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'Shameless' Confessions: William H. Macy Talks About His Bold New Showtime Drama

by Maureen Ryan, posted Jan 6th 2011 12:45PM
William H. Macy has embraced one hell of an acting challenge.

In the new drama 'Shameless,' which premieres Sunday on Showtime, he plays Chicagoan Frank Gallagher, the working-class father of six independent-minded kids.

The kids have had to grow up fast, because their mom left a few years ago and Frank isn't exactly working. He's an alcoholic. When he can be found in the family home, he's usually passed out on the floor.

"When you have an addicted parent, it does make the rest of the family coalesce," Macy said in a recent interview on the show's Chicago set. "They've got to look after each other. I think Frank's left-handed gift to his family is that they look after each other."

Macy's gift is making Frank someone you want to watch, no matter how self-serving and inept he is as a parent and as a man. It's hard to think of any other actor who could have made Frank appealing, but Macy gives Frank, who is modeled on the no-account father in a hit British TV series of the same name, an irrepressible joie de vivre and even a wily charm.

Whether audiences will coalesce around a show in which the characters have few overt ambitions remains to be seen, but the promising 'Shameless' is a terrific showcase for Macy, Emmy Rossum, who plays Frank's daughter Fiona, and Joan Cusack, who plays the Gallaghers' neighbor. The show's younger cast members are also impressive; they have a low-key, realistic style that melds perfectly with the unforced truthfulness that Macy brings to his role. (On Friday, I'll post a full review of 'Shameless,' which is executive produced by Paul Abbott, the creator of the long-running UK version of 'Shameless,' and 'ER's' John Wells.)

"When I first watched the British series, I thought, 'This looks like a kitchen-sink drama.' But in fact, it's a farce," Macy said as we talked under Chicago's El tracks on an unseasonably warm November day. "We go to some outrageous places. It's a testament to Paul Abbott that the world is so organic and real that it gives you license to go insane with some of these plots."

An edited and slightly condensed version of my interview with Macy is below. This story does not contain spoilers.

MR: How does it feel to be back in Chicago? [The majority of 'Shameless' is filmed in Los Angeles, but the show comes to Chicago frequently to shoot exteriors. Macy got his professional start in the thriving Chicago theater scene of the 1970s, where he co-founded the St. Nicholas Theater Company with David Mamet and worked with Joan Cusack's father.]

WHM: It feels triumphant. I really started my career in Chicago and I love this town so much. It feels excellent to come back with a great project. This is the best role I've had in many years.

MR: Why do you say that? What's great about this role?

WHM: Because I've had really crappy roles. [laughs] I guess it's par for the course that you have hills and valleys in your career. Just the last couple of years, I kept getting the feeling, 'I've done this scene before. I think I've been in this movie already. This is all striking me as very familiar.'

What makes this role great? He's unpredictable. The world they've chosen is so right and the scripts are so unexpected. You probably watch a lot of movies, don't you? You sit there and 50 percent of the time, you see [developments] coming a mile away. You know where it's going. I think with these scripts, you don't know where it's going. Even if you guess some of it, you're not going to guess where the rest of it goes. It is truly unpredictable and unexpected, and yet, I find it really organic, really truthful.

MR: I really liked the pilot. My only concern is, where does it go from there? Is it the start of a series or the first half of a good movie? I'm just not sure where the characters go from where they start out.

WHM: I loved the pilot too. But we've done better. The second episode takes off. It gets a little brighter. There's more humor in the second one. When I first watched the British series, I thought, 'This looks like a kitchen-sink drama.' But in fact, it's a farce. We go to some outrageous places. It's a testament to Paul Abbott that the world is so organic and real that it gives you license to go insane with some of these plots.

MR: Well, the characters seem specific to me. That's one of the hardest things for any pilot to do -- to establish people that don't seem fake and false. I mean, I knew you and Emmy and Joan would do good work, but I thought the whole thing would rise or fall on whether the younger kids were good actors, and they are.

WHM: Yeah. I'm hardly in the pilot.

MR: Yeah, you're mostly drunk. You lay on the floor sensationally.

WHM: Thanks! [laughs] This is a great confluence of many wonderful things. The first being John Wells. He is the best guy I've ever worked for. He has set a tone which is, at once, so accommodating and safe, and at the same time, he has set the bar really high. You almost have to be an actor to understand the gravity of this, but he very casually said, 'Let's not have sides* on set. Let's not do that. We've done that on some other shows. It works well. Besides, we want to send the word to all our guest stars -- "When you get here, be ready to go."'

[*"Sides" are copies of the scenes that are being shot that day -- just those pages from an episode's script are photocopied in a smaller printed format. These small, stapled bundles are easy to find on many TV sets; most actors carry them around all day.]

