Profiles: William H. Macy

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This article is from Issue 88 of Woodcraft Magazine.

William H. Macy loves acting like an enthusiastic woodworker

When William H. Macy was making the movie “Fargo,” during the winter of 1995, he stopped into a woodworking store on a day off and took in a woodturning demonstration. As he might say, he was smitten. In short order, he bought a small lathe and kept it in a corner of the movie set. Whenever he had a little spare time, he’d do some turning. These days, he’s traded up to a larger lathe that resides in a spacious woodworking shop above his garage. He lives in Los Angeles with his wife, the actress Felicity Huffman, and their two daughters. Portraying Frank Gallagher on the Showtime® series “Shameless” consumes much of his time (and keeps him in shoulder-length hair and a days-old beard). Writing and directing feature films occupies another big part of his life. But when he’s not on the set, he is almost certain to put on a t-shirt, jeans, and sneakers and tackle a woodworking project or turn a bowl. I spoke with him recently by phone to find out what he’s been doing in the shop.

—David Heim

WM: What are you working on these days?

WHM: We own my wife’s childhood home in Colorado. We’re redoing a lot of the fencing on the property, and I’ve saved the most gnarly boards. They’re all gray and deeply weathered. I’m using them to make benches. I made a jig so I can join two boards along their length with biscuits, then I use another jig to rout a recess on the underside of the top for legs and a stretcher. I take a palm sander and work on the more egregious spots—the places where someone’s likely to get a splinter in their ass. I have lots of stains, so I use them to make the sanded spots gray again. It takes me a full day to make a single bench.

WM: Are you working on anything outdoors?

WHM: Yeah. I’m building staircases around the house in L.A., which is on a pretty hilly site. This is my exercise. I find it insanely gratifying to build these stairs. I call them my stairway to heaven, and I have a great view of downtown L.A. from the top.

Tasteful trim work. Macy and a friend built this fumed-oak fireplace surround, which is the centerpiece of his home office.

Good turns. Visible through the window is a bench Macy built for donation to a charity event; it’s signed by Macy and Jimmy Carter.

WM: A few years ago, when I visited, you had just completed an arched footbridge over a gully. How is that holding up?

WHM: I had to rebuild it. It rotted right out of its foundation. I’m not a very good carpenter, but I’m very enthusiastic.

WM: But I’ve seen some really nice work that you’ve done.

WHM: I’m very proud of the mantelpiece I built in my office, with my friend Charlie. We used white oak and fumed it with ammonia.

WM: The story of how you started woodturning when you were making “Fargo” is pretty well known. But how did you pick up your interest in woodworking?

WHM: I got it from my dad. He was very handy, and he was a Scotsman, so he’d repair something before he’d buy new. Everywhere he went, he made things better. When I was about ten, he and I started building a small log cabin, but we only got as far as making it knee-high. I’d love to build another log cabin one of these days.

Old wood, new bench. Macy’s current passion is building benches like this from reclaimed fence boards.

WM: Is there a connection between woodworking and acting?

WHM: Usually, I answer that question no. But lately, I do see a connection. Everything we do in this life involves a lot of repetition. In the shop, you design something and lay it out, but at a certain point you realize you need twelve of one piece, and it would be best if they were all exactly alike. That’s not different from what I do as an actor. Everyone rehearses their lines a couple of times, then a scene is blocked out and the cameras roll. There might be an interaction between you and me in the scene, and we might do it ten or twelve times. You want all the takes to all be the same, yet you also want them to seem spontaneous. So, wisdom comes from realizing that there has to be repetition, but also that the repetitions are never the same.

WM: What’s next?

WHM: As far as woodworking goes, there’s a huge barn on our place in Colorado, and I carved out one end for me and my shop. Here in L.A., my shop needs some love. I want to replace a lot of the machinery. Oh, yeah. And I’m directing an episode of “Shameless” and the annual benefit for the Los Angeles County High School of the Arts. The benefit has got me very nervous.


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