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NEAL CONAN, host:

William H. Macy has played some memorable and complex characters: Bobby the witless thief-in-training in David Mamet's "American Buffalo," the conniving car salesman Jerry Lundegaard in the Coen brothers' film "Fargo," and the unluckiest man in Las Vegas in "The Cooler." In the new Showtime series "Shameless," he gets a very different part - as Frank Gallagher, single father of six, smart, interesting kids who without him, would be a lot better off.

(Soundbite of TV show, "Shameless")

Mr. WILLIAM H. MACY (Actor): (as Frank Gallagher) Life is hard. We all know that. Money is harder. I can only stretch it so far.

Mr. JEREMY ALAN WHITE (Actor): (as Phillip "Lip" Gallagher) Do you even know how much we spend a week on groceries?

Mr. MACY: (as Frank Gallagher) Too much. That's how much.

Mr. WHITE: (as Phillip "Lip" Gallagher) A hundred and twenty bucks. Fiona pays 70; me and Ian go in 25 each.

Mr. MACY: (as Frank Gallagher) Plus gas, electric, taxes.

Mr. WHITE: (as Phillip "Lip" Gallagher) And we pay that.

Mr. MACY: (as Frank Gallagher) About time you contribute.

Mr. WHITE: (as Phillip "Lip" Gallagher) You know how much you spend a month at the Alibi?

Mr. MACY: (as Frank Gallagher) None of your damn business.

Mr. WHITE: (as Phillip "Lip" Gallagher) Over 700.

Mr. MACY: (as Frank Gallagher) That's Kevin. Right? My friend Kevin telling you that behind my back. Well, he screwed the golden goose now. Watch what happens to his tips.

CONAN: William H. Macy as Frank Gallagher with his son Phillip - or Lip, as they call him, played by Jeremy Alan White.

Character actors, we want to hear from you today: 800-989-8255; email us, talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation at our website. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Emmy winner and Oscar nominee William H. Macy joins us now from our studios at NPR West in Culver City, California.

Nice to have you on the program today.

Mr. MACY: Thank you, Neal. I'm pleased to be here.

CONAN: And is there any problem - do you have any problem being called a character actor?

Mr. MACY: None whatsoever.

CONAN: You've played a lot of different ones. What's different about Frank Gallagher?

Mr. MACY: Well, he's so shameless.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: To coin a word.

Mr. MACY: It's rare to play a character that has really, no redeeming values that I can see. There's no good qualities...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. MACY: ...in this guy. We're - finished our first season, and he's a rough guy. I've got my work cut out for me to make sure that the audience just doesn't throw up its hands in disgust and turn us off.

CONAN: We should point out you spend a lot of time on camera, actually, face down.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. MACY: Frank is an addict and an alcoholic, so I'm toasted pretty much every scene. I try to modulate that, though. I figure it's 10 o'clock in the morning, it's a three-beer scene as opposed to the evening - when it's a full, flat-on-your-face drunk scene.

CONAN: You have to do a lot of research on this?

Mr. MACY: I do. Yes. I've been researching for this interview, actually.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: I wondered: Frank's hair is generally a mess.

Mr. MACY: Yeah.

CONAN: Is this the magic of makeup, or do you just not wash for a few days?

Mr. MACY: It takes hours to make me look this bad.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. MACY: I'm normally an extremely handsome man, but we've got brilliant makeup artists. My hair is long, and the amount of product they put in it is mind-boggling. I'm afraid someday my head just might - my neck will snap from the sheer weight of it.

CONAN: The series is based on a British television series. And did you - how closely did you model your character on the British original?

Mr. MACY: Well, Paul Abbott is involved in our - who created the British version - is involved with ours with John Wells, who's the grand poobah of ours. And I watched the first season of the British version - which is brilliant, by the way. But we've totally made it our own, so not that much but it's the same character. It is at once the same and completely different.

CONAN: Yet, at least the first few episodes, in some cases, word for word, shot for shot.

Mr. MACY: Yeah. I think we'll probably get away from that in the second season. I'm assuming there's a second season, but there's a good bet that there is. Because the Fiona character and her new beau...

CONAN: That's your oldest daughter who's really, the responsible adult in the group.

