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A Talk with William Macy, Part I: Macy on Mamet

A Talk with William Macy, Part I: Macy on Mamet

A Talk with William Macy, Part One: Macy on Mamet

by Mike Jones

Before his performance in “Fargo” put him in the global spotlight, William
Macy was (and still is) best known for his work with David Mamet both on
stage (“Oleanna“) and screen (“Homicide“). To a capacity crowd at the 1997 Florida Film Festival, Macy spoke of his work with Mamet — from the
plays of his college years to working under Mamet’s more recent theater
and film direction.

“I went to school in a place called Godard College in Vermont. [David
Mamet] had just graduated and came back as a teacher. He was my acting
teacher. Godard College was this phenomenal hippie college in the 70s.
There were no grades, no tests, no classrooms. I flunked out. (laughs)
But it allowed us to form a small acting company called the Saint
Nicholas Theater which David subsequently moved to Chicago.

“David was a total maniac. Godard was a hippie school. There were no
rules whatsoever, but if you were one second late he threw you out of
class. Time at Godard was a relative concept. Class was held on Tuesday,
more or less, yet David was this strict task-master. Some people dropped
out of the class. About 20 of us stayed. Six months into the class he
walked in with a script and said ‘just wrote this play and we’re
going to do it.’ It was “Sexual Perversity in Chicago“. Quite a wonderful
play. He did a lot of writing there and I believe he started “American Buffalo” there.”

“There was a book called “Homicide” which Ed Pressman bought and hired
David to write because it was loosely based on a fella named Eddy Mamet
that was a distant cousin of David’s. David agreed to write the script
and never read the book. He just wrote this script and Pressman said
‘Oh, okay.’ Apparently the book was about a cop with a wooden leg.”

“As a director he’s generous. Strangely enough if you mis-quote a line
more than a couple of times, he’ll change the line because his feeling
is that if an actor is saying it wrong there must be something wrong
with the line. Also, he’s quite a poet. His dialogue has great meter and
rhythm and it’s literally fun to say because of that.”

“The only thing that he’s a bore about is that he hates indicating, he
hates emotionalism. He constantly says ‘No, no, no. You don’t gotta do
that. You don’t gotta do that.’ He basically just wants you to open your
mouth and say the lines. Unfortunately some actors just open their
mouths and say the lines. (laughs)”

“David is famous for saying this: ‘It’s not an actors job to be
dramatic. It’s a writer’s job to be dramatic. It’s an actor’s job to be
clear and simple. It’s not an actor’s job to bring conflict to a scene.
That’s the writer’s job. It’s an actor’s job to bring order to the
scene.’ So many times when the script is bad, there is no conflict,
there is no drama, and the actors are forced to bring it there.”

“David works with the same people over and over again. He works with his
pals. It’s so much more fun to work with your pals then it is with
strangers. It’s a bizarre thing. I just had the experience of doing a
love scene, my first love scene, in a movie. I had known this woman a
week before we had to climb all over each other. It was horrifying.”

“My favorite moments have been on stage in two plays by Mamet. One
called “Oh, Hell” where I got to play the devil, which was great. Another
called “Oleanna”. We made a little movie out of that that didn’t work very
well. The play is about sexual harassment and it would get audiences so
angry that they would start yelling before the play was over, which I
thought was a successful evening in the theater.”

“Since he hit the theater scene all the new writers have his voice in
their heads. You can trace, at least all the plays that I like, their
roots back to David’s influence and that influence is this: he loves the
American language. He loves the way Americans sound. More then almost
any other writer including Tennessee Williams, in whose plays I still
hear the classical theater, I still hear English theater, in the nature
of the dialogue.”

“Dave worships middle America. He was born and raised in Chicago. He’s a
‘dees and does’ kind of guy. He brought that urban profanity and poetry
together. My favorite play of his is “American Buffalo” and it’s known for
being so profane. But the majority of it is in iambic pentameter.. and
that language is so beautiful and so American that every time I run into
another actor who has done the play, just as two people who love music,
we’ll start riffing the lines together. They never forget it. It
literally is fun to say.”

“And so I think he’s a visionary in terms of his writing. And as a man
of the theater his writing is minimalist. David’s attitude is if it’s
not in the dialogue, it’s not there. If it’s not in the dialogue it
doesn’t matter what the stage direction is — it doesn’t exist.”

[The second part of A Talk with William Macy]

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