EVERYONE HAS TO “DEAL”: INTERVIEW WITH WILLIAM H. MACY

With such a triumphant career, you’d think things would go easy for William H. Macy. Many of his protagonists are down on their luck, but it’s hard to think of an acting assignment out of his range. His role in “The Cooler” now epitomizes the actor’s specialty, even more than his iconic Jerry Lundegaard in “Fargo.” In the former film, he plays a jinx who’s deployed to break casino players out of their hot streaks. In such a role, Macy draws so much pathos that his exaggerated characters play straight. But with “The Deal,” his new film as star and co-screenwriter, Macy is in different form.

Macy may have already been an overconfident Hollywood player in David Mamet’s “State and Main.” But his opportunistic producer in “The Deal” is his lightest substantial role yet. (We politely forget “Wild Hogs.”) Playing Charlie Berns, Macy drops wisecracks in lieu of distressful moments – even an opening suicide scene is throughly irreverent. It’s a new take for Macy, in which he does slapstick and sight gags, and becomes a romantic lead, which is likely why, as of this past Friday, “The Deal” has had trouble with financing and distribution. In a film that satirizes Hollywood, a masterful performer plays against type, and the studios don’t want to play. Even if the execs are the film’s targets, ignoring Macy’s new vehicle is foolish.

During his latest stop on a promotional run, I caught up with William H. Macy before the East Coast premiere of “The Deal” at the 2008 Philadelphia Film Festival. He met interviewers in a small green room, which included co-stars Jason Ritter (the next handsome generation of the acting family), who plays Berns’ nephew and a struggling screenwriter, and Fiona Glascott, a British performer who plays an actress stuck in a sexist action role.

Macy looked a bit weary, but was classy and polite as ever, even when he realized he was in a room full of “Fargo” fanatics. (When Ritter, Glascott, and I suddenly started trading off Lundegaard lines, Macy smiled with an “ah, here we go again” resignation.). Steelier blue in person, his eyes were alert, and he spoke in a full voice, one that must be a prize for the stage.

How did the adaptation of “The Deal” begin?
William Macy: Steven Schachter brought the {Peter Lefcourt novel] to me, and [Schachter] got it from his manager. We thought it would make a great romantic comedy, and that was sort of what were looking for. This is the first time that [Schachter and I], as collaborators, have gone out with a feature film. We thought, let’s make it easy on ourselves: let’s do comedy, or a romantic comedy. The one thing we did wrong was we did a film about Hollywood, and that’s sort of a no-no.

I thought about your work in “State and Main” while watching “The Deal.” Was the earlier film an inspiration to pick this story up?
WM: Not directly, though I love that movie. [In that film, Macy plays a fast-talking director who's working on a failing production.] Oh man, what great lines. Like when Phil[ip Seymour] Hoffman says [to me], “I’m going to tell the truth” [he plays a screenwriter], and then I say, “Oh, that’s so narrow!” [Laughter bursts all around.]

This film has a lot of connections to other Hollywood satires. While watching, I thought about [Blake Edward's] “S.O.B.,” especially at the beginning [in which Macy's producer tries to kill himself]. Were other Hollywood satires a motivation for you when working on the script?
WM: Well, the story’s shape is mostly Peter Lefcourt. The rough shape of the thing is all Peter. The only thing we added [to the story] was the romance, although it was there all along. Charlie and Deidre [Meg Ryan's character, an studio executive] we’re dying to get together. When we mentioned it to Peter Lefcourt, he said, yeah, it is kind of obvious.

It’s all so familiar to all of us. This is what we do for a living. It’s exaggerated, but not that exaggerated.

While watching, I thought about Christopher Guest’s “The Big Picture” –
WM: Oh, I love that film.

– and the idea of an art film coming down to this bland Hollywood product.
Yes, that is very true.

