Emmy-winning actor-director-writer talks about his star turn in the Showtime series Shameless.
Actor William H. Macy
Tavis: Pleased to welcome William H. Macy back to this program. The Oscar nominee has just concluded the first season of his latest project, the Showtime series “Shameless.” The show has already been picked up for a second season. Congratulations, sir.
William H. Macy: Thank you, sir.
Tavis: Here now, a scene from “Shameless.”
Tavis: I ask you, William H. Macy, what is the message here? You’re scamming the government with your disability checks; you are a drunk father of six kids. As we saw in the scene, you get your check and go right to the bar. Where’s the socially redemptive value of this character?
Macy: What was the first part? (Laughter) Okay, that’s the bad news. The good news is he’s got a great sense of humor; he’s got this sense of joie de vivre. He loves his children, or at least he knows all their names. (Laughter) He makes things exciting around the bar.
Tavis: Yeah. Why, then –
Macy: That was just a misunderstanding, that, in the jail there. That was just – with the Canadian government.
Tavis: What is it about this character, given all I’ve just laid out, that’s resonating with the American public enough for you to get a second season? Congratulations on that.
Macy: I don’t think it all rests on my shoulders, but I think one of the – first of all, the show was created by Paul Abbott. There’s a British version of this. It’s a remarkable idea for a show. I think it resonates. I think they could do a French version and a Spanish version.
I think it speaks to issues which are universal. This family, this dysfunctional family with an addicted parent, I think it’s a common story. I think the Gallaghers are sort of cranky and pissed off with life in the same way that a lot of people are.
Tavis: You mentioned that there’s a British version of this. I think of your show, “Shameless,” I think of “The Office,” a number of other shows, of course. There’s no guarantee that just because a show worked in Britain that we can import it here. Sometimes that importation works, sometimes it falls flat. What’s your sense of why this one was able to work when others have not?
Macy: As I said, I think the idea translates well, but perhaps more than that, John Wells is a genius. If you ask me, he should run the universe. He found that – first of all, he recognized that it had an American character to it buried in there. He set it in Chicago. They cast it just geniusly, and even though our first season had a lot of the stories that were in the British version of it, it found its own voice.
It’s a good fit. The Brits try to do a lot of our TV, too, and it doesn’t always work. I don’t think you can ever tell what’s going to work and what’s not going to work.
Tavis: Is there something, to your point, William, something about setting this in Chicago as opposed to any other American city that adds to the success of it?
Macy: I feel like it was a genius choice. I’m a Chicago boy myself. I started my career there. It feels to me like geographically it’s right in the center, politically, it feels to be in the center.
The mix of people in Chicago borrow from the West Coast and the East Coast. It’s a big city, it’s a gorgeous city. It’s a city that works. I mean, literally, people work hard in Chicago. I’ve often heard it said if you can’t get a job, go to Chicago. You can find one there. It’s a good-looking city.
One thing I do know is that John Wells was really specific about not setting it in the South or indeed setting it anywhere where people would listen to funny accents and say, “Oh, well, those people are like that.” He wanted this to get under people’s skin a little bit more, so I think that’s why Chicago was such a great choice of where to set it.
Tavis: I’m laughing inside, whether or not the people watching us in Chicago welcome your entreaty to the American public to go to Chicago and find a job.
Macy: Well, they used to say that.
Tavis: I’m not sure they want that. We’ll see. Your career has just burgeoned and blossomed over the years, primarily connected – I fell in love with you through your independent film work. Independent film – this is, unless I missed something, your first TV series?
Macy: It is. I’ve done TV, certainly. I was on “ER” for many years as a recurrent character.
Tavis: Recurring character, yeah.
Macy: My wife’s show, “Sports Night,” I did an arc on that. I used to guest star all the time. But it’s the first time I’ve ever done a series, and watching Felicity do “Desperate Housewives” was an eye-opener. She loves her job, loves going to work every day, and all the things that frightened me about it – the same character, ad nauseam if you’re successful, all of those things, she made it look fun because she just loves going to work.
So you’re watching Felicity, how much she loves it. Has that love for the television thing transferred to William H. Macy?
Macy: It has. First, I got lucky, where I’m in a great show and I’ve got the role of the century, let’s face facts. For the first time in my career, sometimes I hold the line so I have more time to make faces. I mean, that’s how outrageous this character is. It’s hard for me to do something “wrong” with the character.
