This winter, ABILITY’s Chet Cooper caught up with William H. Macy for the first time in a decade. The last time the two spoke was on the heels of the actor’s 2002 cable film Door to Door, in which he portrayed Bill Porter, a real-life salesman with cerebral palsy. That project earned Macy two Emmys-one for his performance, and a second for co-writing the script. Perhaps best known for his Oscar-nominated role in 1996’s dark-comedy thriller Fargo, he continues to toggle between drama and comedy, television and film. His part in the 2007 buddy road movie, Wild Hogs, was not only a box office success, but also turned the actor into an avid motorcyclist.
In his most recent film, The Sessions, Macy plays a priest who helps a man with a severe disability find personal fulfillment through a sex surrogate. The role is a 180-degree turn from his substance abusing anti-hero on the current hit Showtime series Shameless. Macy and his wife, Desperate Housewives’ star Felicity Huffman, both recently received stars on Hollywood’s Walk of Fame. Calling in from his home near Aspen, the actor reflects on work, motorcycles, and his advocacy.
Chet Cooper: How are you?
William Macy: I’m good. I’m in Colorado for the holidays.
Cooper: So you’re a skier?
Macy: I am. We’ve got a house down valley from Aspen, and we’ve been coming here for years. My wife grew up here.
Cooper: Did you say that you wanted to start inviting me to Colorado for the holidays?
Macy: I did say that.
Cooper: Are you still shooting Shameless?
Macy: We’ve finished for the season. Afterwards I took a celebratory motorcycle trip for two days to clear my head, and then we came here. I used to ride motorcycles as a kid, and I got around on a bike the first time I lived in Los Angeles. But I’ve been hooked on bikes ever since I did this silly motorcycle movie, Wild Hogs, a couple of years ago. I’ve been riding for some time now.
Two of the guys from Shameless and I have done a couple of trips together. But I also ride by myself; I like that a lot. Two summers ago I rode here from LA. It took about six days. I saw all the national parks. Any deep hole in the ground I stopped and looked at. It was such a legendary trip.
Cooper: You did that alone?
Macy: I did. Everyone tells you how stupidly dangerous it is, but I ride like an old man. I’m very, very cautious, and I keep away from the fast bikes, because even at my age, I can’t stay off that throttle. Have you ever ridden one of those crotch rockets? It’s astounding. A combination of youth, testosterone and torque; that kind of speed is a bad combo. (laughs)
Cooper: You don’t really know you’re even going that fast, and they’re so quiet. My bike is pretty loud, so people on the road know I’m there. The saying is that “noise saves lives.”
Macy: Two guys from my show, Steve Howey and Justin Chatwin, both ride: We drove from LA to Colorado last summer and had the best time. On our last trip, from LA to Aspen, Harley sponsored us. We took a ton of pictures and shot some footage. We’re going to edit it and see what we can do with it.
We also rode from LA to San Francisco and back. I wrote an article about that for the New York Times…We’d go through San Francisco and they’d set off car alarms with the noise from their bikes.
Cooper: How old is your daughter right now?
Macy: I’ve got two, one 10, one 12.
Cooper: Then our last interview was 10 years ago, oh, my gosh. Because you say in the interview that your wife [actress Felicity Huffman] is pregnant. That’s amazing. I sent you the link; I think you’ll get a kick out of reading it and looking back. You were just finishing the movie Stealing Sinatra. That’s how far back it goes, if you remember that movie.
Macy: I can remember that far back. (laughs)
Cooper: (laughs) The thing I noticed in that old interview is that I asked you if you knew about Media Access and you said, “No, tell me about it.” Then, before going over to a screening of The Sessions recently, I saw you at Media Access. So it was like full-circle.
Macy: Sweet. I love that.
Cooper: I saw you a couple of times at the CSUN (California State University of Northridge) conference. What took you there?
Macy: The technology conference?
Cooper: Yes, you did some cool things with video, and you did something with your daughter. There was some funny stuff; do you remember that?
Macy: No I don’t.
Cooper: There was a guy who had technology that helped people communicate-
Macy: Oh, yeah, a guy from New York. That’s why I was there, yes. His son was born with cerebral palsy, and he was an advertising executive. He’s devoted his life to improving communicative technology, and he’s done a lot of good.
Cooper: His product was fabulous, and he definitely moved the needle with what he created, but the iPad knocked him out.
