Think of all the questions you’d have for a man like William H. Macy.
It’s almost impossible to do so without turning an interview into an episode of “The Chris Farley Show” from his “SNL” hey day. “Remember the time you were in that movie Fargo when you had that funny accent and said things like ‘You’re darned tootin.’? That was awesome.” This is pretty much the thought process from the minute I was handed the golden opportunity to interview one of my absolute screen heroes.
The subject at hand was his latest collaboration with writer David Mamet (his frequent co-collaborator since their days in Chicago theater), a dark and disturbing little number entitled Edmond, (based on a 20-plus-year-old Mamet play), directed by another old Chicago theater type named Stuart Gordon. Gordon has obviously gone on to some fun movies of his own as a film director (The Re-Animator, From Beyond, and of course, Space Truckers).
Macy stars as Edmond, a variation of his everyman character, who decides to abandon his cushy life and beautiful wife, and head out for a chaotic and deadly night in the underworld of an unnamed city. This may be the best performance of Macy’s career, but it’s also the one that will forever change the way you think of him as a “safe” actor. What bothers me most about the film is that you may never get a chance to see it outside of a festival setting. It’s playing for a limited two-week run here in Chicago beginning this Friday at the Gene Siskel Film Center, and if you live anywhere nearby, you need to just bring your ass right on down and check this nasty little creature of a film out right away.
After my review ran yesterday, a lot of you had questions about when this film is coming to a city near year. The answer is: I'm not sure. This is literally a movie that is going city to city. You're going to have to check www.edmondthefilm.com to see when or if the film is coming your way.
In the course of our fairly lengthy talk, we cover every aspect of his career, his working relationship with David Mamet, and a whole fistful of upcoming projects, including Gordon’s possible return to the world of The Re-Animator. Supporting this film is my top priority right now, because anything I can do to get Stuart on the boards with another Re-Animator film seems important.
Read on, folks.
Capone: I just watched Edmond last night and had not intended on writing my review until this morning, but I was so floored by it…
William H. Macy: Can you believe it?!
C: Yeah, I actually stayed up late last night to finish my review because I didn’t want to even try to sleep with thoughts of that film still racing through my head.
WHM: I’ll take that as a good sign.
C: I realized that the last three projects I’d seen by yourself, David Mamet, and Stuart Gordon were all television projects, with Stuart’s “Masters of Horror” entry, your episode of “Nightmares and Dreamscapes” was just on last week, and Mamet’s series “The Unit,” which he occasionally writes. I guess television is the place to be.
WHM: It certainly is the place to be, it’s the place everyone’s going.
C: Edmond seems like one of the best kept secrets around the movie world right now. I was almost totally unaware of its existence until about a month ago. Did the making of this film, in terms of the three main collaborators, seem inevitable considering your shared history in Chicago theater?
WHM: I’ve gotta say, nothing about this film was inevitable. Its production has been set up many times with many different permutations of talent, and it’s fallen apart every time. I can say that every single time it fell apart was because the money people lost their nerve.
C: That would have been my guess.
WHM: And who can blame them? So I think the reason this one got off the ground was that Lonnie Smith, who plays the pimp in the film and is one of the producers, and Stuart were talking, and they said, “We should do Edmond.” They tossed my name into the ringer, and Mamet said, “What the hell. He’s looking more human every day.”
I think we can thank those two, and Stuart in particular, for making this happen because it fell apart as many times as you can imagine, including after we’d be shooting for three or four days.
C: You have something of a history with this character, although you’ve never played him before. You’ve certainly been aware of the character since he was in play form.
WHM: Yes, I saw the play at the Provincetown Playhouse with Colin Stinton in the title role. And I had the same reaction you did last night: I was intrigued by it and gobsmacked, and I think the first thing I did was call Mamet and say, “Are you okay?” And I’ve never played it on stage. It’s come about a couple times but it has always been somebody else. And I’ve always been fascinated by it. It’s got to be the darkest thing David’s ever written. I find it disturbingly relevant, even though it’s 20 some odd years old. I find that it covers the same ground as Crash.
C: I thought so too, but with far less redeeming conclusions for its main character.
