In the late '60s, when William H. Macy decided to stop pursuing a veterinary science degree and become an actor, he transferred to tiny Goddard College in Plainfield, Vermont, where one of his teachers was a largely unknown playwright named David Mamet. The two connected, eventually forming the St. Nicholas Company in Chicago with several other students. After failing to launch an acting career in Los Angeles, Macy returned to Chicago and rejoined the troupe, just as Mamet's reputation was beginning to take off. When Mamet made his directorial debut with 1987's House Of Games, Macy appeared in a memorable cameo role. It was the first of Mamet and Macy's many screen collaborations, which include Homicide, Things Change, Oleanna, and State And Main. In the early '90s, Macy earned some acclaim as a supporting player in Mr. Holland's Opus, Searching For Bobby Fischer, and others, and for his recurring role on the television series ER. But it wasn't until his astonishing lead performance in 1996's Fargo that Macy's career really took flight. In the years since, he's landed substantial roles in Hollywood features (Pleasantville, Mystery Men, Jurassic Park III) and independent films (Wag The Dog, Panic, and Happy, Texas) alike. With Boogie Nights and Magnolia, Macy has begun what appears to be a long and rewarding collaboration with director Paul Thomas Anderson. In between takes on the set of his latest film, a heist comedy called Welcome To Collinwood, Macy talked to The Onion A.V. Club about the trials, pleasures, and craft of acting."
The Onion: How difficult was it for you to make the initial transition from stage to screen?
William H. Macy: I guess there was a transition, but in all honesty, what I've discovered is, really, acting is acting is acting. It's all the same. Seventy-five percent of the skills are the same in both media. There are a few differences. One of the things I did early on in film was over-enunciate and talk too loud. But, when you get right down to it, the acting problems are really just the same.
O: Doesn't the broken-up shooting schedule make it hard for you to maintain a continuity of character?
WM: It's more frightening from the outside than when you're actually doing it. First of all, they have a continuity person who's there to help you with the mechanics of the thing: what you're wearing, which direction you were walking, etc. This helps, because sometimes you'll do a scene and then come back a week later to finish it. Generally speaking, they try to shoot in order as much as they can. I think that, truly, the unit of measure for an actor is the moment, the tiny little moment. So the continuity is not as large a problem as you'd think, because what you get paid for is that tiny little moment when you're looking at the other actor and you want X, and he wants Z, and it's just you guys fronting off and bringing your will to it.
O: What makes a good "actor's director"?
WM: A good actor's director, first of all, is prepared, so there's not an exorbitant amount of wasted footage. In other words, it's hard on an actor when you have to do a scene 45 times and you know damn well that three of the angles a director is shooting will never make it into the movie. If you use this angle, you can't use that angle. A good director is very well prepared, and knows exactly how he's going to cut the film, so the shooting is as efficient as possible. Second, I love directors who talk action as opposed to emotion. I've always found it completely useless when a director comes up and says, "Okay, you're upset and you're desperate and you hate this guy." That's shit you can't act. That will lead you down the garden path to nowhere, I think. What's good is when he says, "Okay, you've got to get this guy to do your will," or "You've got to get this guy to back down," or "You need a big favor." Talking action, as opposed to emotion.
O: This gives you more room for interpretation or improvisation?
WM: Yes, because essentially, that's all that counts. That's my philosophy of acting. The emotions will take care of themselves. You don't have to prod them along. As a matter of fact, you get in trouble when you prod them along. Emotions are the natural result of striving for something. Every single scene has two or more people in it, and nobody wants the same thing, so they are negotiating this one way or another. The result of that negotiation will bring out all kinds of emotional stuff in you. The best thing for an actor to do is take your attention off of how you feel about it, and put it on striving to obtain a particular objective. The happy result is that it brings out all this unexpected stuff in yourself.
O: You've been quoted as saying you're not a fan of independent films.
WM: [Laughs.] Here are the good things about independent films: They do the more interesting, chancy scripts. They're run by love. The only reason an indie gets made is because someone has a burning passion to do it and won't take no for an answer, as opposed to a big film, which is like a train that starts rolling down the tracks and nothing can stop it. But the reason I said that is, if I had my choice, I would do the same little independent films, but they would have $100 million budgets, so I could get paid a fortune and hang out in a huge trailer. [Laughs.] I'm not a fan of roughing it, per se.