Macy: Because the iPad can do it better. I bet he’s pleased about that. He’s the kind of guy that says, “Let’s get the technology, I don’t care who does it.” That iPad is amazing; my wife has one.
Cooper: You can’t compete with something that’s selling for a few hundred dollars and is accessible to everyone. So let’s talk a bit about The Sessions and how you managed to get wrangled into that.
Macy: The script came to me in the normal way, through my agency, and I liked it. It was a good story, very moving and unusual. Two things in it were near and dear to my heart: One, I had lots of opinions about Americans and the way we view sex, and this script was so refreshingly candid, human and uplifting. Two, it’s set in the world of disabilities, and yet the script is not about disabilities. It just happens to concern a guy with a disability, which is the way I think we need to tell stories. It just sparked the rebel in me, and it was not that much work, really, it was probably a week of shooting to do all those scenes.
So I said, “Yes,” which was pretty much a no-brainer, especially to be in a movie with John Hawkes and Helen Hunt. I loved my character, and having done Shameless for three years, it was nice to play a good guy with a relatively pure heart. I found it outrageous to play a priest… I don’t know what the Catholic Church thinks of our film, but I flatter myself that they liked it, and that they would like the decisions my character made, even though it’s against church doctrine. I don’t know.
Cooper: Once Fox picked the film up for distribution, did you traveled a lot to promote it?
Macy: Yes, there was some arm-twisting to do as much publicity as I could manage. I think the results are paying off, too. As I understand it, the film has done well, and it might do some good. We’ll see.
Cooper: You mentioned that this country has some issues around sexuality. What are your views compared to what you think are standard folkways and mores?
Macy: Because I’ve got two daughters, I’m right in the thick of, “Can I see this film, Papa? Can I see that film, Papa?” That’s where ratings come in. And I’ve discovered that I can’t trust the ratings board at all, because they have-to my mind-a perverted point of view about what’s appropriate for children. They think that if you see any part of a male or female anatomy, we have to protect children from it, which is not true, and they think almost any level of violence is okay for children, which is absolutely not true… They’re really off the mark. Our glorification of violence is ripping society apart. I don’t want my children exposed to it.
So much of the violence in the movies is b.s. violence: A guy in the middle of a large city with 14 people lying on the ground that he’s just killed with his superhuman powers, and there’s not a cop to be found. Not a siren to be heard. No price to be paid. That’s not true, and I don’t like that sort of stuff. On the other hand, there’s sex. Our film, The Sessions, has to be one of the most moral, uplifting, humanizing films that I’ve been involved with in a long time, but it got an R rating. Batman got a PG-13. I loved Batman, don’t get me wrong, but that kind of mindless violence is not good for young children. And there’s nothing in The Sessions that children of a certain age should not see. My kids are just 10 and 12, they’re a little bit young for it, but if I’ve got to choose which one they were going to see, I would choose The Sessions every single day.
Cooper: Who’s behind assigning a film a rating?
Macy: The industry itself. And let me say quickly, I am against censorship in any form. I think anybody should be able to make any movie he or she wants and let the public decide. If it’s disgusting and they don’t want to see it, they won’t go. I believe in the audience. As an actor, early on, you learn that the audience is never wrong. And if you think they are wrong, you need to find a different way to make a living. Collectively the audience is smarter than you will ever, ever be. The reason they came up with the ratings board is that there are a lot of movies out there, and parents need some guidance. Not only for the kids, but for adults, as well. If you don’t like to see a certain kind of film, there should be some rating, so that you know what you’re getting into. But the present system doesn’t work.
Cooper: The ratings not only affect viewership, but potential earnings.
Macy: Oh, absolutely. There are hundreds of millions of dollars at stake in one rating point. The difference between R and PG-13 is huge. The ratings system is so bogus and people know it. Fewer and fewer people care. The ratings board has sort of exposed itself. But my problem is, as a parent, there’s this area of film that my daughters want to see. They’re not my kind of films, I don’t want to go see them, but I really want to know whether my daughters can see them or not. The morality of what the ratings board is doing now escapes me. I don’t get it.
Apropos to The Sessions, I worked with United Cerebral Palsy (UCP) for a couple of years. The whole issue of disabilities remains near and dear to my heart. In the broadest terms, I felt that the recent presidential election had to do, vis-à-vis, with the safety net. On one side, the charge was that the safety net is too low. We can’t afford it. It’s not good for people to have the safety net too low… People can take care of themselves better than we allow them to. So the question arises, where should that safety net be? And I think it’s a legitimate subject for debate. I think in all the smoke and flash of the campaign, it was not clearly discussed, and I hope some day it will be.
