When “The Sessions” co-star William H. Macy came to Chicago in the early 1970s, he briefly worked as a waiter at former Lincoln Park bar Le Pub. He made more money, he says, as a carpenter.
“[I would] build shelves and things like that for people … I’m still hacking away at things,” the actor said at the James Hotel before heading to a location shoot for his Showtime series, “Shameless.” “I’m a terrible carpenter, but I do love doing it.”
Fortunately Macy spends more time on his day job, racking up countless standout roles in films including “Boogie Nights,” “Pleasantville,” “Magnolia” and “Fargo,” for which he was nominated for a best supporting actor Oscar. In “The Sessions,” opening Friday, the 62-year-old plays Father Brendan. He becomes an advisor and friend to Mark O’Brien (John Hawkes) as Mark, a 38-year-old journalist who has spent most of his life in an iron lung after contracting polio at the age of 6, works with a sex surrogate (Helen Hunt) to at last lose his virginity.
I read that you used to babysit your “Shameless” co-star Joan Cusack. Tell me a story about that.
I did. That’s my story, and I’m sticking to it. The Cusacks and the Pivens lived across the street from each other, and Byrne Piven is one of the guys, he acted with us at the St. Nicholas Theater back in the old days but he’s also one of the guys that hired me to do light carpentry around the house. The Cusacks, I built some shelves for them and things like that, which Joan says they’re still in the house. I’m pleased to know they haven’t fallen apart.
How much trouble did they give you when you babysat them?
You know, I have no memory of it. It sounds like a better story than the actuality is. Next time we talk I’ll make up some shit because I’m never hide-bound by the truth. So I’ll make up something that she did.
Why do you think, as your character notes in “The Sessions,” the phrase “Oh, God” factors into sex so frequently?
Isn’t that funny? It’s true; that’s what people shout out. Perhaps that’s as close to God as we can get. Perhaps that moment is spiritual after a fashion. I was being a little specious but in fact the dilemma, the issues facing this, are to my mind moral to the highest degree.
First of all, it deals with disabilities. We’re charged to love each other and care for each other, and one of the ways you keep score in a modern society is, “How well do we take [care of] people who need it the most?” We’re not talking about poverty and food stamps. We’re talking about people who have no choice—through no decision that they made. These are the cards [they’re dealt]. We gotta take care of these people.
We fall woefully short a lot in this country, and on a more personal level I did a film called “Door to Door” and I played a guy with cerebral palsy so I got involved with United Cerebral Palsy as their spokesperson so I know something about the issues. They’ve got a great phrase, which is “Don’t talk to the chair.” “Talk to me, don’t talk to the chair.” It’s a situation that’s not going away, people with disabilities. It’s never going away. And when you combine that with the whole reproductive rights question, it doesn’t take an Einstein to realize that we have a moral responsibility, and that’s what this film is about. And when you combine that with our attitudes toward sex in this country, you’ve got a deliciously naughty problem. And the answers are pretty simple and fundamental but it tests you to your core. Because we have a screwed up attitude toward sex in this country.
We don’t like sex. Especially the censors ... Violence we’re cool with. Well, I don’t know much but I know this. Violence is bad. It’s always bad; it’ll never be good. Sex is good. Even the bad sex I’ve had has been pretty good. Sex is good. Violence is bad. We gotta turn it on its head. So here we’ve got a guy with a disability who wants to know what sexuality means. It’s as close to what is at the core of being human as food. Reproduction. To touch someone. To reach out. To know a woman. That’s what this film is about. This priest has a delicious question to answer.
It’s interesting for someone who doesn’t consider themselves religious to take on the role of a priest. Is there a hypothetical role that you feel would be particularly challenging for you because it doesn’t match up with the way you see the world?
I hear ya. Actually, no, and to me sort of the opposite: I can imagine a film which has a point of view that I can’t endorse, so I wouldn’t do it. If what I thought the writer was trying to get across was something I found repugnant, I won’t do it. I won’t do it if I don’t even find it true ... There’s this film “A Time to Kill” where they basically said, “Vigilantism is OK.” And it’s not. And that film also says, “American jurisprudence doesn’t work.” And it does. It’s the best system in the world. That film I found reprehensible.
