As I sat down across from William H. Macy for a sidewalk lunch at the restaurant Red in Los Angeles, I was immediately struck by the greenest, most earnest-looking eyes I've ever seen. Sure, he's a "big fat star" (as he playfully refers to himself) and celebrities like him seem to emit an aura when you meet them in person, but Macy truly glows from within. I find it hard not to believe every word he says, whether he's on-screen or off.
Macy came to the attention of the general public's eye when cast as a conniving car dealer in Joel and Ethan Coen's brilliant dark comedy Fargo, earning Macy an Oscar nomination, as well as an Independent Spirit award. I was particularly struck by his recent work in Pleasantville, in which he played a Ward Cleaver-like character whose world is forever jilted by the introduction of passion and free thought in his small-minded American town. Likewise, his performance in Paul Thomas Anderson's Boogie Nights, in which he portrayed a tragically disappointed product of the 1970s porn industry, will forever be ingrained in my mind.
Even when I'm not particularly in love with a film (like Boogie Nights), Macy's acting is often one of the redeeming factors. His fine work can also be enjoyed in The Ice Storm, Air Force One, The Client, Ghosts of Mississippi, Mr. Holland's Opus, Shadows and Fog, Murder in the First, Twenty Bucks, Searching for Bobby Fischer, and Radio Days. The straight-shooting actor can next be seen in Gus Van Sant's remake of Psycho (due out this week), A Civil Action with John Travolta, the independent feature Happy, Texas, and the comedy Mystery Men, in which he plays a loser superhero fighting crime with a shovel.
Macy began his career in the theatre and studied under famed writer/director David Mamet at Goddard College in Vermont. In 1972, Mamet, Macy, and fellow Goddard student Steven Schachter moved to Chicago, where they founded the St. Nicholas Theater Company. Macy originated roles for several of Mamet's productions, among them American Buffalo and The Water Engine. He continued to work with Mamet in several films, including Oleanna, Homicide, Things Change, House of Games, and Wag the Dog.
Moving to New York in 1980, Macy continued to build a reputation in the theatre as an originator of new roles. His stage credits, approaching some 50 plays, include the Tony Award-winning production of Our Town.
On television, Macy's appeared in L.A. Law, Civil Wars, Law and Order, the MOWs A Murderous Affair, Standoff at Marion, and Andersonville, and the miniseries The Murder of Mary Phagan and The Awakening Land. His recurring role as Dr. David Morgenstern on ER garnered him an Emmy. He has also appeared in the TV production of Mamet's The Water Engine and Texan. With St. Nicholas co-founder Steven Schachter, Macy has written a number of scripts for television including HBO's Above Suspicion and the USA Network movie The Con, starring Macy and Rebecca DeMornay.
In addition to acting, Macy is a respected teacher and director. His directing resum includes Boy's Life at the Lincoln Center, the Los Angeles production of Oleanna, and the HBO film Lip Service. He recently directed the play The Joy of Going Somewhere Definite in New York.
It is with great pleasure that I spoke with the very busy thesp about his upbringing as an actor and the rules he's learned that allow him to stay in and improve the game of acting.
Back Stage West/Drama-Logue: I didn't realize that David Mamet was a teacher of yours in college. I always thought that the two of you met in Chicago when you were a working actor. Tell me more about how the two of you met.
William H. Macy: He was a young man. He had just graduated college and was a "teaching fellow," which is like a baby teacher. He taught a class at Goddard College and I was in it, as was Steven Schachter, who is my writing partner. We formed a company at Goddard and did a bunch of plays there, including the first incarnation of Sexual Perversity in Chicago. David was from Chicago, and he said, "Come to Chicago." So we went and started a theatre there called the St. Nicholas Theater Company‹huge success. I was there for 10 years with it.
BSW/D-L: What was it about Mamet that drew you to him in the early days of your friendship?
Macy: We were hippies in those days and Goddard College was the capital of hippiedom. There were no grades. There were no classes. There were no requirements. There was sex, drugs, and rock 'n' roll‹literally. It's astounding what came out of there. People actually worked hard, but you know why they worked hard? Because they got bored. You didn't have to do anything and people couldn't stand the pressure of that. So we started this theatre company. We worked harder than I've probably ever worked in my life, even though nothing was required of us.
The first thing that I noticed about David was that he was specific. He was sure. He was militaristic. He believed in rules and structure. He just threw that in the face of the prevailing winds of those days, which said, "Decide how you feel, do what you want."
BSW/D-L: Did you yearn for that kind of discipline?
Macy: I think everybody does. I think there was a myth of education in the '60s. Everybody needs pressure and deadlines. They don't call it "work" because it's fun. They don't pay you because you're having a swell old time. You've got to show up. You've got to punch the clock. So that got my attention. And then David wrote a play. He wrote Sexual Perversity, followed by The Duck Variations. I read those and thought, "Oh, Lord, this guy is as new as anything has ever been." I still think that.
