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Role Recall: William H. Macy on talking 'Fargie,' shooting 'Boogie Nights' suicide, and crying for 12 hours during 'Pleasantville'

Kevin Polowy
Senior Correspondent, Yahoo Entertainment
William H. Macy in Fargo, Boogie Nights, and Pleasantville. (Photos: Everett Collection)

William H. Macy has been a professional actor his entire adult life, but he didn’t become a film star until he was well into his 30s. “I started my career [on the stage] in Chicago, and we were relatively snobbish about not only Chicago but the theater,” said Macy, who in the 1970s formed a theater company there with playwright David Mamet. “I think all of us really wanted to get a film role but we weren’t willing to do what you had to do to get a film role, which is go to L.A. or New York. We thought Chicago was enough. So I didn’t look at it as beginning a new career or a second phase of my career, my film work.”

But everything changed for the Maryland native when, after practically stalking Joel and Ethan Coen, he scored the role of small-town crime plotter Jerry Lundegaard in Fargo (1996), a role that earned him an Academy Award nomination. Macy has appeared in more than 50 movies since, and though he battled typecasting after playing the sad sack in a string of acclaimed films (Fargo, Boogie Nights, Pleasantville, etc.), his parts would broaden as he balanced films big (Jurassic Park III), small (State and Main), and somewhere in between (Seabiscuit). The characters he’s best known for these days, meanwhile, the hard-living, hard-drinking, womanizing patriarch Frank Gallagher on Showtime’s increasingly outrageous family drama Shameless, couldn’t be farther from his early “aw, schucks” screen persona.

Macy has also been directing, beginning with the 2014 musical drama Rudderless and currently with the new film Krystal, in which he also acts with his wife, Felicity Huffman. Nick Robinson (Jurassic World) stars in the drama as an 18-year-old with a heart condition and strict Christian upbringing who falls for a recovering alcoholic and ex-prostitute (Rosario Dawson).

In a candid “Role Recall” interview (read below), Macy walked us through some of the most memorable — and in the case of WarGames and Silence of the Lambs, unmemorable — moments in his wide-ranging movie and television career.

WarGames (1983)/The Silence of the Lambs (1991)

According to IMDb, Macy had an uncredited role as a NORAD officer in the ’80s tech thriller that introduced the world to Matthew Broderick. He has no recollection of it, though he did recently find out he can be heard in the Jodie Foster-Anthony Hopkins Oscar winner.

“Are you sure I was in WarGames? I don’t remember anything about that. This has happened to me before. Someone was talking to me about The Silence of the Lambs and my role in it. I finally said, ‘I wasn’t in it.’ They said, ‘No, you were.’ So I went back and checked it and turned out I had done a voiceover, I had looped some guy. So I guess I was in Silence of the Lambs! But I don’t remember WarGames.”

ER (1994-2009)

Though he wasn’t part of the hit medical drama’s core cast, Macy had a recurring role as a surgeon, Dr. David Morgenstern, starting with the series’ pilot episode in 1994, and continuing through 1998 (he also returned for the series finale in 2009).

“They treated me really well. But I was sort of the outsider. The cast, I remember, was very, very tight. They went on vacation together, all the guys went on vacation. … I was really impressed that they did that. And they came home from vacation and they were still pals.”

Macy couldn’t exactly walk the walk and talk the talk of a real-life doctor.

“There were a lot of words. And the bar was set really high on that thing. And inevitably they would put me in a surgery scene, so I’d memorize all this jibberish, two pages of this stuff, it took you forever! And then you’d show up, and they’d put a mask [over your face]. It didn’t even need to be me, much less [did I have to] memorize that stuff. I could’ve done it by voiceover. We memorized it. … But I never knew what I was saying on that show.”

Fargo (1996)

Macy originally auditioned for a smaller role (to play a detective), but writer-directors Joel and Ethan Coen steered him toward Jerry Lundegaard … even if he had to follow them around the country to land the part.

“I went back and back and back. I really wanted it. I worked on it really hard and they just kept saying, ‘Ehhh … I like it.’ You wanna come back again? Until finally I found out they were in New York, so I flew to New York and crashed the audition.

“Later I was in my little cabin in Vermont. I went to school in Vermont so I have some land up there. … And the phone rang and I got Fargo. My nearest neighbor was a mile-and-a-half away. I had no one to tell. I was ricocheting off the walls, I was so excited.

