by Katherine Muniz
photography by Patrick Fraser
“The way I think we keep score in a civilized society is how well do we take care of those people, and this is not an issue of poor people and food stamps and dependent on government. This is what makes us civilized… “
William H. Macy belongs to an increasingly small category of actors. It’s a set you can’t quite put your finger on – that tier of actors whose projects are so consistently thoughtful and critically acclaimed that your mind somehow groups them all into some subconscious hierarchy of the untouchables. A penchant for picking roles for content versus box office profitability has resulted in a career of which longevity has long been tested, and a passion that comes through on and offscreen. It is with fortitude, determination and a cut-the-bullshit kind of attitude that Macy lives his life and plays his characters.
Macy has been around the block, having been in movies, theatre and TV since 1978. He hasn’t lost sight of his craft though, or what the real importance of it is. “For most artists, they pray and they labor to make sure that the story they tell is true. Not true [as in] literally this actually happened – but true to the human condition: is that what it means?” Two films that demonstrate the success of Macy’s humanistic approach to capturing the essence of his characters happen to center around the same topic: disability.
The world of disability is a world with which Macy is more then familiar. Having played the part of an aspiring door-to-door salesman with cerebral palsy in Door to Door and an unwitting priest who dares to advise a polio-ridden man about his wish to lose his virginity via surrogacy in the 2012 movie The Sessions, it’s a cause Macy feels strongly about. “The way I think we keep score in a civilized society is how well do we take care of those people, and this is not an issue of poor people and food stamps and dependent on government. This is what makes us civilized, and it doesn’t matter which side of the reproductive rights issue you fall on, we have to do better.”
Macy, who was once the Ambassador to United Cerebral Palsy, describes himself as socially liberal and fiscally republican. However, it’s clear that when it comes to the important issues at stake in this country he has no time for politics. “Well we’ve gotta get past that silliness and take care of the people in this country who need it the most and not just them directly but the parents, the parents of kids who are born with disabilities… what really pisses me off is the people who insist that every baby has to be born and yet they complain about taking care of children, federal funding to places like United Cerebral Palsy, people with disabilities, funding for head-starts, funding for schools and things like that. You can’t have it both ways. You can’t have every baby be born and then wash your hands of taking care of all those children that are born. It doesn’t wash. It’s not moral. It’s not logical. It’s a bullshit argument, and that I’m kind of hot about.”
Simple as the issue is to Macy, he’ll tell you that the requests of the disabled he’s met are even simpler. The disabled folks Macy’s met want to be able to live on their own and get a job. In discussing that and The Sessions, Macy puts quite frankly what number one is. “They all want to meet someone – they want to fall in love. It’s a fundamental part of what makes us human, and so that’s why this film and this story just caught me and dropped me by the knees. It is so beautifully well conceived and told.”
Despite the eyebrow-raising nature of his role, Macy thinks that the majority of priests will actually appreciate his character in the film. “I love getting to play a priest who falls on the correct side of this issue. I think this priest asked himself what would Jesus do and he answered truthfully and I agree with what the priest says. And I think the church will agree with what the priest says, and I think the church will love this movie and love the priest I played because he’s… more like the majority of the priests in this world.”
If you’re starting to get the picture of Macy as a soapbox-preaching actor, the truth couldn’t be farther. “Definitely I don’t believe in doing a film in order to teach, that’s the worst reason to do a film ever made up, and doomed to failure, inevitably.” Teaching for the sake of teaching is a theme that has come up in Macy’s past before. The religiously apathetic Macy once went to Sunday school, an experience that ended when he was thrown out of class by a teacher for asking what was beyond God. Macy’s father who had previously been on a pre-ministerial track heard his son out, in a story that involved circles that represented Heaven and Earth and Macy asking what was beyond Heaven, and then what was beyond God. “I told him the whole story and my father looked at me coolly for a second and he said, ‘You don’t ever have to go back there.’”
Perhaps it’s from his father then that Macy inherited his no nonsense attitude. The critical thinking seems to come naturally. Either way Macy makes it apparent that when it comes to projects, what he cares most about is a good story. That knack for picking up on the good stories and playing them to perfection has resulted in his Academy Award nomination for 1996’s Fargo as well as his two Emmy Awards and Screen Actors Guild Award. Most recently he’s cranked out so high a viewership for his hit Showtime TV show Shameless that it has become the best performing first-year drama on Showtime. It’s easy to see why, with a teaser for the upcoming third season that sounds like the best/craziest hangover ever. “At the end of [season] 2 I was left in Mexico drunk out of my mind. So I spend a show or two trying to get back into the country and then the kids get taken away at a point, which Frank was responsible for. Uh, a couple of scams trying to find a place to live. Right now we’re doing this bit where Frank becomes… Remember Joe the Plumber? Well, Frank sort of becomes that. It’s just hysterical.”
The show follows an alcoholic, narcissistic single father whose six children cope with their own lives as best as they can, each of them with their own problems. On following an act that’s already proved to be a hit, Macy says, “I watched a bunch of the British version, but they were so good, they started to intimidate me so I said, ‘Well lets not watch any more of these.’” After the first season of Shameless, Macy and co. have since broken from any type of model from its British counterpart and have been, as he puts it, “completely off the reservation.” Going off the reservation seems to be working out as the show has had positive ratings and been well-received by audiences. On what the experience has been like, Macy simply says, “Oh my God, I’m having the time of my life.”
And life has been good to him. Confessing to getting “political every once in a while,” Macy recently wrote a song that tore up the house at NARAL’s annual Roe V. Wade Luncheon for which wife and actress Felicity Huffman was recently Mistress of Ceremonies. Macy confesses to be addicted to the ukulele and reveals that music is part of the powerhouse for him and his girls, who are all taking piano lessons (Macy included). Add to the list an addiction to motorcycles and woodworking and the sometimes-politico and music lover has shed another layer to reveal a guy’s guy. “Me and two of the lads from my show, Steve Howey and Justin and I went… we take these little trips. We went to San Francisco last year… wrote an article about it that they published in the NYT, it was funny. And then the three of us went from here, from LA to Aspen, we have a little house in Aspen, so we took six days and took a kick ass trip out there. We all have Harleys.”
Hobbies are the tip of the iceberg when Macy reveals what he is truly passionate about: his family. “I just scored when it comes to families. I love my family. It’s great fun to come home. I love the chaos of it. My wife has created a magnificent home.” If you thought Macy would be jaded by the success in his life, in true Macy fashion, it’s actually the opposite: he feels lucky. “I’m getting better in my older age of taking a deep breath and reminding myself of how fucking lucky I am and how magnificent my life is. I get to act almost every single day, which is one of my favorite things in the world, and I get paid for it.”
“Jack of all trades, master of none.” That’s Macy’s take on what he’s done and how he measures up. William H. Macy, the actor, father, husband and lover of life. A person who feels some moral duty in this world and has compassion in spades. That quality we discussed earlier? That defining force behind the greats? It may still remain a mystery, but Macy’s certainly got a clue.