We all took that to heart. On most TV shows, the really good, hard-working actors, are about 50 percent off-book [i.e., they know their lines by heart 50 percent of the time], and some of the actors are about 10 percent off-book, and they cram it in in the makeup chair, and then in that long period after the rehearsal when they're lighting [the scene], before they shoot it.

Well, we don't take a long time to light it, because of the nature of this thing, and there is no gap between rehearsal [and shooting]. As soon as we're done rehearsing, we start shooting. As a result, everyone comes to this set with their A games, ready to rock and roll. You could shoot the rehearsals. I feel seriously challenged by this cast. They're that good, and quick.

MR: It must be challenging to be on your A game 100 percent of the time.

WHM: The truth of what happens is ... in a weird way, I feel like I'm telling tales [about how sets often work]. It is very common that you'll spend a lot of the energy in your day wondering, 'Is it "divert" or "distract"? What's the word? Tell me the word again. Read that line to me again.' So much of our energy goes to 'What are the lines?' And you either approximate the lines, and that is never as good as what the writer wrote, or you beat yourself up.

['Shameless' scripts arrive on set eight days in advance of shooting and change very little before production begins, Macy said. As a result, the actors have plenty of time to learn their lines, which isn't always the case on other shows.]

Some TV shows, you're in makeup and in costume, standing on the set, waiting for pages to come to you. So you just cram it into your head. But the writers [for 'Shameless'] talk the talk and walk the walk. So everyone comes ready to rock and because we all learned the lines. I've never had such fun. I don't have to live in that sense of panic that I don't know the lines well enough. It is such a revelation to me, to be on the set knowing them well enough that you can fart around. I feel like I can really improvise.

MR: Do they allow you to go off script?

WHM: Our scripts are really good so there's little ad libbing. But to answer your question, Mark [co-executive producer and director Mark Mylod, who was shooting some scenes in Chicago that day] is a perfect example. He'll say, 'Well, we've got it. Want to try something wacky? Anything in the back of your mind?' And one time out of 10, you might come out with something good.

MR: These are hard times, economically speaking. Do you think people will want that reflected back at them or do they want an escape? I wonder sometimes, is it going to be...

WHM: To true to be funny?

MR: Yeah. Or so true that it's sad.

WHM: I don't know the answer to that. We shall find out. I think there is a possibility that America is pissed off in just the right way. And these characters are pissed off in a similar way. It could be that this is going to sing for them.

MR: Frank can be a fun guy, but isn't he a terrible dad?

WHM: Terrible. Well, he's an addict. We've talked about it -- how funny can addiction be? It's a fine line to walk. But I think the magnificent thing that all these scripts have done so far is that, at the end, you get a warm feeling for the family. It just shows you that under the most bizarre circumstances, you can form a family.

MR: I was thinking about the fact that the kids' mother left them completely, but at least Frank hasn't abandoned them physically. Maybe the most he can do is be there -- but passed out on the floor.

WHM: Well, yes. I don't know. They do have affection for him. I guess blood does run thicker than water. It's also -- and my wife has talked about this -- when you have an addicted parent, it does make the rest of the family coalesce. They've got to look after each other. I think Frank's left-handed gift to his family is that they look after each other.

MR: Is it important to you that Frank have a journey to go on, that the character is headed somewhere? Or can he just remain the complete drunkard that he is now indefinitely?

WHM: I don't think [he can remain that way]. I haven't seen all of the British version [of the show]. It occurs to me that it might become a one-trick pony at some point. It's certainly got a couple years of being funny. For instance, in one episode, I do get straight for a while. I qualify for a medical experiment if I can stay sober for two months.

MR: I thought you were going to say two days. And I was thinking that might be a stretch.

WHM: It's a very funny episode. And it's a real fun opportunity for me, after having done all this stuff, to do these scenes cold sober.

MR: I was watching you walk and interact as drunk Frank -- do you have to have a different mindset and physical approach to play sober Frank, or somewhat sober Frank?

WHM: I think it's a function of what time of day it is. I think he probably has a little bit of a bump in the morning to make the day more interesting, he drinks all day and then I guess the test is if he can get to midnight and still be upright, so he can get up and do it again the next morning.

MR: Does this behavior pre-date Frank's wife leaving? Is this why she left? What's the history there?

WHM: I don't know. One of the great things about television [is not knowing]. I learned this on 'ER.' There was not a give and take between actors and writers by design, and also I was just a recurring [character]. But I'd come in and fire [the character played by] George Clooney. And I don't know where it's going and what the next episode is. All I know is, 'I don't think George is leaving the show, so, hmmm, how do I act this?'

The best acting [comes when] you do it as if this is the last scene. There is no scene that follows. I've always thought that notion of 'You need to know where you're going' is a misnomer. I think better to not know where where you're going, and television is the perfect grounds for that. Just do this scene and then see where it goes. See where they write you next.

