From the upcoming season-five premiere of his Chicago-set Showtime hit Shameless to Oscar buzz surrounding his directorial debut, Rudderless, William H. Macy is enjoying one success after another. In an exclusive interview with Michigan Avenue, the award-winning actor reminisces about his Windy City theater days, dishes about being a director, and explains why wife Felicity Huffman is his favorite on-screen costar.
Rudderless has gotten rave reviews. Was there anything that surprised you about the directing process, or something that you found particularly satisfying?
I love doing something that I’ve never done before on that scale, with that kind of visibility. For those who don’t know, directing a film is a monumental amount of work, as is producing a film, but directing a film really is the eye of the hurricane. The long and the short of it is this: I had this view of the beautiful machine that we build to make these films and tell these stories—the cast and crew and all the equipment and everything—that I’d never had before. I fell in love with the business all over again. I was like a schoolboy at the fair.
Season five of Shameless kicks off in January. What do you credit for the show’s longevity?
It’s about a family that works in a weird bunch of ways, and they’re all winning characters. It’s a beautifully conceived family, and that makes it universal. There are archetypes in it, but it’s a new, fresh look at these archetypes—and at the base of everything, they love each other, and they help each other. It’s all about family. Family’s thicker than anything.
What’s your favorite thing about playing Shameless’s Frank Gallagher?
I like it when he says what is true and what is obviously true. When he speaks the unspeakable. “Who farted?” “Good Lord, you’re fat.” I like it when he just says it like a lot of people think it really is, and perhaps that’s how he thinks it is. I love his candor, and then I love his rascallyness. And this season I’m having the time of my life because Frank is largely sober. He’s high as a kite on other things a lot of the time, but he’s sober—and you must appreciate that for an actor; it’s been an interesting ride. I did it for four years where, pretty much when he wasn’t drunk, he was hungover, there was just no time in between. So, sober has been very interesting.
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You made quite an impression in your 20s in the Chicago theater scene. What were those days like for you?
I had just graduated college; I was young and vigorous, dumb as a bag of hair, with just boundless energy—as were my mates Stephen Schacter, Patricia Cox, and David Mamet, and we all ended up in Chicago after college in Vermont and started the [St. Nicholas Theatre] Company. It was a bit of insanity—the inmates had taken over the asylum—we were so young and we were running this huge organization, and we did a pretty good job. We did some really good work and, boy, did I have a good time. I had the keys to the theater, literally.
How did you envision your career back then?
For the longest time, my goal really was to get to the next show—to just keep working in the business and make enough to pay the rent. Although, in Chicago, I actually did pretty well. I started doing commercials, and we taught classes, and that was an easy way to make money. And then we got a grant, so we actually made a little bit of money for working at the theater. And then I got paid to act—not much, but a little bit. I bought a car, and we bought a three-flat across from Wrigley Field.
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Speaking of David Mamet, you and he have had a long-standing professional relationship. Why do you think you connect so well?
We met at really formative times of our lives, when we were just putting it all together, and we were passionate and dramatic, and a couple twists of fate kept us together. Secondly is that Dave was always a writer, but he was also a director and loved working with his friends, so he would cast all of us repeatedly. He gave me my career, and we followed each other to the cities. So our careers grew up at the same time. But also, I totally get his sense of humor—there’s nobody else I know whom I totally get like him. I’m in awe of him. And on occasion I’ve made him laugh. I think he’s one of the great writers of a couple of generations; I can’t say enough about his writing. He’s a beacon for me. He’s not afraid to say anything—he’ll always tell the truth. He’s the only guy I’ve ever met who is incorruptible.
Shameless brought you back to Chicago. What has it been like to return to the city and be working again?
I’ve [really] been here throughout, because Patricia Cox is one of the producers on Rudderless and a big producer on my next film. She founded St. Nicholas and she lives in Chicago, so I’ve stayed in touch with Patricia. So I didn’t lose that much touch with Chicago. But to answer your question, it’s sweet. To come back with a show—and not just any show, a really sort of quintessential Chicago-feeling show—it feels authentic, and I’m digging it.
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What inspires you about the city?
First of all, the food is stunning. And the look of the city—the architecture, the city on the lake—it’s a stunner. Standing on Michigan Avenue up by the bridge over the river, there ain’t many places on earth as pretty as that. Fine-looking people. My first night in Chicago I was gobsmacked—I just loved these women. Great style in Chicago. It’s an international city, but it’s as American as the day is long.
You’re known for choosing roles in smart, substantial work—what draws you to a project?
Is it a good story, well told? I’m not crazy about violence because I don’t like to watch it, so I don’t want to be in it, even though it’s kind of fun sometimes to do all that stuff. I’d take a smaller role in a better film. I guess my rule is “Do the good stuff, don’t do the bad stuff.”
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Over the years, you’ve played a lot of memorable characters. When people come up to you on the street, what do they remember you for?
Certainly first it was Fargo—that lasted for a long time. Then I did a film called The Cooler, and for some reason that character caught people’s imaginations. There was a film called Door to Door for TNT, a made-for-TV movie, that struck a note. I heard about that for years and years, and still do. And now Shameless. [I hear] “Yo, Frank, my man, how are you?” People get that excited.
In 2015 you also have the film release of Stealing Cars, in which your wife, Felicity Huffman, also plays a role. What do you enjoy about working with her?
She’s such a stunning actress. She’s a surprising actress. She’s smart as a whip—a real thoroughbred, you know what I mean? Talent aside, she knows how to make movies; she’s been doing it a long time. I love having her on set—I get my girlfriend there with me when she agrees to do a movie. Also, to be blunt, she helps us get the movies made, because she’s a movie star.
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You talked about enjoying Rudderless because it was a new challenge. What else is out there that you would like to tackle?
I drank the Kool-Aid with this directing thing. That’s all I want to do. I’ve got one in the works called Krystal—it’s another indie—and I would love to do a big studio picture. I fell into a field of clover. I’ve got Shameless, which shoots half a year; it’s the most fun job any boy ever had. I’m really proud to be in the show; I get to act with Emmy Rossum, and it’s just a stunning cast. Couldn’t be better, those two things. If there’s any time left over I might raise my children. [Seriously,] my girls are really at the most interesting time—12 and 14—and it’s just amazing to watch, and I really want to be around for that. So I’ve got a full plate.
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