This seems like your first central role with a high-concept premise. I know you did a “Jurassic Park,” but most of the time your films aren’t high-concept, but character studies. Were you eager for a such an approach?
Well, it’s certainly a great role. I don’t think I’d ever get a role like this if I hadn’t written it myself. It would have go to. . . who knows. Charlie Berns is one of the all-time great roles.

You recently did “Edmond” [the film adaptation of a David Mamet play], and we can’t forget about “Fargo” – I’m a big fan, I have to admit.
WM: Who isn’t.

But “The Deal” has a lighter touch.
WM: And [my character's] a powerful man. I don’t play powerful men that often. . . suicidal notwithstanding. It was really great fun for us, because we live this stuff everyday.

When you worked on the script, did you envision certain actors in the roles – say, did you envision Meg Ryan for Deidre?
WM: I think that almost all writers put an actor for a character as it’s being developed. With Steven and I, sometimes if it’s not a specific actor, it will be a conglomeration of people that we know. But having said that, when you get to the actual casting, it’s wide open. On this film, actors came from London, from Israel, a lot of people from Cape Town [one of the film's settings] – some wonderful actors from South Africa. We found the one guy from Brooklyn in all of Cape Town.

A little side note here – according to David Mamet, you inspired his play, “American Buffalo.” True story?
WM: Only that one line: “help yourself.”

And that launched the whole idea.
WM: Dave lived in the Hotel Lincoln. [Schachter and I] had a refrigerator which actually had food in it. Dave would come in the front door and say [really macho], “Billy, Stevie, I got this idea! We’re gonna – “ and he’d march right to the refrigerator and take out all the cheese, carve off all these great hunks, and when he was full, he’d leave. And that was his supper. And one day I had a bad day, I saw him take it, and I said, “Help yourself.” And, oh lord, it looked like I slapped him in the face. We had a rehearsal later that night, and he wouldn’t talk to me. He never said another word about it, until Teach [the character in “American Buffalo”] walks in and says, “Fucking Ruthie, fucking Ruthie, fucking Ruthie. I’m sitting over at the diner and I take a half a piece of toast from her plate. And she goes, ‘Help yourself.’ I should help myself to a piece of toast?!”

In the early theater you did with Mamet, he speaks of having a hand in every element of the stage. Did you write plays back then?
WM: I wrote a children series called “Captain Marbles and his Acting Squad.” It was a group of actors: the captain, the witch, the ballerina. It was a serialized musical for kids.

Were you always involved in the recent “Edmond” film?
WM: I was involved with the film from pretty much the beginning. I never performed the play, though. A lot of people played the role. And everyone tried to get that film off the ground, but no one wanted to touch it. [Laughs] The character gets sodomized at the end of the thing, and then they fall in love. It’s not what you’d call a Christmas release.

I saw it at a festival. And at the end, literally, the audience looked like a bomb had gone off in their faces. No applause, not a sound; they just sat still. And the credits went on for days, too, because the budget was a million, and we couldn’t find anyone with a million, so we found a million people with one dollar. And we had to give every single one of them an executive producer credit. And the audience just sat there, dazed, through all of it. That’s the one film I’ve ever done that they needed a Q&A for. They needed to talk about that film, it was so upsetting. You feel like you’ve been there for three hours, and it’s 82 minutes.

I was in the [Mamet] play “Oleanna” too. And then the film. During the play, audiences would get so angry, they’d start screaming at the stage.

[Glascott and Ritter are startled.]
Jason Ritter: Screaming at the stage?

Weren’t you scared a few times when performing that play?
WM: Originally, when we first did [the play] in Boston, Dave came up to me and said, “Protect my wife, will you?” [Mamet's wife, Rebecca Pidgeon, starred opposite Macy in the two-character drama about wrongful sexual harassment.] We thought, they could come right over the footlights. And if they’d try, [when they'd bend to get on stage] I thought I would drop-kick a guy’s head right away and take the lawsuit later.

JR: What would they be screaming?

