November 23, 2003|Backstage at the Auraria Campus of the University of Colorado's newly refurbished King Center is a network of hallways and dressing rooms that remind a little of that part in This is Spinal Tap where the boys get lost on their way to the stage. William H. Macy, taller than I expected and with a force of personality at odds with his milquetoast screen persona, makes a comment about this in a dead-on Nigel Tufnel ("We've got armadillos in our trousers") as we usher the actor to a clips show and awards ceremony at the 26th Denver International Film Festival, which is honouring him with the event's John Cassavetes Award for contributions to independent cinema. Gracious, humble, genuinely gratified by the tribute, Macy, in a light mood, tells a story about an actor friend who got lost in the tunnels backstage en route to his entrance in a play, erupting triumphantly at last stage left, but alas in the wrong production. "But how was the performance?" I asked. "Compromised," Macy deadpanned.
Macy is a riot--passionate and articulate, and wise about the game in a way that rhymes nicely with the undercurrent of self-knowledge that informs most of his roles. We chatted in a brilliantly lit dressing room, banks of mirrors lining every wall with those fogged light-balls revealing themselves as more than just filmic cliché. I noticed that Macy has great posture, even perched as he was on a swivel chair. As he's making waves now, too, with his teleplays for movies-of-the-week, I asked Macy about his walk-on role on his wife Felicity Huffman's late, lamented series "Sports Night", his philosophy of performance, and his long-standing collaboration with playwright-turned-filmmaker David Mamet. What I didn't ask him about was his star-making performance in Fargo--there's gotta be a limit to the number of times a guy wants to answer the same question.
FILM FREAK CENTRAL: I loved "Sports Night".
WILLIAM H MACY: (with feeling) Why did they take that off the air?
I don't know. They tried a laugh track out on it before they killed it for real.
Aaron [Sorkin] was adamant that he didn't want a laugh track, but they bullied him, they insisted they shoot it like a sitcom, and by the end of the second season they'd been gradually turning it down, and by the end of it, it was finally how he wanted it, and they canned it. At Comedy Central they've brought the laugh track back, right? (shaking his head) Yeah.
That program struck me at the time of its original airing because its story of a beleaguered program seemed to mirror the story of its own existence.
I'm sure that's true. Aaron... Aaron, he's one of the greatest writers out there and he writes what he knows and I agree with you. Every once in a while, in those shows, you can see Aaron's frustration with the networks. You know, there's two kinds of artists in this world, those that try figure out what we want to see, and those who are trying to figure out what they want to say. And unfortunately in television, there are legions of people figuring out what we want to see and as a result, they don't have nothin' to say. And they're in charge. I get really pissed off at television, but by the same token, some of the best things that I've ever seen have been on television, so I can't walk away from it. I like everything about television, the size of it, the intimacy, I just love it.
It is the new hearth, isn't it? It makes me crazy that so much of it is so bad. One of the worst things to happen to television in my feeling is that somebody had the bright idea to go into the comedy clubs and pull out comics and do sitcoms around them, just because it had been wildly successful a time or two. It set the whole TV industry on this path of populating a given show with people wisecracking all the time--they're not about anything. And they put these stupid-ass laugh tracks on everything to try to convince us that something's funny. If they had any balls in television, they'd cut the laugh tracks, and then we'd see who's dealing with real, rootin' tootin' issues.
You know, "rootin' tootin'" reminds me of something that I'd read attributed to Matt Groenig, that if they ever did a live-action "The Simpsons" movie, he'd want you for Ned Flanders.
I'm so available for that. You tell him.
Tell me about the St. Nicholas Theater.
It died, unfortunately, it was started by Dave, by Steve Schachter, and myself. Dave Mamet was my acting teacher at Godard College in Vermont.
He wrote "Sexual Perversity in Chicago" there, right? And started "American Buffalo"?
He walked into class one day--there were about twenty of us left after everyone else discovered what a maniac he was--and had "Sexual Perversity" in his hand and said, "I've written this play, now we're going to do it." I did that with him, "Oleanna", "Oh Hell"--it was a great time. I'm probably overstating the case a bit, but I think that maybe we, The St. Nicholas, we were a bit responsible for that whole off-loop theatre explosion that they had. There were a few theatres, you know, the Goodman Theater downtown, a few dinner theatres and they would bring in New York shows, but the indigenous Chicago theatre was experimental and sort of slapped together. So we came in, built our own theatre, and took it a lot more seriously and people took note, you know, we sold a lot of tickets.
Your first show was "American Buffalo".
