Capone talks THE SESSIONS, the third season of SHAMELESS & more with the maganificent William H. Macy!!!
Hey everyone. Capone in Chicago here.
It's been more than six years since I first spoke with the great William H. Macy. He was promoting a special Chicago screening of an urban-rage profile called EDMOND, based on an early David Mamet work and directed by Stuart Gordon. It's also a work Macy says is the hardest thing he's every done as an actor. In other words, talking to him was a thoroughly Chicago experience, and I had a great time listening to his stories of the hey days of '70s and '80s Chicago theater. I'm really proud of that interview despite the fact that we spent a lot of time talking and never even got to talk about FARGO or his work with Paul Thomas Anderson. And I'm okay with that.
Despite having been the lead in many a movie and TV show, at heart he is the consummate character actor, appearing in everything from SEARCHING FOR BOBBY FISCHER, THE CLIENT, PLEASANTVILLE, WAG THE DOG, MYSTERY MEN, JURASSIC PARK III, SEABUSCUIT, THANK YOU FOR SMOKING, BOBBY, "E.R.," and THE LINCOLN LAWYER. And the list goes on nearly forever…
For two seasons, Macy has starred as the despicably lovable Frank Gallagher on Showtime's Chicago-set "Shameless," and it was while he was in town shooting that show that I caught up with him about his wonderful role in one of the stronger film I've seen all year, THE SESSIONS, starring John Hawkes as Mark O'Brien, a real-life journalist and poet who lived most of his life in an iron long and hired a sex surrogate (Helen Hunt) to assist him in losing his virginity, and then wrote an article about it, which became the basis for this movie.
Macy plays O'Brien's priest, Father Brendan, who not only gives the man a pass on the whole premarital sex thing, but serves as his confessor and friend, listening to the intimate details of his sessions with the surrogate. And their scenes together are done with a wondering blend of humor and sweetness. We spent most of our time talking about the film and his work on "Shameless," but we bounce around to other topics as well. Macy is still one of my favorite people to talk to because he's sharp, he doesn't give cookie-cutter answers, and he has a great gift for analyzing his own work. Please enjoy my talk with William H. Macy…
Capone: Hello, how are you?
William H. Macy: Good, how are you?
Capone: Good. We actually spoke on the phone for EDMOND and then you had invited me to come down to the Gene Siskel Film Center and say hi when it opened there.
WHM: That’s right, okay now I’m with you. EDMOND plays everywhere, it’s bizarre. People say, “I saw you in this film. It was so fucked up. Oh man, you were…” I go, “EDMOND.”
Capone: So I’m assuming you’re in town for doing "Shameless" shooting?
WHM: Right. We shoot at Warner Brothers in L.A., and we do six episodes, then come here for a week of exteriors. Six more, and we'll be back.
Capone: Oh, okay. So you’ve actually shot six episodes already then with as far as you can get in L.A.?
WHM: We start number seven on Tuesday.
Capone: I watch the show religiously. Is playing that character a kind of release valve for all of the horrible thoughts that sometimes pop in your head?
WHM: It’s in my best interest when I have a horrible thought to write it down and call [U.S. series creator] John Wells.
Capone: Frank did some horrible things last season. He might have actually killed somebody.
WHM: I know, I know. I think so.
Capone: With THE SESSIONS, can you tell me about being approached to play this part? Is this a real person you're playing?
WHM: Oh no, I think it as Ben Lewin, who directed it and wrote it, said that’s a part he made up. It’s a pretty typical Greek chorus character.
Capone: So tell me about how Ben came to you with this part.
WHM: It came in the traditional way, through my agent. I like doing films on this subject matter. I did one where I played a guy that had cerebral palsy called DOOR TO DOOR on TV.
Capone: Right, I remember seeing that.
WHM: And I got involved with United Cerebral Palsy for a couple of years. I think the way you keep score in a modern society is how well we take care of those who need it the most. I’m not talking about poverty; I’m talking about disabilities, when there’s no other choice. And we don’t do too well in my opinion. So I love telling stories like this, and this guy wanted to know love, which I dealt with in my work with United Cerebral Palsy.
For people with disabilities, it’s typical, just like us. “They’re just like us. Can you believe it?” They want to live on their own. “I want to get a place.” They all sound like teenagers, and everybody wants to meet somebody, and it’s tough. It’s really, really tough for them and then you combine that with a country that’s got such antiquated views about sexuality on so many levels and from so many quarters, and they're screwed. I loved telling that story. It’s such a fundamental part of what it means to be alive, our ability to reach out and touch, to love, and to be loved. It’s right up there with eating.