But also the cast is just sublime, and the writing is sublime. I’ve felt this for a while now – I think the best stuff anywhere is on television.
Tavis: Why do you say that?
Macy: Indies have been gutted. The business paradigm, how we made independent films, has fallen apart, and it hasn’t been replaced yet. People still make indies, but production is way, way down, and it’s gotten smaller. There’s a certain kind of independent film that’s sort of disappeared altogether, and that was my bread and butter, as you said.
The big tent pole features, I love them and I see them all, but they are a specific animal and by design, they’ve got to appeal to a lotta, lotta people. They put so much money in these things, so they can’t be controversial and they can’t tell small stories.
That’s why in so many movies that the third act or the last 20 pages is the same battle scene; they just change the villains and change the costumes.
Tavis: You said two things I want to go back and get now and get you to kind of unpack for me. One, when you suggested the best stuff is on television, I hear the point that you’re making. The evidence, though, would suggest that network television is in trouble.
There are certain shows that do extremely well. Cable has come on really strong over the last, what, 10 years or so, maybe even longer. So is that – I guess the question is is that sustainable, if you think the best stuff is on television and the numbers are suggesting that network TV may be in trouble, is that sustainable, long-term?
Macy: Yes. I use the word “television” to include everything, cable and network. It seems to be expanding. The audience is expanding. There are more and more shows, more and more networks, there’s so much programming out there. Some of it’s dreadful, but some of it is just mind-bogglingly good.
“The Office,” “Friday Night Lights,” “30 Rock,” I don’t know how they do it. It’s just the best of the best of the best, week after week, really challenging, wonderful, cutting edge writing.
Tavis: Since you mentioned your own assessment that the independent film as we once knew it is in trouble in this country, tell me more about why you feel that way, and more importantly, what the prescription is for fixing that problem.
Macy: The old paradigm used to be you would make an independent film for let’s say 5 million bucks and you would earn the money back in the following way. There would be foreign sales of it and you could get some of that money up front, and you would have a feature release which when you were lucky maybe you’d make a little bit of money on a release in theaters and then you’d make all your money back when you sold the ancillary rights and they did the DVDs or VHS, because people collected movies and they would pay for them, and that’s where the money came.
Now people don’t collect so much. You can get it online. The feature release is really dead, it’s a loss leader. It costs you money to take a $5 million movie and put it in theaters. You’re going to lose on that, so you’re adding to your debt burden. The foreign markets are way, way, way down, and it’s hard to put financing together because they’re not paying like they used to.
Used to be – I’ll make myself sound old – well, I am old – but it used to be I’d hear tales of figures up to $1 million that they would pay for a movie to put it on television. Now they pay $75,000, I don’t care who you are. The big tent poles can make some money, but the finances have fallen apart. You can’t make any money back.
The second part of your question, what’s the remedy? I don’t know. But one of the things is that most people don’t want to pay for things on the Web. They want it for free. It’s been for free for a long time, and until people are willing to pay for films, I don’t know the answer. I don’t know.
Tavis: So is there any place for that good storytelling to find fertile ground, or is the storytelling that we’ve come to appreciate from these small indies just a thing of the past?
Macy: It’ll come back. There are still people who want to make indie films, there’s still a lot of stories to tell. There are people who want to watch independent films. There are even people who want to pay for independent films, but we have to sort it out as to how they’re going to get their money back. It’ll probably be something to do with Netflix or Apple, something like that.
I think you’ll go home and you’ll say, “Let’s watch a movie tonight, honey,” and you’ll turn on the TV and up will come a menu, and there’ll be a whole thing for independent films and it’ll cost you 15 bucks to see a new release, and we’ll figure out some way to advertise them. At 15 bucks you could make some money. If you can get a million people to buy it, then you’re in profits.
Tavis: So until that independent thing comes back, you’ll be on “Shameless.”
Macy: I’ll be on “Shameless” and happy as a clam about it. (Laughter)
Tavis: He’ll be on “Shameless” on Showtime, now picked up for a second season. William H. Macy, always good to have you here. Please give my regards to your wonderful wife Felicity.
Macy: I certainly will. Thanks.
Tavis: Please do. Good to see you, man.
Macy: Nice to see you again.
Tavis: As always.
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