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William H. Macy: Guilty Pleasures

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By playing Frank Gallagher in Shameless, William H. Macy has found his creative soulmate...

I am getting better at what I do every day. There is nothing like practice.

Now entering its eighth season, Shameless has provided the kind of steady employment that veteran actor William H. Macy dreamed about for decades. This success was a surprise for almost everyone involved, but Macy always believed that this series — about a wildly dysfunctional father of six, Frank Gallagher — would go the distance. In running this long, Shameless has offered Macy an opportunity to stretch his acting muscles like never before, digging deeper than any movie role allowed. “I love the fact that I work every day,” he told the Guardian. “I am getting better at what I do every day. There is nothing like practice.”

The way Macy sees it, the cast of a long-running TV series either gets much worse or much better over time. Part of the reason Shameless has been a case of the latter is the close bond the cast has formed, creating a sense of emotional investment onscreen that would be difficult to achieve in a short-term movie shoot. While Frank’s affection for his family might not always be apparent, Macy has said he has real love for his co-stars. In a more farfetched development, he has expressed similar love for the man he inhabits onscreen.

He approaches the character the way a defence lawyer might approach an obviously guilty client...

Having now played Frank for nearly a decade, Macy has developed a unique ability to bring the character’s worst tendencies to life, without sacrificing the human frailty that makes this otherwise absurd creation a credible human being. This is the kind of balancing act that takes years to perfect, and few characters have ever demanded more patience than Frank Gallagher. From the time the series began, Macy knew he couldn’t run from Frank’s addiction-fuelled shortcomings, but he also devised a careful strategy to convey his more redeeming qualities. This isn’t the first thing that comes to mind when you think of Frank, but Macy believes Shameless would be unwatchable without these grace notes. He approaches the character the way a defence lawyer might approach an obviously guilty client — with an unwavering determination to accept his side of the story.

The show’s writers make an extremely persuasive case for the prosecution, but that doesn’t stop Macy from seeking positive traits wherever he can find them. Given the opportunity to defend Frank, Macy is capable of sounding downright delusional, but this is precisely the kind of rationalizing the role demands. “I’m Frank’s best friend, so it’s hard for me to see his flaws,” he revealed to Vulture, before listing all kinds of well-hidden virtues that usually go unnoticed. “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.”

Macy knows he’s cutting the character too much slack, but it comes with the territory. For Frank to come alive onscreen, the actor playing him needs to be on his side. One of the ways Macy first achieved this was by detecting — and exploiting — the character’s parallels to his own mother. Although Mrs. Macy’s occasional drunken missteps were far less frequent than Frank’s, her son regularly channels her behaviour onscreen. By tapping into the mannerisms of someone he knows, loves, and understands, he’s better equipped to build a similar bond with Frank.

If you step outside the fictional world of Shameless, you will discover another reason Macy has so much good will for Frank: the character has had an entirely positive effect on his life. Offering a more stable schedule than an unpredictable movie career, this role has made it possible for Macy to spend more time with his family and pursue a directing career, tackling an episode of Shameless and three independent features in the last three years. This is unlikely to supplant acting as Macy’s primary passion, but he has Frank to thank for the opportunity.

Fringe benefits notwithstanding, the real reward of playing Frank is the role itself. Macy describes the whole undertaking as “a delight,” one that offers a balance of pleasure and artistic growth. In his time as Frank, he says, he has achieved some important breakthroughs as an actor. For years, he saw himself as a reliable old pro who could deliver predictable results, but Frank’s excesses have transformed him into a less predictable, less inhibited, and less guarded performer. Even the character’s perpetually dishevelled appearance — which makes hair, makeup, and wardrobe a breeze — has contributed to Macy’s newly relaxed approach.

This would all seem to be great news for William H. Macy, but it does raise one troubling question: After spending all this time inside the mind of Frank, could the actor become him? In interviews, he acknowledges that his sense of humour has grown more reliant on drug and alcohol references, and he can’t help but view the series through the eyes of his character. When he tunes in and sees his TV kids thriving in his absence, Macy confessed to HNGN feelings of self-pity straight out of the Frank Gallagher playbook: “That makes me sad, and it does hurt my feelings.”

Jonathan Doyle writes about movies for Comedy, CTV, and Space.