William H. Macy Is Taking The Time To Stop, Smell The Roses & Drink A Little Whiskey In His New, “Shameless”-Free Era

William H. Macy
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William H. Macy
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William H. Macy has just made a confession, and it’s a doozy. Much like his Shameless character, Frank Gallagher, Macy drinks and he does things. And, well, they haven’t always been good.

Case in point: his earliest memory involving the hard stuff. At 10 years old, young Bill got loaded and accidentally destroyed a local landmark. Whoops.

“When I was a kid, somehow we got a hold of this 200-proof alcohol. I think it was used for rubdowns, but we drank it,” he says. “And all I remember is, I went to the baseball field and there was a bulldozer there with its keys in it, so I put it in gear and I started it. It only went about 10 feet before it stalled, but the blade was down, and by then it had totally dug up the baseball field.”

And nary another soul ever knew, because “We just ran!” he recalls with a boyish grin, looking more like his undoubtedly cheeky childhood self and far less like his current age of 71. “No one ever knew. [I’ve kept this secret] for 60 years. This is breaking news! I’m talking about it here for the first time, and I’m probably going to hear from the town of Cumberland, Maryland, after this interview: ‘So you’re the guy.’”

It’s only easy to laugh at past indiscretions if you’re no longer making them, and with Macy, that’s undoubtedly the case. These days, he’s gotten the bad boy out of his system. Mostly. The rebellious part of him that still exists has been transformed into yet another creative outlet: his alter ego, Willie Creeks.

Willie is the poster child for Woody Creek Distillers, the liquor brand Macy became involved with just prior to the arrival of Covid-19. He’s a fictional throwback-to-a-bygone-era troubadour who sings about the good old days of the Rockies while strumming a vintage ukulele and, a glass of whiskey in hand, dispensing old-timey truth bombs like: “Be careful when you’re climbing the ladder of success. Make sure it’s on the right roof. Happened to me once. I ended up in my ex-wife’s house. Naked.”

As Willie, Macy is able to harness his inner outlaw, albeit one who rides a Triumph very, very slowly and fully kitted in Kevlar (a loving safety mandate by his wife of 24 years, Desperate Housewives star Felicity Huffman, after he discovered he loved bike life while filming the 2007 comedy Wild Hog) through the rain and snow from L.A. to Aspen, with his ukulele — one of nearly two dozen — strapped to his back, all the while conceiving tongue-in-cheek (yet totally earworm-worthy) blues songs like “Whiskey Dell” and “Why I Put My Pants On.”

That he plays the ukulele is no accident: Willie is still William H., after all. It’s been his prime passion since picking up the tiny instrument after filming Paul Thomas Anderson’s Boogie Nights in 1997. At the film’s wrap party, director Anderson — a fan of The Gong Show — asked each guest to do something they’d never done before, so Macy, who had grown up playing guitar, thought the ukelele qualified. He went down to Guitar Center and picked up his very first Martin uke (which he shows me) and sang a Bob Hope song with his wife. They lost. He says they “were robbed.”

William H. Macy
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“I tell everyone the ukulele is the crack cocaine of stringed instruments,” he says. “It’s easy to play. It makes people happy. You take it out of its case and people laugh, because it’s crazy-looking and small.” He pauses, then warns, “Don’t pick it up, because it will ruin you.”

In addition to Willie’s love of the ukulele, he also has a pretty impressive backstory (but hey, that’s why Macy is such a celebrated and decorated actor, right?). “Willie started as a folk hero. He was in a hair band for a while — he did Herman’s Hermits — and now he’s a rocker who doesn’t give a shit about anything or anybody else and says whatever he wants,” Macy explains before recounting a recent interview he gave fully in character. “Willie was such a jerk to the interviewer,” he laughs, noting that while he’d never operate that way personally, it was “shockingly easy” to be bad, adding, “It’s delicious if you can speak your mind and then blame it on the other guy.”

Willie — and indeed, his partnership with Woody Creek Distillers, which is located in Huffman’s hometown of Basalt, Colorado, 20 miles outside Aspen — began as a bit of a lark but seems to be just the escape Macy needed during the pandemic. It was certainly an organic fit from the get-go: not only does Macy — who is a co-owner, investor, ambassador and campaign star of the brand — love whiskey, but he and his family happen to live in Huffman’s childhood home, literally next door to WCD founder Mark Klechner.

But the pandemic, among its other indignities and struggles, also thwarted the brand’s rollout, so Macy and company had to get inventive.While on a safe and socially distant jaunt to Colorado last year, he wrote a song about the bartender of their local watering hole, the Woody Creek Tavern, and Huffman captured a homespun music video on her iPhone, using a Gimbal. The track caught the attention of New York agency Strawberry Frog — the company responsible for Jim Beam’s recent rebranding — who not only created the brand’s Willie-focused ad campaigns but also the absolutely perfect “Age like a badass” tagline.