O: So it's more taxing to work on an indie production.
WM: Oh, yeah. With this film, Welcome To Collinwood, we'll do eight pages [of script] on a good day. On Jurassic Park III, we would do a quarter-page—some days, an eighth of a page. And that would be a full 12-hour day.
O: Aren't those conditions more frustrating?
WM: It has its benefits and its frustrations. Working at that glacial pace, it's very hard to keep your spirits up and your energy up. With these indies, all of us are going to be acting all day. At the end of the day, what actors really want to do is act a lot and not wait around in the trailer.
O: And you did a lot of waiting around for Jurassic Park?
WM: A lot of waiting. It was very, very technical.
O: Do you feel that projects of that scale diminish the contributions of the actors?
WM: Actually, no. I don't think Jurassic Park would get off the ground if it was just dinosaurs. Nope, it's got to have people in it. I feel very secure about the role of the actor in the future. They need us, because stories are about people.
O: Did you have to do a lot of acting against blue screens?
WM: There was a bit of that, but, astoundingly, Stan Winston's puppets were in almost every scene. Almost every scene involved puppetry and CGI and some blue-screen, so there was always something we could react to. And the puppets were beyond belief. I wish everybody could see them up close. They just boggle the mind.
O: What would you say is the ideal situation for you?
WM: Hmm… I'd have a great role, there would be enough money to do it right, I'd get paid a fortune, and I'd get to do a love scene with Téa Leoni. [Laughs.]
O: Do you spend time on a set even when a scene doesn't involve you?
WM: No, not so much. Perhaps I did when I was younger, but these days, that's like a postman taking a walk.
O: I'm thinking of something like the Paul Thomas Anderson films, or the David Mamet films. There's a sense that you're part of a troupe, which makes it seem like people would be watching each other's work.
WM: It's not unheard of for your fellow actors to show up to watch a particular scene, or see a big stunt or a great gag. But you're right: There's a great sense of camaraderie in Paul's movies or David's movies, because we've worked together so much. You'd much rather act with a pal, someone you know really well. That way, you can cut all the niceties and go right to insulting each other. [Laughs.]
O: David Mamet is always mentioned first as a writer, but little is said of him as a director. What's he like in that capacity?
WM: He's a strong director. He knows exactly what he wants. I think some actors probably find it frustrating, because he likes things clean as a whistle, unadorned, and unemotional, generally speaking. But I've always enjoyed his demeanor on the set. He's such a gentleman, and so kind. I've seen David greet a dozen extras at 7 in the morning, and 12 or 14 hours later say goodbye to them, thank them for being in the movie, and call them all by name. Mamet is a walking, talking genius. He's just about the smartest guy I've ever known.
O: Has he changed his way of doing things since House Of Games?
WM: Yes. I think as a director he's loosened up a bit. He's a bit more playful, maybe more bold in some ways. And his writing has certainly continued to evolve, more than any other writer I know. He never plows the same ground twice.
O: I happened to see the film version of Lakeboat, his first play, the other day, and I noticed a lot of rudimentary, even crude, elements that he would refine over time.
WM: Yeah. His first plays are naïve and simple, and clearly written by a young writer. But even at that, you can sense his brilliance.
O: Like the Coen brothers, he has a reputation for wanting his dialogue spoken in a very specific cadence. Is that constricting? What does that leave an actor to do?
WM: It may seem that way, but their dialogue is not written for a particular cadence. It's just the way they write. If you learn it verbatim, it does have a natural cadence and a rhythm to it, and that's what you hear. It's not them. As a matter of fact, both the Coen brothers and Mamet are quite loose on the set. I've often seen David, when an actor screws up a line three or four times in a row, say, "Well, I must have written it wrong." And he will change it on the set. So they're improvisatory, and they don't hold their writing as precious at all.
O: What do you see as the hardest thing about acting?
WM: I'm not being smart-alecky here, but showing up is the roughest part. I think what all actors share is that, somewhere down in your solar plexus, there's this fear that you're not going to be able to come up with the goods, that this is the one movie where you're going to look like a fool, and they should have cast someone else. And you feel ugly, and you've got three chins, and you've gained too much weight, and you're losing your hair, and there are so many better actors who could do this. But if you've got chops, what you realize is that everybody feels that way, so just show up and do the job.
