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MACY, WILLIAM H.: Pleasantville

PAUL FISCHER has lunch with William H. Macy at a trendy Beverly Hills eatery – and has time to actually eat while Macy tells him how he managed to cry all day for a scene in Pleasantville.

It was the trendy Beverly Hills eatery, Red, that was the meeting place for an interview with William Macy, who was fashionably early. Red is a trendy little joint in the heart of Beverly Hills, indicated by its luminous red exterior, and a perfect hangout for celebrities and their pets. That’s why Macy chose the restaurant: "because it's one place you can bring your dog." In between disciplining his dog (a large furry thing that was trying to pick up a dog at another table) and chewing his Caesar's Salad, the perennially Macy was in relaxed form.

There are no big parts, only big actors

Macy is the Everyman figure of recent American cinema and one of Hollywood's busiest actors, but that hasn't always been the case. The red-headed actor's harmonica-playing bit in an ad for Gap's Easy Fit Jeans signalled the Miami native had hit the mainstream. But long before Macy became a well-known face, his voice was a familiar staple on the tube, where he pronounced that the antiperspirant Secret was "strong enough for a man, but made for a woman."

Now, he's the face that everyone trusts in their movies, the flawed human character behind such films as his Oscar-nominated Fargo, or recent works such as Psycho and Pleasantville. The saying: There are no big parts, only big actors, applies to Bill Macy. "If it's a great script, I'm in; I'm in over the script over anything." It's never the size of the role for Macy, just the depth of the material.

"Secondly, the thing I ask myself is: Do I want to play the character? Sometimes I might read great scripts but didn't want to play the character, because I've played it before, or it's simply too unflattering."

"I hate to cry. I hate to watch it, and I hate to indulge in it."

Macy had no such qualms about Pleasantville, a surreal comedy-drama in which two modern teenagers find themselves transported to a black and white sitcom of the fifties. Macy is George Parker, the archetypal sitcom dad who loses his grip - a Honey-I'm-home hubby in a 50s suburb horrified to find that his black-and-white world is turning to colour. Again, it was the script for this original movie by first-time director Gary Ross, that appealed to the 48-year old actor.

"It is a great and imaginative story. What a great allegory to be telling, especially now. And, of course, Gary's films, as a writer, both Big and Dave, I think, are so well-crafted and so well-done."

Macy didn't research the old classic TV shows that inspired the fictional world of Pleasantville - but then, he doesn't believe in doing research of any kind. "I'm not one for research. I come from the school that everything I need is on the page. The sitcom parts were really play-acting, just shallow, bad acting, and great fun to do. It's pretty simple to act badly", he says smilingly. What he does find difficult, surprisingly, is to express outward emotion such as crying. For Macy, the only difficult scene in what he found to be a remarkably easy shoot was when Ross expected him to cry. "I hate to cry. I hate to watch it, and I hate to indulge in it. I don't like emotions in any way because I'm a Lutheran," Macy says.

"If you love beauty, then you have to have ugliness"

He recalls informing director Ross to "have your ducks lined up because I can't do it a bunch of times. So we do the first rehearsal and I burst into tears. I wept like a baby. We did the first take, I wept like a baby. To make a long story short, I wept all day. I think I needed a good cry."

Pleasantville is an allegorical satire on 50sAmerica. Macy sees it as "a wonderful and apt allegory for America from the '50's through the '90's. Just as they ate from the fruit of knowledge in Pleasantville, that's what America did. We just kicked ass in World War II. We ruled the world. Everybody was white. There were 2.2 kids per family. And life was swell. Everything was possible. And we tried to present that -- we did present that on television." He sees the film as being very relevant to a colour-saturated nineties movie audience. "What I took from Pleasantville is, don't be afraid of the truth. It's a good thing. And if you love beauty, then you have to have ugliness. If you want to succeed, you've got to fail. If you want to be happy, you've got to be sad. Life is complicated."

Macy's own life seems far less complicated than the characters he has played of late. Raised in Miami, Macy first took a shine to entertaining as a teen, when he played guitar in a folk-singing trio and appeared in high school plays. It wasn't enough to turn the future Thespian on to his eventual career path, however. He entered Bethany College prepared to study veterinary science.

"The first and best thing he ever gave me was a respect for acting." on David Mamet

More work in student productions changed Macy's mind, along with his major and alma mater. He headed off to Goddard College's esteemed drama program, where he became the protégé of rising playwright and filmmaker David Mamet (Wag the Dog, The Untouchables). Macy concedes that his love of acting stemmed from the fact that "it's the only thing I've had any success at. I wasn't a great academic at high school, and then I did this play, I found success and fell into it."

It was Mamet, his one-time drama teacher, that became his biggest influence. "The first and best thing he ever gave me was a respect for acting. He told me it was an honourable profession, and that the world needed actors and that it was about telling the truth." While he was growing up, he didn't have such attitudes. "The Russian patron saint of actors was also the patron saint of pawnbrokers and prostitutes, and I think most of the world puts all of us in the same category. It is a bit suspect, I suppose, this profession, and I guess acting and prostitution do share the same rigidity. If anyone's willing to f… you and pay you for it, I guess you're a prostitute; and if anyone's willing to hire you and pay you for it, you're an actor."

Currently, he's shooting the action comedy Mystery Men, alongside Geoffrey Rush. "It's about superheroes. Captain Amazing (Greg Kinnear) is the superhero who keeps this town together, and his arch-rival (Geoffrey Rush) has just been released from prison and gets the better of Captain Amazing. And everything goes to shit. So, other superheroes step into the breach, and they've always been jealous of Captain Amazing anyway. Plus, they're losers. Total losers. I play the Shoveler. I fight crime with a shovel. Janeane Garofalo is the Bowler. She fights crime with a bowling ball. Paul Reubens is Mr. Spleen and he fights crime, guess how – that's right - by belching and farting. It's a wonderful story about stepping up and figuring out how to vanquish the bad guys."

"I feel like Tom Cruise but I look like Howdy Doody."

First and foremost, Macy still considers himself to being a character actor and has no illusions of becoming a leading man. "I wouldn't mind being the guy. Wouldn't mind getting the girl. But I've got to face reality ... I'm a character guy. I feel like Tom Cruise but I look like Howdy Doody."

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William Macy


William Macy

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