William H. Macy Interview – Candid Thoughts on Acting, the Catholic Church and Marriage

William H. Macy as Father Brendan in "The Sessions" co-starring John Hawkes and Helen Hunt. Photo: Courtesy of Fox Searchlight Pictures

Equally at home on the stage, screen, or television, William H. Macy as been honored multiple times by his peers, winning an Emmy and SAG Award as well as an Independent Spirit Award as Best Supporting Actor for his memorable portrayal of Jerry Lundergaard in “Fargo.” His television movie, “Door to Door,” which he co-wrote, received 12 Emmy nominations, winning six, including Outstanding Made for Television Movie.   His credits, too numerous to list, include “Lincoln Lawyer,” “The Cooler,” “Seabiscuit,” “Ghosts of Mississippi,” “Wag the Dog,” “Boogie Nights,”  “Air Force One,” “The Client,” and “Shadows and Fog.” 


Along with David Mamet and Steven Schachter, Macy co-founded the St. Nicholas Theatre in Chicago originating roles in several of Mamet’s most famous plays including “The Water Engine” and “American Buffalo,” a revival of which was performed in London, moving on for a record-breaking run at the Atlantic Theater Company in New York, which he and David Mamet co-founded.  Macy met Felicity Huffman at the Atlantic and they are now married and have two daughters.   Huffman has been starring in the hit television series “Desperate Housewives.”

Macy’s latest film, in which he plays a Catholic priest, is “The Sessions,” a tender story based on the life of Mark O’Brian, a Polio-victim who lived his life in an iron lung and desired to experience sex.  Written and directed by Polio survivor Ben Lewin, based on O’Brian’s article “On Seeing a Sex Surrogate,” the film stars also John Hawkes as Mark and Helen Hunt as the sex surrogate.  


Macy recently sat down with a select group of journalists to discuss his experience with that film as well the impact the Catholic Church had on his marriage and the following has been edited for content and continuity for print purposes.


What attracted you to the role of the priest?


Macy:  I liked that he’s a good guy and he is a priest.  There’s an anomaly right there.  (laughter)  The reality is there are thousands upon thousands of priests who labor every single day to help people.  That’s their job description – to help people and it’s nice to be able to play a good guy. 


"I liked that he's a good guy and he is a priest." Photo Courtesy of Fox Searchlight Pictures

Do you think real priests would have supported your character’s (Father Brendan) unorthodox decision?


Macy:  Earlier this morning I was wondering if I polled ten or twenty priests and asked them how they would answer this question:  A guy wants to have relations with a woman outside of marriage, what would you say?  I don’t know what the answer would be, but I bet there would be some no’s in that group, but I wonder what would happen if I asked the same group of priests after seeing this movie.  I think the majority of them, or perhaps all of them, would say that in this case, this priest did the right thing.


Did your character live vicariously through Brian’s explicit sexual conversations?


Macy:   I made a conscious decision not to go down the road of this is a vicarious thing for the priest.  I made it straight ahead that this priest had sworn to foreswear women willingly and accepted it.  This is not what it’s about.  It’s not a vicarious thrill.  He was figuring out how to help this guy.


Did you know priests personally and how did it affect your life?


Macy:  I cut my acting teeth in New York City, off-Broadway.  A lot of Jesuit priests were also writers and I knew a Jesuit priest who was directing a lot.   The Jesuits are a very liberal house of the Catholic Church


"In my wedding vows, I promised my wife, Felicity Huffman, that I would stand up when she came to the table." Courtesy Photo

When I got married, my wife, (Felicity Huffman) who grew up Catholic, wanted to do a pre-cana and I put my foot down.  I said I wouldn’t do it.  A pre-cana is when you go to a Catholic priest before you get married and he talks to you about marriage.  I wanted no part of that, but as we all know, marriage is about compromises, so I agreed to go to one.  We wound up going to seven sessions.  He was an incredibly cool guy and I would go as far as to say that he changed the face of our marriage. 


What kind of questions did he ask?


Macy:  I wanted to talk about the ceremony, which he said we could, but asked me what kind of marriage would you like and that put me back on my heels.  During all those sessions, we talked about what kind of marriage we wanted.  It was a whacky idea but it was quite effective.


What were some of the decisions you made? 


Macy: (big pause) I don’t know how personal to get.  I’ll tell you this.  I wrote my wedding vows and three days before the service I read them and I thought this is trite.  Even I don’t know what they mean.  It was all this poetical bullshit about what kind of a husband I was going to be.  So I threw them away and my wedding vows were a list of things that I would do and I’ve tried to stick with them.  It wasn’t romantic, but I named ten things that I would do and one of them was to stand up when she came to the table and when I don’t do it, my wife stands beside me and clears her throat.  (laughter)  Oh my God, it just makes her weak in the knees when I do it.  She loves that.  (laughter)


William H. Macy and his wife Felicity Huffman pose with their daughters after the successful couple each get a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. Courtesy Photo

You both have very successful careers.  Do you have long periods of separation and how do you deal with that?