Yes, hello? I mean wildly successful. I was twenty-six years old, bought a house and a car, and for a stage actor that's astounding. Then Dave left for New York, we all moved there, Mamet first, then Steve [Schachter], then I left, and the new regime chose dark, depressing plays and it died.
Do you ascribe to Mamet's theory of "practical aesthetics?"
When I start talking about acting technique, I see the will to live just drain out of people's faces so please stop me (laughs), but what's different about "practical aesthetics" is that David says to forget emotions. It was outrageous at the time but it's not anymore, he believes that any technique based on emotion is false because emotions can't be controlled. So forget emotions, nobody cares. They're fun to indulge in, but they're tiresome to watch--all the audience cares about is what happens next. Tell me the next plot point--I don't want to know how you feel about it. So Mamet came up with this technique of analyzing a script for action because that's the only thing that is within the control of the actor: your will, what you want, and what you do. The action you perform on stage must be concomitant to what the writer intended.
"I get the girl in some films, but I usually chop her into little pieces."
Did The Cooler remind you of a Mamet piece?
Well. What I liked about The Cooler is this guy who is such a loser--the quintessential, Biblical loser. I liked that I got to play the lead which I don't do very often, I got to get the girl--I mean, I get the girl in some films, but I usually chop her into little pieces.
You're doing David Mamet's next film, Spartan?
I've seen it, we're done. I saw a rough-cut of it--maybe the best rough-cut I've ever seen. Here's what's interesting about it. Dave's the smartest guy I know, but I've never seen a film with less exposition. I believe the future belongs to those filmmakers who don't indicate at all--no exposition. Because I feel that Hollywood's behind the audience. Audiences are really smart--the reason writers indicate is because they want to help the audience and the audience, man, they just don't need it. What's interesting about Spartan is there is none. There is none. It's about the President's daughter being kidnapped and they never say "the President," it's never uttered. No character is ever introduced, there are no establishing shots of say FBI Headquarters, and the only thing that the characters say is what's needed to get them to the next scene. And it is completely clear.
So it's not so much anti-narrative as anti-expositive.
It's astounding how much we can cut out. I think that the essence of art is figuring out what you can take away and still tell your story.
The writing, then, that you do--how much of this theory do you transfer into it?
I've got a big writing career now and it's a big fat secret, but at the last Emmys, we picked up. My partner Steve [Schachter] and I, we write movies of the week. We've done ten of them, we write for everybody, HBO, ABC, NBC, Showtime, we're on our second one for TNT and the last one, Door to Door, it won (huffs dramatically) six Emmys. You know, it's not the number of Emmys, it's the gross weight of them that's important. (laughs) But it's a different process for sure, a different ear, and we're no Mamet.
Lip Service is the only film you've ever directed.
It was an HBO movie--way early in my career. I knew a little bit about acting, but I don't know how I got that job. I think the folks at the studio, a week before it went live, realized that they needed a director or something and there I was. It was... It was all right. I learned a lot--all of my pals are in it. (laughs) The whole Atlantic Theater MO is that we all work in everybody else's projects.
Any aspirations to get back behind the camera?
I have two little kids and, to be blunt, directing is just too much work. It's really fun to be on the set but that's about the end of it. A director comes on a project six months before the actors--at least six months, on a big project, a year. The director works harder than everybody else, and then he's there for six to ten months after everyone's gone home. And, he gets paid a fraction of what the actors get paid. Seems like a no-brainer to me.
You're in Cellular after Spartan.
Yeah, it's an old-fashioned sort of potboiler with Kim Basinger. Pretty good. I've got a nice role, it was written for an older, portly cop who's had a heart attack, and so when they called me in, I said "I'm flattered to be here, but it's not really the role for me." And they said that they didn't like the character anyway and could I do something with it, so I wrote it--brought in a few pages and got together with Chris [Morgan], the writer, and we tweaked them and it's in. So I play a guy who's going to retire and my wife and I are going to open a day spa--and then there's the obligatory shootout. (laughs)
And you just sold a script to Showtime.
Right, The Stripper and the Accountant. True story, great story, accountant inherits seven strip clubs--we might get a feature release out of it. We bought the story from this guy like Lou Berman, real high-end joints that he made high end, class all the way. He borrowed money from a guy who ran an insurance company in Florida, making money hand over fist, and they went all over the country buying real estate and basically whored and snorted seven million dollars away. The state of Florida ended up paying the bill--by the time it was all said and done, the state picked up a hundred-million tab and got into the strip-club business--found this accountant Berman who ran a chain of funeral homes and next thing you know, he's running a chain of foreclosed strip clubs. And the joke is, they flourished.