So there will always be people with disabilities. And by my estimation, the scorecard for the way we take care of those who need our help the most, those at the very bottom of that safety net, is pretty dismal. And that has to change.
Cooper: The National Institutes of Health did a study that found that the average person experiences 13 years of one or more disabilities in their lifetime. Basically that has to do with aging. As we get older, we lose our hearing, we get osteoporosis… As we go “over the hill” of the bell-shaped curve of life, we start to fall apart more rapidly. As medicine gets better, we live longer, and then there’s the issue of having disabilities for an extended period of time because of medicine, which brings up the quality of life issue. Until people who are absent-minded about this concept of disability are affected by it, it’s not on their minds.
Macy: That’s right.
Cooper: I used to use Vice President Dick Cheney as an example. There was this push around gay rights-a lingering question about whether people were born with a genetic disposition to be gay, or if it was something in their upbringing, or even a choice. But you never heard Cheney, a known conservative, talk negatively about gay issues, because his daughter, whom he loves, is gay. So he never took part in that discussion because he knew better; he knew it wasn’t anything to do with the upbringing, because he brought her up. This makes me think of Myers Briggs and Jungian theory? Are you familiar with those?
Macy: A little.
Cooper: The concept is that there are four core types of personalities on the planet, and about 75 percent are what some call sensory types. Meaning they use their senses—touch something, feel it, smell it to understand it. About 25 percent are intuitives. You’re probably an intuitive. A lot of people in the artistic arena are abstract, intuitive thinkers. They can think outside the box, if you will. But the sensories are the ones who are pushing what you just described most of the time; they insist that “a rule is a rule is a rule.” Until it affects them and they can touch it, feel it and taste it, they don’t get it. Cheney had been directly involved with his daughter’s growing up and he understood it from a personal sensory level.
Macy: That makes sense. Felicity talks about the introvert-extrovert concept a lot. She’s done a lot of Jungian reading.
Cooper: So what are you?
Macy: I am probably an intuitive introvert. She talks about the difference between some men and women. Women, in order to recharge their batteries, gather in groups. They can recharge their batteries with their sisters. I tend to recharge my batteries in solitude, therefore the motorcycle trips. I need to be alone. As a matter of fact, I have to be careful. I could turn into a hermit.
Cooper: It seems like there’s a tendency for actors to be introverts. People would not think that because they see them on stage, on film, in TV, but they’re playing other characters.
Macy: In the weirdest way, I am never as comfortable in my own skin as when I was a stage actor in the 20 years before I started doing film. When the lights came up and I was on stage, I felt secure and comfortable-even though there was a house filled with several hundred people. And then I would go to the opening night party afterwards, trying to mingle, and I have never felt more uncomfortable. It was sensory overload.
Cooper: I guess it’s about your comfort zone. If you’re an introvert, the comfort zone is more solitude, more alone, than in a group. The extroverts actually get energy. They do want to go out in public and be with the public. They don’t like being closed off, which is the opposite of what you’re sharing. As you talk about the motorcycle ride, I think of Paul Pelland who now writes for ABILITY Magazine; he wants to ride his motorcycle for one million miles; he said when he gets on his bike he’s just in a different place in his mind.
Macy: Steven, Justin and I had just done a particularly gnarly section of the Pacific Coast Highway, and we had mis-planned our day, so it was cold and it got dark. It was a windy road right along the coast with a drop-off.
Cooper: I get anxious just thinking about that.
Macy: We were winding along there in the dark, and when we finally pulled up to get some gas, we were sitting there and I said, “It’s hard to worry about your career when you’re doing that!” And we laughed and laughed and laughed. That’s one of the things I love about the bike. It is a communal thing; the three of us bonded. I wrote about it in the Times piece: During the San Francisco trip, we decided to say goodbye the last time we gassed up because we’d be heading off in different directions when we drove into LA, and as we were getting into gear for that last stretch, I said, “I love you guys.” It was out of my mouth before I knew it, and I thought to myself, “Why, why did you have to say that?” And they both responded, “Love you, too, Bill.”
Then, after we did our trip to Colorado, they went on to Denver to ship their bikes home, and we said goodbye at Independence Pass-I was riding back home-and I’d never felt so alone in my life, saying goodbye to them. I’d just spent six days with them. And I realized I forgot to tell them I loved them!
