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William H. Macy on The Sessions and why bad sex is better than good violence

William H. Macy first earned widespread acclaim as an actor for his Oscar-nominated role in the Coen brothers’ 1996 dark-comedy thriller Fargo, but his stage and screen acting career stretches back to the ’70s. Most notably, it includes a long partnership with David Mamet: The two co-founded two theater companies (St. Nicholas Theater in Chicago, and the Atlantic Theater Company in New York), and Macy has appeared in many of Mamet’s films, including House Of Games, Things Change, Homicide, Oleanna, Spartan, and State And Main. After the Fargo Academy Award nomination, however, Macy’s career expanded exponentially, with particularly notable roles in Paul Thomas Anderson’s Boogie Nights and Magnolia, starring roles in The Cooler and Wild Hogs, a recurring role on ER, and much, much more. Currently, Macy stars in Shameless, a Showtime series about a selfish alcoholic and his enterprising kids. And he’s on the big screen in Ben Lewin’s The Sessions, where he plays supportive, philosophical priest to paralyzed polio sufferer John Hawkes, who’s considering losing his virginity at age 38, with Macy’s blessing. For Macy, the role played into convictions about disability, sex, and humor, as he told The A.V. Club during a recent conversation in Chicago.

The A.V. Club: In so many interviews, you talk about your acting method being, “Figure out what you want, then try to make the other person in that scene do what you want.” How does that work in a case like The Sessions, where you’re playing such a quiet, receptive character?


William H. Macy: Kind of the same. It’s a pretty straight-ahead acting scene. [John Hawkes] comes to me with a moral dilemma and says, “What should I do?” I found this a delicious question, so it was delightful to sort it out. For the character, the way the whole plot is unfolded, I found it great fun to play this priest. It’s a great question, this question about human sexuality and disabilities. Just those two things make some of your audience squirm with discomfort. “Disabilities? I don’t—do I want to watch someone who’s all bent up like that? I mean, really.” And then you say, [Laughs.] “Let’s talk about sexuality,” and people just run for the exits. But it’s just geniusly written. It’s such a lovely, wonderful, human question that’s posed by the film.

AVC: Do you think you would have been as interested in the character if he were more traditional? If his attitude was, “No, it’s immoral to have sex out of wedlock. Put it out of your mind”?

WHM: That would have been a different story altogether. But it’s always more fun to play the good guy. This priest—he’s a good guy. I think the Church will love this film. Even though his answer is perhaps not in line with church doctrine, I think this guy asked himself, “What would Jesus do?”

AVC: You’ve said you don’t do a lot of preparation for a character or think about his inner life, but here, you’re playing someone who seems to be sorting through his moral conflicts in conversation. Do you think about his internal monologue, his background, what he’s thinking in the moment?


WHM: Um… [Long pause.] No. [Laughs.] No. Thinking back on set, the fun is the way the question unfolds to my character. The actual amount of time that I spent making the decision was truthfully a little bit mechanical. Ben [Lewin] loved the idea of me walking up toward the altar and looking up—there’s a great painting of Christ in the ascension. And then I walked back around, and then I said, “Yes, I think you should do it.” I love the words he used after checking in with Jesus, where he says, “I think He’d say ‘Go for it,’” which is sort of disarming. It’s a question that touches the very core of what it means to be a human being, which is great fodder for drama.

AVC: You often emphasize that mechanical aspect of your acting, in movement and in confrontation. How did that work with John Hawkes’ style?


WHM: On the page, he was given a tough task, and boy, did he do a good job. It may sound mundane, but simply as an actor, simply to go through five weeks of shooting and not be able to move any part of your body except your head—you get wrapped up in the scene, and the next thing you know, you’ve moved your hand. I never saw him falter. It’s not easy to do. We call it an external in the business, but it’s a mother of an external. [Laughs.] And he was flawless. He put this great pillow that he had fashioned under one side of his back to give his spine that serpentine look. What I loved about what John does is that he—it’s in the script, but he really brought it to life—plays the character with such optimism, and a twinkle in his eye. As John is asking me whether he should have sex or not—asking this priest, he was very aware—and I thought this was an astute choice on his part—he was very aware of my discomfort, and maybe enjoying it a little bit. I thought the scenes came out quite well because they acknowledged our squeamishness with the subject matter, that the characters were a little squeamish, too. That’s truthful. That’s true. That’s what makes it seem like something worth watching.

