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I Try To Do Everything They Throw At Me, 'Shameless' Star William H. Macy Says

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

People who are addicted to the show know the family as simply the Gallaghers. Just a warning here - you're going to hear some offensive language. The patriarch of this family is a foul-mouthed degenerate dad who lives up to the name of the popular show, which is "Shameless."

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "SHAMELESS")

WILLIAM H MACY: (As Frank Gallagher) Frank Gallagher - father, teacher, mentor, captain of our little ship. We may not have much, but all of us, to a man, knows the most important thing in this life. We know how to [expletive] party.

It's insane, isn't it (laughter)?

GREENE: That's William H. Macy, who stars as Frank Gallagher. And it's easy to pass the guy off as just a total lowlife, but this show, into its ninth season on Showtime, is a lot more complicated. The Gallaghers are confronting harsh realities that many families face - alcoholism, how to parent, how to escape poverty. It's just that Frank often goes way too far.

MACY: I'm a Lutheran from western Maryland. I read these scripts, and I'm horrified. I didn't know some of this stuff was even possible. But as a matter of pride, I try to do everything they throw at me.

GREENE: Yeah. I mean, he - your character is an alcoholic. I mean, he's self-destructive. That might not even capture close to it. He's a con man, a really good one. But it seems like you like playing him a lot.

MACY: (Laughter) Yes, I do. He's a rascal, and he's always looking for the party, and he'll start the party if it's not going. And he's strangely optimistic, hard working. He has many qualities, but, you know, he's is a pretty bad father. He's a narcissist. And as an actor, it's such a delicious role to do because it's great to be on the outside.

GREENE: When you say outside, what do you mean?

MACY: The outside of common sense, the outside of propriety, the outside of the family, of social norms, to be the one who can do anything. It's great. You can be shocking.

GREENE: You know, I read that you grew up in part in western Maryland, in Cumberland, and went to high school there and then went to college in West Virginia. And that is an area of the country, as a reporter, that I have always loved visiting. It is one of the poorest parts of our country. Cumberland always struck me as - it's a city.

There's a bit of, like, urban Appalachia that I always felt - but, like, such characters, such inspiring people who struggle through so much. I just wonder if - what you saw growing up in that part of the country and if you ever reflect on that as you make this show.

MACY: You're right. The - Cumberland is - it was poor. It's a poor part of the country. It was the first stop on the war on poverty. As a matter of fact, I was a young folk singer, and when Vice President Spiro Agnew came to town to kick off the war on poverty, he started in Cumberland, and I sang for him with...

GREENE: Wow.

MACY: Yeah - with many little folk singing group, two high school buddies. And I told a joke, which I did not understand. I said, welcome, Mr. Vice President, on the first leg of the war on poverty. Welcome to Cumberland. And I said, you know, I thought we were doing pretty good. And it brought the house down. And I - it was years later I had to put it all together who I was talking to and what all that meant.

GREENE: What did you sing to him?

MACY: Oh, we did Peter, Paul and Mary and other folk knockoffs. We were very sincere - not very good.

GREENE: (Laughter) But sincerity can often overcome quality, right?

MACY: Especially in front of politicians.

GREENE: (Laughter) Well, I wonder if there's something else you and other people involved in the show ever grapple with, like, if there's ever a point where you risk ridiculing or mocking Americans who are in poverty and how you sort of find the right balance with that.

MACY: There is the danger, but, you know, especially in this day and age of so much political correctness, me, personally, I feel like we just got to put it on the table. We must retain the right to make fun of absolutely anything. It's for our mental health. It's for our political health. We have to make fun of anything.

Now, whether you should or not is another question. And I think the way we do it is - the strong litmus test I think a lot with the cast - when the writers come up with an idea, they test themselves and then even the cast - is it true? Is that true, or is that a joke? Is the joke out front or is the truth out front? And if it's true, there's no question.

GREENE: True being something that might actually confront a family as opposed to a joke where you're just looking for a gag, is that what you mean?

MACY: Yes. It could happen and perhaps more, not to sound airy-fairy, but does it speak to the human condition? Is it true to us, or is it something we don't know about that's true and we want to exploit that? We want to say look what's going on. There's that kind of a joke, too.

GREENE: So I'm interested. I mean, this is nine seasons now. I mean, wherever you go in your career from here - I mean, we're talking about a decade of your acting career - this is obviously going to be a big part of your portfolio. What makes you proud of this show?

MACY: I love the stories we tell. I love its attitude towards sex. I find it refreshingly realistic. And I love that it's often mundane. I think it's healthy. The humor is great, genuinely funny stuff. And I got better as an actor. And I'm - I can see it, and I'm really proud of it. And as I started the third season, my wife, who's the smartest person I know, said are you going to work on anything this season?

And I said, what are you talking about? And she said, you know, it's - you sort of got an acting salon here. You can try stuff. And I thought, good God, yes. And as mundane as it sounds, you know, they say when you act, you got to really look and really listen. I thought I'm going to work on that this season, and I did.

GREENE: Sounds like this has been, like, a real fun laboratory to just, you know, test things out and be you.

MACY: It's right up there with one of the best things that's ever happened to me.

GREENE: William H. Macy, it's great talking to you. Thank you.

MACY: Thank you. I'm a big fan. Thanks for talking to me.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE LUCK YOU GOT")

THE HIGH STRUNG: (Singing) Think of all the luck you got.

GREENE: "Shameless" - the show returns Sunday on Showtime. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.


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