William H. Macy: The ESQ&A

This Autumn, the award-winning American actor is not only returning to the small screen in the US series, Shameless, but making his directorial debut in film with Rudderless, starring Billy Crudup, Laurence Fishburne, Felicity Huffman and Selena Gomez. Here, he reflects on what he has learned in the process.

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What’s the best advice anyone has ever given you?

It wasn’t given to me directly, but Dave Mamet is a good pal and in one of his plays, the character Ricky Roma says, “Always tell the truth, it’s the easiest thing to remember.” I always thought that was genius and I remember, specifically, a point when I decided, “I’m going to take that advice” and I dedicated myself to telling the truth. It was years ago and I’ve discovered that it’s the cheapest thing to do. No matter how much you think you might save yourself aggravation, or embarrassment, or hurting someone else – no matter what you think you’re saving – not telling the truth will cost more in the long run. And I really try to do it.

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What moment in your career are you most proud of?

That’s a hard one. What pops into my head is another Mamet play I did, Oh, Hell!, at Lincoln Center in New York. I had a lovely role – I played Satan, and I was trying to get Treat Williams to avow his guilt so I could send him to hell and go fishing. At any rate, I had one of those visitations from The Muse. It was an odd, odd moment. There I was, chattering away with a long monologue, and I had an out-of-body experience: I looked back, I saw myself acting and I had the audience firmly in the palm of my hand – I could have done anything I wanted. I was on fire and I had the wherewithal to just watch myself acting and say, “You go, boy.” And it lasted about, I don’t know, 30 seconds, maybe 45 seconds. It felt good, felt really good.

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I have talked to many, many actors who have never had that. You’re lucky if it happens in a career, and I don’t know if it’s something one should try to do, but it feels as if you’ve connected with your subconscious, and the real world and your subconscious world, for a very brief time, become one.


Have you ever cheated death?

I was in New York City. We had a deck on our apartment, which was on the fourteenth floor, and the planks had warped so when you walked across they were uneven. So, being the carpenter that I am, I lifted them all up to lay them back out flat, but they were so heavy I had to lean them against the railing. Anyway I was on my hands and knees, placing the blocks underneath, when one of the planks slammed down. It missed me by about four inches and it would have broken and crushed my skull, and Felicity (my girlfriend at the time) would have come home to find my cold, dead body. Then I had the exact reaction I’ve heard of other people: I got the giggles and I couldn’t stop them.


Where’s your favourite place in the world to eat, and what’s your order?

There’s a restaurant here in Los Angeles called Mozza. They’ve got a pizzeria on one side and an osteria on the other side, and we go to the osteria, which is a little more sit-down and grown-up. They have like 25 different mozzarellas on the menu – every way you can do mozzarella: burrata and all this – and it comes with this fabulous bread. We love to get that. And for a guy and his wife who have spent their entire lives watching their weight to go to a fancy restaurant and eat bread and cheese – beyond! It’s a treat.


What’s the best age to be?

I’m going through that right now because I’m 64 years old, and I noticed a couple of years ago that I was making a lot of jokes at my own expense about my age, and it made me feel bad. And it literally made me feel bad – all the aches and pains that come along with age seemed to hurt more. Anyway, I decided a lot of people are going to make fun of how old I am, and I’m not going to be one of them. So I gave it up. So my answer to your question is: older is better than younger.


Pick a desert island film, book and album?

I would trust that I would also have Vicodin or something on this desert island, but the movie would have to be Airplane because it holds up. It’s so funny, it’s so stupid, it’s perfect. For a guy that likes jokes, Airplane has more jokes per minute than any other movie ever made, and it does it without embarrassment and without embellishment – it’s just stupid humour, which is my favourite kind.

There’s a book I read one time, which was called How to Survive Anything, and if I’m on a desert island that would probably do it. I mean, The World According to Garp is not going to help you but How to Survive Anything would be a good idea.

And an album? Boy that’s a tough one. It would probably be The Beatles’ White Album. And this is a point where I will not make fun of my age because, as I told you, I don’t do that any more.


What’s the best night out you’ve ever had?

I directed a play, again at Lincoln Center, called Boys’ Life by Howard Korder, and it was the first big play I had ever directed. ‘Big’ meaning I was going to get the serious, serious New York attention – the big critics and lots of people seeing it. I couldn’t bring myself to watch the opening night performance but my wife Felicity was in it. Afterwards, we were going to the party and I looked up 72nd Street, and silhouetted in the lamplight was Gregory Mosher (who ran Lincoln Center at the time) and he fanned about six newspapers and shouted down the street: “You’re a hit!” And that was a high that took a long time to come off of. It was just complete victory – I succeeded, we won. It was just great. And it was a play that I loved, and it was with all my best friends.


What advice would you give to your twenty-year-old self?

'Calm down'. Dealing with actors as a director has made me think of myself as an actor, and go back over my relationship with directors I’ve worked with (which is a fair number of people). And I know I was pretty much of an arsehole at times in my younger days, and I rationalised it at the time with the striving to do brilliant work and to find the truth and blah blah blah. But if I could just talk to myself I would say ‘calm down.’ One of the things one discovers with age is that some problems, if you don’t do anything, just sort themselves out. Some problems will get worse but, more than that, a lot of problems just sort themselves out – you don’t have to do anything, and you can save a lot of energy and a lot of anguish if you take a deep breath, calm down, and see.

Rudderless is available to download on Digital HD now. Watch the trailer in iTunes.

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