Macy:  It’s not terrible.  Perhaps the longest we’ve ever gone is six or seven weeks. Our kids are old enough now so it’s really great when you get to go away for two weeks.  No harm.  No foul.  But my wife is a great mom and she’s done the heavy lifting.


Getting back to your character.  We know this is based on the life of Mark O’Brian, but was the priest part of Brian’s life?


Macy:  As I understand it from Ben, this is a fabrication on his part and he designed this character because he felt the audience needed this Greek chorus.  He loved the idea of posing the questions in bold face, so it was a great invention.  That said, Mark O’Brian was religious, went to church regularly, had a relationship with the church, and we can assume with a priest, but as far as I know, I’m not based on anyone in particular.


William H. Macy's Father Brendan has to decide whether he can give permission to Polio victim Mark O'Brian to have sex with a sex surrogate played by Helen Hunt. Photo Courtesy of Fox Searchlight Pictures

Do you think a sex surrogate would be acceptable to the church and you’ve actually been around people with disabilities?


Macy:  I don’t know what the Catholic Church would say.  The question arises is she a hooker or is there a difference between a prostitute and a sexual surrogate and my character responds, I think there is.  I personally think there is too because I did a film on disabilities a couple of years ago called “Door to Door.”  I played a guy with Cerebral Palsy and through that I got involved with United Cerebral Palsy.  It’s a magnificent organization – sort of an umbrella organization for people with disabilities and I was their spokesperson for a couple of years, so I’m not unfamiliar with the world of disabilities. Number one, they want to get a job because they want to get their own apartment because they want to live on their own and Number two, they want to meet somebody, just like everybody else, and it’s an issue.  Think about it for a second.  You’ve got a high I.Q. and a fire in the belly and a good strong beating heart and you can’t move your hands or your legs.  Does that mean that sexuality is not available to you for your whole life?  Where does it say that?  What if you’re just paraplegic and can’t move your legs.  You still want to meet someone.  Well, how do you do that if your body is all bent up.  I went to a convention once and this woman, who was a paraplegic, wrote a “how to” book on sexuality for people in wheel chairs - nuts and bolts kind of stuff.  I mean, God bless her.


Was her book published?


Macy:  Yes, but it’s probably a small market – “How To Make Love in a Wheelchair.”  They’re not going to be lining up at the bookstores.


You’ve done a myriad of different characters in your career.  Is your approach the same for each character or do you use different acting tools for different characters?


Macy:  I think I’m rather shallow.  I think my job first is to understand the script, the story that the writer is trying to tell and then to understand how my character fits into that.  How am I’m different at the end than I was in the beginning?  That’s pretty much it.  I think a good script gives you all the information you need on the page.  You don’t need a lot of research.  I don’t need to know what a priest feels to answer that question because it’s individual.


"He (Father Brendan) is ministering to the heart, not just about sexual intercourse..." Photo Courtesy of Fox Searchlight Pictures

How did your relationship with the character of Brian (John Hawkes) change over the course of your conversations?


Macy:  I think the initial question was do I have your blessing to have sex outside of marriage, but what he ends up ministering throughout the movie is tell me about my heart.  It’s not the sex.  It’s his emotions.  He (Brian) falls in love with Cheryl (Helen Hunt) and she with him, and I think the priest is surprised by that.  He is ministering to the heart, not just about sexual intercourse, but about emotions.  That’s the big question that it raises for the guy.  It surprised me watching the film and I think it’s probably a surprise to the priest too.


How many more episodes to go on the Showtime series “Shameless.”  Anything shocking? 


Macy: Two more episodes and we’re finished for Season Three.  There’s nothing shocking in “Shameless.”  (laughter)  Nothing untoward.   Everyone is fully clothed sitting around reading.  (laughter)


William H. Macy as Frank Gallagher in the hit television series "Shameless." Courtesy Photo

What would happen if you cut your hair?


Macy:  It’s not clear what they would do if I cut my hair in the hiatus, but as soon as I get a job, we’re going to find out, if I get another job in the hiatus.  But I play this raging alcoholic so the hair is just perfect for it. 


What do you think would happen if your character, Frank Gallagher, became sober?


Macy:  The series would end and life as we know it.  (laughs)  Interestingly, this season they’re going to pose that question.  As I understand it, I go to jail for something and I find out from there that I have choices to make and I think at the end of the last episode I’m throwing up blood, so I suddenly realize that something’s gotta’ give which will be a big question for Season Four, God willing.


EDITOR’S NOTE:  Here’s a brief synopsis of the acclaimed television series released by Showtime Publicity:  The Gallagher family:  Dad's a drunk, mom split long ago, eldest daughter Fiona tries to hold the family together. Eldest son Philip trades his physics tutoring skills for sexual favors from neighborhood girls. Middle son Ian is gay. Youngest daughter Debbie is stealing money from her UNICEF collection. Ten-year-old Carl is a budding sociopath and an arsonist, and toddler Liam is - well, he might actually be black, but nobody has a clue how.



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