AVC: Was it important to get that down in a couple of takes, so the discomfort didn’t wear off over time?


WHM: That’s always the problem with acting. On an indie like this, the shoot’s so fast you don’t have to worry about too many takes. [Laughs.] But keeping it fresh, yes. The first time you read it, you have a great reaction to the scene. To some extent or the other, you spend the rest of your experience trying to get back to that initial reaction. In the theater, I directed a lot. We always used to say you do your first reading, and then you screw it up for three and a half weeks, and then you spent the last three days trying to get back to that first reading.

AVC: You teach acting. Do you have tricks or methods of getting back to that first reading, or keeping things fresh?


WHM: There are tricks, yes. [Long pause.] It’s a simple thing we do for a living. Sometimes it takes such complex preparation to do that simple thing. But what we do is improvise. In theory, everyone knows the lines really, really well. So that’s not an issue; you just spout them off. And as we well know, words don’t really carry all the meaning. The words are just the words. The meaning comes in the interaction between two people, when you see them talking. And it’s that improv, that’s what we get paid to do. You gotta do it every single time. What’s difficult is if you had a fantastic moment in take one, do you try to reproduce it? Do you try to do it again, or do you let it go? This—it’s a tricky thing to do for a living.

AVC: Is it difficult keeping it low-key and naturalistic when you’re dealing with somebody doing something as external and complicated as what John’s doing?


WHM: No. The better he is, the better it is for me.

AVC: How is Ben Lewin with actors? How did he work with your method?

WHM: He was pretty wonderful. There’s this combination which is “Be the leader,” make sure we’re all on the same train, telling the same story, shooting at the same targets. And then also encourage, within that framework, all the improv you can. Not with the lines, but with the activity—with the behavior, if you will. He’s just a great combination of the two. And he did it all seemingly with grace, because it’s a quick pace with this size budget. He never seemed rushed, and always seemed like he was having the time of his life. He’s a good director. You’re going to hear a lot about Ben Lewin. I bet he’s got something big lined up.


AVC: He’s done a bunch of film and TV already. When you’re going into a project, do you research the people you’d be working with to decide whether to do the role?

WHM: Sure, sure. Not with Ben. He came to the house, we talked, and you can tell [snaps fingers] in a minute. He’s a grownup. He knows what he’s doing. He was no-nonsense. He has experience. But I have looked at other directors’ films before working with them.


AVC: What’s the key that tells you a given director is someone you want to work with?

WHM: I guess it comes down to if you’re having fun. If he’s easy to talk to—or she. If there’s good communication. It’s hard. There’s a lot resting on those meetings. I’m a material guy. If the script is great, I’m pretty much committed.


AVC: What did you most see in the Sessions script that made you want to be in this project?

WHM: It’s life-affirming—it’s true, first of all. Yes, it’s based on a true story, but it’s also true to what it means to be alive. I love the dilemma. It talks about two things that are near and dear to my heart. One is disabilities. I think we do a wretched job in this country—we don’t do enough. Not to step on any toes, but when I think of the reproductive-rights issue—the abortion issue—I think it has to come hand-in-hand with how we treat the people who need the help the most, the people with disabilities. They didn’t do anything to come with these disabilities, that’s the hand they got. That’s how we measure. We gotta do better.


AVC: How does that relate to abortion?

WHM: If every baby has to come into the world—okay, if that’s your rule—then you jolly well better take care of them. And not on the level that we do. Better. A lot better. This is the most civilized, advanced nation in the world. This is “In God we trust,” so don’t complain about your taxes in that area if every baby’s gotta be born.


So anyway, disabilities are big for me. Because we don’t do enough. I did a film called Door To Door, and I got involved with United Cerebral Palsy and I was their spokesperson for a while, so I know something on the subject. All of them want to meet someone. [Laughs.] We’re all just teenagers, when you get down to it. They just want to meet someone, they want a job, they want to live on their own. They want to get an apartment. And some of these people are really bent up. It feeds into another thing that’s near and dear to my heart, which is America’s attitude toward sex, which I think is so demented. It’s so ill. It puts me in a rage. [The Sessions] got an R rating. [The Dark Knight Rises] got a PG-13. That’s sick. Batman is loaded with violence. I don’t know much, but I know this—violence is bad. It’s always bad, always will be bad. Sex is good. Even the bad sex I’ve had was pretty good. It’s good. Sexuality is a good thing.