WHM: I loved Crash, but I must admit, I loved it because of the direction and because of the acting. I did not appreciate the script. I thought so many of the vignettes just plain were not true. I kept looking at these little vignettes and asking, “Why are these people acting this way? I don’t understand this. This is not true.” In the end, what they tried to do is tell a bunch of little untruths to tell a great truth at the end. Well Dave, with his little vignettes, as Edmond goes farther and farther into the abyss, you can’t fault it for being untrue.
Every time you see his encounter with someone, you say, “Okay, that’s true.” And then you’re left with your mouth open at the end. But he tells the truth all the way, and it still reflects on white, middle-class men’s rage, because every problem in the world is blamed on white, middle-class men. Or at least they feel that way whether it’s justified or not.
C: Did you take Edmond to be representation of a larger group? It seemed like such a personal story, but you saw it as something more universal?
WHM: I do. They cast me! [Laughs] I’m a pretty down-the-middle fellow. I’m a liberal democrat, raised in the South and then in the Northeast. I’m Christian, I’m write, I’ve got a college education, so it’s me. So I told that story and followed that journey as truthfully as I could. I think that by the very fact that I played it, it’s got to be a little universal. What you have to ask yourself is, “Could I, under any circumstances, ever find myself in this position?” I think the answer is Yeah, possibly. It could happen.
C: For people living in the city, a lot of times such a journey can be had just a few blocks from your home or work to your heart of darkness.
WHM: Exactly right. Everybody has experienced being in your automobile and being angry enough to kill somebody or at least do them bodily harm. It comes quickly and it goes quickly, but I can imagine any of us on a string of bad luck and in a bad marriage getting so fed up that you just need to roar a little bit.
C: What’s so terrifying about the character of Edmond is that we don’t see where he’s coming from before he gets to that point, so we’re not completely clear what he’s capable of.
WHM: Hollywood would say, “We need backstory. We need to understand why he is the way he is.” And David is a brilliant writer, because he said, “No you don’t. You know why he is the way he is.” You get it. And it’s true. Everybody’s been in a bad relationship.
Everybody knows what it’s like to say, “I’m just not attracted to you anymore in any way, spiritually, physically, you just don’t do it for me. I hate your guts. I know I loved you five years ago, but I hate your guts. You’re the epitome of what’s wrong with my life.” And to add 10 minutes of backstory to this would be bogus.
C: It’s unnecessary.
WHM: It’s completely unnecessary.
C: It actually makes many of the situations more tense because you don’t know to what depth he has cracked and how far he’s going to take this journey.
WHM: That’s right.
C: When you were giving me your self-portrait a minute ago, you often play characters who are very middle of the roadand I mean that in a positive way. We would never expect the things this character goes through and what he does, especially when it comes to the racial aspects of the story and the violence. We’re so not used to seeing you as an actor do anything like that. It really takes the wind knocked out of you a couple of times.
WHM: It helps.
C: There’s an implication near the beginning of the film that Edmond thinks he’s cursed, after a visit to a tarot card reader. Do you think he’s cursed?
WHM: I didn’t play it that way certainly. I think what Stuart was trying to say with that scene is that this is a tragedy. In other words, these wheels have been set in motion and there’s nothing you can do to stop it until it reaches its logical conclusion…and there’s only one. So who’s poisoning the wells? Well, dude, it’s you. I certainly didn’t play him as cursed. I think I’ve done well by myself by assuming in every film I’ve ever played that in this scene I can turn it all around. I can make it all work right now; this battle is not lost.
That’s compelling, and in this film it’s a complete mind fuck for the audience, because what they see is me saying, “I’ve got it under control. This time it’s going to work. Don’t worry, I’ve got it.” So each time we go deeper into another ring of hell, you just can’t believe that you’re going there. I’ve been to many film festivals with this thing and seen many audiences with hands in their laps and their mouths open at the end of the film. And at first we thought, “Oh my god, they hate it.” But then we do the Q&As after these things, and it turns out people want to talk about it and they really appreciated it, and in a perverse way, enjoyed the film. But they need to talk about it.
