William H. Macy is no stranger to acting for great directors; among those on his CV are the Coen Brothers, Paul Thomas Anderson, Bill Forsyth and the man who gave him his breakthrough on stage as well as screen, David Mamet. With “Rudderless,” the star — while still acting, including on Showtime’s “Shameless” — turns to directing, helming the tale of a music exec (Billy Crudup) who ditches his moneyed life to live on a boat in a small town after the campus shooting death of his son. The discovery of a box of songs his son wrote inspires him to perform them in public, and he’s soon coaxed into starting a band with a young musician (Anton Yelchin).
Technically this isn’t your first film. You directed a TV movie, “Lip Service,” in 1988, which also featured your wife Felicity Huffman among the cast. What was your experience with it?
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Not only did I not know the answers to questions, I didn’t understand the questions when we were in pre-production. I enjoyed doing it, but I think all in all I was in over my head.
What made you want to return to the job?
I decided I wanted to direct generally. I’m at a certain point in my career; as Felicity so delicately put, I’m in my third act. That stopped me dead in my tracks, because third acts are pretty short. I felt it was time to do something new. I’ve been writing with my friend Steven Schachter for a long time, and I’ve been feeling rather cocky about my storytelling ability. I think of myself as a bit of a raconteur. And my acting career has not been scintillating.
How was the move to thinking of storytelling in terms of visuals?
When my daughters were born, I started taking pictures a lot more seriously. I realized I can frame a shot. Interestingly I like this part almost the best — the preproduction: finding locations, costumes and props, and just visualizing the world. Being in films my entire life, a lot has rubbed off.
You have a small role as the guy who runs an open mic night at a bar, but you’re mostly off-camera. Did you miss being on the other side?
The actor’s job and the director’s job are so different that I would looked with a little bit of longing as the actors were hanging out and doing stuff that actors love to do, which is trashing other actors. I just had a different view of the day and what we were doing than they did.
What about directing actors for a change?
When you get an actor like Felicity and Billy and Anton, you just breathe a sigh of relief, because they’re so good. They’re not just giving heartfelt performances; they have the technical stuff down. You don’t have to say, “Stay in your light” or “I can’t understand what you’re saying.” They’re really good at that skill set, and that makes the director take a deep breath and relax.
Some — probably most — directors find the long hours and grind of directing exhausting to the point of needing hospitalization after.
I just did an episode of “Shameless,” and that is as difficult as directing gets. That’s nine pages every day. And I dig it. I drank the Kool-Aid. It’s all I want to do. One of the ancillary benefits of this whole experience is I’ve fallen in love with this business again, like a stupid schoolboy. It’s a fantastic way to make a living.
As prep, did you read your David Mamet’s book “On Directing”?
[Laughs.] I did read that book, and you know what? Annoying as it is, he’s really smart. I guess he’s the biggest influence on my life.
Bonus: Felicity Huffman on being directed by her husband
Felicity Huffman and William H. Macy — or as Stephen Colbert once christened them, “Filliam H. Muffman” — have long been a power couple, and have frequently acted with each other, perhaps most notably on “Sports Night.” How was her husband as her director? “It was a nightmare. But he was sober, so it was OK,” she jokes, then turns serious — sort of. “When you play against someone who’s better than you, the level of your game goes up,” she says. “That’s certainly true when I act with Bill and when he directs. When you have a great actor who’s directing you, you breathe a sigh of relief. They know what you’re going for, they know what you’re going through and they know what you mean. I’m not talking about Bill now.”
Follow Matt Prigge on Twitter @mattprigge