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William H. Macy on Shameless, Acting Underwater, and Channeling Leonardo DiCaprio’s Wolf of Wall Street Drug Scene

Photo: Alberto E. Rodriguez

Spoilers ahead for the season-seven premiere of Shameless.

When we last left Frank Gallagher, dysfunctional patriarch of Showtime’s Shameless, he was being dumped in the Chicago River and left for fish food. He’d just crashed his eldest daughter’s wedding and, in one heroin-addled bit of verbal diarrhea, proceeded to destroy everyone on his warpath. That addiction (one of his many) to destruction has been Frank’s M.O. for five years. And, in its seventh season, which premiered on Sunday after the shortest hiatus in the show’s run so far, Frank returns from the near-dead looking worse for the wear, having spent a month as a John Doe in a coma because — shock, horror! — all the Gallaghers presumed him dead anyway. It’s yet another bleak welcome back for a show that knows no other way. Vulture caught up with William H. Macy ahead of the premiere to talk about Frank’s waning humanity, why he can’t get enough of directing, acting underwater, and channeling Leonardo DiCaprio for that wheelchair scene.

How was that big underwater opening scene filmed? Shameless has never done anything so cinematic.
We went to a deep swimming pool, they lit it, they dressed it in black, and they had a diver there to help me. He’d pull me down to the bottom and I’d just hold my breath — there was also something on the bottom I could hook my feet to — and then act away, act away, act away. You’d come up for a breath, then back down you’d go. It was a long day, I’ll tell you.

Please tell me those were CGI fish nibbling at your crotch.
Nope, those are actual trained fish. [Laughs.] It took over a month to train all those guppies, ’cause, you know, guppies, they don’t live long. They get the gig and then they die.

When Frank comes to from the coma, he’s disappointed that the Gallaghers never bothered to look for him. Why do you think he still expects his family to care about him, especially after everything he’s done to hurt them?
He’s smart enough to know that they’re attached to him whether they like it or not. He understands that “blood is thicker than water” nonsense. And, you know, god forbid he should ever have to get a job. [Laughs.] He’s good at staying in their lives. I think he genuinely believes that, as a father, you’re owed. You owe your parents at a certain point because of all the sacrifices that they went through for you; it’s been that way since the beginning of time.

As much as the family complains, I think Frank’s a necessary presence. They need him around as a reminder of what true rock bottom looks like. Do you see any redeeming qualities in him?
I’m Frank’s best friend, so it’s hard for me to see his flaws. But they keep Frank around for his wisdom, cunning insight into complex problems, and his humor. He’s a moveable party and he stirs things up. And they’ve known him forever. He’s a force of nature. He lives his life, he’s always looking for adventure. He’s entrepreneurial, he lives off his wits. He reads people really well. He has some skills, he’s relatively well-read, he has political acumen. He’s got a good heart, he’s just always wrong. Other than the fact that he’s completely narcissistic and lies, he’s a good guy.

I was a bit nervous about Shameless having two seasons in one calendar year for the first time. This show takes such an emotional toll on its viewers. Was it a similar experience for you and the cast?
Well, it meant I got less time off. But it means I get to work more in the year. I think people want it. Do you watch shows weekly, or catch up three or four at a time?

If I have screeners or it’s a Netflix show, I’ll binge. If not, then usually week-to-week. Do actors feel the same fatigue with heavy story lines as the viewers sometimes do?
We’re on episode ten right now. I’m an actor, and I know everyone on the set is. It’s a long slog to get 12 of these episodes in the can. But we’ll get a couple months off. I think we would start shooting again in the early spring. It kind of screws up vacations with the family, but, hey, this showbiz thing beats working by a longshot, I’ll tell you that.

Emmy Rossum makes her directorial debut this season, and you directed your first Shameless episode a couple seasons ago. What advice did you give her?
We spoke ever so briefly about it. She
really prepared, she took some classes for it over the break on the hiatus. She shadowed some of the directors. She was exquisitely prepared. And she was having a great time! I saw her look tired a couple of times. But on the other hand, when I directed, I looked like the dog just died. I have little grace when I direct; you can see the weight of the world on my shoulders.

Will you also direct more episodes?
It’s unknown at this point. I directed these three little indie features, and one of them I’m just finishing up scoring. The other one’s just been sold and there’s some work to be done on that, so they would preclude directing another
Shameless episode. It’s a lot of work to be in it and direct it. Your family doesn’t see you for almost three weeks.

What then motivates you to direct all these separate projects while also starring in Shameless?
Fuck if I know [laughs]. I think it’s being in charge. Everybody wants to try it just to see. It’s the director’s job to tell the story, and it’s a little easier on a TV show because it’s a moving train — all the actors know their characters and the crew knows how to do it — so it would be hard to completely and utterly fail a running TV show, as a director. Everyone would just look at each other and very silently pick up the pieces and carry that director all the way to the finish line. I’ve seen it happen. On a feature though, or on a pilot, you look behind you as a director and there ain’t nobody there. It’s daunting. For an actor, it’s particularly a wake-up call. Because an actor’s purview, what we do, is string little moments together — a long moment could be just three minutes — and usually they’re little 45-second bits of the story that we do at a time. Then, when you’re in the director’s chair, suddenly you find yourself with a whole world to worry about.

What’s unique about Shameless is it’s a family show in the truest sense of the word. We’re watching the Gallaghers evolve as a family over seven seasons, and seeing some kids take after their parents — Ian after Monica’s bipolarism, now Lip after Frank’s alcoholism. How do you think Frank feels about Lip going to rehab?
I think Frank would say: “There’s no shame in that. It’s a good thing to do. I’ve done it a couple of times, it just didn’t stick. Periodically, you should go into rehab. It makes drinking a lot easier and it makes it more enjoyable after you’ve been sober for a month or so. Those first couple [times getting drunk again] are just fantastic. So, it’s something everyone should try a couple times.”

In the premiere you do a ton of physical comedy involving a wheelchair. How was that to film?
I kept thinking of Leo DiCaprio in
Wolf of Wall Street. That’s one of the funnier bits in recent memory, he was just genius in that scene. I thought, Oh, I can’t beat him. It’s hard, boy, you get to doing two or three of those scenes in a row where you’re just dragging yourself up and down a stairs and you’re black and blue. It’s not fun very quickly, but they do a lot of the work with the cameras. I hope it’s funny. Did it make you laugh?

This show makes me laugh, it makes me cry. I’m just a ball of emotions anytime I watch it.
Oh my god, I have one of those “Frank bursts into tears” moments this season. I won’t spoil it for you, but even from Frank Gallagher, it’s one of those down and dirty, no bullshit, just open your soul and let it out moments.

Well at the beginning of this show, Frank was such a caricature of a degenerate. Now he’s much more humanized, especially after the death of the doctor he fell in love with. Does it feel that way for you?
Oh yeah. It’s the first time you’ve seen Frank Gallagher have an emotion that you’ve actually experienced yourself, which is selfless love for someone. Just head over heels, selfless, I-can’t-remember-my-name love.

Right now, Frank’s ostracized from the family. Where does the season take him?
It’s an entrepreneurial season for everyone involved. The Gallaghers roll up their sleeves and make something happen for themselves. And Frank comes up with a
very interesting business proposition involving homelessness. It’s pretty funny.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

William H. Macy on Shameless and Directing