- The Washington Times - Thursday, December 18, 2003

Movie idol Harrison Ford has said on the record he prefers not to forfeit his million-dollar paydays for the smaller roles and rickety trailers of independent films.

Bring ‘em on, says William H. Macy, who finds his most rewarding roles on cable television and in art house cinema.

Mr. Macy may be on to something.

While Mr. Ford’s 2003 resume featured the calamitous “Hollywood Homicide,” Mr. Macy shined in “Seabiscuit,” played a vivid rogue in Showtime’s “Out of Order” and now gets the girl — for once — in “The Cooler,” opening today.

“The indies is where I find the best roles,” Mr. Macy says.

Those parts typically find the actor digging out from one figurative hole to another. He and Philip Seymour Hoffman have all but cornered the market on cinematic shlubs.

Mr. Macy, 53, plays the patron saint of losers in “The Cooler.” He’s Bernie Lootz, a man whose luck is so milk sour he works at a casino where he spreads his bad karma to hot gamblers. He’s the best “cooler” the casino’s director of operations (Alec Baldwin) can hire, but his luck may be on the upswing.

Cocktail waitress Natalie (Maria Bello) is falling for him, almost too hard to be believed. That Bernie even stands a chance with a stunner like Natalie is a testament to Mr. Macy’s craft. With a deeply creased face and perpetually tousled hair made for character parts, Mr. Macy proved his acting chops to any remaining disbelievers in “Fargo,” the 1996 film which earnedhim an Oscar nomination.

Mr. Macy makes his misfits actively complicit in their own fate to keep us invested.

“As long as someone hasn’t given up, it’s compelling,” he says of Bernie. “You can sense a fire in the belly.”

He admits tugging on the underdog suit for every other film exacts a price.

“You have to give up a bit of your ego to play these losers,” he says.

He’ll work without prejudice for indie wunderkinds (“Magnolia’s” Paul Thomas Anderson) or savvy mainstreamers (“Seabiscuit’s” Gary Ross), as long as the part is juicy enough.

Mr. Macy clearly has a keen eye for content, but his vision isn’t 20/20. Wasn’t he in 2001’s “Jurassic Park III?” And some of his low-end efforts, like this year’s little seen “Stealing Sinatra” or the 2001 film “Focus,” barely register in the national consciousness.

Last year, Mr. Macy took matters into his own hands. He co-wrote “Door to Door,” a television drama based on the true story of a salesman who wouldn’t let his cerebral palsy stand in the way of a deal.

Mr. Macy wouldn’t mind playing an outright hero one day, even of the action variety.

“He’d be somebody who’s smart, someone who steps outside the law,” he says. Vin Diesel and Ben Affleck don’t need to worry yet; the slight actor’s attitude toward gratuitous screen violence might preclude the genre shift.

“I take myself out of a lot of these movies,” he says. “I’m not a fan of the violence.”

He also has issues with the MPAA Board, which oversees the movie rating system.

“I want a ratings board,” he says. “I want something to help me see what my daughters can and can’t watch.” He objects to the fact that “The Cooler” initially earned an NC-17 rating for its sex scenes, while hyper-violent fare might earn only a PG-13.

What Mr. Macy won’t complain about is the new acting roles that continue to come his way.

“When a job comes along, I do a jig praising the Lord,” he says.

He’s old enough to know fame “can go away in a nanosecond.” Not even character actors are immune.

“Public tastes change,” he says. “Movies change. There’s ageism certainly, for the men also. If you don’t make that transition gracefully, you’re out of luck.”

Moviegoers may have recognized the actor’s face on screen years ago but probably couldn’t attach a name to it. Now, they’ve taken to stopping him on the street.

“It’s gratifying they kind of know who I am now,” he says.

He’s nowhere near as recognizable as a Tom Hanks, mind you. But Mr. Macy knows the danger lurking behind too many performances and media curtain calls.

“Certainly, you can overexpose yourself,” he says. “I’ve awakened more than one morning sick to death of myself. I have to be careful of that.”

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