William H. Macy — or Bill, as he calls himself — plays the head of the Gallagher family on Showtime’s Shameless. Or the quasi-head, since he’s not around all that much. If Frank Gallagher were around, he might be more aware that it’s not just his bipolar wife Monica in crisis: his kids Fiona, Lip, Ian, Debbie, Carl, and baby Liam all have needs, too. Will they get any relief on this Sunday’s season finale? The 62-year-old Macy chatted with Vulture about what he calls his “role of a lifetime,” the Gallaghers, and how Friday Night Lights worked its way into his marriage to Felicity Huffman.
Love the footage of you and Felicity getting a double star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, where you’re all sprawled out on the sidewalk …
Oh, my Frank Gallagher poses? That was swell. That was the first time we ever took our daughters to one of those things. They’d never been on the carpet before, and it was such a thrill. It really freaked them out! They’re 10 and 11.
Are they Hunger Games fans, or are they too young for that yet?
One of them is, but they have such vivid imaginations that we’ve kept them away from a lot of scary books and movies, because they get swept away and really scared. But they are big readers. I’m sort of shocked sometimes by what their friends are watching, which feels inappropriate to me; their friends get a lot of the explicit romance, love, and sex, a lot earlier.
Why, are they watching Shameless?
[Laughs.] No, they don’t watch Shameless. But Georgia, she’s 10, and she has the tendency to pick the scariest stuff. And then when she gets scared, the showbiz guy in me comes out to reassure her: “What’s this series called? ’Harry Potter.’ There are five more books other than this one. You think he’s going to die? I don’t think so.’”
You can use that same tactic for Katniss in The Hunger Games. Not to spoil it for you, but she lives.
Good. I appreciate that. We’ve turned down parts in most of the really violent stuff. I can’t stand violence. I mean, I’m okay with violence as long as you tell the truth about it. It’s a big part of our lives, not just our culture. But I don’t like bullshit violence where there are seventeen bodies on the ground and nary a cop to be seen, or no price to be paid. I’m adamantly against censorship — this is more of a self-imposed thing. You don’t do the movie if the movie doesn’t tell the truth. Not to say that you can’t do fantasy; I mean the emotional truth. And sex is good. I believe even bad sex is good. It’s just that violence is bad. Even mild violence can be bad, if you’re just watching good wholesome kids be sent out to get killed.
Speaking of death, there was a lot of death this past season, death that Frank usually tries to profit from, as well as attempted murder and attempted suicide.
One of the strengths of Shameless is that even though we ride that line of propriety, and sometimes we’ve fallen over it, we’re pretty good at landing on the correct side of it. We tell the truth about what’s going on. And the whole through line with Louise Fletcher [who played Frank’s mom, Peggy Gallagher] — wow. I was the luckiest guy to get to act that story. I just love that we get a little more insight into what made Frank Frank. And perhaps a little more sympathy for how sociopathic he is.
There was a point in the season when some people lost sympathy for him, when he allowed Butterface to die so he could try to collect her pension.
There was a big discussion in the writers’ room about the Butterface plot, but I love the way it came out. As shameless as Frank was, he was conflicted about it and genuinely moved and sad with her death, and horrified with himself when he had realized what he had done in his drunken haze. It didn’t seem a big thing at the time to say that she didn’t need that heart transplant anymore, but when it caused her death, it rocked him a little. He even went to church. And then of course he stole the money from the donation plate. [Laughs.]
Monica’s depression, suicide attempt, and hospitalization have been bringing out his tender side …
It’s complicated. I’ve never understood it myself, but I’ve known people in relationships that were destructive, and it must feed some need that they have. And with Frank and Monica, we all have friends like that — they fight and fuck, fight and fuck. It’s a passionate relationship, but embarrassing to be around. I think for Frank, Monica’s volatility, unpredictability, and go-for-broke attitude are so addicting to him, like a drug, and he can’t say good-bye to it. But he’s not an idiot; he knows it will turn out badly.
This season started off so light, but it’s gone to some really dark places leading up to the finale …
The whole plan was to see the Gallaghers in a somewhat lighter, more hopeful vein at the beginning, because it was summer, which is a happier time. People who live in Chicago know that winter is a big part of people’s lives there, and when springtime comes, you can feel everyone’s mood lighten. So we took advantage of that — beginnings, hopes, possibilities. And now it’s fall, and things haven’t changed much at all. I love that Fiona had a wild summer. It was great to see a young girl sowing her oats. And we had a big discussion in the writers’ room about that, too: Does she have too many boyfriends? If this were a young guy, you wouldn’t raise an eyebrow. It’s a double standard. So they said, “Yes, she’s a beautiful young woman. Let her do it.” It’s healthy. It’s good. But at the end of the season, she’s got some huge responsibilities.
I hate to see her have to give up her dreams — a job, junior college, a life. Would Frank ever step up and actually give her a break?
He’s an addict. You know how you can tell he’s lying? Because his lips are moving. That’s what I love about the character so much. He doesn’t have a through line. He’s not even a day-to-day guy, he’s a moment-to-moment guy. It’s a joy to play. It’s liberating. He’s unfettered by the past and the future, any social or familial obligations. He would absolutely resolve on a stack of Bibles to help out more, and it would probably last half a day.
You mentioned the discussions in the writers’ room. You’re in there not just as an actor, but also one of the writers: You wrote episode six this season. Will you be writing more?
