William H. Macy is thrilled to be ‘Shameless’
By Paige Wiser TV Criticpwiser@suntimes.com January 6, 2011 6:28PM
9 to 10 p.m. Sundays on Showtime
Updated: September 24, 2012 6:25AM
Sandwiched between two sets of L tracks, in front of a house with colorless peeling paint and a rickety porch, William H. Macy has returned to his ’70s stomping grounds. With fake slush at his feet and dried blood on his face — also fake, he clarifies — he looks strangely content. “It seems to be the best slice of America that you can find,” he says.
For the American adaptation of the hit British series “Shameless,” premiering Jan. 9 on Showtime, the West Side’s Homan Square neighborhood replaces gritty Manchester, England. It’s difficult to think of Chicago as the frontier, but there’s never been anything like “Shameless” on American TV.
And for good reason, probably.
Macy is Frank, the patriarch of the Gallagher family, who has a love affair with alcohol that keeps him away from home quite a bit. When Frank is home, he’s passed out. He’s living on disability due to an accident at the poultry slaughterhouse. “Slammed in the ribs by a headless flying chicken,” he explains. “I was lucky. Almost missed me.”
Frank expects his six kids to raise themselves and one another. When nobody else can watch baby Liam, his sister Emma takes him to school for show and tell. Everyone pitches in for the electric bill — even young Carl, whose only apparent skill so far is dipping into the collection plate at church.
The Parents Television Council is going to hate this show.
The most subversive aspect of “Shameless”? Its unabashed moments of joy. The kids may be poor, but they’re smart and they believe in fun.
“I love that it’s so edgy — punk, almost,” says Emmy Rossum, who plays oldest daughter Fiona. “The material is fresh and has this incredible energy. It’s raw. It’s ballsy. And Fiona is my hero.”
Fiona is not shy. Rossum has sparked considerable buzz online with her first-episode sex scene, set in the extremely messy kitchen. She falls for Steve (Justin Chatwin), who steals cars for a living.
The British version starred James McAvoy as Steve; in real life, he married his Fiona, Anne-Marie Duff. Don’t expect that much chemistry here, though. “We’re like brother and sister,” Chatwin says of Rossum. They met before, filming “Dragonball: Evolution.”
“Terrible movie,” Chatwin says. “It was fun to do, though.”
It’s no mistake that “Shameless” has ended up on Showtime, the home of many a groundbreaking sex scene. Producer John Wells (“ER,” “The West Wing”) owned the rights to the series for years but the networks wouldn’t touch it.
Showtime has given Wells free rein. That means the shot with the cat and the blowtorch doesn’t have to be edited out, and it means a lot of nudity. Male nudity. “Men are the new women in Hollywood,” says Steve Howey, who goes full-frontal in the pilot. “We’re getting naked left and right.”
Macy shows his share of skin, too, in his scenes with Joan Cusack. “I have an affair with the next-door neighbor, who we think is a shy hothouse flower,” Macy says. “She turns out to be anything but, and she has a penchant for sex toys. Big ones.”
Macy has known Cusack since his theater days in Chicago. “I did a play with her dad, Dick Cusack,” he says. “The Pivens and the Cusacks used to live across the street from each other, and I used to do light carpentry for them. At one point, I realized they were sponsoring me more than actually needing cabinet work.”
As Frank Gallagher, Macy spouts majestic (if slurred) speeches worthy of a Shakespearean clown. He says this is his best role in a long, long time. “I’ve spent my whole career playing characters who are disenfranchised,” he says. “I speak for the little guy. I’ve played a lot of people who are otherwise not represented in film. And you may not like us, you may not approve of us, but there are a lot of really drunk people out there who are drunk a lot of the time, and if you cut us, do we not bleed? We pay taxes, we have dreams and aspirations, we have rights.
“I’m speaking for the drunk people in America. I’m not snobbish about it. I stand up for potheads, pill pushers, drunks, cokeheads, you name it. I adore them all. They’re all my brethren.”
He didn’t actually hang out with them, though, in preparation for the role. No character research necessary. “Turns out I have all the experience I need to be inebriated,” he says.
Working with Wells is what attracted Macy to the project, along with a simpler motive. “My wife’s on a TV show. And I wanted to do a TV show,” he says. (Wife Felicity Huffman is in her seventh season on “Desperate Housewives.”)
The charm of the show — and of the Gallagher family — is in its anarchy.
“Our show is very funny,” Macy says. “It’s very sexy, it’s strangely moving, and it’s ... shameless.”
You won’t find him making any apologies, either.
“To live your life without shame ... that’s a good quality to have.”