Oscar-nominated actor, two-time Emmy and Screen Actor’s Guild award winner William H. Macy has spent his career playing character roles. He may be best known for his break-out Academy Award nominated role in "Fargo" and his current Screen Actor’s Guild nominated role as Frank Gallagher on the Showtime television series "Shameless". Prior to working in movies and TV, Macy spent 20 years on the stage where together with playwright, screenwriter, and Pulitzer Prize winner David Mamet founded a theater company in Chicago.
In 2014 Macy made his directorial debut with an independent drama called "Rudderless", a film in which music is a key element, and something Macy knows a little about. A self-taught musician, Macy began playing the guitar in his teens and performed in a folk group early on. It’s music that eventually lead to his love for the stage and acting. Today his instrument of choice is the ukulele, an instrument in which he finds comfort and solace.
We had a chance to chat with Mr. Macy on the Warner Bros. lot where he currently shoots "Shameless", about how music is an integral part of his life and in his work and as a personal escape from the pressures of Hollywood.
AXS: Thank you so much for taking time to meet with me. I know you’re busy wrapping up Season 6 of "Shameless".
WILLIAM H. MACY: Sure, my pleasure.
AXS: My first question is simply which came first music or acting?
WHM: What a great question. I gotta say music. My brother, who’s seven years older, went off to college, came back with a guitar. I was maybe 12 or 13. He formed this group in college and they called themselves the Bards Five; in the days of Peter, Paul and Mary, the Kingston Trio, the Limelighters, Chad Mitchell and all those guys. I was just swept up. So one thing led to another and I begged my parents for a guitar and they got me a four string tenor guitar. My brother taught me some chords. Then my brother moved up to a big fat Martin dreadnought, which he still has, which is flawless, that guitar is very old, 35-40 years old, and I bought the little Gibson that he had. I started singing in high school with two other people a la Peter, Paul and Mary. My brother knew this song that was wildly inappropriate for a 13 or 14-year old to sing in a high school talent show. The punch line was “Your poppa ate your poppa but your poppa don’t know.” It’s all about illegitimate kids and I sang it in a talent show. It just swept the place. They were eating their young they loved it so much. It got me, it just launched my career. It’s an odd thing to say but it launched my career. I loved being on stage, never looked back.
AXS: After high school you went off to college to study acting.
WHM: I went off to college, did plays, dropped out of that school, went to another college, Goddard College up in Vermont. A hippie school, where the only thing you really had to do was pay tuition. No grades, no requirements.
AXS: Pass, no pass?
WHM: No, it was pass, pass. Everyone passed. Interestingly a lot of people couldn’t take it, they just flew apart, they couldn’t make it more than a semester or two. They needed a goal, they needed direction, they needed rules. But I met a young fella named Dave Mamet, who was a writer -- at that point he was still an actor -- he came back as a teaching fellow at Goddard and changed my life. He taught me everything I know.
AXS: And so, was this a time in your life where you picked up the ukulele, in college?
WHM: No, I just played guitar. Not very well, but loud. It was all for me.
AXS: What type of music did you like?
WHM: Rock. I grew up in the golden age of rock ‘n roll, so I loved all of it. I was never a big go to concert kind of guy. I don’t like crowds. I’ve also had a bone to pick with concerts that are too freakin’ loud. They’re so loud I can’t hear them. I went to see Commander Cody one time in Washington D.C. and he had that song out “My papa said, ‘Son, you’re gonna drive me to drinkin’, if you don’t stop drivin’ that Hot Rod Lincoln’”. After the concert, I said to my friend, “Why didn’t he play that song?” And my buddy said, “Are you high?” I said, “Yeah, but what’s that got to do with it?” He said, “He played it twice.” It was so freakin’ loud I couldn’t discern that’s the song.
AXS: You’ve got sensitive hearing. So, which bands or artists did you listen?
WHM: I was at the store waiting for them to break open the boxes for the new Beatles albums. I had heard "Tommy" at school, I was there waiting for them to put it on the shelf. Who did I love? They always say Stones or Beatles? I was Beatles, but I love The Stones. Grateful Dead. I wasn’t a Dead-head but especially the later stuff you know, "Workingman’s Dead" and that kind of stuff. Some weird stuff like, well I got into Randy Newman kind of early. As a matter-of-fact, I was working at our theater at Goddard College, I was running lights, when Randy came to play. I asked him about "Nilsson sings Newman", they put an album together where Harry Nilsson sang and he sort of shuttered and said, “Don’t talk to me about Harry Nilsson.” So I didn’t. I was a bit eclectic because of theater. I had a fondness for 30s, 40s, some of that stuff. And particularly after I got into the ukulele and those songs sound great on the ukulele. Anything sounds good on the ukulele.
AXS: Okay, so when did you first start playing the ukulele?
WHM: I did a Paul Thomas Anderson film called "Boogie Nights" and Paul decided to have a talent show. Hey another talent show. There’s this guy in Australia who was the version of "Your Show of Shows". He had a hook and he’d pull people off stage. Paul had Lionsgate fly this guy in. He was very acerbic, very cutting, very funny. The rule was you had to do something you’d never done before, and I decided, well, I’ve never played a ukulele - it’s different tuning, different chords. So I bought a ukulele, a Martin uke that I found on Hollywood Boulevard. I still have that uke. It’s about a 1927 mahogany Martin uke. It’s got a pretty good sound to it. We [Felicity Huffman] sang a song in the talent show. Did not win. I’m still pissed off about it. And that’s when I started playing the ukulele.