MR: Yeah, it makes sense in a way, because the Gallaghers are not future-oriented. They're not planning for six months from now. They're living day to day.

Just going back to something from the pilot, [this part is redacted in order to not spoil a moment, but there's an incident that shows how Frank's choices have an effect on his kids]. As a parent, is it ever hard for you to play a guy who's not really caring for his kids in a responsible way?

WHM: [As an actor,] I'm just not going there. I think it would be a weakness on my part, if I were to say, 'Could I just have one sweet moment? Could I just tell somebody I love them?' I don't want to go there.

MR: Why not?

WHM: It's kind of the end of the show if we start going there. It's like in a romantic comedy -- the minute you let them hook up, your movie's over. I think my job is to find the reasoning behind each scene and go for it.

MR: So is it fun to play drunk?

WHM: Oh dear God, it's so much fun. It's a poetic license to kill.

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Shameless is such a wonderful show and Macy a great actor. I work for DISH and just found out about their newest project, DISH Online. It’s cool because I can watch Shameless episodes, clips, and extras at my convenience and even set recordings for my DVR.

April 21 2011 at 1:02 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Ashley Jensen

Shameless might be my new favorite show! Amazing cast all around, but William H. Macy has to be my favorite though. His new movie Lincoln Lawyer looks pretty good too (pretty hot cast in that one too!), will definitely be seeing it in theatres when it comes out! Love that guy

January 13 2011 at 6:31 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

I will not watch as it hit's too close to home.

January 09 2011 at 2:05 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

I'm sure Macy does a great job, I have Zero desire to see another Drunk, as my father was one all of my life. Nothing pretty or funny about it when his skins turns gray,control of both his bowels and bladdel fail, it just stinks! After some 40 years of abusing himself with heavy drinking (over 1 case+ of beer a day)

January 09 2011 at 12:35 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

I watched a preview of this on line a few days ago and it's brilliant! I haven't seen the original,British version,so I can't make a comparison,but as a series this stands on its own. I'm looking forward to watching it on Sundays.

January 09 2011 at 9:35 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

Always loved everything Macy did, my favs are "Fargo" and "Magnolia," I watch them a lot and it is still so thrilling to watch his wide range of talents.

January 09 2011 at 9:31 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

Willaim has been in some great movies, and he is a great actor. The first movie that comes to mind that he was in is Happy Texas. He played a gay sheriff, and he did a good job at it. It was a hilarious movie.
I wish Willaim all the very best, he surely deserves it.

January 09 2011 at 9:29 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

I wish I had Showtime so I could watch this show. I've always been a fan of his, but he gained my undying respect when he played Bill Porter in "Door to Door." As someone born with cerebral palsy, I'm always skeptical, and occasionally offended, whenever I see a character in a film or tv program being portrayed in that way. It's almost always overplayed, with the surrounding cast either being repulsed by, or feeling pity towards the character(both of which I've experienced in my lifetime). Macy, however, pulled it off brilliantly, I thought. He's a hell of an actor.

January 06 2011 at 3:40 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to cfaddct's comment

cfaddct, you don't need to have showtime to watch this and any other shows. just google free full episodes of shameless(us) season 1. there will be a ton of places for you to go to and watch the latest episodes.

January 26 2011 at 2:39 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

I'm sure this will be good as I love most of the actors in it. But as I've seen every episode of the original UK version, I just cannot watch this US version.

The ensemble in the UK was so stellar - SO STELLAR. I also assume that the first season - at least - will be an almost direct retread of the first UK series. There's nothing worse than experiencing the "Oh - I know exactly what happens here" affect when watching TV (Life on Mars, L&O - UK, just to name two).

I do hope it does well, I just won't be there with it.

January 06 2011 at 1:15 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
2 replies to julieannebarton's comment
Craig Ranapia

"I also assume that the first season - at least - will be an almost direct retread of the first UK series."

Well, I'd think so too except Paul Abbott has said that his job isn't just to take the original scripts and do a search and replace of the British idioms and culturally specific references. If anything, I think the real test for this series is whether they'll have the nerve to go all the way with Abbott's instinctive loathing for quote unquote "sympathetic" characters -- David Threlfall's Frank is an irredemable douchebag and, especially in the earlier series, he's horribly psychologically and even physically abusive towards his own children. And they just accept it, however then can, because they know nothing else.

January 09 2011 at 7:30 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

I think this is perfect role for him. One he can really take to new heights with. But he is getting old faster these days. I hope he plans on saving up his money for retirement. You can save money when you use Http://bit.ly/FreebieHomepage for free stuff and coupons.

January 09 2011 at 9:22 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

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