Felicity Huffman and William H. Macy on How to Survive a Movie Together (Exclusive)
By John Boone
Photo by Jon Kopaloff/FilmMagic
"I'm fixing Bill's pants," Felicity Huffman knowingly announces into my recorder, leaning off the couch to adjust the leg of her husband's slacks. William H. Macy is sitting with one foot resting on the other knee, revealing a sliver of ankle between his black loafer and black dress sock, which Huffman deftly smoothes over.
It's a sunny morning in West Hollywood and Huffman has been by Macy's side for the better part of the day as they promote his latest directorial effort, which he says helps make the requisite press circuit all the better. ("Much," Macy tells me. "Much better.") The movie is Krystal, out now, Macy's third feature film and his second featuring Huffman. It's a coming-of-age dark comedy about a conservative young man (Love, Simon's Nick Robinson) with a peculiar heart condition that's triggered when he falls for Krystal, the ex-junkie, ex-stripper played by Rosario Dawson. "We're getting some love," Macy grins. "I've gotten good at reading these. It's good. It's not a disaster." Sitting down with ET, the couple (of nearly four decades) opened up about the pressures of working together and how they survived making a movie, together.
ET: More so with The Layover, but here too, people tend to be surprised by the projects that you choose to direct. You're thought of as this theater actor with indie cred and an Oscar nomination -- and then you make a broad sex comedy.
William H. Macy: Yeah, that was odd. I like 'em so much. I like that kind of comedy, that kind of broad comedy, and I wish I could act in some. I'd really like to give it a shot. It's a fine line, you know? Sometimes when they go too broad, then I'm lost -- both watching and whether I'm going to act in it. I don't know...It's my sense of humor. The Layover, I thought, "Well, it's a John Hughes movie! What could be tough about that? Piece of cake, what he does!" Well, I learned.
Felicity Huffman: Not John Hughes. Judd Apatow.
Macy: Judd Apatow. This is a John Hughes movie.
Huffman: This is the coming-of-age movie, yeah.
Have you experienced that with any of the people close to you, though? Felicity, you know him better than anyone. Have you been surprised by any of the projects he's signed on for?
Huffman: I think if you look at Bill's appetite in terms of acting, you can see it covers a wide range. What speaks to him is a great script. It's the same thing as a director. He doesn't have a John Hughes genre, or a Judd Apatow [genre]. He's got a wide and varied appetite.
Macy: I must say, in all candor, too, the way a lot of directors work is you have several projects that you think, "I'd like to do that..." And then it's up to the fates as to which one can stick. It's really hard to get one these things made.
Krystal starts with a dead dog with its guts spilled out in the street and then includes Satanic visions. This could be a hard sell--
Macy: Could be?! Did I mention the 12 years of getting it made?
I knew this one had taken a while. So, what held onto you for those 12 years? What made you want to tackle this? And what made you think you were the one to tackle it?
Macy: I love your questions, by the way. You're the only one who's gotten down to it. It's an odd movie! It's an odd, wonderful movie. What did I like? It's an odd, wonderful movie. It tells a big story, a complicated story. It's about fear and addiction and a coming of age. It all seemed organic. I love the surprises in it. Will Aldis wrote it, I love that his writing style is quite theatrical, [with] big speeches. I love how much he loves all his characters. Every character -- and there are 10 major characters -- have a beginning, middle and end. I really liked that. And it was visually quite stimulating to me, with the magical realism. When I read it, I saw it in my mind's eye, clear as can be. This is the first I said, "Can I direct this?" This is the one that got me off the nickel and made me start trying to get directing assignments.
Having that vision of what the movie should be, when you were on set, did you feel like you had a grasp on it the entire time? Or were there days when you had to say, "We'll figure this out later"?
Macy: I had that vision in my head and it was funny, but it was daunting when I would see it on its feet and it wasn't funny anymore. Or a scene that I had read a billion times and suddenly, when you put it on its feet, you think, "It's not working! There's something wrong." So, there were some technical challenges, technical in storytelling, that were-- They put me on my heels. This was really tough. Everyone kept talking about the tone, until I finally said, "Stop talking about tone! I don't even know what tone is!" I know a lot more about it now. Tone is that thing of, you said it, going from running over a dog with its guts spilled on the street to farcical comedy in nine seconds. That's a delicate tone to hit.
How does the finished product compare to what you saw in your heard reading the script?
Macy: With the caveat that I'd love to make the film again -- I'd love to start all over -- this is what I saw. I got it to the screen.
You two met doing theater, correct?
Does the fact that you met while acting together take some of the pressure off of working together now? I know that can be a stressful decision for a lot of actor couples, of whether they should act in something together or not.
