Where: a café on St. Mark's Place. 5:30 pm.
When I asked William H. Macy for an interview, I was rather surprised at his reaction to my request. He said that he was flattered that I had asked him and even thanked me. All the while, I kept thinking, "Gee, shouldn't I be the one that's flattered and grateful that he accepted?"
I asked him why he was flattered by my asking him for an interview, and he said, "I'm just a work-a-day actor. If somebody takes an interest in me personally, I go, 'Me?! Are you nuts? You mean the other guy.' To be interested in anything I might have to say? There are a lot of actors out there; you could have talked to any of 'em. I think any actor who's not flattered when someone says, 'I want to write a story about you,' is nuts! Jesus, it's very flattering!"
We went to a little place around the corner from where he is currently starring Off-Broadway in the biggest theatrical hit of the season, Oleanna, written and directed by David Mamet. We sat outside because it was too noisy indoors. After the fifth fire engine siren had wailed past us, he yelled, "Aren't you glad we picked a quiet place?!”
The play, about an accusation of sexual harassment and its aftermath, has incited many arguments and public debates. For the unpretentious Macy, the play's success and controversy has been both overwhelming and gratifying.
"I've done about four plays a year for twenty-two years, and I've never been in one like this one. When people watch this play, they're a party to the theatricality of it, and they feel like they're watching a play for a short time. Then because the subject is so incendiary, they lose themselves and get hung up in the arguments of the play within seconds. I was pretty sure that men and women are angry with each other, but I didn't know the depth of suspicion that they have towards each other. When they walk out of the theater, they're confused, they're upset.
"I was talking to this woman who had come to see the play, and she was speaking very clearly about it and all of the sudden she started crying. I was with my agents, and we sort of ignored it because she pulled herself together very quickly. Then later she was talking about the play, and she teared up again. It was two days later that I said, 'What was going on with you?' And she said, 'That play. It just enraged me.' It absolutely hits close to home for everybody.
"It's also the most difficult thing I've ever done. You know how David does broken sentences? Well, he's outdone himself. You throw cues like, 'I... Look... Eh... Ooh... Eh.' Just these little things. I've got these phone calls. One of them goes on a full page with these broken sentences and spurts. I thought I was going to blow my brains out before I finally got this committed to memory! And still, the first two pages of this thing, if somebody blows a cue, we just fall flat on our face!" Macy laughs. "We can pull it back together, but it's really rough.
"It's also a great joy because when it goes, it's like a Swiss watch. It sounds like people actually talk. A lot of people say that David writes a style, other people write more realistically. In reality, the opposite is true. Other people write a staged reality, David writes like people talk. Clearly, it's poetry."
If you have not been able to get tickets to Oleanna yet, you can still catch Macy's work in the upcoming films Benny And Joon and Searching For Bobby Fischer and in the Atlantic Theatre production of Down The Shore and The Dad Shuttle, two plays by Tom Donaghy that will run until February 20th. Macy directed the plays while still doing the rigorous Oleanna almost every night.
"It's a lot of work, but let's face facts—I only work from eight to ten. What else are you going to do for the rest of the day? Go to the gym?"
For those of you who may think you recognize William H. Macy by another name, you're not imagining things. Everybody calls him "Bill Macy," but he's not Bill Macy. He is W.H. Macy, but no one calls him that. Actually, Macy can explain it much better.
"There's a guy named 'Bill Macy' in the business, so I had to be 'W.H. Macy.' And I'd go to an audition, and it was just weird. People wouldn't call my name out. They wouldn't say, 'W.H.' They'd get to 'W.H. Macy,' and they'd skip me! So I thought, 'The hell with this,'" he jokes. "I sort of did it on a whim. So many people had initials. It just seemed like a good thing to do."
After years of being the epitome of the vagabond actor, the Florida-born, Georgia-raised Macy has finally found a place to plant his roots. Yet, like most actors, he must stay in New York or Los Angeles for the work.
"I went to school at a place called Godard College in Vermont. That's where I met Mamet. We formed the St. Nicholas Theatre in Chicago, and I lived there for ten years. Then I lived here in New York for ten years, and just did tons and tons of plays. A couple of years ago, I bought a place in Vermont. A little cabin out in the woods. It's the most spectacular place in the world. It's absolutely breathtaking. I have a moose that lives on my property, and there's a brown bear that lives up there.
"That's my only home now. I don't even have an apartment. I'm just subletting here now, and I let my apartment go in L.A. So I'm a total gypsy. I don't live anywhere, except in Vermont when I can get there. Now if I ruled the world, I would live in Vermont, and they would just call me up and offer me jobs. But I've got to audition, so I've got to stay in one of these cities."