“The set was workmanlike. Those guys prepare exquisitely. I think the budget was like $7 million. … And interestingly, we found out it’s still $6 million in the red. Ah, Hollywood! It was professional and yet they laugh a lot. Of course Frannie [Frances McDormand] was in it and Ethan’s wife [editor Tricia Cooke] was there so it was a little bit of a family affair. They’re calm. I’ve always described them as hippies that someone gave $7 million to and a camera.”

As you might expect, Macy encountered “Fargie” speak everywhere he went in the aftermath of the Oscar-winning film’s release.

“It’s an addictive dialect to put on. In our home we decided that it had to be a ‘No Fargie Zone,’ because everybody’s talking this way, ‘Dontcha know! … A lot of people from Minnesota say, ‘Oh for Pete’s sake, we don’t talk that way! You’re making fun of us there, dontcha know.’”

Boogie Nights (1997)

Macy joined Mark Wahlberg, Burt Reynolds, Julianne Moore, John C. Reilly, Heather Graham, Don Cheadle, and Philip Seymour Hoffman for Paul Thomas Anderson’s hailed ensemble about the Los Angeles porn industry in the early ’80s.

“I was working in Georgia I think and I got the first script from my agents and it was a lot racier than the final film. There were some scenes in there … I called up and said, ‘Am I being punked or is this a real movie?’ I mean, it was X-rated. There was no way they were gonna get anything but an ‘X’ with some of those scenes. But they said, ‘Nope, it’s the real deal.’”

Though Macy says the film plays like a black comedy, his character, the porn star Little Bill, has a tragic arc. In one of the film’s famous extended Steadicam shots, Bill walks through the house during a New Year’s Eve party, discovers his porn star wife is having (recreational) sex with another man yet again, fetches a gun from his car, and shoots himself in the head.

“We don’t do this anymore, because of safety rules and the like. But I controlled what they called the gore gun. It was a backpack under my clothes and it had a pipe that stuck out the back with compressed air so you could blow the blood and it appears to be coming from the back of your head. I controlled it by pulling the trigger, and there was a squib in the pistol and it also fired the gore gun. We had a couple of aborted takes because something went wrong. The first time we’d gotten all the way through it, but as I turned to the crowd, the gore gun went off by itself, before I had lifted the pistol. That was about a 45-minute cleanup because they had to clean up the wall and reload everything.

“So I did it again, and I was sort of stuck there lying down, and I looked up and saw everyone looking at the monitor. Everyone is crowded around because we had been there for six hours on one shot and didn’t have it. … They’re all intently watching the monitor for this long shot and then it gets to the [gunshot] and they all jumped back and went, ‘Ew!’ So then they played it again, and they all went, ‘Ew!’ And I thought, ‘I think I’m wrapped for the day. I think we got it.’”

Pleasantville (1998)

Macy played an all-American dad to the all-American family that teens Tobey Maguire and Reese Witherspoon become a part of when they’re sucked into a 1950s black-and-white sitcom.

“The production design was genius. [Writer-director] Gary Ross had really sussed that story out to the nines, and he has a great production team. They had this guy who built my suit, and he dressed Cary Grant. He was in his late 70s, so it was this fabulous ’50s suit, like no other. I’ve still got that suit, I just don’t have the courage to wear it, because things have changed.”

The actor’s most memorable moment in the film comes when his character George Parker arrives home one night befuddled to find his wife isn’t home and there’s no dinner waiting for him.

“It was two nights of shooting in Malibu in January. It was cold. And I had never seen so many rain trees. They had these giant construction cranes, I think there were three of them, holding piping as big as this room, and pumping thousands of gallons of water through these things. And they had built a street, so I could walk almost a block. So I’d walk out of the house and within two seconds, my underwear was soaked, I was completely soaked, that’s how hard the rain was coming down. I froze to death, and we did take after take after take, and I screamed my voice away, ‘Where’s my dinner?!’ It turned into [King] Lear at a point. I’m on my knees screaming.

“So fast forward to the opening here in L.A. … and Gary was behind me. And he pulls on my coat and goes, ‘Oh, I had to trim up that scene.’ Then I saw the film. I walk out of the house, I look up and go, ‘Where’s my dinner?’ Cut! That was it. The rest of it never made it into the movie.”

