William H. Macy Spills Hollywood’s Guts

In 1996, with nothing more than a flashy dance and a catchphrase, Cuba Gooding Jr. managed to swipe the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor from William H. Macy, whose performance as Jerry Lundegaard in the Coen Brothers’ neo-noir masterpiece Fargo was a time-bomb of nerves constantly on the brink of detonating. More than a decade later, Macy has become one of America’s most respected and well-loved actors, while last year, Gooding Jr. starred in Daddy Day Camp.

Macy is an actor’s actor, getting by not on looks or brawn, but on brains. While he’s played supporting roles as agents and sheriffs in his share of blockbusters — Air Force One and Jurassic Park III to name a few — it’s the smaller, darker pictures — The Cooler, Magnolia, Edmond — in which he’s fortified a distinguished career. And it’s a lifelong friendship with scribe David Mamet that currently finds Macy on Broadway in Mamet’s Speed the Plow, replacing Jeremy Piven after the actor left in a highly questioned health-related move. I recently had the chance to sit down with Macy, who was on break from the stage to publicize his new film The Deal, a romantic comedy costarring Meg Ryan, which he also co-wrote. The film holds a mirror up to Hollywood, and what it sees is a gaggle of cartoon egos playing the system in the name of a buck. Art be damned. Before our interview, I told Mr. Macy my father considers him the greatest of American actors. “Your father has very good taste,” he noted.

You drop your trousers in this film. Was that your first nude scene? Unfortunately, I realized that I did about seven films in a row where I didn’t have my clothes on. I said, “Perhaps, Bill, it’s about time to put your pants back on. Leave that for the twenty year olds.”

You were fully naked in front of Meg Ryan? Yeah, you wear what’s called a “sock.” Just use your imagination. I love that film though, man, it’s so funny. I had a great time writing it with Steven Schachter. We just howled with laughter. It’s based on a novel, and we turned it into a romantic comedy. And it was a great day when we heard Meg Ryan liked it.

How did you get her for the film? Not clear to this day. I don’t know.

Did you send it out to her? Well, we must have. We’re all with CAA, and they said, “Meg really likes it.” And we went, “Oh Lord, Oh Lord.” And she’s really smart. We shot this thing in South Africa, and we were talking about the ending, and — boy, she was smart as a whip — we got the old computer out and rewrote the ending.

This film is a satire of Hollywood, where a lot of absurd things are happening, but you can sort of imagine these things actually happening. Is any of it based on what you’ve experienced as a Hollywood insider? I do love this business. I’ve never had a real job. I just adore it. So it’s more of a love song to the business. It’s not mean-spirited. It’s a great business, Hollywood, and it’s absurd. And it’s filled with really high-performance people who are jacked up out of their minds. When minutes cost thousands of dollars, people get pretty wound up. It’s more like going to war when you’re making a film, than making art. And I don’t care how much money you’ve got, you’re always chasing the sun, you’re always behind. And the pressure — making a film is populated by people who have learned to deal with the pressure. Because, it’s pretty astounding. There’s 200 people standing around, and then all of a sudden they get quiet, and it’s your turn to talk. And as soon as you get it right, we can all go home, but until you do, we’re going to be stuck there. You’ve never seen a more jacked up person in your life than the focus puller, because if it’s out of focus, not only is he going to get fired, I think they can legally have him shot.

But there are overt criticisms of the industry in your film, like when your character insinuates that if you’re not going to blow something up by page twenty, don’t bother writing a script. I don’t like violence. I don’t like to watch it. I don’t like my girls to see it. And I particularly don’t like violence that isn’t true. So long as you tell the truth about it, maybe I can put up with it. I did a film called Edmond.

Which is very horrific. But it’s true. This whole notion of operatic violence — I don’t know. The world’s too dangerous for that. I don’t think it’s funny. I think if you’re going to kill someone, let’s see what it’s like to kill someone. And if we’re going to see a corpse, let’s see what a corpse looks like.

Which is something the Coen brothers do so well. Yes, exactly. It’s not funny, it’s horrifying. So, I do love action/adventure. I’ve done a bunch of them. And I love them.

Like Air Force One? Oh, man! And I love to watch them. My only qualm is about violence. I want my movies to at least strive for the truth.