Macy: And when I got home, there was a text from them saying, “We forgot to tell you we love you!” (laughter) And these are the most unlikely guys you’ll ever find that would be speaking that way. But it’s such a weird combination. You’re on the bike, and it is so completely solitary, vaguely dangerous, it takes a lot of your brain to keep yourself safe, and so your subconscious is just galloping along with no fetters on it. You can’t control your thoughts. And then you pull over and stop, and we’re like a klatch of teenage girls. “Wow, what about that turn? What about this? I hit a bug. Did you see that guy?” We’re just chattering along for the 10 minutes while we gas up, and then it becomes that solitary thing again. It’s that weird combination that I just adore.
Cooper: When I first got on a bike I noticed as another bike was approaching they waved or nodded in recognition. The general public doesn’t quite understand this sense of community. And I think part of it is the risk—I think we’re all aware of this, and we’re still riding.
Macy: There’s another guy who’s hurtling down the highway at 65 miles an hour with nothing but a leather jacket on to keep them safe.
Cooper: (laughs) Yeah! I still ride motocross. When I get to a track, there’s bonding with other people on the track—even when you find yourself racing somebody. It’s just this thing that happens. And there’s this immediate connection, the same thing you were just describing, with complete strangers. I haven’t told any of them I love them yet, but I’m thinking about it now.
Macy: Think long and hard! (laughter) That one went right. It could have gone horribly wrong. Getting back to disabilities, you know one of the things that killed me the most when I was working with UCP? The parents.
They have a program where-it sounds simplistic-but it’s where parents who have a kid with a disability, especially severe disabilities, are given a babysitter so the parents could have a date, go out to a movie, take a night off. The stories I read about that made me weep.
These people that started their lives together, had a kid with a severe disability, and five, six, eight, 10 years after, down the line, they had not been together as a couple, as a romantic couple, they haven’t gone to a movie, gone on a romantic dinner, gone away for a weekend. It was all gone for them the second their kid was born. And mostly it’s because, irrespective of finances, they didn’t trust leaving their kid with anyone. A kid with severe disabilities needs specific care. It’s not like you can call the teenage girl next door and have her sit with the kid. But UCP would supply experts so that they felt safe to leave the kid, and go off on a date. It was huge for them. And I thought, “Oh, my God, something as simple as that?” And that’s getting back to the social safety net and where it should be…
Cooper: Was that the New York UCP or national?
Macy: That was national. In LA they have a wonderful organization, too, and their big thrust is accessible housing. They called me their ambassador. In my travels, it was the same refrain over and over again: “I want to get a job and I want to meet somebody. I want to live on my own, have an apartment, meet a chick.”
Macy: It’s what everybody wants. That’s why The Sessions rings so true. It’s what it means to be alive. I went to an event, and there was a couple there that had just gotten married. Oh, my God, she was radiant. He could walk; she was in a chair. But they had met through one of these organizations and they had just gotten married. Boy, talk about a radiant couple.
Cooper: So what’s next on your agenda? Is there another movie or TV project coming up?
Macy: I’ve got a couple of indie films lined up, and I want to move into directing. I’ve got a film that I’m pushing as hard as I can. And God willing, perhaps this spring I’ll direct a film. I feel confident that we’re going to do season four of “Shameless”, which will start the end of next summer, so I’ve got some time here. The guy I write with, Steven Schachter, and I wrote a sort of a kids’ film, a wizard movie, for the Hallmark Channel, and we owe them a rewrite on that, which I’ve got to get to work on, and hopefully I’ll pull the trigger and shoot that this spring.
Articles in the William H. Macy Issue; Senator Harkin — Rethink Childhood Restraint Practice; Ashley Fiolek — Sending 2012 Out With a Bang; Humor — Trying to (Maybe) Be More Loving; Children’s Book — Rewriting a Difficult Childhood; My Brother — My Secret; China — Puppeteer With a Purpose; Long Haul Paul — New Column by a Biker With MS; DRLC — Making the Obamacare Fair for All; William H Macy — Enjoying This Stage of His Life; Geri Jewell — Last Minute 2013 Resolutions; Haitian Leader — Changing Attitudes on Disability; A Mother’s Poem — My Daughter’s Ability; marketability — An eSSENTIAL Insert; ABILITY’s Crossword Puzzle; Events and Conferences… subscribe