Interview: William H. Macy Invites You to ‘The Sessions’

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CHICAGO – You’re going to be reading a lot about “The Sessions” in the coming weeks as it expands from its already-successful art house run and weaves through an awards season in which it will likely be nominated more than once. John Hawkes leads the film as man who lives in an iron lung and longs to feel human contact. Before he begins consultations with a sex therapist played by Helen Hunt, he discusses the issue with a priest, who becomes his close friend. A living icon of the industry plays that role as William H. Macy yet again takes a small part and turns it into something memorable.

“Fargo,” “Magnolia,” “Boogie Nights,” “The Cooler,” “State and Main,” “Pleasantville,” “Air Force One” — it’s just a very short list of films in which Macy has made an impact. And he’s been a crucial personality in TV as well, appearing in “Sports Night,” “ER,” and currently starring in Showtime’s “Shameless.” That’s where our conversation began…

HOLLYWOODCHICAGO.COM: How’s “Shameless” going?

WILLIAM H. MACY: It’s great. This is our third season. At the end of the first season, I said, “That’s great but can we do it in a second season?” At the end of the second season, I said the same thing. We’re doing it again. The writer’s room is a deep, talented team. It’s good stuff.

HOLLYWOODCHICAGO.COM: What about the commitment? Do you ever worry that spending so much time on one show has impacted your film career?

MACY: It’s tough out there, man. My first question would be “Qu’est-ce que c’est, film career?” Film production is WAY down. My stock in trade had always been independents. They have just been decimated. They’re coming back. It’s hard to do a film that you know stands very little chance of seeing the light of day. I do one. That’s why we’re sitting here. I do them. But it’s lightning in a bottle. I love to act. And I got to make a living. It’s a steady paycheck. My wife [Felicity Huffman] was on “Desperate Housewives” for eight years and she loved every single minute of it. She navigated it just beautifully. It was her fourth year where I thought, “I’d like to do that.” I just love to act. I’d do it every day if I could.

William H. Macy
William H. Macy
Photo credit: Fox Searchlight

HOLLYWOODCHICAGO.COM: So, it’s about the consistent work.

MACY: It’s about the work. And I get to stay home. It’s outrageous. I feel like we’re in a golden age of television. There’s great stuff on tele. I’m addicted to a lot of stuff. I feel really good that I’m in something that I think is very novel, very truthful, and outrageous. It’s what I would like to watch on television. There used to be a smidge of pejorative air when you would say you were doing television. That’s completely gone now. With the demise of independent film, all of that talent has gone into television.

HOLLYWOODCHICAGO.COM: How did you get attached to “Shameless”?

MACY: John Wells chose me. I usually make decisions quickly. I read the script, called him up and said yes. And then I saw the first season of the British version and I was beside myself.

William H. Macy
William H. Macy
Photo credit: Fox Searchlight

HOLLYWOODCHICAGO.COM: What attracts you to a film project like “The Sessions”? Is it more your character, the overall script, or the collaborators? Or some combination?

MACY: At this point, it’s a combination. I jokingly used to say that my main question used to be, “How does this address the human condition? How does this speak to the truth of the human soul?” Later it was, “How much money do I make?” Now, it’s just “Do I have to get wet?” (Laughs.) At this point, because my daughters are older and I’ve been doing it a long time and “Housewives” was very, very, very good to us — if some old pals are doing something, it means a lot to me. I’d rather be in a good movie than have a great role in a bad movie. I’ll take a lesser role. I try, not to be facetious, to do the good stuff and stay away from the bad stuff. (Laughs.) That’s the end of my guiding principles.

HOLLYWOODCHICAGO.COM: Is there anyone who you sign on with sight unseen? If David Mamet or Joel Coen call you tomorrow and say, we need you now, are you in?

MACY: Yes and yes. I don’t even need to pack for those two. They can send my clothes along later.

HOLLYWOODCHICAGO.COM: Anyone else? If John Wells says he has another show when this one ends?