Macy does not have any resentment in his voice when he says these last words, and he also does not complain about the path of his career.
"I'd be bullshitting if I didn't say that I have my dark moments where I go, 'What the hell am I doing? I'm just wasting time.' But gee, we're in a recession, and I worked all year. I think anybody should count his blessings. Nobody's that good. They pay someone a couple of hundred thousand dollars to act some role. He should fall on his knees and thank God! There's a hundred other people who could do it just as well or better.
"The other thing is a lot of my friends back in our late twenties all went to L.A., and they've all got two or three houses and three cars and lots of money. I didn't do that. I stayed in the theatre. So I'm poor, but I've gotten to work with some of these great, great, writers. I've done the first productions of a lot of these plays. It's a trade off, but I thought it was a good trade off for me.
"It's interesting. Now people I've always been in envy of because they're so successful and they've got power, they look at me with some sort of awe like I'm quote-unquote 'the real artist.' And I go, 'Are you nuts?! You're a mover and a shaker, and you're looking at me with respect?’”
Part of the reason why some acting “stars” may wish they could trade places with William H. Macy is to be able to take advantage of his association with David Mamet. But their collaboration is not like others that have burned out because the parties involved got too greedy or because they never really liked each other in the first place. The Macy/Mamet team has been going strong for over twenty years because it has always been based upon their friendship and deep admiration for each other's talents.
"People look at me, and they go, 'He's a Mamet actor.' They say that, and sometimes I worry about it," he says, then brushes the notion away. "Dave likes to work with his friends, and we've remained friends. I just thank God we're pals. He's the writer of our generation. There are a lot of great writers out there, but I think everything is measured against David. He has codified American writing, so everything is either good Mamet or bad Mamet.
"And it hurts me that there's a tendency in this business to not work with your friends. Everybody would rather work with a stranger for some crazy reason. It's happened to me I don't know how many times where there'll be someone, we've worked together four times, right? And I'll get a call to come in and audition. 'Well, excuse me? What do you want me to do? Jump through hoops?! We worked together four times!'
"David won't do it. He just doesn't do it. He calls people up, says, 'Want to do a movie? Want to do a play?' That's the way to do it. Making people audition when you know their work, it's just foolishness. Just cut to the chase. If you can make the offer, make the offer. It's just such a powerful thing. You call up an actor, you say, 'Would you do this part?' That actor would open a vein and bleed to death for you. If you make him audition, there's this low-level resentment that will never go away.
"But the key to it is this--work with people you know. When you find somebody that's good, and you like working with them, stick with that person. You'll both do better work. You'll be more efficient when you get on the set or the stage. You'll say, 'Blah, blah, blah.' They'll know exactly what you mean immediately, rather than have to recreate, reinvent English with each other."
Even if audiences only see him in Mamet's works, they may have a tough time placing Macy's face because he sometimes looks completely different from role to role. Right now, he has a beard and glasses for Oleanna. He had a big, furry mustache ("It was like two mustaches!" he jokes) in the film Homicide and a close-cropped Marine haircut for House Of Games. But nothing compares to the bleached and spiked hair he sported as a mobster in the movie Things Change.
"I've got a baby face. I've got to be careful. It doesn't work for a lot of things. I thought if I was going to look bad at all, I had to do something desperate. This sweet, little white boy like me walking around swaggering, looking bad. When I did that to myself, I got my own seat on the bus from that point on." He lets out a deep, echoing belly laugh that you would expect to hear from a guy with a huge gut and a beer can in hand. "Nobody would mess with me. It was scary.
“I grew the beard because Mamet told me to, and it's important that I'm older than she is. I grew the mustache just because I noticed so many cops had mustaches. The most flattering thing happened to me when I was doing Homicide. I hailed a cab, gave him the address. Guy says, 'You a cop?'" Macy leans across the table with his turquoise eyes in a steady stare. "You know what I said? 'Yeah.'" His face breaks into a beaming smile. "So I guess it was a cop-like mustache, and it made me look sort of like a wild Irishman I thought.
"One time I played Trofimov in The Cherry Orchard, and I really hacked myself up." He giggles at the memory. "I had taken a razor, and I cut these big patches out of my hair. And I cut little patches out of my beard. I was one raggedy-looking son of a bitch."
Macy makes the effort to incorporate changes in his appearance for the benefit of "looking the part." (Imagine how physically perfect Macy would be with just some stubble, as Milwaukee serial killer Jeffery Dahmer, or with just a red hood, as Marvel Comics superhero Daredevil.) However, he does not believe in taking such adjustments to any ridiculous extremes.