WM: “Kill her! Kick her ass! Kill that bitch!” Either that, or we’d hear [in a whisper], “Shut up – no you hush up – this is bullshit – no, you shut the fuck up– !?” And we’d just act right through it.

Marriages breaking up during the play, I’d imagine.
WM: Oh, was it crazy.

Any writing going to happen in the future?
I’m sure Steven and I will write in the future. We might do a TV series for TNT. We have some ideas in our signature style, like “The Deal,” dramedy. We have a tendency to write serious stuff that’s funny.

Are you thinking about directing at all?
I’m going to direct something this spring called “Keep Coming Back” [a project to star Salma Hayek]. It’s seems to be falling together. Will Aldis wrote it – a great writer.

Have you directed before?
I did one little thing for HBO about 150 years ago, and I did not like it. So this my real one. It’s hard, directing. It’s a completely different thing. The actor worries about only so much, and the director worries about the world. I’m not good about worrying about the world. I’ll see if I like it. Schachter says I won’t.

Did Schachter direct the shots on his own for “The Deal”?
WM: It was pretty collaborative. But not too much, or a director loses his will to live. Every once in a while I would call Schachter over and say, “What are you doing!” There’s a scene where Fiona’s blouse tears.

Fiona Glascott: Yeah, when it happens it is a completely satirical look on women getting…their boobs out, basically. Which is why it’s so great to do it. There’s a great line, and it’s fun.

WM: [In the film] I say, “Any way you can get your shirt off is fine with me.”

JR: That is the general attitude, but it’s cloaked in all these niceties and everything else. Basically it comes down to –

FG: “Get your shirt off,” bigger guns, and boobs.

[To Glascott and Ritter] In a lot of your scenes you seem naturally angry. Did you improvise them at all? [To Ritter] Like when your character freaks out about his script being changed?
JR: I may have improvised one little line at the end of that scene. But for the most part, that was as written. That was one of the first two days of shooting, and I was way too scared to deviate from the script. I was yelling for all the people who have gotten screwed over.

[To Macy] Do you feel like you improvise your roles from the inside out, or do you have a clear idea in your head when you go to shoot?
WM: I think I’m pretty shallow. I’m not an interior actor. I think about the objective. Phil Hoffman and I had a big fight about this, because he really goes deep. He thinks about a lot of stuff. Once I said to him, “Why don’t you cut out all that nonsense and say the lines. It will come out the same.” Not only did he say I was full of shit, he said, “Even you don’t do that. You may say you do, but you don’t.”

I saw him do “True West” on the stage.
WM: I saw “True West” too. We were rehearsing “American Buffalo” right next to them.

JR: I saw it too.

I saw it when he played the angry brother. [In the famed 2000 New York production, Hoffman and John C. Reilly switched the roles every other night.]
JR: I saw it when Reilly played the angry one. Awesome.

I can’t help thinking back to “Fargo,” to the one scene when you are preparing to call Wade. I would imagine you’d ponder that scene before filming it.
WM: It’s a scene when I’m rehearsing.

And it’s brilliant as a rehearsal.
That was improvised. It was my idea to rehearse it a couple of times. I think it was Ethan who said, “Well, make sure [Wade's] not on the phone.”

JR [doing Lundegaard]: “Wait, Wade it’s – oh, I’ll hold.” And the other line I always think about is, “Ah – I’m cooperating here.”

While making that film, did you realize how great it was going to be?
WM [fondly]: Yes. I read the script, and I thought, “This is great.” It was the Coen brothers, so I know everyone in Hollywood who counted would see it. It was the role of the century, and I was the guy for it.

[My casting in that film] is not an apocryphal story. I auditioned over and over, and then I flew my skinny ass to New York to audition yet again when I found out they were still reading for that role. I walked in and said, “I want to read again.” And I said, “If you give this role to someone else, I’ll shoot your dog.”




Posted on April 10, 2008 in Interviews by
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