Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

The big piece of cheese

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William H. Macy

Yesterday, I picked up a copy of A Practical Handbook for the Actor, the classic guide written by members of the Atlantic Theatre Company. It’s one of those books I should have read years ago, and the fact that I haven’t is due mostly to the fact that it never occurred to me. I’ve said many times before that On Directing Film by David Mamet is arguably the most useful book on storytelling I know, and this slender volume is essentially the same argument conducted from the other side. It’s based on notes from a summer acting workshop conducted by Mamet and William H. Macy in the early eighties, and although their names don’t appear on the cover, it’s as close to a manifesto as exists to the core principles that have guided these two exceptional careers. I’m not an actor; I can’t judge its usefulness for the performers for which it was intended; but as a writer, I’ve never found a more refreshing perspective on the problems of plot, characterization, and structure. Elsewhere, I’ve noted some of the limitations of the Mamet approach, which I’ve described as a formula for writing rock-solid first drafts. Without additional development, it can seem thin and mechanical. But I don’t know of a better foundation for telling effective stories in any medium.

What strikes me the most about this book, though, is where it occurred in the timeline of two lives. When the workshop first took place, Mamet was in his late thirties and Macy was exactly the age I am now. At the time, Mamet’s star was on the rise: Glengarry Glen Ross had won, or was about to win, the Pulitzer Prize for Drama, making him the hottest playwright and screenwriter in America, and he was just a few years away from his spectacular directorial debut in House of Games. Macy, by contrast, had established a name for himself on stage, but his film and television credits were sparse, and he was a full decade away from his breakthrough role in Fargo, which established him overnight as nothing less than our indispensable character actor. I never tire of quoting Mamet’s observation that everyone gets a break in show business in twenty-five years, some at the beginning, others at the end, and there’s no question that he was thinking of Macy. One of his stories from early in their friendship gives a sense of those days:

Macy and I were in Chicago one time, and he was living in this wretched hovel—we’d both become screamingly poor—and I came over to talk to him about something, some play equipment. I opened the refrigerator, and there was this big piece of cheese. I hadn’t had anything to eat in a long time, so I picked it up, cut off a big chunk, and started eating. And Macy said, “Hey, help yourself.” I was really hurt. I went away and fumed about that for several days. Then I just started writing, and out of that came this scene, which was the start of [American Buffalo].

David Mamet

Mamet’s career skyrocketed shortly thereafter, but Macy scraped along for years, driving cabs, tending bar, and taking acting jobs wherever he could. And you feel this in an extended passage on one of the book’s first pages, which artists of all backgrounds would do well to memorize:

The best thing you can do for yourself as an actor is to clearly define and list those things that are your responsibilities and separate them from those things that are not. In other words, itemize what is within your control and what is not. If you apply this rather stoic philosophy of working on only those things within your control and not concerning with those things that are not, then every moment you spend will be concretely contributing to your growth as an actor. Why not devote your time and energy to developing measurable skills such as your voice, your ability to analyze a script correctly, your ability to concentrate, and your body? On the other hand, how can it possibly help to concern yourself with the views others choose to take of you, the overall success or failure of the play, the ability (or lack thereof) of the director or other actors, which critics are sitting in the audience, your height, your feelings, and so forth? You cannot and never will be able to do anything about any of those things. Consequently, it makes sense to devote yourself only to those things which you have the capacity to change, and refrain from wasting your time, thought, and energy on these things you can never affect.

And simply by hanging on, Macy grew into the actor he was meant to become. It’s hard to imagine him as a young man: Fargo may have typecast him as the desperate, repressed character he ended up playing so many times, but it’s one of the most striking instances in memory of a film encountering an actor at the precise instant when he was capable of delivering the necessary performance. Macy would have had the technical ability to play Jerry Lundegaard at any point in his career, but it took time for him to grow those eyes and that face, in which you can read everything that brought him to where he had to be. (You see the same quality in the faces of many of Mamet’s favorite supporting actors, few of whom ever became household names: men like Jack Wallace, J.J. Johnston, Mike Nussbaum, or Lionel Mark Smith, who never got their Fargo, but who provided countless small moments of clarity and pleasure to audiences over the years.) In On Becoming a Novelist, John Gardner writes: “Finally, the true novelist is the one who doesn’t quit.” You can say much the same for actors, playwrights, or creative professionals of any kind. Once his hour in the sun came, Macy often seemed content to coast a little, taking on paycheck parts in the manner of all great supporting actors. But you can’t say he hasn’t earned a bite from that big piece of cheese.

Written by nevalalee

April 1, 2015 at 9:16 am

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