It’s a cliché that Hollywood is full of phonies, but your character of Charlie seems the exact opposite, someone who says what’s on his mind all the time. And he gets by on it. Well, it’s an interesting time. This guy is suicidal because he’s lost everything. He’s had success in Hollywood, now he’s got nothing. And then he gets this wacky idea to make the film, and what he does — and I find this a delicious dilemma — is that he doesn’t care. Someone suicidal really doesn’t care about you saying “no” to them. And “no” is a very powerful word in Hollywood. “Yes” is watered down. I’m trying to direct this film, I’m trying to produce a film, and I’ve got about five people that said yes, they’re going to pay for it. They’ve never told me no, they just disappear. They never write the check. But all I hear from them is yes. Yes, because it’s too scary to say no.

So what makes Charlie different? He doesn’t care. People say, “I’m not going to make your film,” and he says, “Okay, nice talking to you.” Meg Ryan’s character finds him completely annoying because he won’t play by the rules. And then, when two people hate each other, it starts to attract her. That’s the only way that someone who looks like me will end up with somebody who looks like Meg Ryan.

Do you think it’s possible to get by in real Hollywood doing that? Or is it necessary to play the game? You have to play the game. I’m quoting Speed the Plow, but this a people business. And somebody who’s got a bunch of money to invest in a film has choices. It’s not just one script out there. So, if you walk in as if you’re the second coming with a bunch of attitude, anybody would tell you to go fuck yourself, and as well they should.

Is Charlie someone that Hollywood chewed up and spit out? The city must be filled with people like him. I’m sure. I tell you what, when I went to the Oscars, it came crashing in on me. I walked in, and this is the Academy of Motion Pictures, Arts & Sciences. I expected a bunch of old guys. white hair and long, flowing, beards. No. It was guys like you. Some of those schmucks owed me money! Hollywood is not this thing — it’s us. I know Republicans who work all the time, I know people who voted for Bush twice! Hollywood is not this homogeneous group any more … it’s us.

You mentioned Speed the Plow. How’s that going? It’s great. I joined a cracker-jack cast. Raul (Esparza) and Elizabeth (Moss) are amazing actors, and very generous. And both of them have saved my butt on numerous occasions, because I had the Christmas break to learn the lines — and it went on last Tuesday — and it was scary. Because that play goes. And it was like standing on the platform of a speeding train. You could fall under the wheels in a New York minute.

Had you seen it before? I’d seen it at the second preview. I was in town, with (wife Felicity Huffman) and we saw it. I said to my wife, “Man, I’d love to do that.” The first line of the play is “When the Gods would make you mad, they answer your prayers.” And then I get this call at Christmas — it scared the shit out of me. But I got it now. I’m in my second week. I’m starting to rock and roll a little bit.

Were you surprised at the scrutiny that Jeremy Piven received from the media pulling out? Was I surprised by it? No. Broadway shows are a very expensive animal.

Did you speak to him at all? No, I didn’t talk to him. I really don’t know that much more than you know. But I don’t know. The league’s got to protect itself. I mean, especially when they hire movie stars to come in and do this thing. There’s millions of dollars at stake here.

Have you ever considered starring in a TV series, because some of the highest quality stuff is coming from television? Totally. Steven Schachter — who co-wrote The Deal with me — we’ve got a pilot. It’s at TNT now, we’re waiting to hear. It’s not what it seems. I’m the mayor of a town in California called Buttocks. All my writer friends … I can just see them going off when I say “buttocks,” they’ll start coming up with butt jokes. I agree with you. I think some of the best stuff you’ll see anywhere is on television.

What are some of your favorite restaurants in LA? I go to Orso’s out there, for business stuff. I love to go to the Roosevelt Hotel, either to the restaurant or to the hamburger joint in the front — that’s where I take all my meetings. It’s a lovely hotel.

What about in New York? In New York, I’ve been going up to … I have such bad restaurant memory. People say, “Have you ever been there?” I say, “No,” I don’t realize I’ve been there six times. I’ve been going up on 70th Street. What’s that thing called? Near the Lincoln Center? Oh yeah, Café Luxembourg!

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