Sky’s the Limit: William H. Macy on The Sessions

The co-star of the new Oscar contender on the real Mark O'Brien, Berry Gordy's The Last Dragon and what's next on Shameless.

Fred Topelby Fred Topel

The Sessions was the big buzz film of Sundance, back when it was called The Surrogate. It’s based on the true story of Mark O’Brien (John Hawkes), a poet and journalist in an iron lung who hires sex surrogate Cheryl (Helen Hunt) to help him with his first time. William H. Macy plays Father Brendan, O’Brien’s confidante in the church. Nine months and two titles after Sundance, we got to chat with Macy about his role in the film. He was introduced as Bill Macy, so that started things off casually.

CraveOnline: May I call you Bill?

William H. Macy: Yes, if I can call you Fred.

Yes, you may. Was Father Brendan a real person or a composite of people in Mark O’Brien’s life?

He was a composite. Mark O’Brien was a religious fellow and had a church or a couple of churches he attended. So we can assume that he had some good friends but the character was made up by Ben Lewin out of whole cloth and used in a very clever way if you ask me. He’s sort of a Greek chorus, isn’t he?

What do you think God will think of you playing both Father Brendan and Frank Gallagher?

Well, if anyone could handle that, God can.

Good answer. Can a movie like The Sessions get people talking about sex?

Gosh, I hope so. When I saw the film, I realized that in a very clever way, [writer/director] Ben Lewin really just told a simple love story. It’s boy meets girl, we got suckered again. He just told it from a very specific point of view and under rarified circumstances but it’s really a love story.

It seems like it may make palatable some things that might normally make people uncomfortable to talk about, which is a good thing because we should be talking about sex.

Well, exactly. If you just keep the camera on someone long enough, you drop your preconceptions and you watch them and you get to know them. I think people are fascinating creatures. This is a story about an extraordinary fellow. We love these stories of the human soul triumphing over adversity. That’s really what this is. This fellow trying to triumph can be climbing a mountain or slaying a tiger or trying to get laid even though you’re in an iron lung. It’s the striving that counts.

The language is very poetic. Does any of that come from the real Mark O’Brien’s writings?

Yes, a lot of his poetry was used in the film and I’m sure that that influenced Ben Lewin as he wrote it. Ben of course read everything that Mark O’Brien had written so I’m sure he had his voice in his head as he wrote this thing.

What were your thoughts when the title changed a couple times after Sundance, where I saw it as The Surrogate?

It is not unusual that they change the title of a film. People who market films have theories about such things, about titles. It’s happened to me before. Sometimes I say, “Well, better title.” Sometimes I say, “That’s a stupid idea.” This is a good title too. I like this title.

I like it too actually. I thought each time they changed it they made it a little better. What are some of the alternate titles of some of your films?

Oh my God, I don't know. It’s going back too far. I can’t even remember the current titles of some of the films I’ve done.

Would John Hawkes get out of the iron lung between takes?

Sure, he’s not one of those actors who stays in character all the time. It was physically stressful to do what he did and he did a beautiful job of it. And he made it look effortless. I guess it was quite uncomfortable. He did this thing with the pillow to give his back that serpentine look. I didn’t know it hurt so badly but I guess it really hurt, especially for some of the long takes.

Were you able to meet anyone from Mark O’Brien’s family?

Yes, the actual Cheryl came down and I met her. She was lovely. I guess everyone who came to the set was shocked and perhaps a bit rocked by how much John seemed like Mark O’Brien, same voice, same look, the way he carried himself. He really sort of channeled this fellow.

How do you like to be directed, whether by Ben Lewin or Woody Allen or The Coen Brothers or Paul Thomas Anderson?

I like a strong director who has a good sense of what the scene should look like. I like a director who knows exactly how the scene is going to cut before he shoots it. I like a director who is smart enough and flexible enough to make changes in the plan if it’s called for. I like a safe set where everyone’s laughing a lot and joking around. I like a strong director.

What is coming up for Frank Gallagher on “Shameless?”

Oh, we’re about two episodes away from finishing the third season and it’s outrageous. It’s pretty crazy some of the stuff they’ve got me doing this season, really, really wonderful. I think we’ve done a great season. I can’t wait to start watching it.

How much more outrageous can Frank get?

I don't know. Sky’s the limit I guess. I’m sure there’s a line we’re going to cross some day. I’ll let you know when we do it.

Have you been satisfied by his dramatic storyline as well as some of the crazy stuff you get to do?

Yes. By and large yes. I had some meaty moments last year as I did this year. You’d be hard put in an ensemble piece to find an actor who says, “Yup, I’m getting everything I need.”

When you made Berry Gordy’s The Last Dragon, was that just another job to you?

No, that was early on, that was a big deal to get that job. I’m about 10 years old in that movie. I really liked it. I remember nothing about it except I think Berry Gordy produced it. I wore the most outrageous clothes that any Lutheran boy has ever worn and I’m surrounded by beautiful, beautiful people.

Are you making a movie about Fellini as IMDB says?

No, not that I know of.

Is Rudderless one of your next films?

I’m hoping so. Your mouth to God’s ears. I’m going to direct that and that by necessity means I’m sort of producing it too. We’re still trying, trying to find the money. It’s getting close. Watch this space.

What’s next after “Shameless?”

Well, I’ve got other things. There’s sort of a family movie called Race to Nome I’m going to do a day or two on that. With my friend Steven Schachter we wrote two MOWs. We’re waiting to get a green light on those. I have a good amount of work lined up for this hiatus. We’re finished before Thanksgiving with “Shameless.”

What has been your journey with The Sessions since Sundance? Have you been waiting for it to come out?

Yes, it’s funny after you shoot the film, it disappears from your radar for a while and then it comes back and it’s a delight. I just left the Four Seasons where I got to spend the whole afternoon seeing my fellow cast members and that’s great fun to get to see them again. And it’s lovely that the film seems to be successful and we’re all sharing the joy of how well it came out. I think this film could do something. You never know, you know.

This could be a dangerous question but do you have any thoughts on Oscar prospects?

Well, I’d vote for those guys, absolutely. I would with great pride sit home and make fun of what they’re wearing as they walk down the red carpet.