This time, William H. Macy gets the girl. He's even the hero. In the polite profanity of Jerry Lundegaard, Macy's bumbling car salesman from 1996's Fargo, what the heck is going on here? We've darned near upset the balance of the universe.
Macy is reveling in the opportunities presented by Focus, which opens Friday in area theaters. It's based on a novel by Arthur Miller about anti-Semitism on the home front during World War II, and it presents a world where the industry's most revered character actor gets to make out with Laura Dern. "That's a no-brainer," he said at this fall's Toronto Film Festival.
The 51-year-old Macy has built a career infusing leading-man presence into offbeat supporting roles. He earned an Academy Award nomination for best supporting actor in Fargo, and has added to his canon with a porn casualty in Boogie Nights, a quiz-show champ in Magnolia and a Machiavellian director in State and Main. He even made the popcorn scene as a socialite with dinosaurs on the brain in Jurassic Park III.
"There's a freedom in doing all kinds of roles," he said. "I have nothing to protect. I have no particular image audiences expect from me, like Harrison Ford."
Said Michael (Meat Loaf) Aday, who plays Macy's suspicious neighbor in Focus: "At least you're seeing him act. You're seeing different sides, as opposed to seeing a face. Would you call Gene Hackman just a character actor?"
For this interview in a hotel suite, Macy had combed back his graying red hair. He may have milquetoast looks, but intensity and intelligence burst from his hazel eyes.
Macy spent most of his childhood in Cumberland; his family moved there when he was 9 years old. His first acting role was the villainous Mordred in the Allegany High School production of Camelot.
Writer-director David Mamet helped Macy tap into his talent in the late '60s. The actor had ditched his veterinarian studies at Bethany College in West Virginia to attend Vermont's Goddard College because, he said, he'd heard the women didn't wear bras, and he could smoke marijuana. Mamet, a graduate professor of drama who dressed in tailored shirts and ironed pants, demanded militaristic dedication. Macy was taken aback, then won over.
"I pretty much owe him everything," said Macy, whose screen collaborations with Mamet include 1987's House of Games, 1988's Things Change and 2000's State and Main. "He gave me my aesthetic. He taught me how to act."
The student has done well on his own. In Focus, Macy plays a 40-something gentile who lives with his mother in Brooklyn. He works as a personnel manager and quietly goes about his slippers-and-newspaper existence until he is forced to buy a pair of glasses. From then on he is perceived as Jewish. Clouds of menace collect over his quiet street, and his life begins to unravel because of a bigotry he never agreed with, but never stood up to, either.
Macy hesitated to take the part of Lawrence Newman because his appearance is so generic. Mamet, who is not affiliated with the film, talked him into it.
"Who better than to play this role than someone who doesn't look Jewish at all?" Macy said.
"The point is, anti-Semitism isn't a poison just if you're Jewish. Anti-Semitism and racism and intolerance and homophobia are a poison to the whole culture. The face of intolerance is sometimes difficult to recognize. It's your neighbor. It's your teacher. It's your mother."
Macy, who has a 1-year-old daughter with his wife, Felicity Huffman (from TV's SportsNight), confronted prejudice on his home front. He quit as a platoon leader for the Boy Scouts of America after the organization kicked out a gay Eagle Scout. "Now if that doesn't show you how insidious intolerance is, nothing will," he said.
Lawrence Newman in Focus is Macy's kind of hero. He is not the armored stud sent out to slay the dragon, but the cringing peasant who is dispatched because the village has no choice.
Macy knows all about succeeding despite the odds. He spent the first 20 years of his career barely getting by on stage. The last 10, which included a stint on ER, have earned him widespread recognition and a financial windfall. He has appeared in 18 movies since 1998. But Macy felt adrift, so Huffman suggested that he seek new goals.
Now, he plans to write a feature film, a new direction for him, although he and Steven Schachter have written seven movies for television. The latest, a drama about a salesman called Door to Door, will air on TNT in March. But Macy wants the challenge of a bigger scope to match the bigger screen. He and Schachter are batting around a story about an accountant who buys six strip clubs. Schachter would direct; Macy would star.
If that doesn't work out, if at his life's end, his tombstone reads, "Bill Macy, Character Actor," he'd be OK with that, he said.
"There's nothing so delicious as seeing a play or a movie where one of the smaller roles walks away with a film."