The Thinking Woman’s Sex Symbol: William H. Macy

Less than 10 minutes have passed since William H. Macy and I sat down at our table to do this interview, and already three people have approached the actor to tell him how much they love his work.

This is unusual in Los Angeles, where protocol dictates that one must pretend the celebrity at the next table is no one in particular. But there’s something about Macy that allows people to throw that rule out the window—an everyday, everyman openness that seems to give fans unprecedented confidence when it comes to invading his personal space.

Macy is approachable in part because, for most filmgoers, he represents just the sort of guy you might know: the down-and-out uncle, the preoccupied father, the harried office clerk. His is a unique sort of celebrity. He is neither a distinguished matinee idol, nor a cocky young star with a crowd of paparazzi on his trail. Instead, Macy is a master of familiarity, adept at creating characters with whom we both identify and sympathize.

“I tend to play a lot of losers,” he says, grinning.

In person, Macy’s face is younger, softer and much more handsome than the haggard hangdog look that has brought several memorable “loser” roles to life. His eyes are sweet, rather than sad, and his hair is boyishly brushed to one side. But there remains an underlying vulnerability and an eager-to-please cheeriness which seems perfectly suited to his playing, for lack of a better term, the fool.

“I think there’s a bunch of reasons I’ve played so many losers in my career,” says Macy, digging into a giant plate of pancakes. “Looks, first off. I’m not the leading man kind of guy. There seems to be a type that they use me for a lot, the WASPy guy who finally gets his comeuppance, the effete accountant or the condescending D.A.—I’ve gotten those roles a lot. The kind of parts where you just love to kick those sort of characters’ asses.”

Macy laughs and takes another bite of his breakfast.

“I think if you do something well,” he says, “they’ll ask you to do it over and over again and I’ve always been pretty good at playing those roles, so I get them a lot.”

Macy is dead-on. Over the course of his long career he has played, brilliantly, everything from a scheming husband to a homicidal pornographer. And in the process, he’s managed to work with some of the most innovative and original directors in the business. Paul Thomas Anderson, Woody Allen, David Mamet, Gus Van Sant and the Coen brothers are all fans of his work.

“I’ve been really very lucky,” admits Macy, “and I think technique has pulled me through a lot of times. I think a lot of times actors will say, ‘Oh, I’m playing this asshole guy,’ and they cop an attitude about their characters. I’ve never done that. I’ve always been pretty good about analyzing the character in such a way that even if I’m the asshole loser who’s going to get his ass kicked in the end, I play it as if he’s the hero.”

Macy pauses, thoughtfully.

Macy as a scheming car salesman in the Coen brothers’ Fargo

“I always figure out what they’re doing and why,” he continues, “and I always make sure that I’m acting something that I believe in, regardless if the guy is a liar or a loser. I think sometimes the bad guys get the raw end of the stick; those characters tend to be cardboard and one-dimensional. But I think in order to have a great good guy, you have to have a great bad guy, as well. Fargo was the best example of that, I think, because I analyzed that Jerry Lundegaard was protecting his family. I mean, deluded as he was, I always thought that from his point of view, when it was all said and done, and his wife was home safe and she figured out what he’d done and saw that he’d made all this money, she’d go, ‘I forgive you, honey. Thank you for caring so much.’ I mean, he’s delusional, but that’s what he’s doing. Trying to save his family. And that allowed me to find the character compelling.

“One of the best things I’ve heard about Fargo is that people said they were horrified that they found themselves actually rooting for me. It was confusing to them. And I think that’s the best that you can do.”

Macy began his acting career while still in school at Vermont’s Goddard College, where he studied under playwright and director David Mamet. “I’m not sure how I got into acting,” admits Macy. “It was just something I needed to do. I sort of backed into it by doing plays in college and finding some success with it, whereas I was finding no success with other things. It was also [about] chasing women, because somehow they all ended up in the theater.”

Following graduation, Macy moved to Chicago with Mamet.

“I would say the seminal moment in my career was meeting David Mamet, who basically taught me everything I know,” he reflects. “More significantly, he taught me my aesthetic and not an insignificant amount of technique. One of the things I love to tell the college classes I sometimes teach is ‘You’re the last to know it, but your career has already started. Look around you; this is your career.’ The relationships that have made the most dramatic differences in my career, I found in college. I tell them: ‘Look to your left. Look to your right. There’s someone there who is going to change the face of everything.’”

Along with writer Steven Schachter, Macy and Mamet promptly set about making the town their own. The three built a makeshift stage in an old printing warehouse and transformed the building into the new home for their St. Nicholas Theater Company. “It was wildly successful and it really put us on the map,” remembers Macy. “My first professional play was American Buffalo. I was in my twenties in Chicago and we had the keys to the joint. We were the cock of the walk during this renaissance that was going on in Chicago theater at the time. We were the first out of the gate.”

Macy credits his experience on the stage for the development of most of his technique. “I started on stage and I think that held me in good stead,” says Macy. “I think, purely on a technique level, the theater is more demanding. There’s no editor and there’s no second take and I think that keeps you honest. It gave me a lot of experience. Stage is the highest of callings [and] the most demanding. It takes stamina and commitment and I think if you’re a good actor on stage, you can be a good actor on screen.”