Mr. MACY: Correct, played by Emmy Rossum. They - that subplot did not go on in the British version in the second year, and it will in ours. So I'm sure we're going to diverge from the British version a good bit. A lot - this first season, though, we drew from it a great deal. I watched it one time, and I thought it would be best for me not to watch anymore because they're so good. There's the danger I'll just started imitating them.

CONAN: And do his mannerisms and do the exact, same thing.

Mr. MACY: Yes.

CONAN: Yeah. That's not easy.

Mr. MACY: No.

CONAN: That kind of imitation is not easy.

Mr. MACY: No. It would've have been easy because I can't understand a word the Brits are saying.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: Well, this is...

Mr. MACY: You'd have to have subtitles in this country.

CONAN: ...set in a - very much in a working-class neighborhood in Chicago. Obviously, it was the same kind of a deal in Britain, where the original show was set. What makes you think that this is - a lot of working-class families might object to hearing this characterized as working-class comedy.

Mr. MACY: I think they might because the Gallagher family - certainly, my character, Frank, doesn't work at all - well, which is to say, he works very hard, but he only works at scamming the system. He hasn't had an honest day's work in his whole life. In our first season, we do one where I actually have to get a job for a brief time just hoping to injure myself, so that I can go on disability. And I end up using a nail gun on my own hand just to get out of the job.

But I think people will like it because I think there's a degree of anger in our country about the way things are going. And the Gallagher family is sort of cranky in much the same way.

But I think what makes it work is that there is a palpable love in this family. Bottom line, they get each other's back. They stick together. And every single episode, I find very moving.

CONAN: I see that. I wonder, though: Do you question whether people are going to come away saying, clearly, there's no penalty involved here for terrible, terrible activities - actions by Frank, in particular?

Mr. MACY: Hmm, I don't think so because Frank is his own worst enemy. Awful things happen to Frank. The blizzard in Chicago - we shoot two weeks in Chicago. Well, we were there shooting through the blizzard. And through the machinations of the plot, I had run out of the house because I'm being chased by Eddie, the husband of the woman I'm now living with.

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

Mr. MACY: And I ran out of the house with no shoes on, and no jacket. So I grabbed Sheila's pink sweater. So I was in Chicago - it was 10 degrees with 20-mile-an-hour wind - running around, barefooted. Frank pays a dear price for his malfeasance.

CONAN: It is also a comedy - well, a very dark comedy, in some respects.

Mr. MACY: Very dark, yes.

CONAN: As you look forward to the second season, do you think Frank is going to develop some redeeming qualities?

Mr. MACY: I don't think so.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. MACY: Hopefully, I'm going to - with my friend Steven Schachter, I'm going to write one of the episodes. And I think there's a possibility Frank will do something right - but only mistakenly.

CONAN: Steven Schachter, you mentioned, you and he and David Mamet were involved in a theater company in Chicago some years ago.

Mr. MACY: Right, the St. Nicholas Theater. It was lovely to be back in Chicago, especially with a show which is doing so well. But we started a company called the St. Nicholas Theater Company, and we did a lot of Dave's early work.

CONAN: And it was interesting: Our guest in the first part of the program, Jonathan Turley - I don't know if you remember - but he says he used to do some work with you as well. Used to play guitar.

Mr. MACY: Yeah. Sure. Yes, absolutely.

CONAN: Grew up with that scene...

Mr. MACY: Yeah.

CONAN: And it's interesting. I read, you - also, Joan Cusack is in this as a recurring character - and that you grew up knowing her, too.

Mr. MACY: I did. I'm telling everyone I babysat Joan. That's my story, and I'm sticking with it. But across the street from the Cusacks lived the Pivens -Jeremy Piven and his father, Byrne Piven. And I did a play with Joan's father, Dick Cusack. We took it to New York and ran it for several months. And I used to do light carpentry for the Cusacks. I think it was more charity than anything, although Joan's mother says there's still a set of shelves that I built that haven't fallen apart yet.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. MACY: And Joan was just a young woman then.

CONAN: She's probably put those shelves on eBay.

Mr. MACY: Could be.

CONAN: Could be.

Mr. MACY: It was bizarre to be doing a scene with Joan in bed with toys, shall I say.

CONAN: Yes. A young lady you had babysat for.

Mr. MACY: I know.

CONAN: Yeah.

Mr. MACY: Life's odd, isn't it?