If you were offered that …
Yeah, I wouldn’t do it. But, to answer your question, I would love to play the bad guy.
In a movie like that?
Yeah! I’ll play Hitler; I’ll play the racist.
Why does that appeal to you more?
Because you can tell the truth about it. Because you can really help tell a legitimate story. I grew up in the South; I found Southern racists in films always to be drawn like cartoon characters. There’s a point of view, and we’re so allergic to racism that a lot of times we won’t even portray it. We make it a cartoon. We cartoon it to make sure nobody thinks I think that.
When you look back on your days in Chicago working with David Mamet (“American Buffalo”) with the St. Nicholas Theater Company, how do you feel that shaped you as an actor?
I really got my aesthetic from Dave. What little technique I have. [Laughs.] I learned everything from Dave about acting. Just hanging out with him; he’s such a writer. I was so young; it really formed my opinion of what I call good writing—especially for the theater and the screen. I think he changed everything and tend to gravitate toward that type of writing, which is I think rather linked with Chicago.
Why do you say that?
Dave is such a skillful writer. He can imitate anything. He’s written British accents, New York a lot, Southern, but he knows Chicago accents and a lot of his writing has a certain cadence to it that I think of when I think of Chicago. It’s Midwestern for sure. It’s direct, has a tendency to get to the point. It’s got a great sound to it. A great Chicago accent has such great music to it, if you know what I mean. I gravitate toward that kind of simplicity in writing.
You’ve previously referred to some times when you said you were an asshole on set. When you look back, what do you feel like prompted that?
Mostly youth. When you’re 20 or 30 years old, everything is life and death. You’re the last holdout on Earth who will speak for truth and justice, and you become an asshole. So you’re fighting battles—you’re fighting windmills. I think sometimes you need somebody to bring you ashore and mostly you just grow out of it.
Was there someone who taught you a lesson, or you just grew up?
I got handed my ass a couple of times. I think mostly I’ve been a team player in my career. Tried to be.
I’m a big fan of “Boogie Nights.” Who do you think is responsible for Little Bill’s wife’s infidelity: Bill or his wife?
Perhaps there’s a third villain in here, which is the times. There was a time when we thought, “You know, sex is just a nice thing to do. It’s like shaking hands. It doesn’t mean much.” We were wrong. It means a whole lot.
On his favorite restaurants in Chicago: “I’m not a restaurant guy. So I’m hardly out the front door and I can’t remember the name of the place. Yes, is the answer! Yes, I’ve been to many restaurants [in Chicago].”
On the pope being sloppy with the way he crosses himself: “You see him every once in a while and [laughs] it’s just a vague wave. It’s supposed to be Father, Son, Holy Ghost. He skips one of them every once in a while. It’s two moves.”
On actors’ insecurity: “It’s certainly the artists' condition that your insecurities can be screaming at you all the time, and it’s a delicate balance to figure out when to listen to yourself and when to throw caution to the wind and just dive in. One thing I know as an actor is you’ll always feel like a fraud. You’ll always feel like they made a mistake when they cast you. It just comes with the territory. You have to quell that voice.”
On “The Simpsons” writers saying he’d be perfect to play Ned Flanders: “I’m ready … I really like parts that are offered to me. I like them a lot better than parts that aren’t offered to me … I love ‘The Simpsons.’ I’d do anything with them.”
On if he’s seen Lizzy Caplan’s character saying “Jesus H. Macy” in the “Bachelorette” trailer: “[Laughs.] No! What can that mean? I don’t know. There’s R.H. Macy, who started the store [Macy’s], whom I hear is a relative.”
Guilty pleasure movie: “ ‘Airplane,’ but I’m not guilty. That’s one of the great films of all time. You know the desert island question? ‘Airplane’ would be one of mine. I’d probably get ‘The French Connection’ and ‘The Godfather.’ I’d get some art in there. But ‘Airplane,’ one of the great films of all time."
Watch Matt on “You & Me This Morning,” Friday at 6:55 a.m. on WCIU, the U
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