Huffman: I think there's two levels of your question, which is whether it's stressful for us to think about doing it, but there's also the question of how much of an appetite there is out there for people to see couples together. And the latter question, I think you have to play that card very lightly, seeing couples act together -- particularly as a couple, which we just did. But in terms of how much I want to work with Bill Macy, or how much I want to be directed by Bill Macy? Every project.
Felicity has been in nearly every film you've directed--
Macy: Two out of three, you've been.
Huffman: Yes. Even a long, long time ago [in] Lip Service. I had a tiny part in Lip Service.
Macy: Three out of four!
But not yet as the lead. Is that something you're both interested in pursing someday?
Macy: Say yes, dear.
Huffman: "Yes, dear."
Is it a matter of finding the right project? Are there other logistics of what that would need to be?
Huffman: I haven't been offered a lead in a movie in a really, really long time, so, there's that.
Macy: I'd like to offer you one. You know what we looked at? It's not going to happen. We loved the idea of [the 1934 William Powell-Myrna Loy comedy] The Thin Man, going back and trying to do a couple like that. That's exciting! I can see that. We better get to it, if we're going to carry a movie, I agree with you on that front.
There are many pros and cons to where we're at, in terms of media and how many different platforms there are to watch it on, but I do think that one of the good things that's come from the Netflix of it all is there are movies being made with older leads, with different leads, that otherwise would not be made.
Macy: I agree. We're hearing a lot of stories that we wouldn't have heard otherwise.
Huffman: We're old and different! [Laughs]
Macy: Very different.
Huffman: Older leads, different leads!
Macy: It's great. It's the democratization of movies. Everybody's story can be told now, and some of them are magnificent.
I certainly did not mean older or different as an insult. More diverse leads.
Huffman: Oh my god, don't even think about it.
Why do you think you aren't being offered lead roles now? You're such a fantastic actress.
Huffman: I guess there's just--
Macy: Hold on, you just did the lead in three years of American Crime.
Huffman: Yeah, that's true. Oh, I meant movies, not TV.
Macy: Ah. Well, we've both been doing TV.
Huffman: I think I'm just known-- Personally, I love TV. I couldn't be more pleased to be offered leads in TV. I prefer it. So, I'm pretty happy with where I'm at. Why it hasn't happened for movies? I don't know. It's the ebb and flow of the business.
What are those discussions like about starring in one of his movies? Do you say, "I'd like to take this role"? Or are you making her audition?
Huffman: Yeah, Bill! Are you making me audition?
Macy: [Affecting an accent] Don't make me laugh! As Felicity said, it's special when we get to do something together, so we don't want to do it that often. We want to keep it special. This one, I didn't want to act in it. I'm not a fan of acting in something that I'm directing. I don't know how people do that. I'm in awe of them. To me, I find that too stressful! It's tough enough. But we couldn't cast this role and time was running out, so I decided to play Wyatt. The second I said yes to Rachel Winters, who produced this thing, I picked up the phone and I said [to Felicity], "I'm going to do Wyatt. Will you do Poppy?" And she said yes. I guess we toyed around with it [before] and we both decided, no, let's try to cast that out. I don't want to act in it. So, we talked about it and she said yes. I was pretty much instantly sure that it was an excellent decision. And in fact, I was right. I love these scenes. They're kind of my favorite in the whole movie and I loved shooting them. I could have done these scenes all day. We were rockin' it.
Huffman: It was fun.
Macy: We got to rehearse. We were, all four of us [Macy, Huffman and their onscreen sons, played by Robinson and Grant Gustin], exquisitely prepared, and we were tearing it up. I loved it!
Having come out the other end, do you think with future projects you direct, you'll still want to avoid acting in them? Or now do you think, "I did it. I can do it"?
Macy: This was successful, this time, so I'm willing to do it. I'm going to direct a Shameless [episode] this coming season, so I'll be acting and directing again. I'm not an easy director. I find it takes every ounce of energy that I've got, so I'm loathe to take on an acting role, too, is mostly what it is. But maybe I'll get better at directing and easier about it!
As the director's wife, you can always ask for another take. But as the director's wife, you can never ask for another take.
How does your established relationship have to shift when you move into the roles of actor-director?
Huffman: I have to be a lot more obedient and quiet. [Laughs]
Macy: Do you think that, really?
Huffman: Oh, yeah. Yeah.
Macy: I hear you. And I agree.
Huffman: Because as the director's wife, you can always ask for another take. But as the director's wife, you can never ask for another take.