C: If there’s one thing that’s going to result from people seeing this filmis there are going to want to talk about it. Let me back things up a minute, do you have a favorite Stuart Gordon film?
WHM: I would have to say Re-Animator. It’s so funny, it’s so hip, it’s so horrible. It’s quintessential Stuart.
C: Did you ever spot him using any horror film techniques or direction when making Edmond?
WHM: He played it as straight as Stuart Gordon can be. I know Stuart better from his work on stage. We were in Chicago together way back in the ‘70s, and I saw, not all of his plays, but pretty much all of them, at least from the time I got there. And he’s got such an amazing sense of theatricality and such scenic solution to storytelling problems. He always surprised me, every time I saw one of his plays. Somehow from his actors, he always evokes such a straight delivery. There’s not a lot of jive.
On the set, what I noticed is that he cast people who are good at doing what they need to do, and his notes are few and pithy and right to the point, but he casts well. And he sets a tone on the day of shooting. It’s light hearted, with a sense of humor and joy, no nonsense. Let’s just shoot it and move on. We all have homes and lives to move on to.
C: Where did you shoot this? Was it in L.A.?
WHM: All in L.A.
C: They never actually name the city, but I thought they might be trying to make us think it was New York. But clearly, it doesn’t matter.
WHM: We kept it vague, as did David, who wrote this when he lived in New York. But it was written for a “a large American city.” Every large American city has its Times Square.
C: And to expand on that, most of the characters don’t even have names in the credits. Possibly the second most shocking after hearing Edmond first round of racial slurs while beating up the pimp is hearing Julia Stiles’ character joins in with the hate speech.
WHM: “You know who I hate? Faggots!”
C: That’s pretty much the line I remember. It really struck me that, coming from the kind of films that she’s done, I never would have expect those words coming out of her mouth. She’s extremely good and convincing in the movie.
WHM: Isn’t she?
C: Have you and Stuart Gordon ever actually worked together before? Or has it been a mutual admiration society up to now?
WHM: No, this was the first time. It has been a mutual admiration society.
C: And you mentioned earlier that he was the one who threw your name out as the actor to play Edmond in this film, which is actually surprising. I’d always assumed your name always came up whenever a film written by Mamet was in the casting phase. You two have a very long history together, obviously, both theatrically and on film. …
WHM: I’m sure my name comes up, but in this incarnation, Edmond has to drive the thing, so you have to find an actor who can get the movie made and play the role. So this was the first time my name had come up. I know Alec Baldwin tried to get it off the ground once. Dave and I talked about doing it a couple of years ago, but it’s such a harsh film and such a provocative film that it’s hard to get the financing.
C: Isn’t this a character you’d wanted to play for a while?
WHM: Yeah, but I’d love to play all of his characters, truthfully. I’ve never done Glengarry Glen Ross, I’ve never done Speed the Plow. I’d love to do both of those certainly.
C: There seems to be a real fierce loyalty among the actors and directors that were part of the ‘70s theater scene in Chicago, between the company you and Mamet founded, Stuart’s Organic Theater, and the Steppenwolf Group. Why is that? What was it that was so unique about that time in the city’s theater scene?
WHM: For one thing, it was Chicago, born and bred. I was not off-off-off-off Broadway. Our attitude was, New York can do what it does, but it’s a bit glitzy for us. We like better plays than they do. We were all quite aware during that time that we were doing bang-up work, and there was tons of it. And it was our little secret. And the city was growing at that time, and the theater scene just exploded, and we felt like we owned it. The inmates had taken over the asylum.
There was a lot of cross-pollenization, literally and artistically. We were all sleeping with each other [laughing], we were all doing plays together, and it felt so special. There was something about the work, everybody said it. In Chicago, you did a play not to get another play or a movie; you did it for that play. And the audience came along with us. If you did a good play, boy, the audience was there.
And it just felt so new, with things exploding at all levels. Writers came out of the woodwork and were writing some wonderful stuff. Scenic designers too. And the actors, of course, some fabulous actors came out at that time. And it felt like we had a style of our own. It was unadorned, gutsy, male attitude toward acting.
C: I’ve heard it described as ugly, in the best possible way. Raw.
