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Mild Bill

William H. Macy's forte is portraying ordinariness brilliantly

When he is on screen, you can't take your eyes off William H. Macy. When he is on the street, he doesn't draw a glance. As he steps out of his drab-green sports utility vehicle and waits, whistling, to cross the busy boulevard in Hollywood, I note that he is wearing khaki pants and an olive-checked shirt. Camouflage gear? If so, it works. At the sidewalk café where I am waiting for him, nobody looks up upon his arrival.

In virtually all of his roles, Bill Macy projects a peculiarly American brand of intensity, the type that was recorded by Walker Evans, not Norman Rockwell. Within the wholesome outlines of his face, his pale-blue eyes are sunk deep in their sockets and the line of his mouth is drawn tight. That anxious energy of the actor is expressed in person as a quiet earnestness. Notwithstanding his close-cropped, graying blond beard, he looks as corn-fed and mild-mannered as the man on the back of a cereal box. Yet something dark must be lurking in the corners. "It's odd to see the roles they give you," he says. "There's a theme. I'm the Waspy guy who's sort of confused a lot of the time. I seem to have a penchant for being the guy that's in over his head, trying to figure out what to do. I'm not the guy that gets the girl. I'm not the hero."

Even if he plays a hero, as he did in last summer's Mystery Men, it is, as he says, "a loser super-hero"—the Shoveler, whose weapon against crime is a gardening implement. He is a sheriff in Happy, Texas, but a gay sheriff, haplessly smitten with a new young man in town, who just happens to be a bank robber. The role he is best known for is not a hero but a villain: Jerry Lundegaard, the car salesman in Fargo, who, desperate for cash, conspires to kidnap his wife in hopes of extorting a ransom from his wealthy father-in-law. When the plot goes horribly and hilariously awry, it is the rapidly unraveling Lundegaard who unexpectedly attracts the audience's sympathy. You are horrified by his predicament as well as by his crime. Scratching his scalp, cocking his head, twisting a piece of paper in his hands, clenching his fists in a desperate little dance of impotence, he looks out at the world with eyes that are feverishly bright and increasingly hopeless. This is Macy's gift: his ability to show on stage or screen the "real stuff" that in everyday life he, like the rest of us, conceals—in his case, beneath a surface of disarming normalcy.

The Fargo performance won Macy an Oscar nomination in 1997 and heated his career, which had been simmering for more than 20 years, to a boil. How was he able to infuse humanity into a character who could easily have become a grotesque cartoon? "I think I've been successful with these roles because I don't cop an attitude about these characters," he explains. "When you're working on 'em, you've got to look at your character as misunderstood. I bring my philosophy and my reality to bear on all of them. I always thought the guy in Fargo was just trying to protect his family. I'd kidnap my wife and sure she'd be upset, but she'd forgive me. Hell, maybe we'd even have another baby."

We were in Los Angeles, not North Dakota, but I had the sudden unsettling feeling that I was talking to Jerry Lundegaard. Of course I wasn't—although, as Macy later tells me, "I'm a big believer that there's not that much difference between the actor and the character, not ultimately."

At 49, Macy is a Los Angeles-based actor with a New York-style career. He works all the time, specializing in quirky characters, which in Hollywood usually means supporting roles. "I'd love to be the headliner," he states, "but I'd much rather be a supporting actor in a great film than carry a film that does not quite work." He is offered many more scripts than he can accept; and not just lots of roles but, within certain parameters—"I'm a white guy; I look good in a suit"—a broad variety. "I've got the perfect career," he notes. "Sometimes I see a look in my fellow actors' eyes, and it's a look that lets me know I'm doing all right."

In person, Macy seems as blandly affable as George, the perfect husband whom he played in Pleasantville's black-and-white, 1950s TV-show town. However, just as with George, that veneer conceals a reservoir of feeling. George's surroundings are tainted by the modern world (in the form of color) and his taken-for-granted wife defects. Having heard no response to his standard cheery greeting, "Honey, I'm home," he is left to repeat querulously, "Where's my dinner? Where's my dinner? Where's my dinner?" According to Macy, the pain in that voice is real. It's not an emotion that the actor manufactures; it's something that he exposes. "Ultimately, it comes down to guts," Macy says. "You've got to put your attention off yourself and on something else, and that's an act of courage. It leaves you vulnerable. Your real stuff will come out. Sometimes you even find that unconscious things slip out. It can be sobering to find out who you really are."

Sober, not sobering, is the way Macy comes across. Though his eyeballs swivel at every would-be starlet who saunters down the street, he emphasizes that he has been happily married for two years to Felicity Huffman, a star of the TV show Sports Night. (They had been together in New York in the mid-1980s, broke up for five years, and then reunited in L.A. four years ago.) Like any overextended, two-career couple, they often struggle to make time to be together. "We have a two-week rule," he says. "After two weeks somebody's got to get on an airplane, even just for overnight." Scheduling is not always so easy at home, either. Once, during a stretch in which he did four films in a row, Macy was working night shoots. "I got home late one night and went on-line to check my e-mail and poured myself a glass of Scotch," he recalls. "I heard Felicity's alarm clock go off. So I got her a cup of coffee and got into bed with her. She drank coffee, I drank Scotch. That was our life for a while."