"That's a trap that you can get into. You can fall under this whole thing of 'becoming the character,' of 'finding the character.' I don't buy that. There is no character. It's so simple. We actors sometimes try to make it more difficult to sort of justify the salaries and the attention we get. All you've got to do is learn the lines and analyze the script. Just act. It's what you do.
"You get into this finding the right, exact clothes and stuffing your wallet with fake ID's and all of that? It never helped anybody act. It never will, and I disapprove of it. You're going to play a bum, so you go down to Avenue A, and you let the people piss on you? You're going to act better? Oh, forget it. Just grow up. You're going to do a love scene with this girl, so you got to go home and make love together? Of course not. It's just nonsense.
"Is there value in research? Probably. A little bit. If you're going to play a cop, and you know nothing about cops, yes it's in your best interest to find out something about cops. But ultimately it's not the actor's job. The script is going to be clear. If it's not clear, it's a bad script. You can't fix it. You're not going to bring some veracity to it because of your research. I say, 'Clear your throat, check your fly, and learn the lines.’"
Macy's strong beliefs about his craft are not just ideas shot from the hip. He is a teacher and practitioner of an acting technique called Practical Aesthetics, which was designed to give actors a simpler and more decisive way of playing their roles.
"It's logical. It's simple. The idea being that what the actor does is analyze the script for action, for the objective. You act it as fully and as truthfully as you can. When you put it on a stage and the guy dresses up and somebody writes the words that you're going to say, the result that the audience perceives is a trick. That is what we call 'character.' But you don't become the character. You don't play the character. You are yourself. If you start playing something other than yourself, you should be committed because you're insane. The only thought you'll ever have is your own thought. The only feelings you'll ever have are your own feelings. The character doesn't exist. It's an amalgamation of all that theatrical magic put together.
"I think where most of us fall down is in not analyzing the script. What Practical Aesthetics does is it teaches a very concrete skill of how to take a script and break it down for actions. Other than that, there's not a lot you can do. There are skills that an actor needs. You need the ability to be unself-conscious, to control your attention, and to work off the other person. You need a good voice, and a body that's responsive, no matter what it looks like. These things take a couple of years to perfect, but it makes me crazy when we get hung up on the smoke and mirrors of acting. It does us all a great disservice."
Since Macy teaches, he is fully aware of the many unscrupulous acting classes which cost exhorbitant prices and the effect that they can have on actors who are just starting out.
"There are a lot of fraudulent acting teachers out there who will take your money and speak gibberish to you. You can spend a lot of time, especially if you're twenty years old, smelling the imaginary coffee and thinking that you're learning how to act. All these young people who go through these classes are trained and rewarded for lying. Then they go into a business where it's our job to tell the truth, and we have ruined them because acting is what a person habitually does. What you do in times of stress is what you habitually do. So the process of rehearsing is just creating a set of habits, and if we reward that person for pretending, they are ruined.
"It's despicable, and it's so difficult to get out of that head. We've all had those teachers, and as a result, all of us have found ourselves in rehearsals where we're talking like a bunch of idiots! The level of sophistication of the conversation about the script is infantile. 'I see the scene as being redder. You know what I mean? It's red.' Then we all shake our heads, 'Yes, yes! I understand. What a swell director you are. Red. I’ll play it redder!' Or 'Choose an animal for your character.' I mean, Jesus Christ!
"Don't get me wrong though. People should go to school to learn how to act, but I feel so sorry for these twenty year olds because where can you go to school to get somebody who will actually teach you some skills? I've been teaching for twenty years, and I come up against people with wretched voices who have had ten years of voice classes. What I want to say to these people is, 'Sue your teachers. Get your money back. I've seldom heard a worse voice. If you've been taking classes for ten years, they've stolen your money. You have the right to demand a voice.'
"Everyone can learn the skill of acting. Perhaps there's only one role you can play, and it's difficult to make a living. It only becomes an art when you do it real good. Some people are born with a great voice or a body that will do what they want it to. Some people are born with enough talent that they really don't need very much technique, but talent is one of those things that you can't control. God gave you so much of it, and that's it.
"I've seen a lot of people who didn't have as much talent as other people, but because they were harder workers and had greater technique, they're just stupendous. By the same token, I've seen people with awesome amounts of talent waste it. I wouldn't want to work with them. They're not nice people. And I think you have to have a certain amount of dignity and stamina to be a good actor." Macy pauses for a moment. "Some people say I'm crazy, but I always feel like when I see a good actor, it's the sign of a good person."
In order to find both of those good things, all William H. Macy has to do is look in a mirror. AAA
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Excellent interview, very interesting indeed. He sounds like a wonderful, grounded man with a commendable commitment to his art. A fantastic actor. Thank you very much for sharing the piece, I thoroughly enjoyed reading it.