Beyond the way it gives him a creative outlet, Macy loves being affiliated with Woody Creek. He isn’t paying lip service here: he really, really likes the whiskey. He enthusiastically praises the distillery’s beauty and its combination of high-tech and old-school techniques, and he walks me through the rather complicated production process while dispelling some truths he’s learned on his whiskey-making journey (e.g., if it ain’t made in Scotland, you can’t call it Scotch whiskey). “Stop me when you get bored,” he warns. (I don’t, because I’m not. He should lead distillery tours.)

“What Woody Creek does is pretty pure,” he says, noting that the company also produces a gin, a vodka and — his personal favorite — a rye, which he refers to as “the nectar of the gods. It’s pure, 100 percent rye whiskey. It’s all grown in Colorado, and nothing is sourced. Every single drop goes into those barrels.” Which has one major benefit, in his opinion. “Just to be blunt about it, you can drink a whole lot more of it and feel OK the next morning. There are all these alcohols that come out of the first distillation, and if you don’t take them out, they’ll give you a hangover that’s kind of biblical.”

Which absolutely no one wants, am I right? And so, basically, he’s a fan. But as to whether he has major plans for the brand, Macy’s just kind of riding the wave of excitement that Klechner and company have carried him on. “The distillery is constantly evolving. They’re like a bunch of kids, really. They’ll go, ‘Let’s make a plum brandy,’ and make 100 barrels. They did a gin where they put this flower in it which made it slightly blue. My golly, people went nuts for that! It’s vibrant and evolving, the distillery. I spend a lot of time there. It’s become the bar of choice in Basalt, Colorado.”

And when he’s sitting down, no doubt with a ukulele in one hand and a glass in the other, what liquid will we find there? Well, just about anything, from the sound of it. “Right now I’m really into rye whiskey, which is so American. I love bourbon, too, which is also so American, but who doesn’t love a good, malty, peaty Scotch? Felicity and my daughters [Sophia Grace, 21, and Georgina Grace, 19] just went to Africa on safari, and they came back drinking gin. And so now we’re going through a gin phase. We have a lot of fruit trees here in California, and we grow Meyer lemons. Squeeze a little Meyer lemon, add some gin and some tonic and oh, life is good.”

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It’s hard to imagine Bill Macy being anything like his Shameless character, Frank Gallagher, a neglectful father of six whose alcoholism and drug addiction affect his entire family. He’s rather dapper this late August day, with his hair perfectly coiffed, beard neatly trimmed, wearing a crisp pale-blue button-down. He’s certainly a million miles away from the six-time Emmy-nominated character (with a recent nod for Showtime’s longest-running original scripted series, for its 11th and final season), who always reminded me of The Big Lebowski’s the Dude, with even worse hygiene. But in Bill’s pragmatic opinion, there’s inevitably going to be a blurred line when you’ve played a role for as long as he has.

“I did Shameless for 11 years, and when you do something that long, the line between the actor and the character gets thinner and thinner,” he says. “I noticed in the later years that phrases I use regularly would find their way into the scripts. I love antique words and phrases like ‘That’s swell’ or ‘Boy, that’s Jake with me’ from the 1920s and ’30s. And I guess [the writers] would just listen to the way I spoke on set, and a lot of the way I spoke ended up being the way Frank spoke.”

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It was a sad thing, saying goodbye to a character that became a part of him. But he was grateful for the experience, just like he’s pleased with the plethora of nominations. “It’s just so sweet,” he says of the most recent Outstanding Lead Actor in a Comedy Series accolade (which went to Ted Lasso star Jason Sudeikis at this year’s ceremony). “It [was] like a cherry on top of the best cake anyone’s ever had, especially to get nominated when it’s in the past [the last episode of the show aired on April 11]. It [was] fabulous.”

But he did feel an over-so-slight urgency to win, with six nods to his name and no trophy (for this show, that is — Macy is a previous two-time Emmy winner, a four-time Screen Actors Guild Award winner and an Independent Spirit Award winner) — for his small-screen family more than himself, let it be said.

“It would [have been] lovely for the whole cast and crew. If I were to [have won] this thing, it would [have been] a joint effort,” he maintains. “Believe me, we were a well-oiled machine there at the end, and it was sad to leave, but I think everyone had the notion that it was time to go. We didn’t want to jump the shark. I think all the seasons are really good, and I’m very proud of that. But yeah, I’d like to [have won] one for the team.”

