William H Macy Interview

Everyman extraordinaire William H. Macy talks about bringing his screen persona into sharp 'Focus'

Everyman extraordinaire William H. Macy talks about bringing his screen persona into sharp 'Focus'

(Some questions in this interview came from another journalist present for the Q&A.)

William H. Macy may forever be known as "that guy from 'Fargo'," the 1996 sleeper hit by the Coen Brothers in which he played a milksop car salesman who arranges his own wife's botched kidnapping.

He's one of the best actor's working in film today, but it's such unassertive Everyman roles that everyone remembers. He was also the closed-minded, Ward Cleaver-like dad in "Pleasantville," the washed-up whiz kid in "Magnolia" and the porn producer in "Boogie Nights" whose wife slept with anyone and everyone, and not even behind his back.

The actor strikes incredible chords of sympathy, even when he's playing a character who isn't so instantly, pathetically sympathetic -- like the two-faced movie director in "State and Main," written and directed by his long-time friend David Mamet, or the hitman having a mid-life crisis in "Panic," the best movie nobody saw last year. He just has one of those faces.

Or does he? In the new adaptation of Arthur Miller's "Focus," it's the ability to perceive Macy's face as something other than it is which drives the story. He plays Lawrence Newman, a fretful, fainthearted Brooklynite whose fateful decision to buy a pair of badly-needed glasses -- round accountant-style specs with thick black frames -- opens his eyes to the unchecked prejudice propagating in his immaculate neighborhood in the 1940s. Suddenly he's perceived as Jewish by anti-Semitic neighbors who are trying to run Jews off their street, and by his boss, who demotes him because, "We don't think you make the right impression on people who first come into the office." And it isn't long before he's waking up to find his trash cans overturned in his front yard -- just like those of the Jewish shopkeeper on the corner (David Paymer).

The fact that Macy looks positively WASPy was part of the appeal for director Neal Slavin, who admits to not knowing Macy by name, telling his casting director he wanted -- you guessed it -- "that guy from 'Fargo.'"

After having been cast, Slavin recalls, Macy phoned up with last-minute doubts. "He said, 'I don't think I'm right for this movie. Nobody looks more WASP than I do.' I said, 'You know Bill, that's exactly why I want you. We're talking about perception -- visual perception -- and the story takes place in a time when Jews are being singled out because of what they look like -- maybe.'"

In San Francisco to premiere the film at the Mill Valley Film festival, which offered a retrospective of his work last month, Macy sat down for an interview to talk about "Focus" and why he was right for the part after all.

Q:What did you think when you first saw yourself all buttoned-up, bow-tied and bespectacled?

A: [Small laugh.] I thought they did a good job. Obviously, my big fear was that I don't look even remotely Jewish. Is this going to be ludicrous? And the director, Neal Slavin, said, "I'd like you to look at the script a different way. Look at it as a fable -- who better to play the role than someone who doesn't look remotely Jewish?" Because ultimately the question isn't whether you're Jewish or not. The question is of intolerance. Not what we look like, but whether we're going to be tolerant or intolerant. That's the only question.

Q:After the character's mother told him he looked Jewish in the glasses and he has a hard time finding a job, you can't help but wonder why he doesn't just take them off.

A: Yeah, really! Because it's a fable. It's one of the machinations of the plot. But there's a better answer, which is that he's getting madder and madder as the film goes on. It comes to a certain point where it's no longer an option for him to take them off because he's got his dander up. One of the tough acting problems with a role like this is that he is so inactive. You can't act nothing -- you have to act something. So every scene you gotta have something you're fighting for, and that was a tricky acting conundrum. The analysis I came up with was that his fight shifts half way through -- or three quarters of the way through. At the beginning his fight is (to say) "This is not my fight" to everyone. He says, "Look, I see this anti-Semitic organization [Macy slips into character here, his voice taking on a recognizable wimpy insistence], and I...I...I don't particularly agree with it. I don't know how I feel about it, but that's beside the point because I'm not a Jew. So this is not my fight. Leave me out of it. This is not my fight!"

Then the fable part kicks in, he puts on the glasses and even his mother says "You look Jewish." When he's been surrounded by circumstances, he says, "OK, this is my fight. It doesn't matter if I'm Jewish or not."

Q:You have a particular talent for playing these meek men backed into corners. Is there something you identify with in these roles? "Pleasantville," "Boogie Nights," "Fargo," "Panic" -- which was the best movie nobody saw last year, by the way -- the characters are vastly different, but they all have this meekness in common, and they're all going to explode in some way, at some point.

A: I find myself in this position -- I actually do -- I have done these roles, and I'm not quite sure why I have. I know something about it: One, the way I look. I'm sort of a middle-American, WASPy, Lutheran Everyman. Also, I think I made some good acting choices years ago playing these characters, and when you're successful at doing something, they keep asking you to do it over and over. I have chosen these roles, but they've also chosen me to a large extent. Candidly, I'm getting sick of them! I wanna kick some ass. I wanna get the girl!

Q:[Laughs.] Do you?

A: My age is catching up with me, but I do want to do a romantic comedy with my wife, Felicity Huffman. We did this thing called "A Slight Case of Murder" on TNT. It was a take-off on a noir piece, and I thought we really rocked together! We just hit TNT (with our idea) and they passed. Sleazy bastards! [Smiling.] And we've been pushing a TV show.

Q:Did you find any parallels between the way you've been typecast and the way Lawrence Newman is presumed to be Jewish?