MACY: Absolutely. I’d do anything John wants to do. He’s got the Midas Touch and he’s such a gentleman. (Thinks.) Yeah…truthfully, it’s an endless list. There are a lot of people I’d like to work with.

HOLLYWOODCHICAGO.COM: Let’s talk “Sessions.” How did you get attached?

MACY: It came through CAA in the normal way.

HOLLYWOODCHICAGO.COM: What attracted you to it?

MACY: It’s a good simple story. It was at a time when it was perfect for me to do it.

[At this point, Mr. Macy tries to turn off the loudest A/C fan in the history of hotels just for transcription sake. We both fail at this endeavor.]

William H. Macy
William H. Macy
Photo credit: Fox Searchlight

HOLLYWOODCHICAGO.COM: It was a good time, why?

MACY: With the family; they shot it in L.A. I also have a bit of a pre-disposition to this subject. I did a film a long time ago called “Door to Door” with TNT in which I played a guy with Cerebral Palsy and I got involved with United Cerebral Palsy. It’s an important issue to me. I’ve always felt - it’s interesting to talk about this during the elections too - I’ve always felt that the way you keep score in a civilized society is how we take care of those who, through no fault of their own, need the most amount of help. And I think we fall down in this country. This is not poverty or welfare. I’m talking about people with disabilities. And it puts me in a rage a little bit, especially in light of the abortion issue. I find some people’s point of view absolutely untenable that they, at once, would insist that every baby be born but, at the same time, want to shrink government and not take care of them. I find their positions to be reprehensible and immoral and hypocritical.

So, I have a soft spot for this sort of thing. I also loved what it talks about with human sexuality. I find that our attitudes toward sex in this country are quite perverse and schizophrenic. I would like to be part of, perhaps, a demystifying…bringing logic to questions of human sexuality.

And it’s just SO moving. Working with United Cerebral Palsy, you learn that they want two things — the first is two parts — they want to live alone and they want a job. They want to pay their own way. The second thing, and it’s a close second, is that they want to meet someone. Just like anybody else. They got a lot going against ‘em. We look at people with disabilities and we’re afraid. In the world of disabilities, they say, “Don’t talk to the chair. Talk to me.” So, you take that and you combine it with this weird attitude that Americans have toward sexuality and those people are shit out of luck. It’s heartbreaking. This film deals with that head-on. How can you be a human if you don’t know sex, love, and human touch?

The Sessions
The Sessions
Photo credit: Fox Searchlight

HOLLYWOODCHICAGO.COM: And your character adds an interesting dynamic in that a lot of independent dramas present religious characters as pure church policy — the conservative, demonized character on the screen. But yours is the opposite of that and so it doesn’t just demystify sexuality but its relation to religion. In most films, people who believe in God can feel judged. I loved the refreshing nature of a new point of view in relation to faith and sexuality.

MACY: I hope the Catholic church gets it and loves it. This Priest is a good guy. He falls on the right side of this - the moral, good, right side of this question.

HOLLYWOODCHICAGO.COM: Do you watch your old films? Do you have favorites?

MACY: I’ve seen everything I’ve done. Actually, there are some exceptions…only ones where I had a VERY small part. I’ll watch on tele for a little while. It makes me a little uncomfortable. For an actor who has had a long, successful career — there is a very public presentation of your demise. (Laughs.) You watch yourself falling apart in public. It’s hard to watch. There’s a little film called “Happy, Texas” that I just loved doing. “Fargo.” “State and Main.” Paul Thomas Anderson’s films. I really love the stuff I’ve gotten to do.

HOLLYWOODCHICAGO.COM: Last question — Robert Elder wrote a book called “The Film That Changed My Life.” What’s yours?

MACY: I was just studying acting when I saw “The French Connection” with Gene Hackman. I thought, “Can I please, God, act with Gene Hackman someday?” And, even deeper was the wish, “Can I act LIKE Gene Hackman someday?” I love that film. I love everybody in it. It’s one of those altering experiences.

“The Sessions” is now playing in limited release and opens in Chicago on October 26, 2012. Come back Wednesday for an interview with John Hawkes and Thursday for our full-length review. content director Brian Tallerico

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