Veteran Actor William H. Macy Conducts 3-Hour Master Class for 12 Drama Students

Photos Karl Rabe

He was a cunning and manipulative criminal in the movie Fargo and a deadbeat alcoholic and addict in the long-running Showtime comedy Shameless. But when he led a three-hour drama class recently on the Vassar campus, William H. Macy played himself: an engaging, award-winning, veteran actor with a passion for his craft.

Willam H. Macy is directing a Masterclass and pointing to a script he is holding in his hand
The words in the script are important, Macy told the students, but they don’t have meaning until the actor “acts” them.

“Learn your lines,” Macy told the 12 students in the Streep Studio in the Vogelstein Center for Drama and Film, “but you’ve got to act with your body. My friend Dave Mamet says words are gibberish that don’t mean anything until you act them.”

During the three-hour class, Macy had several students perform short scenes from plays they had chosen for an imaginary audition. Then he peppered them with suggestions on how to move and how to react to lines recited by a fellow student playing the other character in the scene. “Your stock in trade is your action,” Macy told Alexander Papasavas ’23 as he provided suggestions for how to make the “audition” more kinetic.

William H. Macy and student in MasterClass in front of a camera
Macy critiques an imaginary audition by drama major Alexander Papasavas ’23.

Macy urged all of the students to import their own interpretation into their characters. “Bring the maximum amount of your personality to the character,” he said. “That’s why we can watch Hamlet 25 times and it’s still fresh; different actors bring different experiences to the character.”

William H. Macy directing student actor in MasterClass
Macy offers some advice to Yesmina Townsley ’23.

Other advice and observations from Macy:

  • Never walk backwards on stage. Nobody does that in real life. Turn your back and talk louder.
  • Never be bad. It’s OK to be the best actor in a bad show, but it’s better to be good in a small role in a good show.
  • Violence in films today has reached disgusting proportions. I’ve shot off my mouth about this, and now I can’t get a role in a Marvel movie.
  • Stay in touch with each other and with the many Vassar people in the industry.
  • If you want to be in movies, you have to go to Los Angeles. If you want to be in theater, you have to go to New York or Chicago.
  • Write. There are a lot of actors, but good writers are always in demand.
William H. Macy with acting students in MasterClass
Macy spent more than three hours with the class, dispensing advice and relating stories about his own career in film, television and theater spanning nearly 50 years.

Elizabeth Hoffman, Director of Parent and Family Giving in the Office of Advancement, said Macy offered to engage with the drama students on campus in part to express his appreciation for the education his daughter is receiving at Vassar.

Conrad Schott ’11, visiting Assistant Professor of Drama, said he was honored to have Macy offer advice to his students. “It’s incredibly valuable for the students to receive lessons from someone like Bill who is well known for his talent and his wealth of experience in the field,” Schott said. “Even if the acting fundamentals he espouses are similar to what the faculty can offer, it hits different coming from someone they know has reached such heights in his career, whose performances they may have seen and admired for years. When a star actor like William H. Macy comes to impart auditioning advice to your acting class, you hang on his every word. Respectfully, I’m going to steal some of his stuff, a time-honored tradition among acting teachers.”

When the class ended, Papasavas said it had been a privilege to take advice from Macy. “I’m a big Shameless fan,” he said, “and I was excited to receive help from someone so accomplished. The notes he gave me on playing my scene ‘bigger’ made a lot of sense to me; it’s been something I’ve been working on.”

Cameron Long ’23 said she, too, was slightly awestruck when Macy watched her perform. “I was nervous at first,” Long said, “but then I realized this is not a real audition. It’s a low-stress opportunity to learn from one of the best, and I will use the advice he gave me.”

William H. Macy headshot
“See you on the set!”

Macy closed the session by wishing the students luck in their future careers. “See you on the set,” he said. “They’re going to have to choose somebody. Why not you? Come ready to rock and roll.”

December 2, 2022