WHM: Yeah. We were willing to do it the way it should be done, whether you liked us or not.
C: Many have tried before you, including myself, but how would you describe to someone the patterns and style of Mamet’s writing? Without sounding like I’m swooning, I don’t think anyone recites it better than you do. In it’s purist form, how to you explain that to someone? Because I don’t think since the film version of Oleanna has it been so thick in one of his screenplays as it is in Edmond.
WHM: Fist of all, when it’s done brilliantly well—and Mamet is the hardest writer there is. One time I was doing something…I think we were doing Oleanna, actually. And there was talk we were going to do Hamlet afterwards, and I thought, “Good, I could use the break.” When it’s done brilliantly well, it sounds like people talking. It sounds like people you don’t normally hang out with, but it sounds like talk you hear on the street.
For a long time, people used to say, “You know what he does? He just takes a tape recorder and he records these conversations right off the street.” Well those people just showed how stupid they are, because go and try that. Go record someone off the street and then try and say it. It sounds like garbage.
There are a couple of things you have to say about Mamet. One, you have to hear the music. It’s mostly iambic pentameter. It’s got a meter and a rhythm that is magnificent. When two actors who have done American Buffalo meet, even though they’re total strangers, when they find out they’ve both done Buffalo, they’ll start saying the lines to each other. Because when you do them right, they literally feel so good to say. It’s like singing your favorite song, that catchy phrase, but Dave does an hour and half or two hours of it. So it's got this great rhythm and music, and you’ve got to hear that.
But having said that those are just the words; the words are gibberish. What you’ve got to act is the intention, the objective. You’ve got to throw the words away. If you try and act the words, you’ll get lost, because Dave’s people, to a large extent, very often natter on. They go on and on and on. Their point is simple but they speak a lot. What you’ve got to do is still to the point and throw away the words. If you try and act the words, you’ll get lost because the words are so complicated.
And sometimes, Dave brilliantly has people contradict themselves, but that doesn’t mean the character has changed his mind, it’s just that that’s a natural form of speak, people contradict themselves; they go back, they have these great looping conversations. You’ve got to stick to the point of what you’re trying to get across. And then technically, with Mamet, you’ve got to memorize him, boy. It’s not going to come naturally; you’ve got to put in the time.
But once you memorize it, it’s like driving a Ferrari or one of the hottest Porsches they make. You’ve got to know how to drive it, but boy there ain’t no car like it.
C: I’d imagine there is zero room to stray from his words.
WHM: No. As a matter of fact--I’ve done this myself, especially when you’re on stage—you’re talking along and it’s going swimmingly and all of the sudden, “Kaboomp!” It’s as if you’ve tripped over something in the rug, and you have to look back and say, “What the hell did I just trip on?”
And it’s because you paraphrased, you bollixed up the line, you put an extra beat in it, and suddenly it doesn’t sound right. Something’s wrong. That’s how precise he is. I’ve seen him write in the theater, when he’s writing on the spot. And he will close his eyes and put his fingers in his ears. He’s got to scan for him to write.
C: The Goodman Theater in Chicago just did a nice retrospect of some of his work, and I went and saw his latest play Romance. So funny.
WHM: It’s hysterical.
C: You mentioned Oleanna, I think seeing that film was the first time I remember making a mental note to myself that I would remember your name from that point forward. I’d certainly seen you in films before that, but there was something about that performancebut I was so impressed with the nature of that exchange. I’d never heard anything like it. I believe it was within a month or two of that film being released that you appeared in the early episodes of “E.R.”
WHM: You’re exactly right. That’s good.
C: That was really my first exposure to pure Mamet on film. Up to that point, I believe a lot of his screenplays were directed by other people. Although he’d directed other films before Oleanna, it was the first adaptation of one of his plays that he directed.
WHM: Up until I did Edmond, Oleanna was the toughest thing I’d ever done. The language [in Oleanna] is very difficult, very complicated. The play is frightening. It makes you go places that are rough to get to every night. But I must say that Edmond is the toughest thing I’ve ever tackled. And I was so impressed with all the actors.