After many years honing his skills on the Chicago stage, Macy and Mamet moved to New York and basically, says Macy, “did the same thing again” with their next venue, the Atlantic Theater Company.

“We were lucky in that things were wide open in theater at that time,” remembers Macy. “There was so much room for experimenting off of Broadway. I think there’s the same opportunity in film right now. You can rent a Sony camera for three weeks and turn out, conceivably, a film that could be in the Oscar race.”

Macy as a child star gone wrong in P.T. Anderson’s Magnolia

Macy leans forward.

“The thing is,” he says, “is that there’s no excuse really for sitting around waiting. Get a pencil and paper and write a script. I think the studios are seeing, to a certain extent, the film business taken away from them. Having said that, nobody has big studios like America and it takes a big studio to make a big studio movie.”

Macy has since appeared in his share of the latter, but in the beginning he started out small. In 1978 he snagged his first small screen role with a TV miniseries entitled “The Awakening Land.” Television may not have been the “highest of callings,” but for Macy, who seems to possess an exuberant and utterly invulnerable cheerfulness, every experience is educational.

“I’ve learned something with everything I’ve done,” he says, “and at the very least I’ve gained some foundation over the years. I’ve done this so often that I’m not frightened anymore and I don’t screw up in a jam. I’m good at keeping my marks, I’m good at remembering continuity, I don’t choke if things get difficult and I think there’s a professionalism that I finally have that manifests itself on film.”

Macy’s own “good on stage, good on screen” theory proved to be true. Following his appearance in “The Awakening Land,” a steady stream of television and film work followed.

Today, Macy has the kind of career most actors dream about—steady work in a variety of creative roles and both cash and critical acclaim. He has dabbled in writing (including the TV movies Door to Door and A Slight Case of Murder, as well as an early episode of  “thirtysomething”) and directing (the TV movie Lip Service). He lives in “not quite a movie star house, but almost” in the Hollywood Hills with his wife, actress Felicity Huffman, and their two children.

“I’m happy with where I am, but it’s been a long haul,” he says. “I think at some point, if you’re an actor, you need to do some real soul-searching and find out whether or not you truly love to do this. Because in the end, it’s not easy. You’re powerless, really. It’s a very specific job and for someone who might want control, it’s too small of a job. It looks complicated, but it’s actually very simple. So, like anything, you have to make sure this is what you really love.”

Macy pauses and grins.

“David Mamet said, ‘You should have nothing to fall back on, because if you do, you will.’ At some point you just take the leap and don’t look back.”

Macy seems to have taken that advice to heart. At 53 he’s at the height of his career. Hot off the success of this summer’s Seabiscuit, his second film with director Gary Ross, he’s about to appear in several films, including David Mamet’s Spartan, alongside Val Kilmer and Derek Luke; Jeff Nathanson’s The Last Shot with Matthew Broderick, Alec Baldwin and Calista Flockhart; Tony Giglio’s In Enemy Hands opposite Lauren Holly and Jeremy Sisto; and David Ellis’ Cellular, with Kim Basinger.

But chances are good that it will be Macy’s performance in Wayne Kramer’s The Cooler that will draw the most attention—and not just because it will be his first (albeit unconventional) romantic lead. In The Cooler, a brutally sad and strangely comic tale of the Vegas underworld, Macy plays Bernie Lootz, a man whose luck is so bad he’s been hired by a casino to hover over potential winners and sour their victory runs.

“These guys don’t exactly really exist,” admits Macy. “We did take some liberties, but there are definitely people who can come to a table and really ruin a game. This guy is that, times 10. I had kind of sworn off those roles before this script arrived. But this character takes ‘loser’ to biblical proportions, so I had to do this. And I’m really glad I did.”

The film is a gangster drama-black comedy hybrid and a wonderfully unconventional romance. In fact, the film’s numerous sex scenes, which include some nudity, elicited a bit of a ratings disaster for the film’s distributor.

“The board was threatening us with an NC-17, which would have been terrible,” explains Macy, “and it was all because there was female pubic hair. The whole thing really makes me angry. In my small way, I try to make sure that if a film I’m in shows violence, it at least shows it truthfully. I mean, if the lead gets the crap beat of out him, I want there to be some bruises. I think we have to draw a distinction between censorship and a rating.

“It’s just a rating, and the purpose of it is so parents can have some sense of what the content is, which I think is necessary. But Hollywood should be able to make any movie it jolly well pleases. Basically, the system needs a makeover, because an R rating doesn’t mean anything now. If we’re in a world where you can see someone disembowel a woman but you can’t show a woman’s pubic hair, then there’s a problem! I don’t know what to do, except talk to people about it and try to raise the roof a bit.”

In the end, the scenes were trimmed, but the editing does little to take away the film’s sweet, sweaty sexuality. Despite the fact that Lootz is the consummate loser, in the end he finds love. The discovery transforms him (and the actor who plays him, as well). With The Cooler, Macy has finally landed his long-awaited romantic lead.

“It’s a great love story,” says Macy, happily, finishing his breakfast. “And I do believe in the power of love. When you’re happy—when you’re really in love—you put out some sort of a force field in front of you that makes everything go better.” MM

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