CONAN: It is - and it's a very odd scene, too. And I think we'll leave it right there.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: Our guest is William H. Macy, who plays Frank Gallagher, an alcoholic father of six on the new Showtime series "Shameless."

We want to hear from character actors; 800-989-8255. And we'll start with Bobby(ph). Bobby calling from Los Angeles.

BOBBY (Caller): Yeah. A big fan of William's and also, I'm a character actor myself. I have a small part in the film that's coming out in 2012 with William, called "Keep Coming Back." I guess, you know, if you look at character actors traditionally, a lot of them turn into leading men. William H. did a great movie a couple of years back called "Bart Got a Room." And the part that he played in there was, I thought, was a real character part.

You look at a great actor like Dustin Hoffman, who played Ratso Rizzo, I mean, these are great character parts. I find them to be much more interesting than a lot of the leading - quote, unquote, leading roles. And I would...

Mr. MACY: Yeah, I agree.

BOBBY: ...ask William H. if - what's the holdup with "Keep Coming Back" - why is it keeps getting pushed back for another five months before it gets released?

CONAN: And we know Bobby is a professional actor because he got the plug in first.

Mr. MACY: That's right. That's right. Lead with the plug, Bobby. Good for you. I don't know. The independent film world is in - on life-support right now. It's really difficult to get indies made. I keep trying, and the film you mentioned, "Keep Coming Back," is one that keeps coming back, but not all the way back.

CONAN: And at 61, you've got a lead on a television series. Did you ever think that was going to happen?

Mr. MACY: No, I didn't think television was going to be my thing. My wife is on a TV show, and she loves her job. And...

CONAN: For those who don't know, Felicity Huffman, the actress, is William H. Macy's wife.

Mr. MACY: And she is on "Desperate Housewives." And she loves her job, loves it every day - seven years in. She loves going to work every single day. And that got my attention. Plus, she earns a living, which I've always found fascinating.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. MACY: And I thought, what the heck? And the planets aligned, and John Wells called me up with "Shameless." It couldn't have been better.

CONAN: Let's go to Ted(ph), Ted with us from Berkeley.

TED (Caller): Hello.

CONAN: Hi, Ted. You're on the air. Go ahead.

TED: Thank you. Yes, William H. Macy, always enjoy your performances.

Mr. MACY: Thank you, sir.

TED: My question to you is, do you think characters, actors are - characters are becoming more extreme, especially without redeeming qualities? My number one example would be Hugh Laurie in "House." I find it almost unbelievable.

CONAN: Well, at least he's smart - well, Frank Gallagher's smart, too, but anyway.

Mr. MACY: Well, I think audiences are more sophisticated, and they don't want to see one- or two-dimensional stories. And life is complicated. And as Bobby, the previous caller, mentioned, the fun roles and the fun people in this world are the ones who are the rascals. They surely keep things interesting. And I think audiences are starting to demand it. When they see a story, they want it to be truthful to their experiences. And that leaves a lot of room for some of these characters.

CONAN: Ted?

TED: So the character without redeeming qualities, those people are out there. And so that's believable.

Mr. MACY: It's totally believable. And I just wonder, without redeeming qualities - I don't know what that phrase actually means. I mean, I think even Frank has redeeming qualities. You got to search for it but he's clever; he works hard, even though he's a scam artist; he's got a wicked sense of humor. And he's got this joie de vivre that I think is very alluring - and perhaps a lot of people could use a bit more of.

TED: OK.

CONAN: Ted, thanks...

TED: Well, thank you.

CONAN: Thanks very much for the call. And William H. Macy, we suspect, now your wife can introduce you to a new part of your career, which is waiting for that phone call as to whether you're renewed or not.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. MACY: Yes. It's a fun wait.

CONAN: There's an email we wanted to get in. This from Matthew: I love Mr. Macy's work, but I think he's the best "Curious George" narrator. What a contrast.

Mr. MACY: Yes.

CONAN: Well, good luck.

Mr. MACY: Did we say life was odd? Yeah.

CONAN: We did say life was odd. So Frank Gallagher and Curious George - well, two sides of the spectrum.

Mr. MACY: Right.

CONAN: William H. Macy, thanks very much. Good luck with the part.

Mr. MACY: Thank you so much, Neal.

CONAN: William H. Macy plays Frank Gallagher on the Showtime series "Shameless." You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

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