BSW/D-L: At what point did you begin teaching?
Macy: Right out of the barrel. When we formed the St. Nicholas Theater, one of the ways we paid for it was by opening a school at the same time. It didn't yield too much money for the theatre, but it earned a living for us. Thus we were free to run the theatre. It's a great scam, this teaching classes. You've got to be careful out there, because anybody can teach.
BSW/D-L: How can an actor tell if his or her teacher is a good teacher?
Macy: Here's the other thing that came out of Mamet that I've really taken to heart: If it looks like doo-doo and it smells like doo-doo, it's doo-doo. Although I think a young acting student has to have the ability to take a leap of faith when he doesn't understand things, if it sounds like complete nonsense for too long and every cell in your body is saying, "What does this have to do with acting?," it is complete nonsense. And that's what most acting teachers teach‹things that you cannot act with at all.
BSW/D-L: What kind of teacher do you think a young actor should seek out?
Macy: I believe that an actor is held in better stead if he doesn't rely on his talent. What you rely on is technique. Talent is given by God and there's no negotiating. Technique is something anybody can learn, and for a technique to be a valid technique, it's got to be scientific. It's got to be repeatable. It's got to be testable. That's what they should look for in a teacher.
BSW/D-L: In Mamet's recent book, True and False: Heresy and Common Sense for the Actor, he claimed to be "anti-Method." What exactly is it about the Method that Mamet disapproves of?
Macy: You have to look at the context. The Method refers to the Stanislavski Method, which started a school of thought about what acting is, and it was revolutionary. Because before Stanislavski, to a large extent, acting was declamatory. The way you showed emotions was by going through a set number of poses. It was all posing. The Method took it into the psychological realm‹the study of emotions and action.
David says he doesn't believe in the Method, because the Method is mostly known, I think these days, as the control and manipulations of emotions. David's premise is: You can not control or manipulate your emotions. It is not a possible thing to do. So that is why he rejects the Method.
BSW/D-L: So is the goal, in your opinion, for the actor to be as natural as he can be in a scene?
Macy: Roughly speaking, yes. It should look as if you're making up the words and you've never said them before and it's happening in real time right before your eyes, even though it's not. It's scripted.
This is my understanding of it: From Stanislavski came two points of view. We looked at great acting and we said, How are they doing what they're doing? And the first thing that everyone noticed was that the actors that we love are wonderfully emotional. So the first thing he studied was the emotions‹how do you reproduce those emotions? And it evolved. And then he realized that it's what you do that results in emotions.
David Mamet is just a logical extension of that. He says, Forget the emotions altogether‹that's not the currency of an actor. The currency of an actor is action‹what are you going to do? You can't control your emotions. You can control actions and your intention. To give credit where credit's due, Stanislavski was working on the method of
physical actions. So that's the Method, too, to my mind.
I don't reject the Method. I think an actor's task is to read the script, figure out the action‹the objective‹and do that and let everything else go hang. It's all a big fat trick. We can never forget acting is a big fat trick that we play on the audience. You're standing in a set. It's not real, but it's real enough, and the audience is willing enough to suspend disbelief that there you are in that setting, and you're wearing somebody's else's clothes that have been designed. So it's the actor's job to figure out what his character wants and to do something that's similar to that so that it looks like you're making it up as you go along. The emotions will follow; they will be there as you need them.
BSW/D-L: As far as preparing for a role, is there such a thing as over-preparing?
Macy: Perhaps not over-preparing, but useless preparation. I've been guilty of it, and I think many actors are. You're going to play the Pope, and so you start trying to figure out, What does it mean to be the Pope? What does the Pope read? What was the Pope's childhood like? What does the Pope do when he prays? And I think the mature actor ultimately realizes, There's no way I can know any of that, and even if I did know it, there's no way I can act on it. I am the Pope‹end of story. So that ends my preparation. Sure, you've got to figure out how Catholics do the service and all of that stuff. But that ain't about acting; that's about physicalizations and anybody can do that. Who is the Pope? You are the Pope. Quit auditioning. You've got that role.
BSW/D-L: I'm not an actor, and so from my view, good acting looks like a difficult thing to pull off. Is acting a hard or easy chore for you?
Macy: That's an excellent question, because I find the answer, to my mind, is both. Inevitably, the best acting I have ever done has always felt too simple, and I mistrusted it. I thought, It can't be that easy. All I'm trying to do is get her to loan me 20 bucks. All I'm trying to do is talk him into blah, blah, blah. It can't be that; it must be more. They're paying me a fortune. This is a big shot. It's got to be more than that. And it's not.