O: What makes it a fruitful profession for you?
WM: For me, it's that two or three minutes of the take when everybody has to step back, and I'm looking at the other guy and I'm talking to him. It's the actual acting. I mean, I really love hanging out on the set, and I love the life, and all of that. But I don't think I could stick with this profession if it weren't for those 15 minutes a day when I get to act. That's the part I love. For some strange reason, it's the time that I'm the least self-conscious in my whole life. It's the time when I really feel like I fit in my skin. That's why I said the roughest part is showing up. Once you throw yourself into the scene, it's just great fun to let it all go and not be self-conscious, and stop questioning whether you're sufficient.
O: How do you prepare for that point, so you won't feel that self-conscious?
WM: Well, you've got to know the lines cold. You have to do whatever you can to limit the things that could make you feel insecure. There's very little you can do, really. But you should know the lines, be prepared, get sleep, and have the script analyzed so you're ready to rock and roll. And the final step is to say to yourself, "Are you nervous? Are you ill prepared, still? Well, fuck it. Do it anyway. 'Cause you're the man."
O: So you're not of the Method school.
WM: No, I've studied Stanislavsky, and Mamet taught Stanislavsky, and I studied with Sanford Meisner. But the part of the method that I think is the most fruitful is the method of physical actions. It all comes down to your objective: Nothing else counts except what you want. How you feel will take care of itself. All that back-story stuff doesn't help. What you get paid for is to stand toe-to-toe with the other actor and get him to do your will. Every scene has two people who want two different things, so there's conflict in every scene. You've got to duke it out, and you've got to get the other person to change his or her mind and do it your way. That's pretty much what every scene is about, getting people to see your point of view. Sometimes you win, sometimes you lose.
O: It seems like the prevailing wisdom is that now is a bad time for movies, but a good one for acting. Would you agree with that statement?
WM: I don't know. I've seen some movies recently that I loved. Last year, I thought if there had been nothing but Steven Soderbergh's movies, it would have been a great year. And I saw a bunch of films that I really, really liked. I don't know if it's fair to say that it's a bad time for movies. It seems to me that throughout the entire history of filmmaking, every year there have been about two really wonderful movies, about 10 others that are pretty good, and a whole pile of garbage. That seems to be consistent year after year, if you ask me.
O: What about acting?
WM: I tend to agree on that one. I think acting is getting better and better. Actors are embracing a new aesthetic, which is leaning more toward truthful and simple and direct, as opposed to what we would normally call sitcom acting. I feel like a lot of the young actors that are just coming up are really good. I think directors are directing better. So, yeah, I agree with that statement.
O: It seems like the one lesson from Gus Van Sant's Psycho remake was just how much acting has changed between then and now. Acting is much more naturalistic now, and not so theatrical.
WM: I thought [Psycho] was sort of a misguided adventure from the very beginning. But the great joy for me was getting to work with Gus Van Sant, and if there's a God, I will get to do another movie with him, because I think he's one of our great directors. But the film didn't really work. I hear you, though. Just speaking personally, I love what I did in Psycho, and Martin Balsam was awfully good [in the original role], too. But it was an interesting contrast in styles, I guess. Things are getting more naturalistic.
O: Is there any way you could be coaxed into acting on a television series again?
WM: I don't think I'm ready at this point to commit to being a contract player in a series, because my interests are being gratified elsewhere. I love making movies, I love the differentness of it, I love writing. But I've always liked television. I grew up on television. Last year, my writing partner [Steven Schachter] and I wrote a pilot for CBS called Putin Bay, and they chose not to make it. They keep telling us it might be a midseason replacement. We shall see. Perhaps the check is in the mail. If that does not go, Steven and I have decided we're going to write another pilot this year for my wife, Felicity Huffman, and hopefully get that on the air. So I do want to do TV, but I'm looking to be a creator, writer, and producer, and perhaps I could be a recurring character. Do 10 shows a year, something like that.
O: Did you have an idea going into Boogie Nights that it was going to be a sensation?