He was really looking forward to Emmy night, in fact, if just for the chance to dress up, put on his Dolce & Gabbana suit and, well, not be Frank Gallagher for the night. “On Shameless, I would only work three days out of the seven that we would shoot, and it sounds kind of silly, but for 11 years, I looked like a bum.”

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He’s had to wait quite some time to return to his regularly programmed grooming, especially because, immediately after wrapping Shameless, he signed on to play ex-CIA agent and inventor of biomedical devices Richard Fuisz in Hulu’s The Dropout, which required three hours in the makeup chair each day to transform him into a semblance of the real-life Fuisz.

The limited series, which also stars Amanda Seyfried, Naveen Andrews, Laurie Metcalf and Stephen Fry, showcases the rise and fall of Theranos founder Elizabeth Holmes. (For those who are unfamiliar, Theranos was initially described as a breakthrough technology company, falsely claiming to have created blood tests that required small amounts of blood that could be tested quickly on small, automated devices Holmes’ company had developed. Her net worth rapidly disintegrated, from $4.5 billion to nothing after a string of lawsuits, and in 2018, the SEC charged Holmes with fraud.)

Macy, who plays a pivotal role in the series, says he signed on because “It’s a fascinating story. Everyone wanted to invest with her, people like Henry Kissinger and George Schultz and the head of the U.S. Armed Forces. It’s a cautionary tale of Silicon Valley and how crazy we are for new ideas. At the beginning, Holmes was a victim of her own success, but then she went to the dark side.” Ultimately, he says, he chose the project because “I loved this script — it’s really well-written — and I like the character. It’s not that much work — I maybe have three or four scenes in each episode — and it’s tough to find a good character these days. When one comes along, you kind of have to do it.”

And he isn’t complaining, but The Dropout took its toll on him, too. Endless hours in the hair and makeup chair plus all the sitting around and waiting one does on set (as well as extra time for the necessary Covid-19 precautions) will do that to a guy. That being said, he very nearly called it a day on acting, this thing he’s oh-so good at, the thing he’s been doing successfully for the past 41 years, with Academy Award-nominated roles in films like Fargo and parts in popular films like Air Force One, Magnolia, Jurassic Park III, Seabiscuit and Sahara.

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“I had it in my head that I was going to retire, but it didn’t work out,” he says. “I’m sort of serious about it. I’m 71. One of the good things about Shameless was that I worked steadily for 11 years, which is unusual in this business. Both daughters are in college now; I want to travel a lot. During Shameless, I directed a bit. I directed three independent films, and the net result of that was, I missed all the vacations with my family. I want to spend time with my girls and just not work so hard. I want to catch up.” (Although he does share that he’s already started on the travels, having taken a romantic glamping getaway to Yellowstone National Park with Huffman. “I was scared to death the entire time, but Felicity protected me,” he jokes.)

He pauses. “You know, I don’t know what retirement looks like for an actor. As long as you can remain upright and learn the lines, there’s usually a role for some alter kocker.” That’s a Yiddish phrase meaning “crotchety, fussy, ineffectual old man.”

Strangely enough, it was the pandemic that reminded him to stop and smell the proverbial roses, to enjoy life and make more time for himself and the other areas of his life that were just as important as the working parts. “The shelter-in-place part of the pandemic came with unexpected gifts. I rather enjoyed it. We have a big place here in L.A., so we weren’t crammed…and both of my daughters were here. They were about to go to college, but for three months, they were at home, talking to us. And I think it took a pandemic to make that happen. I can’t imagine any other way that would have happened!” he laughs, before saying more seriously, “It brought our whole family together. And it was lovely.”

Beyond that, he says, he came to the realization that life is short, and that it needs to be savored. “I realized I didn’t have to be going 75 miles an hour all the time — which is part of the whole retirement idea that I have. I slowed down. And I found that to be really fulfilling and lovely.”

But is that ability to choose, to decide when to take a beat, to spend time with loved ones, the greatest luxury in life? Well, kind of. “That question is funny,” he says, noting, “Felicity is great at dinner parties. She likes to put a little question under everybody’s plate, and it spurs conversation at the dinner table. One of her questions was, ‘What gives you the feeling of abundance?’ So can I answer that? For me, it’s tools!”

Come again? “I have a shop. I’m an amateur woodworker. I have every tool known to man. Two or three of them, in some cases. Really good ones. I’ve got 40 power saws, I love hand tools, and I love to have a lot of them. One of the things about carpentry is that if you don’t have the right tools, you better have a lot of talent, which I don’t. If you have the right tools, it’s not that difficult to build some beautiful things.”

Sounds like a metaphor to me.

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