The Sunday Conversation: William H. Macy

Oscar-nominated actor William H. Macy, 60, takes on his first regular series role with "Shameless," Showtime's new dramedy also starring Emmy Rossum and Joan Cusack, which premieres Jan. 9. It's based on a British series created by executive producer Paul Abbott that he and John Wells adapted for American audiences.

Your character, Frank Gallagher, is introduced with someone saying, "Who the hell is that?" A lot of people would consider him a pretty dreadful dad, but I get the sense that you love him. Am I right about that?

Well, I do on many levels. I have a poetical license to kill here. What can be better than to have a character who's inebriated much or most of the time? There's pretty much nothing that's out of bounds for Frank.

And you do get to spend a lot of time lying down.

I do indeed. I like the character because it's novel for me, although I've played more than my share of misfits and losers and guys behind the eight ball. This is a little bit different because the reality is, Frank is quite a powerful fellow. He's very smart, he's very driven. He's got a wickedly good sense of humor. It just so happens he's decided to live outside the law.

How did you create the character?

I guess I would have to say Paul Abbott really created the character. It's based on a British series. The character was very well formed before I ever got to it. I watched their pilot before we shot our pilot, and before we shot our first season, I watched their season, and I've held myself to that because it's outrageously good.

"Shameless" is like the anti-"Brothers & Sisters." It's a big family dramedy but on the other end of the economic scale, which is not new territory for British film and television, but it is here. It's unusual to see an American series about poor people, even though it's timely.

It couldn't come at a better time. I do know it took [executive producer] John Wells almost eight years to get this thing off the ground for many reasons. It's bold, it's shameless, it's not by any stretch of the imagination traditional television. It is to a certain extent groundbreaking material, and I can understand the networks would have some trepidation before doing something like this. But it seems perfect now with the economic meltdown. It seems completely timely.

How would you describe a William H. Macy role?

I would hope and flatter myself that there is depth and breadth to the different kinds of roles I've gotten to play. I certainly was worried that after "Fargo" I would repeat that role ad nauseam, but in fact it's not turned out that way. I've been a lucky guy. I've gotten to play all different kinds of characters, and this one is a grand amalgam of all of those.

There a couple of scenes that stand out from early episodes: Pink furry handcuffs. Need I say more? Your sex scene with Joan Cusack is hilarious.

What an actor she is! I've known Joan for a long, long time. I actually babysat Joan Cusack. I started acting in Chicago, and I knew her dad and I knew the Pivens, who lived across the street. And I babysat them a couple of times, or at least that's my story and I'm sticking with it. Byrne Piven [father of Jeremy] was one of the stalwart Chicago actors. I had a theater company called the St. Nicholas Theater Company that I'd started with Dave Mamet and Steven Schachter. And Byrne Piven acted with us several times, and he took me under his wing. He would hire me to come up to Evanston to do light carpentry. I think half the time he actually needed something fixed, and half the time he was throwing work my way because he knew I needed it. And the Cusacks lived right across the street. Joan's mom still talks about a set of bookshelves that I built that are right inside their front door.

It must have been difficult to film that sex scene with her without bursting into laughter.

I must say, every once in a while the cast and I stop dead in our tracks. I love the way the series combines this high farce — it's hilarious — but it's got this underbelly of reality to it. Times are tough in this country, and this family reflects that. I've never seen this on television, the combination of farce and kitchen sink drama, it's quite new.

How important do you think good writing is, and why do you think Hollywood undervalues writers?

On the one hand, they don't undervalue writers. Everybody realizes the script is all. That's why every once in a while there will be a bidding war and they'll pay outrageous amounts of money for a good script. The most common Hollywood story is that they'll go crazy for some script and spend a million and a half dollars for it and then rewrite the whole thing. It all starts with the writer, and to my way of thinking, it basically ends with the writer. If you get a good boffo story that's well written, that's irreplaceable. There ain't an actor born who couldn't be replaced. Directors, scenic designers, all of that can be replaced. Writing is the bottom line. Why are writers treated with such disrespect? I do not know.

I'm wondering whether an influence on your respect for writing is David Mamet, whom you've worked with since you met at Goddard College.

Certainly he taught me everything I know, so I got a good dose of respect for the writer. The way I grew up, you learned the lines, you learned them dead on accurately and you say exactly those lines, and I've always been scandalized when I've seen actors come in and paraphrase or put all these grace notes before the lines.

Hollywood isn't known for its long-lasting marriages. Why do you think yours is the exception to the rule?

I would say, marry Felicity Huffman and you're golden. We grew up onstage together. We do love what we do for a living. We ask each other about our roles, we ask acting advice, we get notes from each other. It keeps us close. There's nothing more flattering than getting a call in the middle of the day from Flicka saying, "I've got this moment. It's just not working." We brainstorm about what possibly could help. I do the same thing with her.

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