Macy: Mmm, I hear you. For my part, I have to be conscious of being kind and being respectful. It's real easy in the fog of war to go, "No, just go do the thing! Do the thing! Can't you see I'm directing a movie here!"
Huffman: [Laughs] "Just act better!"
Macy: Which I think I told you.
Huffman: I didn't mind!
Macy: I think I said, "OK, that's it! Just do it better!"
Having been together for so many years -- this may be something that came naturally or maybe it's something you've worked on -- what approach do you take in terms of giving each other criticism? Whether that be projects you're thinking about pursuing or performances. Are you able to be very blunt?
Huffman: My experience is we can be blunt but kind, when it's being made. And, by the way, this is all a work in progress. We've run afoul of it and been brought up short and had big fights about it. But once the finished product is all done, then you have to sit back, other than going, "Y'know, next episode…" That's what's great about television. Bill and I talk about, "What do you want to do next season on Shameless? What do you want to work on?" And I did the same thing with Desperate Housewives with him. In the moment, you can't sort of go, "Well, that sucked!" But you can go, "Next time."
Macy: Something else that's shifted with us is that I think there's a clear understanding that you're going to act the role, so I think it's easier for me to say, "What about this? What about that? What about this?" Because you're the final arbitrator of it and you'll make your decision, so it frees me up to just toss a bunch of ideas in. In other words, I think we've both gotten pretty good at not having a dog in the fight. It's just to help each other, whatever we can do to help each other. A lot of it, too, is technical. And we're both fascinated by the technicalities about what makes a joke land? And conversely, why isn't it landing? What's going on? We both like looking at the minutia of it.
What changes do you see in Bill when he's on set as the director?
Huffman: It's sort of like watching someone at war. He's the general, so he's very focused and everything is riding on his shoulders. So, does it look different? It's a different speed.
Macy: I've been out of town for all three, so I've spared them a lot of the most anguished nights.
Huffman: I know, you poor thing.
You've had to fit directing these last three movies during your Shameless hiatuses--
Huffman: Yeah, he's shot three movies in four years! It was just crazy.
Does it feel like it balances out to you in the end, or having been on the show for so many years, are you starting to itch to have a little more time to pursue other opportunities?
Macy: Well, doing the three films was a bad choice. I missed a lot. I missed all the vacations. And it tested me too much. I lost my will to live there at a point. I should spread it out. One of the benefits of directing is when I got back to Shameless after shooting Rudderless, I just loved acting like I never had! I thought, "This is so freaking easy! All you gotta do is learn the lines and show up! This is easy! I love this!" [Laughs] I would say another benefit of directing is I fell in love with the business all over again, like I did when I was 20.
Huffman: Aww, that's great.
Macy: As a director, you get to see the whole magnificent machine. Even in independent film, there's 200 people who are all pulling in the same direction, which is a miraculous thing, and they're trying to make a piece of art. And they're so odd, people in this business, they're so eccentric-- It's fascinating.
Then with the show ongoing-- There's no end date set for Shameless, correct?
Huffman: No, God willing!
Macy: No, we start season nine in about three weeks, four weeks. I believe there will be a 10. We'll see.
With potentially two more seasons to go, how are you thinking about approaching your next directing project?
Huffman: What is your next project?
Macy: I don't know. We were just talking that. I'm not done yet. I'd like to do something.
I think we heard it: A remake of The Thin Man for Netflix?
Macy: [Laughs] There you go.
Huffman: Call Ted [Sarandos]!
At the Golden Globes, Bill told ET that you were hosting Time's Up meetings at your home. Time's Up was so much at the forefront through awards season. Now that the initial attention of the red carpets and fashion blackouts has passed, how have you seen it evolve behind the scenes?
Huffman: I think it's gone from an outcry to a movement to a political juggernaut, and I think it's here to stay. I think it's going to change the landscape forever, and I'm thrilled to be alive right now and to see it happening. We have two daughters [Sofia, 17, and Grace, 16] and, by God, I think the world that they will walk into is different than the world I did.
Are you still hosting meetings?
Huffman: No, because now it's become an actual thing! We don't even have meetings at people's houses anymore, which, in a way, is kind of sad. Now there are proper meetings in proper offices. There's a team behind it. There's actually professionals. It's moved quickly out of the, you know, being in the kitchen on the phone writing stuff down to a real thing. It goes from Time's Up to 50/50 by 2020, I think we've made incredible progress and I think everybody's got their eye on the ball. It's doing it.
Macy: I only know our business, which is a magnificent business. It does respond quickly, and I think it's a forgone conclusion. I think my perception is all the studios, almost immediately, said, "Let's do it."
Huffman: Now we just have to make sure they do it.