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Q&A: William H. Macy of 'The Sessions'

(Lenny Gilmore / RedEye )
October 24, 2012|Matt Pais, @mattpais | RedEye movie critic

When “The Sessions” co-star William H. Macy came to Chicago in the early 1970s, he briefly worked as a waiter at former Lincoln Park bar Le Pub. He made more money, he says, as a carpenter.

“[I would] build shelves and things like that for people … I’m still hacking away at things,” the actor said at the James Hotel before heading to a location shoot for his Showtime series, “Shameless.” “I’m a terrible carpenter, but I do love doing it.”

Fortunately Macy spends more time on his day job, racking up countless standout roles in films including “Boogie Nights,” “Pleasantville,” “Magnolia” and “Fargo,” for which he was nominated for a best supporting actor Oscar. In “The Sessions,” opening Friday, the 62-year-old plays Father Brendan. He becomes an advisor and friend to Mark O’Brien (John Hawkes) as Mark, a 38-year-old journalist who has spent most of his life in an iron lung after contracting polio at the age of 6, works with a sex surrogate (Helen Hunt) to at last lose his virginity.

I read that you used to babysit your “Shameless” co-star Joan Cusack. Tell me a story about that.
I did. That’s my story, and I’m sticking to it. The Cusacks and the Pivens lived across the street from each other, and Byrne Piven is one of the guys, he acted with us at the St. Nicholas Theater back in the old days but he’s also one of the guys that hired me to do light carpentry around the house. The Cusacks, I built some shelves for them and things like that, which Joan says they’re still in the house. I’m pleased to know they haven’t fallen apart.

How much trouble did they give you when you babysat them?
You know, I have no memory of it. It sounds like a better story than the actuality is. Next time we talk I’ll make up some shit because I’m never hide-bound by the truth. So I’ll make up something that she did.

Why do you think, as your character notes in “The Sessions,” the phrase “Oh, God” factors into sex so frequently?
Isn’t that funny? It’s true; that’s what people shout out. Perhaps that’s as close to God as we can get. Perhaps that moment is spiritual after a fashion. I was being a little specious but in fact the dilemma, the issues facing this, are to my mind moral to the highest degree.

First of all, it deals with disabilities. We’re charged to love each other and care for each other, and one of the ways you keep score in a modern society is, “How well do we take [care of] people who need it the most?” We’re not talking about poverty and food stamps. We’re talking about people who have no choice—through no decision that they made. These are the cards [they’re dealt]. We gotta take care of these people.

We fall woefully short a lot in this country, and on a more personal level I did a film called “Door to Door” and I played a guy with cerebral palsy so I got involved with United Cerebral Palsy as their spokesperson so I know something about the issues. They’ve got a great phrase, which is “Don’t talk to the chair.” “Talk to me, don’t talk to the chair.” It’s a situation that’s not going away, people with disabilities. It’s never going away. And when you combine that with the whole reproductive rights question, it doesn’t take an Einstein to realize that we have a moral responsibility, and that’s what this film is about. And when you combine that with our attitudes toward sex in this country, you’ve got a deliciously naughty problem. And the answers are pretty simple and fundamental but it tests you to your core. Because we have a screwed up attitude toward sex in this country.

I’ve noticed.
We don’t like sex. Especially the censors ... Violence we’re cool with. Well, I don’t know much but I know this. Violence is bad. It’s always bad; it’ll never be good. Sex is good. Even the bad sex I’ve had has been pretty good. Sex is good. Violence is bad. We gotta turn it on its head. So here we’ve got a guy with a disability who wants to know what sexuality means. It’s as close to what is at the core of being human as food. Reproduction. To touch someone. To reach out. To know a woman. That’s what this film is about. This priest has a delicious question to answer.

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