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William H. Macy on Sex, The Sessions, and Stripping Down

Actor William H. Macy arrives to the Los Angeles premiere of Fox Searchlight Pictures' 'The Sesions' held at the Bing Theatre at LACMA on October 10, 2012 in Los Angeles, California.
William H. Macy. Photo: Alberto E. Rodriguez/Getty Images

William H. Macy doesn’t have any sex scenes in The Sessions — he’s playing a priest, after all, and he’s not that kind of priest — but he’s still got some strong opinions about the sexual content of the film, in which his man of the cloth counsels paraplegic John Hawkes, who’s determined to lose his long-held virginity to sex surrogate Helen Hunt. Basically, Macy doesn’t understand why a film like The Sessions is rated R while The Dark Knight Rises gets a PG-13, especially when you consider that Macy’s Showtime series Shameless is even more explicit than anything in this gentle big-screen comedy-drama. Vulture sat down with Macy recently to discuss the weird sex-shaming of the MPAA, though he’d be the first to admit that taking off your clothes for a movie isn’t the easiest thing ever. Fortunately, he’s got a novel solution for that.

It’s rare to see a movie this sexually forthright, because movies have sort of ceded that territory to cable TV shows like Shameless.
Yeah, it really annoyed me that we got an R rating for this and that Batman got a PG-13. The violence in Batman, I am not cool with my daughters seeing, and I shudder that any parent is cool with that. But the sex in this, my 12-year-old can see … actually, it’s too soon for her, but only by a year or two. I don’t worry about sex. Sex is good. I like sex. Even the bad sex I’ve had was pretty good.

But doesn’t it seem odd that the MPAA is still so afraid of sexual content when far more explicit stuff is seen on cable TV or online?
Well, they’re trying to answer to a much, much, much bigger audience, and they’ve been charged to represent the public in general, and this is what they think. And I don’t know what horrifies me more: that they’re correct or that they’re wrong about what the public will accept. I suspect the public wants more. I think audiences are smarter than us folks who make the movies. Sex is fun. I don’t get why people are so freaked out by it.

Almost all of your scenes are all in one location, so you must have shot them pretty fast.
Oh, I was only there for three days, four days.

That’s crazy to me. Is that an exciting thing, to be able to go in there and shoot so much so fast? It’s almost like television.
It is, which I love. I really like acting. The waiting around I find a little bit more trying.

John and Helen are playing real-life characters, but you’re playing a character that was invented for the movie. Do you feel like that freed you up, or was it sort of interesting to work opposite people who had done all this research?
I’m not sure how much research I would have done. My guy was a made-up character, but it wouldn’t have made any difference anyway because it was well written. I’m one of the actors who thinks pretty much everything I need is on the page, and if it’s not, maybe I should rethink doing this movie. We all know what a priest does. The questions are clear. It sounds outrageous, but going against the grain, I’m playing a priest who’s the good guy, you know. You hear about a priest, and you think it’s going to be child molestation. You know, as devastating as that was, 99.999 percent of the priests out there just get up every day with one goal, which is to make their fellow man’s burden lighter. It’s a pretty good job description, and they work really hard.

Since your scenes are only with John and not with Helen, it must have been quite the revelation to see the whole movie for the first time.
Generally speaking, the first time I see myself in a film, it’s a wash, it’s a horror. I can’t even! It’s horrible to watch myself. As I get older, I’m better able to literally see the film. But I was swept away at Sundance. I just wept like a baby. I didn’t know it was a love story. He suckered us. This was just “boy meets girl” when it comes down to it, and oh, I fell like a ton of bricks for that. I’m so impressed with John and Helen, with their acting. The actor in me saw the technical difficulties that they were surmounting, and they’re formidable.

Especially John, who contorted his body for the role.
That’s not the hard part. The hard part’s lying still. I know it sounds mundane and stupid, but try, lie still for six weeks.

As an actor, that removes so many of the tools you have.
I know! Our job as an actor is to throw ourselves into the scene and to forget everything else, and the next thing you know, you’re waving your arms wildly. “Oops, forgot I’m a quadriplegic.”

You’ve taken your clothes off for movies and TV before, so did you have some sympathy for Helen and John?
I called both of those performances technically demanding, and taking your clothes off is the technically demanding thing I was referring to. It ain’t easy, man. It ain’t easy. You have not lived until you’ve taken your pants down in front of five teamsters.

When was the first time you did it? Was it for The Cooler?
No, the first time I did it was on a play in Chicago. It was called The Collected Works of Billy the Kid by Michael Ondaatje. It’s hard. As I get older, I’ve got less to protect. I don’t know if it’s harder for women or men, but I’ll tell you, it’s not great. And what’s fantastic about it is that Helen was just so completely un-self-conscious about it and matter of fact about it. And while she was doing that, she did this magnificent love story all with her eyes.

When you’re writing an episode of Shameless, do you think, Hmm, this is a sex scene, and Emmy Rossum will have to be naked, and do I want to put my co-star in that place?
Nah. No, I mean, I have a natural governor. I don’t worry about exploitative stuff, and I write with a partner, and we keep each other clean — you know, so we’re not just doing a scene so we can see the girl’s tits. We’re all professionals. We can do it.

There had been speculation at Sundance that all the nudity in The Sessions guaranteed an NC-17, though it eventually got an R.
That shows how sick we are. That’s really perverted. I think everyone should pick a Tuesday sometime, and we [should] all take off all our clothes and walk around naked and just get it out of our system.

William H. Macy on Sex and The Sessions