THE FACT THAT Felicity Huffman and William H. Macy have been married for 20 years and a solid couple for 15 before that makes their devotion to each other clear; their stacks of awards demonstrate their commitment to their craft. They are two of the most respected actors working today.
There’s something of a tradition among serious but also attractive actors to occasionally scuff themselves up, slap on a prosthetic or go through extreme weight gain or loss, and go for the gold. Often it works. Both Macy and Huffman are so regularly cast as severe rather than beautiful characters that they utterly disappear into the role, and the result is that audiences may end up not having a clear image of their actual appearance. When I asked Huffman why they stipulated that there not be a photographer along on our interview, she casually noted that she didn’t have to mess with hair and makeup. I looked at her and thought: My God, she’s fine right out of the box. And after binge-watching Shameless, in which Macy stars as lead Frank Gallagher, all day prior to this interview I’m happy to announce that Macy shines up pretty well too. There’s a kind of inner beauty that intelligence brings to a face that no amount of paint and prettiness can duplicate.
Both actors are firmly rooted on the stage, the most intimate way to ply that trade. There’s no faking it in theater, no multiple takes, no mulligans. The connection to the audience doesn’t end until the final curtain. Their paths to theater began at ages when most weren’t yet contemplating their future lives.
Huffman got her start at the Aspen Community School in Woody Creek. There, she was taught and mentored by Rhett Harper, who guided generations of children through their first exposure to theater and remains active in Aspen theater to this day. Later, she fell under direction of Community School parent Paul Rubin, who is legendary for his theatrical intensity and interesting choices of material for the children to perform. Rubin cast an adolescent Huffman as Blanche Dubois in A Streetcar Named Desire, and she was his assistant director for Eugene O’Neill’s Desire Under the Elms. Clearly Huffman survived and flourished, but one wonders if there might be former students out there who have conflicted feelings every time they attend a play, turn on the TV or go to a movie.
Watching her fellow students go off to high-profile institutions, Huffman, armed with the self-esteem that the Community School fosters in its students, decided to give the East Coast and the prestigious The Putney School a shot. One year was enough. Huffman was an avid skier, and the difference between skiing in Vermont and Colorado may have played into the decision. She happily ended up back at Aspen High School—skiing the opposite of East Coast sheets of shiny ice. After high school, she graduated from Interlochen Arts Academy in 1981, and then attended New York University, Circle in the Square and London’s Royal Academy of Dramatic Art.
Macy seemed to go from unknown to unforgettable in a blink. With a face that suggests a character-actor who will never be out of work, his depth of talent makes it possible to imagine that he could remake old Errol Flynn movies with complete believability. Macy got serious about higher education and theater at Goddard College in Vermont; Goddard wasn’t a hippie school, it was the hippie school—the one all the other hippie schools accused of being a hippie school. There, he met the great David Mamet, and they formed a bond that endures to this day. Macy graduated from Goddard in 1972, and, eventually, he and Mamet found themselves in Chicago, where they founded the St. Nicholas Theatre Company, along with Patricia Cox and Steven Schachter. “St. Nicholas is the patron saint of sailors, archers, repentant thieves, children, brewers and pawnbrokers,” says Macy. The theater was successful and saw the first productions of many Mamet plays. After seven years, they moved to New York and founded the Atlantic Theater Company in 1985, where he taught acting and met student and future wife Huffman. Atlantic is one of the most fertile grounds for young actors, and new productions to be found anywhere. Macy, Huffman and Mamet remain deeply committed to it.
When I asked Huffman and Macy with what, of their vast bodies of work (including her Emmy Award-winning role on Desperate Housewives and his Oscar-nominated performance in Fargo), they were happiest, Macy cheerfully came back with, “Oh, Hell.” Oh, Hell was two one-act plays: The Devil and Billy Markham by Shel Silverstein and Bobby Gould in Hell by Mamet. In Oh, Hell, Macy plays the Devil (wearing waders because he’d been interrupted on a fishing trip) interrogating Bobby Gould, played by Treat Williams, in a civilized hell, trying to ascertain whether he’d been, in life, a good man. Enter Glenna, played by Huffman, who turns out to be so annoying and hectoring that the Devil and Gould bond in just wanting her to go away.
Huffman cites the first season of American Crime as one she’d be happy to hang her hat on—as having a message in which she believes. It’s a rock-solid ensemble piece with injustice and racism at its center, and Huffman plays a grieving mother who is self-delusional to a degree that she probably doesn’t even know she’s a racist. Macy says, “We’re both extremely happy to be working in television right now. With what’s going on in terms of the quality of the programming, it’s a true golden age.” As with so many of Huffman’s roles, hers in American Crime manages to tone down her good looks without completely hiding them.
The couple recently lived in Huffman’s childhood Woody Creek home, a lovely white two-story clapboard house that was reminiscent of countless places in New England. At one point, they decided it might need a little work and called in experts for advice. The consensus was that they should immediately invest in hard hats if they were planning on staying in the house any longer. Instead, they had to raze the entire structure and rebuild near the original home’s site; it now has a guesthouse, barns, outbuildings and a shop for Macy, who is a skilled wood-turner.
Anyone in Pitkin County who’s tried to slap a new coat of paint on their birdhouse knows how extremely generous the building department can be with its advice on such matters, and anyone who reads the papers would probably love to know how much money people have spent on lawyers fighting them tooth and nail. Macy and Huffman are the polar opposite of that. Macy, in particular, is upbeat about how great it was to work with the Pitkin County officials and how all the rules and regulations, which seem to drive many out of their minds, have done nothing but make their project better, for themselves and for the community.
They also heap praise on Divide Creek Builders for helping shape and realize their visions, and possibly saving their necks with the hard-hat advice. They treat the workers like family, and one can see in their exchanges, that feeling is clearly reciprocated.
Huffman is delighted to be in the place where she was raised. She is nurtured and surrounded by lifelong friendships, the mountains she grew up skiing and the esprit de corps among the people who have managed to survive in the valley despite considerable odds. While Macy’s roots here don’t go back quite that far, his affection for the valley runs equally deep. He is committed to doing the right thing. Together, they are supporters of the Wilderness Workshop and continue to give back to the valley and their community at every opportunity. They plan to retire in Aspen—although that may not happen for these two hardworking actors anytime soon.