Out of “Focus”

"David Mamet calls me Hebraically challenged," confides actor William H. Macy, a longtime collaborator of the esteemed playwright. "I’m the ultimate [gentile]. Part of me is the imploding WASP, a role I’ve certainly played to death."

With his weak smile and wounded-looking blue eyes, Macy was riveting in his Oscar-nominated turn as a car dealer struggling to cover up his wife’s kidnapping in the Coen brothers’ 1996 film "Fargo." He was the humiliated husband of an oversexed porn star in "Boogie Nights," and a beleaguered 1950s sitcom dad in "Pleasantville."

Which is why he was cautious when director Neal Slavin asked him to star in his noirish feature-film debut, "Focus" — based on Arthur Miller’s 1945 novel about a milquetoast mistakenly identified as Jewish by his anti-Semitic neighbors.

"I told Neal I was all wrong for the role," says the earnest, 51-year-old actor. "I said, ‘Anti-Semitism is a vicious thing, and I don’t want to offend anyone by presuming to know what it feels like. Plus, I don’t even look Jewish.’ And Neal very gently said, ‘That’s why you’re perfect. Intolerance has nothing to do with reality.’"

Just to make sure, Macy described the problem to Mamet. "What’s the matter with you?" the Jewish writer retorted. "When Arthur Miller writes a novel, you jump to bring it to the screen."

Mamet reminded Macy of how he’d silenced a journalist who’d asked why there were no Jewish actors in his 1991 Jewish-themed film, "Homicide." "David said, ‘Huh, interesting concept, casting by religion,’" the actor recalls. "That shut her up in a hurry."

Miller wrote "Focus" to expose the seldom-discussed anti-Semitism prevalent in New York in the early 1940s.

Macy says he didn’t witness anti-Semitism while growing up outside Atlanta in the 1950s, but another kind of prejudice profoundly affected his life. When he was 10, his father — a medal-winning World War II pilot — was so shocked by the seething racism he saw at a PTA meeting that he moved the family up North.

At his new school in Cumberland, Md., Macy experienced bias when his classmates jeered at his thick Southern drawl. He was ostracized for years until he sang a sexually explicit song at a high school talent show — and was elected class president. "I was thrust into the limelight, but I still carried this secret that I felt like the outsider," he says. "I think that’s why I’m so good at playing ordinary guys who get in over their heads."

Around 1970, Macy was studying acting with Mamet at Goddard College in Vermont, where Mamet presided over class wearing severely tailored military fatigues. "At our hippied-out school, David was the only teacher talking structure," says Macy, who ultimately mastered the playwright’s difficult, staccato dialogue. "He said, ‘Be prepared, or don’t come to class. If you ask stupid questions, I’ll throw you out."’ In 1972, Macy followed Mamet to Chicago, where he helped him co-found the St. Nicholas Theater and originated roles in Mamet’s plays "American Buffalo" and "Oleanna." He went on to star in other Mamet films such as "State and Main," in which he played a non-Jewish film director fond of matzah and Yiddishisms.

"David just loves to hear me struggling with Hebrew and Yiddish," says Macy, whose first line in "State and Main" is a bungled "Vus machs tu?" (How are you?) "I kept asking him to repeat the words, and finally Dave said, ‘As well as you can say them will be just bad enough.’"

A more difficult task was landing the role of Jerry Lundegaard in "Fargo," which Macy secured after a lengthy period of abjectly begging the Coens. "I was desperate because I’d understood in a nanosecond how to do the character," says the actor, who knew he had to make viewers feel sorry for the despicable Lundegaard. "I fantasized that Jerry’s objectives were pure, and that he felt he was trying to save his family."

Macy says he was drawn to "Focus," in part, "for the chance to play ‘The Guy’ — the leading man — which doesn’t happen that often." The film presented "an interesting acting problem, because my character, Lawrence Newman, is so passive."

He feels the film has an eerie resonance after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, when innocent people began to be targets for hate crimes because they looked Middle Eastern. "Osama bin Laden teaches hatred, and so does Jerry Falwell, for blaming the attacks on homosexuals," Macy adds. "It’s our collective responsibility to stand up and tell those people they’re wrong. Just as Lawrence Newman learns in ‘Focus,’ it is our fight. We are all responsible."

"Focus" opens today in Los Angeles.