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BRIEF ENCOUNTER

The last action hero?

William H. Macy specializes in spineless characters, but there's another side to him he's dying to show.

November 23, 2003|Ellen Baskin

Bernie LOOTZ, the title character portrayed by William H. Macy in "The Cooler," has such contagiously bad luck that his mere presence on the casino floor is certain to freeze a hot winning streak. Macy, on the other hand, proclaims himself "a good-luck guy." His grandmother long ago labeled him "a serendipidist, one to whom good things happen. And it's been true my whole life."

A seasoned character actor ("Seabiscuit," "Magnolia," "Fargo"), Macy, 53, recently won two Emmys for co-writing and starring in the TNT movie "Door to Door." He's married to Felicity Huffman, his co-star in the coming CBS miniseries "Reversible Errors," based on the Scott Turow novel. Now, in an unlikely roll of the casting dice, "The Cooler," which opens Wednesday, offers Macy his first shot at playing a romantic lead. And, its title notwithstanding, the film's lovemaking scenes between Macy and Maria Bello were steamy enough to ignite a ratings controversy -- it was eventually trimmed to get an R rating.

Did you ever expect to be in a movie where nudity, yours in particular, would be an issue?

Well, one can always hope. I'm really proud of the scenes. I think they're sexy and very realistic-looking. I would love to be mad at the MPAA, but I think they're in an untenable position. We have a puritanical attitude toward sex in this country, and at the same time, we're completely inured to this stupid violence. Sex is good. It's almost always very, very good. And violence is bad, very, very bad.

You go back and forth easily between television, independent movies and studio films. Other than trailer size, is there any difference in the work?

The pace. The independent films and movies of the week are about the same, anywhere from four to eight pages a day. And that means quick setups, quick takes. You don't get the time to really fixate on something. And that's better, because I get to act more.

Which role has been closest to your own personality?

Maybe the director in "State and Main." I don't usually play the guy who's in charge, but I'm pretty much in charge of my own life. I play a lot of men who are in way, way over their heads and are relatively clueless and afraid. You've got to have a certain degree of self-confidence to make yourself look foolish or ugly or both.

Would you ever want to be the star of a big-ticket action-adventure movie?

Yeah. Desperately.

Why?

For the money, for the security of a franchise like that. And I love big action-adventure movies, they're way cool. I would more like to write one of them, because I think they're blowing it these days, big time. They can pretty much do anything they want technically now, but they're forgetting to write a story. You've got to keep in mind that audiences universally want one thing, a good story. And special effects make it better, but they don't replace it.

You went to the White House with Gary Ross and Steven Spielberg for a screening of "Seabiscuit." What was that like?

Gary is beyond liberal, and so is Spielberg, so we were in the lion's den, yes, we were. But it was surprisingly casual. You walk through this guardhouse, and then you're in the White House. No muss, no fuss. [The first lady] is very impressive. Smart as a whip, nice-looking. The president left right after the movie, but he looked at me and gave me a combination thumbs-up and pulling a trigger kind of motion. I wasn't quite sure what he meant by that, but I do think he liked the movie.

You write, you act, you've directed. If you could only do one of them ...

Act. It's such a bizarre and specific skill that it intrigues me. It's a bustling set, it looks like chaos. But then everybody gets quiet, and they all sit down, and every eye turns to you, and you have to run in and hit the mark and keep your head up like this and hold the gun this way and say the lines and there's all these technical things that are put upon you -- and act it at the same time. It's thrilling. It's really a weird way to make a living, but I just love it.

-- Ellen Baskin

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