In Wayne Kramer’s The Cooler, William H. Macy plays Bernie, a character who is such a loser that he’s hired at a Vegas casino to suck all of the luck out of the high rolling tables just by standing next to it. Now that’s a loser. But Bernie’s life-long losing streak takes an upturn as he develops a love interest with a coctail waitress.
We caught up with William H. Macy at the Denver International Film Festival to talk about The Cooler, playing losers and what it takes to deliver a stand-out performance.
What I’ve noticed in The Cooler is that the themes in it are very universal.
Sure. It’s a love story.
It definitely will cross over to more mainstream audiences. But I see that sometimes, these indie films get marginalized. You know? That, I think, can hurt them.
Yeah, people who write million-dollar checks are really sort of cautious, I’ve discovered.
There’s a Fellini retrospective here. And I wanted to ask you if you have any images you associate with Fellini?
(LAUGH) I saw all the Fellini films when I was in college. Goddard College. They thrive on alternative films. And at the old Haybarn Theater, the projector was in the back, and people would bring their own popcorn and screen all the Fellini and Bunuel films.
So the image that comes to mind is the Haybarn Theater and that’s about it. That’s all I remember. Because it was college days and we were lit up like Christmas trees. I remember everyone going ooh, and ahh, every once in a while. But, uh, (LAUGH) I don’t know much about Fellini,
which is embarrassing because I’ve seen all the films. I was loaded. What can I tell you?
Just real quick I’d like to discuss the relationship between filmmakers and critics. Obviously, without films, critics would not have jobs. But also, filmmakers, especially in the independent film world, and at festivals, really depend on critics championing their movies. Do you have any thoughts on critics and reviews? And do you read reviews?
Of your films?
I read them. And a lot of people say, you know, it’s just one man or one woman’s opinion, and you shouldn’t take it personally. But I think I’ve actually embraced that. I’ve read just heinous reviews of me. And it didn’t hurt my feelings. I’ve been damned when I thought I was mediocre, and I’ve been praised when I thought I was mediocre, also. And I’ve been overlooked a lot. I did a lot of new plays when I was on stage, especially in New York. I would do new plays. That seemed to be my thing. And sometimes I would have the lead in the play, and they would neglect to mention me (LAUGH) in the review. I was on stage for all two hours. Especially in the big playwrights, like Mamut. They would sort of passingly mention that I did a very nice job, but then just go to talk about the play. That always annoyed me.
I know some good critics. I know some really good critics. Richard Christianson in Chicago was always a wonderful critic for us. Didn’t always give us good reviews. The great Mike Nusbaum says, the difference between a good critic and a bad critic is that a good critic gives you a good review and a bad critic gives you a bad review. But I’ve always felt the differences. There are those critics out there whom I feel would rather see a bad piece of work than a good piece of work because they so much more enjoy writing the bad reviews and I don’t have time for those people. The good critics, I feel, when they see a film or a play and it’s not good, they’re disappointed. They wanted it to be good. There are critics who go into the personal attacks, and take great delight in simonizing people, as we used to say in New York. I think they’re sort of small people and I think that they hurt criticism. I know a lot of people don’t bother with those critics. They don’t bother reading them, except as entertainment.
Well, let’s talk about The Cooler. This is a lead role for you. And a real breakaway from what you’ve done. What was it that attracted you to the material?
Playing the lead certainly is inviting. I don’t get to do that very often, which is okay with me. But sometimes, I would like to be number one on the call sheet. There are great benefits that come with that. And liabilities, too. If The Cooler tanks, it’ll be my film that tanked. That’s what they’ll say.
I liked this project for a lot of reasons. I love romantic comedies. And, I say, this is a romantic comedy.
Did you find the script for The Cooler, or did the script find you?
It came through my agent, Christ Schmidt, at Writers & Artists. And I read it, and I liked it. But (LAUGH) here’s what I didn’t like. One. It was a loser. And I kind of called a moratorium on all the losers for a couple of reasons. I thought, that mine’s going dry. And also, I thought, I can do other stuff. I should branch out while I’m young enough to do it. On the other hand, it was like an uber-loser. This guy’s such a loser that he can cool a crap table. I mean, that’s funny.
I had called a bit of a moratorium on indies. And Ed Pressman made the film. He wanted to make it for a million bucks. That means you pack your own lunch. I didn’t want to do that any more. I’ve got two little kids. And they had everything going against it. I was busy at the time they wanted to shoot it. I said no about three times and each time, Wayne Kramer and Ed Pressman would sort of smile and say thanks. And there they’d be, the next week, saying, “You wanna do The Cooler?” And then everything opened up, and I talked to Felicity, my wife, about it. And she said, you know, you can’t seem to put it down. You keep talking about it. So go do the freaking thing. Yeah, leaving town’s tough when you’ve got kids. I’m sure glad I did, because I’ve got great hopes for it. I think the film could do some good.
