is that all of this stuff is becoming habituated, and I've never had this experience before or this opportunity before. In a feature film one has a tendency to think "Well, crap, next week we wrap and I've really got it now." And you wish you could re-do a lot of the scenes. Because I get to revisit this character weekly, I've got this guy down.

Is it like theatre in this way? Where you have night after night and so you reach new planes and things get richer, or more layered?
Yeah, it's a learning curve. It's a joy. I know Frank, I know the other characters. We can build on our relationships. When you do a film, there is a race to create intimacy with the rest of your cast. Because it does count, it shows. You will go out drinking and carousing with a costar, and that shows on camera, later. In some inchoate, magical way, but it does show. We can count on that. I've got two kids and I'm the old guy, so I can't, but the rest of this cast, they come in howling every night about putting someone to bed or about somebody peeing on the sidewalk.

This is the concern about you, Joan, and the handcuffs. But in reverse. Have you now done something on set that may color the rest of your relationship?
She is a wonder. She's done this incredible moment a couple of times. She is a great comedienne, and great at physical comedy. Three times now, she's done something that just made me do a spit-take and then, without a beat, a heartbreaking moment. Back-to-back, right together. There was one she did where she decided she was going to leave the house, she's agoraphobic, and she did this bizarre hysterical walk on the way out, and then of course she can't do it and she sat down and burst into tears and it was heartbreaking. I just stood there, off-camera, with my mouth open.

You've been in this career, on this path, a long time. Your career has had all of these miraculous re-births and incarnations. Millions of people are inspired by your acting. Did you ever have a moment where you thought, "I've had enough"?
Oh, yeah. I had some serious depressions during periods of inactivity. I finally, a couple years ago, forgave myself for including my self-value, my self-worth with my career. That's just the way I'm built, and there's just no getting around it. (laughs) I've had my dark moments, and the career has bored me every once in a while. I'm about to do a scene and I think, "Wait a second, I've already done this movie and this scene before, I've said these lines somewhere." Because I've been around a long time. But having said that, its been pretty amazing. I've met some incredible people, and I've been lucky that the roles have been varied and pretty wonderful. And at my age, to get something like Shameless... oh well, I'm a serendipitist. I don't know why I get all the good luck, but I do.

Watch Shameless on Showtime:http://www.sho.com/site/shameless/home.do

See more of photographer Leslie Hassler's work:http://lesliehassler.com/