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William H. Macy stars in Shameless.

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William H. Macy on Shameless, violence in movies, and the roles he’d like to play someday

"I'd like to play a racist or a Nazi or someone like that and try to bring truth and goodness to that.”

Emily St. James was a senior correspondent for Vox, covering American identities. Before she joined Vox in 2014, she was the first TV editor of the A.V. Club.

To meet William H. Macy, you wouldn't expect him to have a knack for playing desperate, occasionally vile characters.

The actor, who is currently starring in his sixth season on Showtime's scuzzy dramedy Shameless, has a real talent for finding the best things about the very worst kind of people — from his Shameless character Frank (the kind of man whose children can set a clock by his disappointing them) to his Oscar-nominated Fargo performance as a man who has his wife kidnapped in order to collect on the ransom.

But Macy's warmer side, revealed the instant you meet him and hear his gregarious, welcoming voice, is just as obvious in films like Door to Door (for which he won an Emmy) or Pleasantville. He's an actor who works in extremes, and everywhere in between.

So earlier this year when we sat down for an interview, I asked Macy to elaborate on those extremes. Here's what he had to say about the roles he's best known for and the ones he might wish others would notice.

Our conversation has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

The role he's currently playing

Todd VanDerWerff

What is it about Shameless's Frank that keeps you coming back?

William H. Macy

He's evolved. That was my big fear going into television. If the writing isn't there, you're screwed, and a lot of times, even if a show is successful, there's this unfortunate thing where it lives about two years longer than its expiration date. Those last two years are always fraught, because that's probably when you're making the best money and doing the worst work.

That has not happened on Shameless. I'm surprised every year by what the writers are coming up with, even this season. The challenges have never abated. Insane comedic turns — I hold my face when I read them. This [season's] first episode we discover Frank lying on his dead lover's grave, having sex with it. I thought, "Okay. Easy for you to write that. What the fuck am I going to do?"

Sometimes actors will read a script, and they get angry. They'll go, "Why would I do that?" I say, "You're asking the wrong question. Why do you do that? Because that's what it says. There's the story. That's what you're doing. Don't ask why the writers would write that. That ship has sailed. Ask what are you going to do about it. Where's the truth in it? You've got to find that."

His first paying gig

William H. Macy

I started my career in Chicago. There was this off-Loop theater, which is the same as off-Broadway or perhaps off-off-Broadway now. When you got one of those shows, it would pay $100 a week or something like that, so there was some money. But I started doing commercials, and at one point I got a big one. I got a $600 check in the mail. That felt really good.

The first time I ever made money doing a film, I thought I was rich beyond the dreams of avarice. It was a miniseries called The Awakening Land, and they were shooting down state Illinois. Elizabeth Montgomery and Hal Holbrook were in it. I got a big fat role, so I was through all three episodes of the thing. That was my first big fat check.

Todd VanDerWerff

What do you know now that you wish you'd known then?

William H. Macy

When I got Shameless and I got to act a lot, every week, sometimes every day for a week, for half the whole year and now it's gone on six years, I got to ply my trade. It's the 10,000 hours [of work before you become really good at something], you know what I mean?

I wish I had known to do less. It's the fundamentals of acting that account for about 90 percent. The plans that you come to the scene with are good, and you've got to have them, but they have to take a back seat to what you're really seeing.

Then the drudgery, the boring shit. Learn the lines. Learn the lines really, really well. When you look at people, really look at them. When you listen to them, really listen to them. When you talk, really talk.

It's those fundamentals. I wish I'd had the chance to drill that like I have in the last six years 35 years ago. I'd have been a better actor, and I think I would've had a better career. You really learn how to act when you get to practice it a lot.

Television's interesting because if you get on a show where it rewards bullshit, it ruins people. They'll never recover. They'll always be full-of-shit actors. When you get on a show that rewards truth and honesty, you get better and better and better.

The role people most recognize him for

William H. Macy

Certainly Fargo.

A lot of people saw this thing I did called Door to Door, even though I was covered in makeup. [Macy played a man who suffers from cerebral palsy in the film.] It was for TNT, and I wrote it with my friend Steven Schachter, and he directed it. It won a bunch of Emmys that year. That was really moving. A lot of people saw that.

The Cooler. That little film, people remember it.

Now I'd have to say Shameless. I get a lot of, "Yo, Frank!"s. I get recognized a lot.

Todd VanDerWerff

What do you really respond to in a script? What makes you want to do a project?

William H. Macy

First of all is a good story. I'll take a lesser role in a good story over the lead in a bad story. A good story, to me, is one that keeps me going. I didn't see the climax coming. I didn't realize that he or she was going to get out of it that way. I didn't see that coming.