People like Julia Stiles came in letter perfect, just spot on. I don’t think Stuart ever did a second take because we screwed up the lines. Bokeem Woodbine came in letter perfect. The first time we ran through it: letter perfect.
C: Bokeem plays probably my favorite of the supporting characters, and I was hesitant to talk about his role with you or in my review because I don’t want to give away the few secrets the film has to offer, or the end of the film, maybe one of the best endings ever. It made me laugh.
WHM: Astounding, isn’t it?
C: It’s an actual release. He is terrific in those scenes you two have. Let me just ask you about two upcoming project real fast. I noticed that you’re part of the ensemble of Emilio Estevez’s Bobby, about the people in the Ambassador Hotel the night Bobby Kennedy is shot. Who do you play in the film?
WHM: I’ve heard it’s fantastic. I play the manager of the hotel, and there are all these people, and it’s all fictionalized except for Bobby. The Ambassador is sort of a character in the movie, because it’s such a landmark hotel. So Emilio made up all these little vignettes that speak to the period and what was going on.
C: I have to ask because you brought up The Re-Animator, is it true you’re going to become a member of the Re-Animator world under Stuart Gordon’s direction?
WHM: That’s what I read!
C: That’s what I read too, and is it true you’ll be playing the President of the United States in something called House of The Re-Animator?
WHM: Oh my god, it’s going to be…Stuart asked me, I said yes. There’s no script yet; he’s working on it. He took the idea to Cannes, and he might get the money and hopefully we’ll shoot that next year.
C: That news excites me on so many levels. Do you have any other writing projects coming up?
WHM: Steven Schachter and I wrote a thing called The Deal based on Peter Lefcourt’s book of the same title. And god willing, we start rolling the cameras at the end of September. And I produced this along with Steven and some other people, we raised the money ourselves.
C: I know you’ve worked with Steven on many of your television movies, is this for T.V. or is it a feature?
WHM: Feature! It’s me and Lisa Kudrow, we’ve turned it into a romantic comedy. And after that, I’ll have my directorial debut, a Will Aldis script called Keep Coming Back. I start prep for that just before Christmas, and we’ll start rolling the cameras on that in January. Salma Hayek is the only one set for that at this point. I’m directing that, and there’s one small role I’m playing as well.
C: Sounds good. You know, I’ve somehow made it through this entire interview without mentioning your collaborations with the Coen Brothers or Paul Thomas Anderson, and I’m actually okay with that. Do you have any roles in your career that you particularly loved playing that maybe people don’t bring up as much with you?
WHM: I spent 20 years on stage, so there are a bunch of those. Mamet did a thing called Oh Hell; he and Shel Silverstein did two one acts, and the one I did was called Bobby Gould in Hell. Man, did I have a good time doing that. Felicity was in that with me. Oh, we had fun. The Dining Room was an AR Gurney play; I ran that for a year. Oleanna of course. One of the films I really liked was called Happy, Texas.
C: With Steve Zahn, right?
WHM: Exactly. I loved that. I really liked State and Main. Actually there are two more upcoming things I wanted to mention. I just finished this film called Wild Hogs that will come out next year. It’s me, John Travolta, Tim Allen, and Martin Lawrence riding motorcycles.
Oh my god, it was fun. And I did a thing called Choose Your Own Adventure. It’s a kid's video that’s in stores this week, as a matter of fact. I have great hopes for that. It’s for kids about ages four to eight, an interactive video based on the books of the same title that were massive best sellers.
C: Wait, are these those stories where are various points in the plot you can choose between two paths to further the adventure?
WHM: Exactly. That’s right. Shawn Tanaka wrote the first one, and if it works well, then we will do many many more.
C: Is this animated?
WHM: Yes, it’s an animated feature, and when you reach a certain point, with your remote control you decide: do you want to climb the mountain or go down the river.
C: I remember fondly in my youth flipping around the pages to see if I could follow all of the different branches of the story...
WHM: There you go. Well, the kids are just eating this up because they go back and watch it over and over again, and see the different permutations. Felicity does a voice in that too.
C: Thank you so much for doing this.
WHM: You bet, and thanks a lot for your support of this film.