You shot the film in Vegas. Was their any temptation to hit the tables?
I’m not a gambler. I hate gambling. I think some of our crew dropped a bit of cash (LAUGH) . I’ve shot in casinos twice. I’ll tell you the one. We shot on a Mamet film, “Things Change.” We shot in a casino for a while and Mamet is a degenerate gambler. He’s crazed about it. We’d have to hold up shooting sometimes. (LAUGH) Thousands of dollars changed hands. One time, the hair person stuck a dollar in the dollar slots and hit this gigantic jackpot, just as they were rolling. We were all standing there while this machine is going, blang blang blang blang blang. And about ten thousand dollars came out of the thing. She said, “I’m sorry, I’m sorry.” (LAUGH)
But I didn’t gamble much. We got lucky in the film, because we found a casino that was shutting down and they were gonna redo the whole thing. It had been sold and we just happened to be there, so we rented the thing. They hadn’t gutted the casino yet, and we redressed it. So even though the film is a tiny little budget, it looks like a big fat movie.
You’re being honored by the Denver International Film Festival. That’s gotta feel a little gratifying. It’s quite flattering. I just hope that they’re not working their way through the alphabet. I mean, if Chris Nopps gets something next year, I’m gonna be suspicious. If they’ve used up all the M’s. But it’s very flattering. I’m the luckiest peluca. I have to pinch myself every once in a while. I don’t know what I did right. I’ve never guided my career. I’m the unlikeliest actor, it seems to me. I don’t get it.
What I love about you in any film is there’s never a false moment. You’re always right there. Real. It’s happening on screen. Maybe the movie may not be the best, but you’re always a stand out to me. And you don’t take easy choices, I think, for actors. I mean, not a lot of things blow up in the movies that you’re in.
I was taught by a great teacher, David Mammoth. Everyone knows he’s the greatest writer of our time. He’s a filmmaker and he’s a wonderful writer, but he’s a fabulous teacher. A fabulous teacher. I feel like he gave me a foundation and he has a take on acting which, quite literally, handed me my career. A lot of actors are willing to jump through hoops of fire to get at the truth. But that’s not the way to find the truth for themselves properly. So, even though they work really, really hard and they’re completely dedicated, they turn in false work. And it ain’t for lack of trying. David gave me the proper target to shoot for and a good, strong technique and I think I owe it all to him.
I’m at odds with a lot of my fellow actors in what’s difficult about acting. I think a lot of times, other actors find that it’s stepping out, that it’s your commitment. It’s your willingness to suffer or to expose yourself is the where the difficulty lies. I don’t think that’s true. I think the real difficulty, where you have to be brave, what separates the men from the boys is stepping away when you’re done. Actors want to help it along. The truth of the moment is simple. It’s simple. It’s horrifyingly simple. And if you do that simple thing and then stop, you’ve done your job. And it takes a brave man to walk away and not put a grace note on it. To not give it a little bit more. To not help out the audience as to what I’m feeling. Amanda taught me a long time ago, the audience doesn’t give a shit what you’re feeling. As a matter of fact, no one cares what you’re feeling. No one cares about feelings. They’re just beside the point. Only one thing matters. What are you gonna do. So do that thing and then stop. That’s what is hard about acting. The stopping part.
How do you make it look so easy?
It is easy. It’s easy, anybody could do it. Anybody could do it. I mean, God gave everybody a certain amount of talent. And if you’ve got a whole lot of talent you can have a great, big, fat career. And you can play lots of different roles. If you don’t have any talent, you can play yourself. But anybody can look the other person in the eye and say one simple thing. And there is acting. That’s the beginning, middle, and end of it. I mean, Hamlet is probably one of the toughest roles there is. But all you gotta do is look at that soldier in that first scene on the parapets and when he says he saw a ghost, all you gotta do is say the first line to him. Just say the truth. Just say it simply and truthfully. As for whatever’s going on. Just do that. If you do that, then you’re done. You’re done. You’ve done Hamlet. All you gotta do is the next line. Do enough lines, you’ve done the whole play. You can’t do a whole play at once. You can only do that one little line. This is what’s hard about acting. Stopping, as I said, not going insane. Giving up control. There’s a big one. It’s really tough, a lot of actors are very talented and very smart and it’s hard for them to give it up. Actors don’t have any power. And as that should be.
I find that the audition process is something you hear about from actors all the time. When you were doing that earlier in your career, how did you deal with it? It’s almost like you’re destiny is at the control of these people behind the table.
It’s totally in their control. To quote a play, “It sucks hippo dick.” That’s what auditioning does. You can edit that out later. But, uh, it’s awful. It’s the worst part of it. That’s what knocks out 90 percent of the actors. They just can’t take it. It almost knocked me out. I mean, I couldn’t take it. It’s horrendous. Because here’s the sad truth. You can walk in and do a magnificent audition, which is hard to do, you can do a magnificent audition and not get the role. You know why? ‘Cause three other people did, too.