An 'everyman' actor

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

The name may not immediately ring a bell, but the minute you see the face he's as familiar as an old friend.

William H. Macy, one of the ensemble in the new comedy "Welcome to Collinwood," turns up in a variety of "everyman" roles, and then proceeds to make them his own. A small gallery of Macy characters:

• Jerry Lundegaard in "Fargo," the auto dealer who gets on the wrong side of the law.

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• Sheriff Dent in "Happy, Texas," whose badge hides a heart looking for love.

• George Parker in "Pleasantville," a black-and-white sitcom dad who discovers a world of color.

• Walt Price, the unflappable director in David Mamet's comedy about moviemaking, "State and Main."

In his new incarnation, Mr. Macy is Riley, one of a group of hopeless sad sacks who plan to pull off the perfect crime.

Based on the Italian '50s comedy "Big Deal on Madonna Street," "Collinwood" is written and directed by brothers Anthony and Joe Russo, transferring the story to their home state of Ohio. The film has some rich – and fictional – slang used by the small-time criminals, and that was what first appealed to Macy.

"They suckered me with the made-up language," he recalls. "I asked if it was Cleveland terms."

Of course Macy, who has worked frequently with Mamet, enjoys colorful dialogue. "It's hard to get into [Mamet dialogue] but once you've learned it, it's the most fun you'll have coming out of your mouth. You meet actors who've done 'American Buffalo' and start running lines."

As it turned out, Anthony had been in a production of the play, and he and Macy began throwing lines at each other.

In "Collinwood," Macy's character spends the entire film carrying a baby in a small harness due to the fact that his wife is in prison. Indeed, his motivation for the robbery is to get the money to pay the fines to get his wife out.

For Macy, himself the father of two young children, it was part of the fun that many of his scenes were played with actual babies. (Dolls were substituted if there was any danger.) Macy had to stay in character, even when his fellow "actor" fell asleep during one scene.

Macy was on "a list of performances that had blown us away," says Anthony Russo, the older of the brothers. They were able to put check marks by a number of names on that list, including Isaiah Washington, Michael Jeter, Luiz Guzman, and Sam Rockwell.

That's in no small part due to director Steven Soderbergh ("Erin Brockovich, "Traffic"), who spotted a low-budget film of the Russos. He and actor George Clooney, who formed a production company together, agreed to back their film.

Clooney himself took on a small, but key, role as the ex-safecracker who teaches the wannabe gangsters how to open a safe.

When Clooney arrived for his few days' work, he made it his business to put the cast and crew at ease, throwing parties every night.

Macy appreciated the gesture but knew better than to get carried away. "I'm older and wiser. I declined until the last night."

As for being directed by two brothers, Macy said it was a smooth process. "They were well served having each other to get their backs. We'd see them huddle together and then come back with a united front."

During a joint interview with Macy, the brothers easily complement each other. Joe explained that they drew not only on their love of European cinema, but on American low comedy as well. "We also grew up watching the Bowery Boys," he said, calling "Collinwood" the "anti-'Ocean's 11.' "

They hope to make other films set in Ohio, and Macy is ready to work with them again.

"They've got to use me," he laughs, "They owe me."

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