PARK CITY '99: Macy's "Happy" Turn in Sundance
by Mike Jones
William H. Macy is a man you can trust. With a studied
combination of resolution and experience, Macy has slowly carved a
successful career out of being William H. Macy rather than a man who
simply acts for a living. While other actors pay the rent by changing
their persona to fit the script, Macy’s “practical aesthetics” — an
acting technique developed with close friend David Mamet — brings a
steady, honest performance that looks deceivingly easy. It isn’t enough
to say his best parts are of the everyman — he plays an unusual
everyman burdened with a dehabilitating desire to be normal. His
performance as the unlucky car salesman Jerry Lundegaard in Fargo set
this standard with mainstream audiences, and gave him a better selection
of Hollywood scripts.
However, he continues to work in independent film and with first-time
directors whose low budget productions, he explains, help the
actor/director relationship by limiting big-budget technological
interference. He also explains how “practical aesthetics” easily spills
over to the writer’s job — namely that there is no room for realistic
dialogue. “Film and stage is about poetry,” he explains. “It’s a
reflection, a variation, on realistic speech. But it’s poetry.”
indieWIRE spoke with Macy about the use of this technique with the
closeted sheriff Chappy Dent in the Sundance competition entry Happy,
indieWIRE How did you come across Happy, Texas?
William Macy: Through my agent. I have a tendency to make snap
decisions on films. I think I’m pretty good at reading and it is a
skill to read scripts. I’m pretty good at seeing the film as I’m
reading it, and I just loved Happy, Texas. Ed Stone — the writer —
he’s the real deal. It’s got a great third act. Steve Zahn
and Jeremy Northam are these escaped back robbers and they’re
impersonating two gay guys who run beauty pageants all over the South.
They roll into this small town called “Happy, Texas.” I’m the sheriff
and I essentially fall in love with Jeremy. And what’s hysterical
about the film is that it’s not homophobic in any way. The town accepts
them because they’re “artists.” It’s the sweetest story. When you first
meet this sheriff, Chappy Dent, you have no indication that he’s gay.
Perhaps it’s the first time he’s come out. It’s so honest and
What do you look for in a script?
Macy: Story. I’ll take a good story over character. A great danger for
an actor is a script that isn’t that good but has a great character —
if the film ultimately fails, it doesn’t matter that you’re good.
iW: And in a director?
Macy: It starts on top. If the producer is a jerk, the film
probably will be filled with jerks. Everybody’s got jerk potential. By
the same token, from the top down, if people are stand-up, honest, kind,
generous, then it’s a joy. If the guys at the top are good then
everybody’s on their best behavior.
I like a director who talks action and objectives as opposed to emotions
and feelings. It’s very rare but I would love one who doesn’t have his
face in a fucking monitor. I want to direct a movie and when I do
there’s not going to be video playback. I think it’s the devil. It
slows down the process, actors want to watch it, it robs from the
director’s power. . . The director belongs right beside the camera
looking at the action — that’s what I think. I also think the director
should have the entire film cut in his head before he starts a day of
indieWIRE: Should that reflect in the script from the beginning?
Macy: He’s got to read the script, know what the story is, and
figure out the perfect way to tell it. And the perfect way should
involve being as simple and direct as you can. There’s so many toys out
there for directors these days. The camera can do anything — it can
fly around out of the room and out the building and come back straight
up your nostril all in one shot. A lot of directors get suckered by
that and the movie suffers because it ain’t story telling; it’s spiffy
indieWIRE: But in these smaller, independent films you don’t have much
Macy: And it’s a glory. There the thrust is “We’ve got to get across
this. How can we do it with our limited budget and limited tools?” It
makes for good art, if you ask me.
iW: I know that you don’t believe in doing too much research or
method when developing a character. When you teach at the Atlantic
Theater Company in New York how do you translate this to the
Macy: For one thing, there is no such thing as character. That’s
the truth whether actors want to admit it or not. Character is a trick
we play on the audience. If I learn the words and you put me in that
costume, on that throne, and tell the audience I’m the king and
everybody treats me like the king, then I am the king. So the idea of
“how does a king walk” and “what would a king think” and “I don’t want
to be myself. I wanna be the king” — it can’t be done. You can’t ever
be anything, but yourself. People who become somebody else are mentally
ill. That’s not acting. It’s always just you.
The tough part about acting, to a large extent, is just showing up.
When you do a scene, it’s frightening. Even scenes that you love, and in
every movie there are some scenes you don’t love and they’re
frightening. Either it’s uncomfortable, or it makes you look bad, or
you don’t know how to act it, or it’s just technically difficult. . . .
You live with fear all the time. The trick about acting is how to not
only accept living with fear, but to learn to work while in the clutches
of fear. Because it never goes away. You always feel like a fraud.
You always feel ill prepared. You always know that somewhere there’s
someone who could do this a lot better than you can. And for most
people when they’re that afraid and that insecure they implode; they’ll
either get angry or will fall apart. They’re rendered incapable of
doing anything. What an actor does is take all that fear that is common
to all of us and act anyway.
iW: Is there a myth or assumption that you try to break down with
the first-year students?
Macy: It’s been my experience that no matter how cocky they are with
their pals around the water cooler, the second you say “Okay, let’s see
the scene,” everybody’s rendered nine years old and naked. Even the big
tough guys because it’s that frightening. I’ve always found —
especially the NYU students who are a cut above — very malleable.
They’re smart and they want to learn and I’ve always sensed they have a
pretty good amount of trust in the teachers. I’ll tell you who’s a
worse acting student is somebody who’s been acting for fifteen years
because, almost as a defense mechanism, you come up with you’re
iW: They’re set in their ways. . .
Macy: Yeah. I’d rather start with young folks and train them as
iW: Where did you develop these techniques?
Macy: Almost all of it comes from David Mamet. He made it
all up and if I brought anything to what he calls “practical aethetics”
then it’s a little more of the practical. We used to go into all kinds
of character study. We used to pack our wallets with fake IDs and do all
this back-story work. Through a process of brutal honesty and actual
production we said, “You know, does this really show up on stage? Does
the audience benefit by this? Does this make me act any differently?”
And the answer was no. All that shit in the wallet doesn’t do a thing
for you. The task at hand is right in front of you. There’s only a
limited degree to which you can prepare. The task for the actor is the
moment — the unit of measure for an actor is the moment right now.
Really what an actor does is learn how to do this instant moment. And
when you finish you go to the next instant moment and if you string
enough of those together you got Hamlet. You’ve got a film. You’ve got
anything you want.
iW Yet in theater you have a runway into the character — from
the first act on.
Macy: Yeah, film is a different set of problems. But it still
comes down to this moment. No matter what the scene is it’s got more
than a couple of moments. I know actors that smoke a lot of pot. And
though it makes you stupid to where you can’t remember your own name, it
renders you incapable of doing anything more than one thing at a time.
You become a functioning idiot. And that’s the essence of good acting.
This whole thing about the arc of a play is nonsense. You can’t have
the end of the play inform the beginning. That’s bad storytelling.