Yes, but not this year. I was surprised at how tough it was. It’s too complicated for me to wear both hats, because I just show up and all this lovely stuff has been written for me; our team can regularly turn out ten, fifteen pages in a day without breaking a sweat. That would put the lowest budget indie film to shame. John Dahl directed that episode, and he was such a mensch. He told me that we would have a signal on set, that when I’ve said too much [as the writer], he said he would take off his hat and stomp on it, and that would be my clue to go away. Because really, the writer has no authority on set. You know the joke about the stupid actress? She fucked the writer. Luckily, he never stomped on his hat, but he wanted to, and when I could see that, I went off to my trailer.
What about directing?
It’s my most fervent hope to direct a film, and I don’t know why I’m having such difficulty with it. I’ve gotten to the eleventh hour three times with Keep Coming Back, and each time the money fell out and broke my heart. I’m a little more hopeful about Rudderless, because it’s such a great rock-and-roll story, and it could be wildly commercial. Maybe I can make it in my hiatus next year. I’m working daily on that. But directing Shameless? Directing television is a rarefied thing. The actors often know more about the script than the director. I would never say never, but it probably won’t be until season five, six, seven. For the time being, it would be rough, because I would need two or three weeks of prep, location scouting, two weeks of editing, and I would be acting at the same time, so it would be double duty. Life’s too short and I’m too old! [Laughs.] Plus I have a family, and I’ve got to take daughters to school. But it would interest me down the road. Our cast is fantastic, and it would be a joy to direct them. I just think I should cut my teeth on something else first. But I do love going to the writers’ room and pitching them ideas. We all do that with our characters.
What do you pitch them about Frank?
I would love to see Frank comment on the political situation now. He has no political ideology, but he’s got hundreds of opinions, and since he lives moment to moment, he could support and be willing to die for either party at any given time. And he speaks eloquently. He would say something about how the government has to get off our backs and people have to take care of themselves, because the government would fuck up a baked potato. And then later in the day, he would rant about how the rich bastards have to help the little guy, how it’s not fair, level the playing field, the banks are going to take us to the cleaners unless we regulate them. Plus, Frank says the things that can’t be said, like “Mel Gibson was right!” And so Frank, he can say anything and mean nothing. He’s so complicated and such a Cro-Magnon. He reacts instantly, without being fettered by social niceties, and he’s completely selfish and narcissistic. And yet, the guy has a lot of love in him and a sharp intelligence and a wicked sense of humor and most of all, a sense of irony. He realizes what a jerk he is.
Do you think you’d get to play such a rich character in movies, or are all the good parts on cable TV these days?
The paradigm has shifted. TV has expanded like crazy. There are so many outlets that are getting into scripted dramas. I personally think TV has some of the best writing out there — and not just cable. But there’s still some dreck out there that imitates the TV of twenty years ago, you know, with the stupid laugh tracks. But 30 Rock is wonderful. The Office. Modern Family. Friday Night Lights. The wife and I went off on a romantic weekend, and we took the first season of Friday Night Lights with us. We put in the pilot, and so much for the romance! We couldn’t leave the room. [Laughs.]
Would you want to guest-star on 30 Rock?
You know, the hardest job in this business is to be a guest star. You show up, and it’s like going to a birthday party where you don’t know anyone. You want to talk about the through line, and the objectives, and what it all means — and they’re just trying to get through one read. You’ve got a huge responsibility if you’ve got a good role, because the hour or half-hour depends on you. You’re the engine that makes it work. You’re the spice. You’re the thing that causes drama or conflict. It brings stronger men than me to their knees. I’ve watched my wife and her ensemble go through it [on Desperate Housewives], and they do their best to make the guests feel welcome, but it is very lonely at lunchtime. It’s like going to a new high school; you just pray someone sits beside you. You’re the odd man out.
So how does the cast of Shameless bond together? What’s that high school like?
The rest of my cast goes out — I’m too old for that stuff! [Laughs.] But when we go to Chicago for the week, it’s all Sodom and Gomorrah. They walk in all bleary-eyed, and once they all lost their cell phones in a fountain. They couldn’t remember how, but all their cell phones were destroyed. They’re all in their twenties, so they’re just working hard, partying hard. It’s a good way to relax.
Will the season finale end on a cliff-hanger? Will it make us cry?
No to the cliff-hanger, yes to the crying. You might get a good cry. Every single episode makes me cry. But then again, I cry at commercials. It will build to a lovely conclusion that will lead into the next season, like a new emotional height, with some resolutions, but also a little more open-ended and ambiguous. The writers are working on season three now, but just knowing how storytelling works on our show, the Gallaghers are always going to struggle, and Fiona is never going to marry Steve. We have to keep these balls up in the air for a long time, and one of the things that makes the show appealing is that you know there is no happily ever after. That could happen in a film, but this is reflecting life and family and a certain socioeconomic strata. Life is tough, but they will have triumphs. And I think it’ll lighten up a bit in season three.
What would you like to see happen for the Gallagher kids?
I hope Lip can find himself. He’s a smart, capable kid, and it would be a shame if he couldn’t find himself somehow. Ian, too. He wants so desperately to be in the military, and that would be so good for him. Those are the two I worry about the most. Debbie I don’t worry about. She rolls with the punches. I don’t worry about Fiona, or little Liam. Carl, I would like to see him do more. He’s cut from the same cloth as Frank. But the kids are growing up so fast! We have twins play the baby — every TV show does — but we had to get a second set of twins. Our original twins are driving now! [Laughs.] Felicity had the same problem: She watched all her show’s kids grow up, and they’re young men now. I feel old!
You’re not that old!
I’ve still got some kick left in me. I’m in my third act, as Felicity indelicately put it. But I want to finish with a bang. I’m so incredibly pleased and proud of Shameless. It’s so special, such an original. It’s the role of a lifetime.