Behind that would be the dialogue. I love smart, scintillating dialogue. You can recover from bad dialogue if you've got a great story, but it sure is more fun when you've got great words to say.

I'm allergic to the crazy violence in so many movies. I think it's bullshit. I think it's boring to watch, and I think it's bad for society, so I steer clear of that. I like stories that are true. I've read scripts where it's well-written and everything, but I say, "Hold on, is this story true?"

The FDA is an evil entity in the back pocket of big pharma, and they own the president, and I go, "But that's not true. That's not true." Kennedy was shot by the Teamsters. That's not true. You can't make a movie. Come on. I run up against those every once in a while. They're dramatic, but it's just bullshit.

Todd VanDerWerff

Fargo, which you mentioned, is famously a "true story." How did you navigate your desire for honesty with a story that plays around with what we expect from works that are supposedly based on reality?

William H. Macy

I said to Ethan [Coen], "You can't say it's a true story if it wasn't." He said, "Why not? It's just a crawl on the screen." I said, "Uh..."

With that one, that dialogue is just genius. It's great dialogue. They got the sound of that area of that country. It rockets ahead.

There's only one scene in Fargo that you could cut, and that's the scene when Franny [Frances McDormand] goes out with the high school guy. When you think about it, literally, that does not advance the plot, but I think the reason [the Coens] are so smart is that it did advance her plot about how the world is turned upside down. She doesn't understand what's going on.

His favorite stage role

William H. Macy

I've done a lot of Dave Mamet's stuff. A high-wire act was this thing called Oleanna. A professor and his young student, two people on stage, really incendiary subject matter. Very difficult language.

He did another one called Oh, Hell!. He and Shel Silverstein did two one-acts, and we did it at Lincoln Center, and I played the devil. Most fun any boy's ever had. Felicity [Huffman, Macy's wife] was in it, too. My God, I had fun.

I did a play called The Dining Room by A.R. Gurney. That just destroyed people. It was so sweet, so beautifully written. The kind of thing you can only see onstage. That was lovely. I was in with that for over a year.

Todd VanDerWerff

What's the biggest difference between acting on stage versus acting on screen?

William H. Macy

Screen work is so improvisatory. You learn the lines, but it's really about making it up for the first time. You can have a plan going into it, but you really need to be loose about how the thing's going to unfold because the director can have a different idea, and you've got other actors there, and we've never talked about it. We just come together, and so you've got to be loosey-goosey.

I've seen actors who struggle against it. They want to do it the way they planned it. It makes the day very long for them, and usually they end up worrying about everything except for themselves and doing a bad job.

The stage is about repeating it. Get the moment. It's not what the moment is; it's how can you make the moment fresh. How can you do it eight shows a week, as if you've never done it before?

Todd VanDerWerff

A lot of the dialogue you've mentioned is very rhythmic and precise. Certainly David Mamet's dialogue is that way. How do you approach learning that sort of thing?

William H. Macy

Writing that does not have a rhythm, where the writer hasn't found the music in it, is very difficult to memorize. Very difficult. Almost impossible, because we do think and we normally speak in rhythms. That's why Shakespeare wrote in iambic pentameter. It's pleasing to the ear.

It's important for people to realize that in movies and on the stage, that ain't realistic dialogue. That's not just everyday speech. It's got to be beautiful. It's heightened. It's raised. Those are well-chosen words.

Memorizing is a skill. They don't teach it much in acting class, but I think they should. I see it a lot doing a TV show. What I see is actors struggling with their lines. It's not about them acting or being brave or digging deep. It's what is that freaking word? That's inexcusable.

The role he'd love to play

For now Macy is committed to Shameless. But once it's over, what would he like to do?

William H. Macy

I do love to be funny, but I have some weight to me. I'd like to be the president. I'd like to be the powerful guy, the smart guy in the room.

I would like to be the villain. I'm a Southern boy. I was born and raised in the South. I do notice that a lot of times when people play despicable characters like a dyed-in-the-wool racist, or a Nazi, or some politically despicable person, a lot of times the bad guy has sort of air quotes. I've always felt that's the actor saying, "You know, I'm not really like this."

I'd love to try it where a racist point of view is defended with everything I can bring to it. With my intellect, with my experience, I'd like to play a racist or a Nazi or someone like that and try to bring truth and goodness to that. The reason I say that is because that really fucks up an audience. It's so easy when the bad guy is just so obvious. He's bad and he's evil, and everything he says is bad. What's great is when the bad guy has a point. The best times we've seen Satan, he's so charming.

I'd like to take my hand at playing those roles because it shines a light on them, if you can make them truthful and realistic and real people that have families and go to church. How did they fit that in? That would be interesting, because that really messes up the audience.

Shameless season six airs Sundays at 9 pm Eastern on Showtime. Previous seasons are available on Showtime Anytime.


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