When they're not so crazed, they enjoy hanging out with, as Macy puts it, "folks who are from New York, just like ourselves." (Since he has lived in Los Angeles for 10 years, which is how long he resided in New York, this seems to be more a self-identification than a census description.) Typically, these get-togethers are game parties, nowadays charades, which is ironic because Macy believes that acting is a form of truth-telling, not pretending.

That conviction is a legacy of Goddard College in Plainfield, Vermont, to which Macy transferred in the fall of 1970. (He was raised mainly in Cumberland, Maryland.) At that institution, which construed a liberal-arts education so liberally that there were virtually no regulations, Macy had what he calls "a chance encounter that changed everything": He took an acting class from playwright David Mamet, a recent Goddard graduate. Mamet arrived at the first session looking uncharacteristically urbane in tailored (albeit secondhand) clothes, and told the students that unless they were completely serious, they should get out.

"What David said was essentially that what we do for a living is tell the truth," Macy recalls, emanating the same fervor for his vocation that he did when he played the ensnared professor accused of sexual harassment in Mamet's Oleanna. "And yeah, it's under imaginary circumstances—we didn't write the lines, we're wearing funny costumes, and we're standing on a set—but given that, it's our job to tell the truth. He said that the theater has always been one of the last places that people can go to hear the truth. It's a sacred mission."

Mamet formed a theater company with his most talented students, including Macy and Steven Schachter, who later became Macy's writing partner on several TV movie scripts. Because Russia (the homeland of Chekhov and Stanislavsky) was on their minds, they called themselves the St. Nicholas Company, after the patron saint of that country. And since Saint Nicholas was the patron saint of prostitutes, pawnbrokers, and actors, the name, says Macy, was also an acknowledgement that "show biz was tawdry." In 1974 he moved with the company to Mamet's hometown, Chicago. There he originated roles in Mamet's plays American Buffalo and The Water Engine.

As a veteran of many Mamet plays and movies, Macy has an insider's appreciation of the pitfalls and rewards in performing a friend's work. "His sentence structures are loopy and sometimes convoluted, very difficult to memorize," Macy says. "That's the bad news. The good news is that they have more music than those of any other writer that I know. They have a meter and a rhythm and a melody about them that makes them easier to speak in the long run." In 1985 Macy and Mamet founded the Atlantic Theater Company in New York, which is devoting its 1999-2000 season to Mamet's plays. Macy will star as Teach in American Buffalo, two decades after debuting in the smaller role of Bobby.

With his measured, self-effacing, almost monotonal manner and his long-burning fuse, Macy seems born to play Mamet in the way that Olivier was designed for Shakespeare. There are certain roles, such as the professor in Oleanna, that he has even performed on both stage and screen. When I ask him what is the difference for the actor, he replies that it begins with the preparation process. "In a play you can incrementally work on it a little each day," he explains. "You have to learn the entire script—it takes three to four weeks—but every time you get to a particular scene, you can coast through it if you don't know what to do.

"In a movie you have to accelerate the work process. A film is about first impulses and shooting from the hip, because you just don't get to go through it that many times. And you have to prepare on your own. It's very easy to get lazy and just memorize lines, then show up and hope that everything will come out all right."

The advantage for the movie actor, he adds, is that it's easier to stay fresh. "The difficulty with a play isn't those first impulses but repeating them, because you've got to go on every night and do it again. The play is about repetition, figuring out how to be in the moment even though you have done the moment, eight shows a week, for sixteen weeks."

Although Macy confesses that he hasn't completely given up the habit of elaborately constructing a character's imaginary past, he no longer believes there is much point to it. "I used to do tons of that stuff," he says. "I'd have a wallet with fake I.D.'s that I'd spend hours making. I would think about the past, my family, where I came from. In reality, when I got on stage, it didn't help. I didn't think about it."

When he isn't working, Macy relaxes by making wooden bowls on a lathe. Maybe relaxes isn't the right word. "I've been turning bowls like crazy," he says. "I'm kind of obsessed with turning bowls." Characteristically, he infuses a pastime that could be easygoing and contemplative with an unexpected intensity. He became interested in turning bowls after attending a lecture on the subject during the production of Fargo. He was so captivated that he took private lessons from the speaker. Now, whenever he goes on location, he tries to find a local bowl-turner with whom he can work. "I love wood, and I love containers—boxes, baskets, bowls, canisters," he says.

He set up a small lathe at a cabin that he owns in the woods in Vermont, a favorite landscape of his since college days. It's a long way from Los Angeles, but that, of course, is part of its appeal. "It's pretty swell out there," Macy says, sounding remarkably like Jerry Lundegaard. (He also actually uses the expression "you betcha" in conversation.)

There will be a large lathe in his workshop at a new house in the Hollywood hills, which he and Felicity bought and are rebuilding almost from the ground up. After interviewing several architects, they chose a set designer instead. "We realized we wanted an old-fashioned home, not an architectural statement," Macy notes. "It's going to be a modest house when all is said and done." Old-fashioned and modest, yet done by a set designer—it sounds like just his style.

Arthur Lubow wrote about architect Allan Greenberg for the May/June 1999 issue of Departures.

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