Capone: Yeah, well the scenes that you have with John--those confessional scenes--they do sort of serve as the revelation of what's in his head and his heart, and you don’t get that kind of insight in even just traditional love stories, let alone this kind of story. Those are really great scenes. Tell me just about standing over him watching him play this part. What was that like for you to see him just completely lose himself?
WHM: It’s one of those things where everything is real and it’s all in front of you. John did a magnificent job, and you know what’s really hard? He’s not moving. This character can only move his head, and you get wrapped up in the scene and your hand will move; it’s really hard, and as mundane as it sounds, the guy deserves kudos, because I never saw him falter, ever. He would put this thing under his back to give his spine that curve, that serpentine look, and that was painful for him I could tell, and he made a brilliant choice, which was to be so optimistic, and there’s a twinkle in his eyes always and unadorned truth, with speaks it out. That’s the way Ben wrote it and that’s the way John played it, “Just say it without shame.” It’s a lovely performance, so my work was easy. All I had to do was ride it in the right direction.
Capone: Do you ever find yourself in a situation where you're marveling at what someone is doing in front of you and you lose yourself in it, and then realize, “Oh, I have a line here.”
WHM: Totally. Happens all the time. It happens on the "Shameless" set. Yeah, you’re watching somebody, and “Oh, I’m in this scene!”
Capone: I’ve read in other interviews that you did about this film at Sundance that you’re not a particularly religious person. Was there any hesitancy about strapping on the collar, and worrying about lightning strikes or something like that?
WHM: No. [laughs] I’ve known a lot of very, very cool people of the cloth and I think the church would endorse this character. I hope they would. I think this guy really, it sounds corny, but I think he asks himself, “What would Jesus do?” I love that this priest fell on the correct side, on the moral side, on the human side of the issue, even though it goes against the church’s doctrine of sex outside of marriage. It’s lovely. It humanizes the church.
Capone: He not only asks the question, but he answers it, because I think you say to John, “I think he’d give you a pass on this one.” The thing that I loved about this film--one of the many things--is that it celebrates good people. There aren’t any villains here; it’s just a series of good people wanting to help this guy realize this goal, this dream of his. I can’t even think of the last time where I came across a movie that presented itself that way, just with good people. Is it kind of strange to not have something to fight against really other than his own body?
WHM: There is stuff to fight against and fight about, and there are dragons to be slain in the film, but you’re right, there’s not a per se bad guy. The bad guy is more of an attitude. The bad guy is our queasiness at the subject, both sexual and disabilities. For my character, perhaps I had the easiest job of it, which was I was asked to make a moral decision, so that’s a pretty easy thing to act. John’s fighting against his upbringing and his own squeamishness and sense of embarrassment and shame. He’s got to fight. And Ben put in Helen having a little drama with her husband, and what she does is such a complicated thing to do for a living, and they dealt with that pretty honestly. It’s barely touched on, but it gave dimension to the story.
Capone: Are you still in the position as an actor where you’re still able to learn form other actors? Is that a constant thing, or do you think you know it all?
WHM: I’m afraid both, but I definitely know it all.
WHM: Yeah, I guess the best and most recent example is watching my fellow cast members in "Shameless." They surprise me. The decisions they make and the way they phrase the questions that one must ask oneself when you get a script and are figuring out how to act it. They ask questions that are out of my wheelhouse, because they’re a quarter my age, some of them. It’s really good for me. It’s healthy for me to watch them skin the cat in a different way.
Helen’s performance in this…I was not on set when she did it, but I don’t know how she attained that level of unselfconsciousness, but it is a lesson. It sort of raised the bar, at least for me, of a kind of naturalness. That’s what it looks like, when you see it on film and it looks just like it does in real life, and you say, “Ah man, we can’t do anything less than that.” It’s like SAVING PRIVATE RYAN, when he invaded the beach. From that point on if you have an invasion scene, it can’t look worse than that--the bar got raised. Helen is really lovely in this film.
Capone: It’s a brave performance on her part, but at the same time, you’re right, it takes us about two seconds to not go notice to how exposed she really is.
WHM: After you get past the idea that she doesn’t have any clothes on, then the next thought is, “She’s acting the shit out of this thing.” It’s really deep and complicated, and you can see the wheels turning. That performance happens right before your vary eyes for the first time. This is not canned hash that she is giving us.
Capone: No, it’s an exercise in patience that I’ve never seen and deliberate movement. I guess because your character is not a real person, we don’t really learn that much about his history. Did you come up with anything about him that carried through with you?