AXS: It’s a funny instrument. I was thinking about that before I came here. The ukulele is a quirky, whimsical instrument - I think everyone smiles when they hear one.
WHM: It’s sort of comical. People laugh when you pull it out of the case. And they expect nothing too. As you well know when people know how to play the thing they can get so much music out of it. There’s all these great ukulele orchestras. I met this guy named Jim Beloff and he sort of single-handedly brought the ukulele back to the states and to the forefront. He started doing these sing-along's and uke fests at McCabes, places like that. He started a website called Flea Market Music and he sells music and ukuleles. Jim introduced me to all kinds of people and artists and I even recorded a song with him. He put out an album and I sang - it’s very unfortunate - but I did it anyway.
AXS: And people should know you wrote and recorded a promotional Christmas carol for "Shameless" with the cast a few years back, which is hilarious, so if people want to see the video they can go to YouTube and watch. You have a talent for writing music.
WHM: I never learned music. I’m self-taught and it’s mostly for me. I don’t have a voice. I don’t know music. I mean, it’s sad. I write these little songs and what comes next. I have to play every chord I know until I get to the one. I never learned scales. I don’t know theory.
AXS: Well you have an ear for it, so I think that’s all that really matters.
WHM: I do. I can play just about anything with strings. Not well, but I can find the music. I started taking piano lessons. That’s a wake-up call when you’re passed 60 years old. My piano teacher finally looked at me and said, “Bill, do you want to learn this?” I said, “Keiko, I’m doing my best.”
AXS: You’re currently taking piano lessons?
WHM: I have off and on for a while. I can play a piano like I play a guitar. I know a couple of chords and I can sort of torture and bully those chords into any rock ‘n roll that was ever made.
AXS: Last year you directed for the first time a film called "Rudderless" and music was one of the core elements of that film.
WHM: Billy Crudup stars. They form a rock’ n roll band. And, you know, that’s got my fingerprints all over that music. Charleton Pettus and Simon Steadman wrote those tunes. I know enough about music to tell them exactly what I was looking for, sometimes to their chagrin, but I was really proud the way that music sounds. And I’ve heard from a lot of people that we got it right, that the band sounds like a real band. It sounds like they’re in a garage. It sounds great, but it’s not "Glee", you know where the sound doesn’t match the picture at all. And we did that on purpose. We wanted a bit of verisimilitude in this thing and it came out really well.
AXS: You talked about David Mamet a bit in the beginning and how he changed your life as an actor. Have you played him any of your songs?
WHM: Oh my God, we busted him so bad one time. I started writing these little songs for people’s weddings. I discovered that if it’s played on a ukulele and it’s in harmony you can say anything and people just laugh and laugh and no one takes offense. So we would play, you know, usually at the night before you know when it gets rowdy. We’d write these songs about our friends in the Atlantic Theater Company in New York. I’m a member of that company. We’ve known them forever. We’d write songs about who they f*cked, what diseases they had had, affairs that no one knew about, abortions and people would just laugh. The parents are laughing and laughing.
AXS: That’s outrageous.
WHM: Dave was studying to be a concert pianist. He plays piano quite well. And he knows a lot about music. He writes roughly in iambic pentameter. I’ve seen him do this. When he’s doing a re-write in the theater, he puts his fingers in his ears and I’ll see him counting out the beats. Anybody that’s ever done the play "American Buffalo", it is such a pleasure to say those lines. When two guys who’ve done Buffalo meet other, they’ll start riffing the lines with each other, because of the rhythm and the meter and the music in Dave’s writing. And I think I’ve always gravitated to those writers that do hear the music. More than anyone, Dave Mamet, the music in American speech, particularly Chicago, he can imitate anything. That guy’s amazing. He just knows those tunes.
AXS: Amazing. So this is season 6 of "Shameless", It’s been an amazing ride, two SAG nominations. What made you decide to do TV?
WHM: It was 7-years ago I decided I wanted to do TV because Felicity [Huffman] had a great run on "Desperate Housewives" and she loved that gig. She just loved going to work. She loved everything about it. That got my attention. I’d always been afraid of television because, well there was not very much good stuff on television at that point. Now it’s the opposite. All the good stuff is on television. The best and brightest are writing for television. It’s the place to be. I’ve loved every minute of it. I love my trailer. I’ve had the same trailer for six years. Sometimes I don’t go home. They’ll wrap me and I’ll stay for an extra hour or so. Play ukulele or nap. And the writing’s been great. I love the company. I love getting to act every day. It’s kind of rare for an actor. Wait around. You just wait around. I get to act almost every day. You get better.
AXS: And you get to bring your uke on set and play. It’s relaxing for you.
WHM: I have the uke on set a lot and you can play it quietly and not bother anybody. It self-soothes for me. It’s better than smoking cigarettes or abusing the crew. It just calms you down. I picked up the uke one time, there were a bunch of people at our house, and Felicity said, “Good for you for knowing you needed to self-soothe.” That’s the first time I ever heard that phrase. She said, “You always pick up the ukulele when you get uncomfortable.”
Watch William H. Macy’s SHAMELESS Christmas carol here.
For more info on the ukulele check out Jim Beloff here.