Magnolia (1999), plus some more Pleasantville

Macy reunited with Paul Thomas Anderson for the director’s next ensemble (co-starring John C. Reilly and Tom Cruise) with intersecting storylines in the San Fernando Valley.

“There’s a scene with the frogs when I fall off the ladder and break all my teeth out. It was scripted that my character weep and really fall apart in that moment. And that’s not something I like to do. I’m Lutheran, I don’t like emotions. But that’s an indication of how good the script was. I was so emotional, I wept like a baby. I could’ve done it all day. We shot kind of in order, and when we got there it was coursing through me.

“The same thing happened with Gary Ross on Pleasantville. It was scripted that I look at my wife and a tear roll down and you can see color. That’s when my character starts to get life in him. It was a big scene, and a big moment, and it was a huge setup. Gary had every toy in there known to man to shoot this thing. … I went to Gary and said, I can do this. But I can’t do it all day. You gotta tell me when the money shot is. I can make myself cry, but it’s not my strong suit. So tell me when we get to it. Gary said, ‘OK, let’s just hear what it sounds like. Let’s just read the lines.’ And I burst into tears, and I wept for 12 hours. I just could not stop crying all day. … I guess I had some issues.”

Jurassic Park III (20001)

Macy’s most high-profile (and highest-grossing) movie to date was this Joe Johnston-directed threequel that returned star Sam Neill to the series.

“It was beyond thrilling. I guess if there was ever a time that I thought, ‘Holy moly, I’ve made it, I’m safely here at this party and I belong.’ I was doing a film with Laura Dern [Focus] and she said, ‘Oh my God, you’ve gotta do it. Don’t even read it, just say yes.’

“That was a muscular production. Joe Johnston went for it. When the plane crashes, we were in that fuselage for a week with them rolling us. It’s like being in a giant barrel. And they rolled it and rolled it. We shot that forever. The actors, we’d sit there between takes and talk to each other, ‘I’m gonna go there, then I’m gonna go there, then I’m gonna grab that.’ We sort of choreographed it so we wouldn’t fall on each other as this thing was tumbling along.”

Still, there were moments throughout where Macy literally feared for his life:

“There was one scene where we had to submerge in water and act the scene once we were below water. The water’s filling up, and then Sam gets us out. But it’s kind of spooky to be in a cage and it’s all locked up. And they’d say, ‘We’ve got divers there.’ And I’d go, ‘Yeah, well f*** the divers, I would drown before you’re gonna get me out of here.’

“When I bested the spinosaurus — and not many people can say they’ve done that — I was up on this giant crane and it was 3 o’clock in the morning at Universal. And they’ve got a big thing that’s full of water but it’s about 2 feet deep, except for one spot that goes to about 12 feet deep and that’s where we were. And I was 35 feet above the water. For my safety, they put a harness on me and they had me chained to the crane. And the crane was supposed to look old and decrepit. And it did look old and decrepit. We’re about to shoot when I thought, ‘OK, for my safety I’m chained to this mother, but if it goes into the water I’m going into the water.’ And that’ll be the end of Bill.”

Shameless (2011-present)

Macy had never been the lead of a television series when he joined the drama set in Chicago about one highly dysfunctional family.

“I was excited. I was nervous. … Doing a series can hold such bounty if it goes well, and can be so treacherous if it doesn’t go well. And I guess the worst of all scenarios is that it’s successful and it stinks. ’Cause you’re stuck there for a long, long, long, long time. And that’s why actors stuck in those situations turn this weird gray shade. And all they’ve got to show for their efforts is lots and lots of money.

“It was interesting, we walked in and they said, ‘Here’s craft services,’ and it was in the kitchen of the Gallagher house. And they said, ‘There’s the refrigerator. And we’re not gonna clean up after you, so clean up after yourselves.’ So we were living in the Gallagher home. I thought that was genius.”

He was surprised, however, by just how dark and outrageous some of the show’s plot points have become over its eight-season run:

“I am constantly surprised and horrified, I’m not kidding. I’m a Lutheran from western Maryland. I read these scripts and I have the same reaction as the audience does. It’s horror. Some of these things I didn’t know were possible! It’s genius. [Co-creator] John Wells likes to say, ‘Everything you’ve seen on Shameless actually happened to one of the writers. Some germ of that idea actually came from one of those writers.'”

Krystal is now in theaters. Watch an exclusive clip:

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