WM: I knew right away. All modesty aside, I think I'm good at reading scripts. The way I read a script is as fast as I can, all in one sitting, and I don't read many of the stage directions. I only read enough stage directions to let me know where I am, because they're always so verbose and mostly horseshit. So I only read the dialogue, which allows me to see the movie in my mind's eye in real time. Many times, I like to read the script before I even know who they want me to play, so I can read it and really enjoy it as an audience member. I think that's given me the ability to ferret out the really special scripts from all the rest. On reading Boogie Nights, like everybody else, I was intrigued and shocked and outraged, and all of those things. It was such a wacky world, such a novel approach. The film, I felt, was ultimately about family values. [Laughs.] It was about family, and to set it in the world of pornography was a stroke of genius. And it was such a loving look at that world. I've always felt that, no matter where you go, people are just people.
O: It seems your eye for good scripts leads you to try a lot of unproven talent.
WM: You're right, I'm drawn to a lot of first-time directors. One of the great common denominators in these small independent films is that there's a person, or two people, who have an absolutely monomaniacal passion to get these films made. That's what makes them happen. Sometimes, it takes years and years to finally get it done, but by never backing down, by never giving up, they get these films to the screen by hook or by crook. Many times, it's the director, and often a first-time director. It can be good sometimes, and it's rough many times, because they're untried and they make mistakes. And when a director makes a mistake, people suffer. People suffer horribly sometimes.
O: How do you mean?
WM: Making a mistake means overshooting a scene, shooting too many takes, for instance. Long after you've got it, you just keep shooting. Sometimes, directors are afraid to stop shooting, because the second you stop and say, "We got it," and move on, you'll never get another chance. And they're terrified to get in the cutting room and not be happy. So they just keep shooting. Ultimately, a more experienced director realizes that you've got to stop sometime and just move on. They're braver about that. Another mistake a director can make is not to be prepared, so you get there on the day to shoot the scene, and they don't know how it should be blocked, and they're not clear on how they want to do a scene. Many times, anarchy breaks out. Everyone is chipping in his or her two cents. Sometimes, craft services is telling you how to shoot the fucking scene. The result is that, when you could have gotten the scene in four different set-ups, you shoot eight. With an inexperienced director, a lot of times the days go on to 14, 15, 16 hours. It goes horrendously overtime. And because of the lack of money, they just keep you there, regardless of the hours.
O: Do you become reluctant to commit yourself to the part when things go wrong like that?
WM: Yeah, I guess everyone loses his or her sense of humor. It's harder to keep your enthusiasm. But the actor has the advantage—or the liability—of knowing, "It's going to be my face up there on the frickin' screen, so I better keep my wits about me. Nobody's going to care that I was bad because I was not happy. They're only going to know I'm bad." [Laughs.]
O: Do you believe in rehearsals?
WM: To a certain extent. I'm a fan of rehearsal on the day [of the shoot], more than getting together a week beforehand. For the only film I've ever directed [1988's Lip Service], I did rehearse a great deal, but it was only because I had a very limited time to shoot it. I could only shoot what I had already directed, if you follow my reasoning.
O: And the worry with rehearsal is that it won't seem fresh in front of the camera.
WM: No, it's not that. It's that it's a grand waste of time. You spend two hours rehearsing, and nothing gets done. The only thing that gets done is, you get to know each other, smoke cigarettes, and lie about women. But on the day, I'm a big fan of rehearsal. I'm famous for pulling the cast together, not so much to formally rehearse, but just to run the lines. My theory of acting is that it takes all your attention just to stay in the moment, and keep your attention on the other person, and get him to do what you want him to do. I don't have any attention left over to try to remember, "What's the fucking line?" or "What's the blocking?" I like to get that stuff down by rote, so I can do it automatically and not devote any brain cells to the technical aspects.
O: Do you want to direct another film?
WM: No, not in the foreseeable future. I'm just vaguely looking for a script. Directing is a huge amount of work with very little payoff, and a quarter of the money, and nine times more time spent. [Laughs.]
O: You've been so prolific, with upwards of 60 films and TV shows over the course of 20 years. You seem like an old-school character actor.
WM: Well, some of it was because of the amount I was paid. There's no choice: If you want to earn a living, you've got to do a lot of this stuff. Many of those 50 or 60 films, I'm in a scene or two scenes. I worked a week or three days, so it's not as much work as it seems. I'm slowing down now, though. I'm getting bigger roles, and I'm on location more, and I have a wife and family. I'd rather work less, and I've started to implement that. It was either that or my wife would break my heart.