On the other hand, it is a difficult profession and a frightening profession. Why is this? Just as the character doesn't know how he's going to survive, as an actor, when you get cast in that role, the fear is, How am I going to pull this off? And we have technique, which we bring to bear to cover every base that you possibly can. But the question remains, How do I pull this off?, and the answer is not forthcoming‹never has been, never will be. You have to walk in terrified that you're going to fail. There's no getting around the fact that most actors, a lot of the time, feel like frauds. And the mature actor says, "That's great."
You have to get comfortable with being uncomfortable, because that's exactly what the character's feeling. It's exactly correct that you're feeling that way. If you map it all out and know exactly how you're going to do it, that's mechanical acting. That's making it up at home and bringing it in and regurgitating it. Audiences are clever. They know the difference between a true moment that just happened in real time right before their very eyes and a made-up moment that was practiced in the mirror.
BSW/D-L: When you talk about a hero conquering his fears, no offense, but I don't think of you in those kinds of roles. When I think of you in films like Pleasantville, Boogie Nights, or Fargo, you're playing losers. Is it difficult to play those kinds of characters?
Macy: The technical answer is: You can't play a loser, so don't ever do it. The writer will decide whether you're going to win or lose. You've always got to play it like a winner. You can never give up. That was the lesson to me as an actor in Fargo. The subtext of every scene you do has to always be, I can solve this. There is an answer and I will find it. That's why the character in Fargo is so compelling. The [Coen brothers] wrote it that way and I was wise enough not to screw it up.
Is it hard to play a loser? Yeah, it makes you feel bad. When the day is over and the shooting stops, you have to be very adult about it and shake it off and not take it home. If you play a loser, especially if you're in a play and every night you get your ass kicked and you get humiliated, and the play turns into a big fat hit and you find yourself in the seventh or eighth month of getting your ass kicked every single night... Yeah, it's really hard.
BSW/D-L: Have you felt that you've been typecast?
Macy: It's happened in my career, but not now. When I was in Chicago, I was generally the callow youth who ended up at the end of the play beat up and weeping. When I moved to New York in the '80s, I was the weird WASP, the asshole. I was a lawyer; I was a doctor. And that culminated in Fargo‹in which I played the ultimate weird WASP. And now it's gotten a little broader. Every once in a while I kick butt. I've yet to get the girl, but it could happen. No, I'm not typecast, thank you, Jesus.
BSW/D-L: What, for you, is the joy of acting?
Macy: The life is good, especially if you're successful. The best life is working onstage. You stay up until two o'clock in the morning and you sleep until 11, because you can't have eight o'clock be the end of the day. You've got to be raring to go. You go out with all your pals every night, smoke cigarettes, drink too much, talk about art. It's a great life. I always loved that life. I mean, it gets old, but when you're young there's nothing better.
I certainly like making movies and being a big fat star. But I guess the thing that brings me joy is I'm a sucker for those few minutes when I get swept away in the imaginary circumstances. It doesn't always happen, but when it happens and you're really in the moment, for me, all self-consciousness drops, which is such a relief. It's hard to think about anything else when you're really acting.
BSW/D-L: I would imagine that a lot of actors either don't recognize those moments or are afraid to lose themselves in the moment.
Macy: A lot of actors don't recognize them and don't like them. I know a lot of actors who hate to act, and some of them are wildly successful. They probably like a lot of other parts, like the public life and notoriety and all of that, but they don't actually like the couple of minutes you get to act. It doesn't do it for them. I heard an actress once describe her relationship to the audience and it was nothing but loathing. She hated them. They intimidated her. Her take on it was that they were waiting for her to fail. How sad.
BSW/D-L: Do you miss being onstage?
Macy: I could do a play in a New York minute and I'm not [because of my schedule]. Hopefully next year. I work with the Atlantic Theatre Company in New York City. Mamet and me are like the godfathers. He's the spiritual adviser and I'm the jester. They might do a whole season of Mamet next year. I'd like to go back and do American Buffalo. I was Bobby, the kid, in the original. Now I want to play Teach.
BSW/D-L: Speaking of which, do you continue to teach?
Macy: I teach when I'm in New York, but I don't teach out here. The thing that fills me is I love good acting and there's so much nonsense out here. I like things to be drier. I don't like emotionalism. I'd just like to raise the bar. By teaching I can get my point of view out and perhaps somebody else will agree.
They always blame TV for wretched writing, and that's a fair thing. But I have to say, I see a lot of shows where the biggest fault is the acting. They're just indicating like crazy; they're just being clowns. The task of the actor is to bring the truth to the stage, and there's nothing that says that truth's not funny. The truth can be hysterically funny. But all this mugging, standup comedy acting is reprehensible. I can garner no joy from it as a watcher.
BSW/D-L: I have one last question. Who are your favorite actors?
Macy: Gene Hackman, Joan Allen, Paul Newman, Gena Rowlands, and on and on. You know, the good guys. BSW/D-L