WHM: I don’t really work that way. If it’s a good script, everything you need is right there. There’s sometimes you have to do research, and it’ll deal with things that you know nothing about. But the moral questions in this film are seductively simple. They're almost black and white, yes or no. Those are the best questions that make the best drama.
Capone: Were you familiar with Ben’s work before this? His other films?
Capone: What was it about his vision for this film that made you think he had a handle on this tough material?
WHM: We met. I read the script and I might have had an idea or two, but they were minor. More than that I had questions on how he wanted to play it, and he came to my house, and we just shot the breeze and quickly both agreed that any levity that I could bring to it and that Ben could bring to it in rewrites would be really good for the film. I mean, it’s a powerful question being asked and it can make you tense, and you need those releases.
Capone: Yeah. I don’t know how much more time we’ve got, but I want to ask you a couple more questions about "Shameless." Can you talk at all about some of the new adventures for the first few episodes at least? What are some of the things that the Gallaghers are dealing with?
WHM: Jimmy and Fiona, he went to South American at the end of the first season and, he’s came back with the wife, and they expand that. It’s a knotty problem that’s not going away. Their relationship is still being tested. He’s living at the Gallagher house as of episode six, but I can see the cracks. You have to understand, I don’t know where this thing is going, so I can see the cracks, and he’s suddenly thinking, “A lot more comes with Fiona than just a great time. There are all of these kids.” Plus he doesn’t have any money anymore, and there’s a great subplot with his dad, the fantastic Harry Hamlin is playing him.
Capone: I do remember the dad at the end of season two. What a revelation about him.
WHM: He meets Ian in a bar, you know that.
Capone: They hinted at that in the last season.
WHM: Yeah, well they just take that and run. It’s really great. I wake up in Mexico, and I don’t know how I got there, after getting thrown out in the snow. I wake up in Mexico and it takes me two shows to get back. And then it’s going to turn dark coming up here. I have health issues.
Capone: Oh, finally. That had to happen. Either that or Frank is completely indestructible.
WHM: I still vote for indestructible.
Capone: Do you dig that you still get to come back to Chicago ever so often?
WHM: So much. This town…there’s a case to be made that this town put me where I am today.
Capone: I think so. We talked about that last time.
WHM: I’ve got pals here and I get to see them and I love the city. That neighborhood where we're shooting is just fantastic. We’ve gotten to know the people in the street, and it’s funny how a series becomes more and more real. Out in L.A. at Warner Brothers on our set, when I walk into that bar, it’s just a set, but I feel good. I just feel great when I’m in that bar. It’s palpable.
Capone: We talked about this a little bit when we spoke last time in talking about the history of Chicago theater, but we didn’t talk specifically about the reputation that Chicago actors got and how casting directors couldn’t cast them fast enough. There was a certain period in the '80s where being an actor from Chicago gave you a certain clout. Did you benefit from that at all?
WHM: Oh sure.
Capone: What was the stereotype, and how did you make it work for you?
WHM: I think with the stereotypical Chicago actor, the acting, to a large extent, was unadorned. It sort of had a Midwest directness and simplicity to it. The Steppenwolf folks added this explosiveness to it.
Capone: A bit of danger.
WHM: Yeah. Hardworking actors in it for the work, not for the glory kind of thing. Incorruptible, like Chicago itself.
Capone: Can you tell me about some of the things you’ve got coming up?
WHM: The only thing I’ve got is a film called SINGLE SHOT. It’s in the can.
Capone: Great cast. Unbelievable.
WHM: It might be really good. I haven't seen anything. Maybe this coming spring it will be out. They're still making it.
Capone: What do you do in that?
WHM: I’m a small town lawyer. It’s set in Appalachia and it’s a mystery. It’s a backwoods tense psychological thriller. I just finished a script for Hallmark, and we’re waiting to see if they are going to pull the trigger on it. That’s a movie of the week; I play a wizard [laughs].
Capone: Okay, well I have one written down called RUDDERLESS, which you’re going to direct?
WHM: Not yet. We're still waiting on that. I’m still trying to direct that film.
Capone: Alright. Well, thank you so much for your time. Best of luck with the film.
WHM: It was nice talking to you. Thanks for being so prepared, and I hope to see you next time.
-- Steve Prokopy
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Oct. 22, 2012, 9:07 a.m. CST
by John Brown
Oct. 22, 2012, 9:19 a.m. CST
Back when she was young and nubile?
Oct. 22, 2012, 10:51 a.m. CST
Its a work of comic genius.
Oct. 22, 2012, 5:27 p.m. CST
is AWESOME! Re-watching season 1 on blu-ray now. Amazing cast . . .
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