Now's the time

Oct 6, 1999 at 12:00 am

There’s always a point in a William H. Macy performance when he captures with dead-on accuracy the specific nature of his character. It’s that quality that made him a respected character actor in the years before Fargo (1996) garnered him an Oscar nomination and a higher profile.

In Fargo, Macy plays a car salesman with a slippery set of morals who arranges his wife’s kidnapping and unwittingly opens a Pandora’s box. Stumbling through a seemingly innocuous interrogation, Macy’s jittery defensiveness gradually reveals a man who is just realizing his personal culpability in the film’s tragic events.

Even when he’s doing the broadest humor, there’s a gravitas to Macy that makes him ideal for tightly wound characters who calmly snap (the flagrantly cuckolded husband in Boogie Nights) or as a film’s stoic moral center (the stalwart sitcom patriarch in Pleasantville who’s befuddled by any change in his routine). He also possesses an innate quality of aw-shucks American decency which is showcased in one of his most beautifully realized comic performances, as the gay, small-town sheriff in the sweet-natured Happy, Texas.

In addition to his individual performances, Macy is also a renowned acting teacher, and the technique he developed along with playwright-director David Mamet is outlined in A Practical Handbook for the Actor. This approach, the straightforward antithesis of the Stanislavsky-derived Method, is described by Macy as he dissects one of his key scenes in Happy, Texas, which involves the sheriff’s romantic pursuit of a beauty pageant consultant (Jeremy Northam) who arrives in Happy with his lover-partner (Steve Zahn) to coach little girls for a beauty pageant.

What no one realizes is that the duo are actually escaped prisoners from a Texas chain gang, who also happen to be straight. This makes it all the more funny and poignant when Macy turns a hunting outing with gun-shy Northam into a sly seduction scene.

"What an actor does and what a character does," explains Macy, "are seldom if ever the same thing. It’s a big, fat trick. What you see is not what we are doing. For instance, in that scene, my goal is to get him to make a commitment, but what it looks like is making love.

"When doing a (love) scene," he continues, "as an actor, I’m not going to make love with someone in front of all these people. I just wouldn’t do it. I mean, some people would do it, but that’s a whole different kind of acting. What I would be doing is something different, and when you give us the dialogue and put it within the story, it looks like I’m trying to talk him into bed, but in reality, I’m trying to get him to take a chance."

Macy explains that a key thing he learned from Mamet, who was his acting teacher at Goddard College almost 30 years ago, "is to be in the moment, and that changes everything." This means ignoring the past or the future to focus completely on the present, which is a lot more difficult than it sounds.

"The currency that the actor deals in is the moment," he says, "so rather than putting one’s attention on the arc of the play or even the scene, where an actor’s attention belongs is in the moment. Just that one tiny moment, that’s our world. That’s where you bring the most amount of courage to bear."

His creative partnership and longtime friendship with David Mamet has formed the 49-year-old Macy’s sensibility as an actor and provided him with a basic philosophy.

"He said, ‘Acting is an honorable profession,’" Macy relates, "and ‘the world needs actors. The world needs the theater. It’s not a fluke and it’s not an extravagance. The theater’s been around for a long time and always will be because it fills a need. It’s one of the only places we can go to hear the truth.’ Not just on grandiose terms, but the truth like in Happy, Texas – the truth about love – that one small moment when somebody looks somebody else in the eye and tells the truth. Or we see the truth by seeing somebody look somebody else in the eye and lie."

Their collaboration comes full circle in January when Macy returns to the stage at New York’s Atlantic Theater Company (which they co-founded) as would-be thief Teach in David Mamet’s touchstone play, American Buffalo. Macy originated the role of Bobby, the criminal’s impressionable protégé, during the original 1975 Chicago production. They are also working on Mamet’s latest film, State and Main, a comedy about the interactions between a movie crew and the inhabitants of a small New England town.

Except for a brief stint as a Good Humor man, William H. Macy has "never done anything besides act." So is there a common thread to the numerous characters he’s played?

"The one thing that I try to do," Macy answers, "is never cop an attitude about a character. That’s a bad mistake for an actor. ‘He’s an asshole. He’s gay. He’s heroic. He’s a lothario. He’s anything.’ Don’t cop an attitude – good, bad or indifferent – and never give up. So, I keep getting cast as losers who never give up."