A: You mean how an assumption is made based on the way I look? Yes. I think I've been in situations where they looked at me and just see some rich white guy and they don't see me at all. I mean, I am a rich white guy now. But...

Q:And I'm sure you get those people who come up to you on the street and quote a line back to you or talk to you like you're a character from one of your films. People throwing Fargo accents at you...

A: Or saying, "Hey, are you gonna sell me a car?" Lame, lame jokes. I'm not saying I've been the victim of a lot of racism. I'm just saying everybody's seen it at some time in their life, and with any imagination, you can imagine what it must be like to be African American, or to be, well, whatever culture that's odd man out.

Q:To be Islamic right now, for example.

A: To be Islamic! You know, David Paymer, who is so brilliant in this (playing a Jewish shopkeeper being run out of the neighborhood), had a good point. (He said) this is a film for our time -- but who's the United States in this? Is Lawrence Newman the United States and the Christian Coalition (referring to the anti-Semitic Union Crusaders organization in the film) is the Islamic extremists who want us dead simply because we're Western and evil infidels, as they call us? Or is the United States the Christian Coalition, now looking at all our Persian American friends as being suspect and hijackers? It's a knotty problem.

Q:Do you get some relief from those Everyman characters by playing humorously weasely guys like the director in "State and Main" and the tile salesman pretending to be a millionaire in "Jurassic Park III"?

A: I like Walt Price in "State and Main"! I don't think he's weasely!

Q:I like him too, but he's a weasel.

A: No, come on! All right, so he buys off the guy at the end to (get his star) out of the statutory rape charges. But with the exception of that...!

Q:[Laughing.] Mamet writes such delicious dialogue.

A: It's like driving a Porsche. It makes all other language pale. I mean, the music and the rhythm in his stuff. Literally, it feels good to say it. It's like humming the tune to your favorite song. Whenever you see two actors who have done "American Buffalo," for example -- any two actors -- they'll start saying the lines to each other. It's so much fun to say that stuff!

Q:Do you have a process for getting inside your characters and their insecurities?

A: I'm sure I have a process, but it mostly takes place in my dreams. I'm a firm believer that "character" is highly overrated. Character is a trick that we do with the audience's collusion. You know, the curtain rises and they say "Hail, King." I'm dressed in robes and a crown, so you as audience say, "OK, you're the king." Done. I don't have to walk like the king or think like the king or wear underwear like the king. I'm the king. It's a done deal. I'll be the king until I give you reason to doubt it. So character is just a trick. The work is on the page. It either works on the page or it doesn't work on the page. And if it works, it's gonna work unless you really screw it up. And if it doesn't work, you can be the best actor in the world, it's still not gonna work.

So my preparation is this: First thing I do I try to read the script as fast as I can without reading any of the stage directions. I try to see it as a movie in my mind's eye. I'm on a campaign for writers to stop writing those idiotic, endless stage directions. They're so boring!

Q:One of the things that I always thought made Shakespeare great...

A: No stage direction!

Q:No stage direction.

A: And I'm trapped all the time: "She's a girl. Not just any girl. She's the kind of girl you would have invited to the high school prom, if you'd had your braces off and your mother hadn't been such a bitch." I mean, how can you act that? It's just a girl! You don't even need to say a pretty girl.

So I try to skip all that horses**t, read the dialogue -- if I get lost I go back to read stage directions to see where we are -- that way I read it in real time. I saw the movie in my head. I had a good time, I didn't have a good time. It's a good story, it's not a good story. Had a good climax, didn't have a good climax. And then it starts to percolate. If I like the story and it's well written, well told, and it's a character I want to play -- and they'll pay me, and sometimes even if they won't pay me -- then I decide to do it. And I guess from the time I read it, something starts to cook.

In my weaker moments I always end up combing my hair some weird way or choosing some physicalization. The older I get, the more I realize that's just a cop out to keep from having to get down to it and just act the damn thing. It's more fun when you cover your face with all kinds of latex and do all this horses**t, but you know what? It doesn't help. Ninety percent of the preparation we do as actors is just jive. It doesn't do anything.

Q:Do you work as hard on each part? When there's not as much to work with, does that make a difference?

A: It does make a difference, but you know, actors are, almost all of them, really good at that stuff. We got into this because we have imaginations. So when they say, imagine that the T.Rex is going to come and stick his head in there, pretty much anyone could make a face. [Pauses to mock some dino-fear.]

Q:Now, when you read ("Jurassic Park III") through without any stage direction, is that what did it for you?

A: You know...rules are made to be broken, so what I told you about choosing scripts.... Well, this is what happened: That script wasn't completed, but I'd just had a daughter and one word kept ringing in my head, and that was "tuition."

Q:[Loud laugh.]

A: When they said, "Do you wanna do a big, fat Hollywood movie?" -- it sounded pretty good. I happened to be doing this movie and Laura Dern (who was in the first "Jurassic Park" and in "Focus" and "Jurassic III" with Macy) grabbed me by the lapels and pushed me against the wall and said, "You've got to do it! It's great for your career. If you do 'Jurassic Park,' then every time a 'Focus' comes along and you say yes, (it will get made) because your (name means) foreign sales!" Then she said, "Who's directing?" I said, "Joe Johnston." Then she started slapping me, "Are you crazy? I did 'October Sky' with him! He's the best! He's the greatest guy. Call them! Call them!"

And I'm really proud of that movie. Of (this year's) summer movies, I think it's the one that delivers the most. It doesn't attempt that much, but it absolutely delivers.

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