AVC: This film walks a really fine line of having a sense of humor about sex while not being a comedy, and being uncomfortable about sex while treating it very frankly. It seems like a difficult tone to maintain.


WHM: Yeah. And that’s why Helen [Hunt] is so genius. It’s so unapologetic, what she does. It’s so unself-conscious. You ask what did I like about it? What a delicious question. Ben just did a great job, so that it’s palatable. We’re not icked out by any of the—and it really raises some fundamental questions. God, it makes you feel so good to be a human. I found it so moving and life-affirming. I like being a part of that kind of stuff.

AVC: Supposedly you’re preparing your feature directorial debut, Rudderless, where you play a father who forms a band to play songs written by his dead son.


WHM: Your mouth to God’s ears. I’m still trying. No, it’s not a “go” project.

AVC: Is it just a funding issue?

WHM: [Laughing.] It’s always just funding.

AVC: You’ve tried to get other projects off the ground before and didn’t get the funding, correct?


WHM: I’ve been trying for years. It’s tough. People get very nervous before they write million-dollar checks.

AVC: Rudderless sounded particularly compelling.

WHM: It is! I don’t know. It’s a bad time for independent films. It’s really hard to get the money back. It happens, but it’s hard. It’s TV’s time. It’s a renaissance in TV. This is another golden age, if you ask me.


AVC: Do you have any concerns about directing yourself your first time out?

WHM: Directing myself in something? Yeah, a lot. It’s not a good idea.

AVC: But you want to go for it anyway?

WHM: If it’s my only choice, I’ll do it.

AVC: Why would it be your only choice? Is it more likely to get funded if you star in it?


WHM: Yes. Yes, and if I can’t get anybody else to do it. Anybody else better than me.

AVC: Is there somebody else you would really want for it, if you could have your pick of anybody?


WHM: The film I want to direct? I had a whole list. Truthfully, I’ve put it down. It’s shelved now, and I have another film. It’s another rock ’n’ roll movie, and it might stand a better chance. I just sent out the script to an actor and… we’ll see. Big actor.

AVC: What have you learned from other directors that you want to take into your own directorial career?


WHM: Great question. It’s all in the prep. David Mamet once said a brilliant thing; he said, “When you’re doing a super-exciting, high-tech car-crash kind of scene, you better be bored.” It’s all in the prep. It’s not time to be creative on set, to a large extent. It’s all in the prep. Directing is more like going to war. You need a general. You need generalship. People work better when they’re happy. And safe. So that’s something I’d love to have on the set.

What else? I like talking about acting. It’s a bit forbidden, and it’s considered boorish behavior to talk about technique and the like when you’re on set. I don’t know why. Because it’s easy to step on toes is probably why. You know, one thing you’re talking about acting and the next thing you know, “This is why you’re no good, because you—” [Laughs.] “That’s why that bullshit moment you did just really annoyed me.” I don’t know, I like talking about acting.


AVC: Have you had people do that to you, or done that to people? “You’re terrible because—”

WHM: No. No. I’ve had notes other actors have given me. Notes, I mean, you sort of raise your eyebrows. On set on Shameless, we talk about it a little bit, but nonetheless…


AVC: Aren’t some actors semi-obsessed with talking about technique?

WHM: Yeah, but that’s later. That’s later, in the bar, when the project’s over. And you don’t talk about anybody that’s at the table, you talk about everybody else. And what hacks they are. [Laughs.]


AVC: What makes you want to get into directing? What makes you want to be the general?

WHM: The actor’s purview is this tiny little moment. By definition, what we do is really little bits or beats, as Stanislavski called them. Little tiny beats. You just do this moment, then you do the next moment. If you do enough, you’ve done Hamlet, but not the big picture. I’d like to tell the whole story. I fancy myself a bit of a raconteur. I’d like to tell the whole story, and as an actor, it’s not your job to tell the whole story.


AVC: Will you feel like you’ve had a full, fulfilling film career if you never get to direct? Will being an actor be enough?

WHM: Yes. It’ll be sad, though. Hell, I’ll buy a camera before I let that happen. [Laughs.] Start making cartoons or something.


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