They called him “The Pulverizer.” It was a nickname coined by none other than Brad Pitt, who found himself so impressed with the severe dedication of his co-star that he bestowed it a few days into shooting War Machine, a new Afghanistan War satire based on the late Michael Hastings’ bestselling book The Operators. Pitt plays Gen. Glen McMahon, a squinty, laconic and most of all revered military man based on Gen. Stanley McChrystal. And no one worships Gen. McMahon more than Maj. Gen. Greg Pulver, who is the Chewbacca to his Han Solo—the hot-blooded “muscle” whose frequent paroxysms of fury are meant to take the heat off the man he so dedicatedly shadows. That Pulver is played by ’80s geek icon Anthony Michael Hall, unrecognizable behind pounds of muscle and an unhinged glare, is one thing; that he’s based on disgraced Gen. Michael Flynn, President Donald Trump’s former national security adviser and one of the most controversial figures in America, is quite another.
“It is all very surreal,” Hall tells me—and this coming from a guy who starred in a movie where Johnny Depp has scissors for hands.
To step into the role of Maj. Gen. Pulver, Hall packed on about 20 pounds of muscle, consuming eight eggs a day and working out for two hours every morning before arriving on set. He wanted to be “steel,” he says, to honor his late grandfather, Anthony DeRosa, who served in World War II, and his uncles who cut their teeth in Korea and Vietnam. Hall went full-Method, occasionally snatching Pitt his morning paper and coffee, and avoiding off-set interactions with the rest of the cast. When the premiere of the film came about, he even felt the need to apologize to some of them for his extreme commitment to the role.
“Mike disappeared on set man,” he recalls. “I got really into it. Sometimes I make the decision to go method—like when playing Bill Gates—and it’s always just to protect my level of concentration and focus.”
At 49, and with lines replacing his dimples, Hall’s long shed his movie-geek status, one that saw him play memorable dweeb-heroes in Sixteen Candles, The Breakfast Club, and Weird Science for the late, great John Hughes, and even turn down roles in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off (Cameron) and Pretty in Pink (Duckie) that Hughes wrote specifically for him in order to not be typecast. His transformation was so alarming as the neighborhood bully in 1990’s Edward Scissorhands that critics at the time accused him of taking steroids, as opposed to what he calls a natural “growth spurt” that saw him sprout to 6-foot-2.
After a dry spell in the early ’90s, he remade himself again with a pair of based-on-a-real-person performances: as computer titan Bill Gates in the Emmy-nominated Pirates of Silicon Valley and then as Yankees’ Hall of Fame pitcher Whitey Ford in the HBO film 61*. A starring role in USA’s sci-fi series The Dead Zone soon followed, with Hall playing the lead role of Johnny Smith, a man who experiences psychic visions after falling into a coma. It proved a huge hit for the network, lasting six seasons. Over the last decade, Hall has popped up in a number of impressive films, including The Dark Knight and Foxcatcher.
“It wasn’t easy to reinvent myself,” he admits. “I just had this marathon approach to it, and treated every job with respect.”
His latest reinvention is as Pulver in War Machine, Netflix’s sprawling $60 million war saga. Directed by Aussie David Michôd (Animal Kingdom), it chronicles Gen. McMahon’s time in Afghanistan, where he’s tasked with bringing the war there to an end, but runs into a bunch of bureaucratic roadblocks, and ultimately finds himself taken down by an embedded reporter for Rolling Stone (Scoot McNairy), based on the late Hastings. Pitt—who also produced the film through his Plan B Productions shingle—assembled a top-notch cast for the film, including Ben Kingsley as President Hamid Karzai, Tilda Swinton as a dogged German politician, as well as Emory Cohen, Will Poulter, and Keith Stanfield as soldiers under Gen. McMahon.
But Hall’s Pulver still proves to be one of the film’s major standouts. “All I saw was a guy with anger-management issues whose life had no meaning without Glen,” McNairy’s narrator says, before it cuts to a scene of the major general yelling his face off into a phone.
In addition to pumping iron, Hall read The Operators to prepare for playing a man based on Michael Flynn, depicted in Hastings’ book as a booze-loving loose cannon who, when asked about how he was granted his national-security clearance, simply replies, “I lied.” Of course, that was before the former national security adviser was forced to resign from his post after he admitted to lying to Vice President Mike Pence about his contacts with Russian and Turkish officials during (and after) the recent presidential election—one where he served as a surrogate for candidate Trump, famously leading a “lock her up” chant during his fiery Republican National Convention speech. He is now at the center of the FBI’s Trump-Russia probe.
“He wasn’t a story two years ago,” says Hall, huddled in a booth at his favorite neighborhood haunt in his new Manhattan neighborhood of Gramercy. “We shot this in the fall of 2015, pre-election run. So it’s really interesting… I had no awareness that he would be selected by Trump as his national security adviser or any of that. Like everybody, I was watching the race and the whole thing unfolding.”
Hall says he didn’t try to meet Flynn, but even before he underwent the film’s two weeks of military training—including briefings, gun lessons, learning how to walk in formation and talk the talk—he had a bit of a read on him given their similar upbringing.
“Well, he is an Irishman, like myself,” says Hall with a chuckle, alluding to a bit of a temper. “I was also born in New England—and then migrated with a single mom in the ’70s to New York City. She was a cabaret singer who literally sang for my supper.”
Though Hall is eager to discuss War Machine, showering praise upon “Mr. Pitt,” “Mr. Michôd,” and Netflix’s “Mr. Sarandos” for granting him with “the greatest role of my career,” he remains fairly tight-lipped about the real-life Flynn and the maelstrom of controversy he’s found himself in. The actor found himself in a bit of controversy too when, late last year, he was charged with battery for allegedly attacking a neighbor at his L.A. residence. Part of the purported incident was captured on video, and Hall is due in court later this year to face charges. He says he can’t comment on it as it’s an ongoing case, and seems far more interested in discussing his support of Pitt on set, leading the men who were known as “The Bubble” surrounding the A-lister, as well as stories from his ’80s heyday.
And he does have some interesting stories.
He tells me about his experience as the youngest Saturday Night Live cast member ever at the age of 17, a record that isn’t ever likely to be broken (“I was a dumb kid with no sketch-comedy experience”), or how, after befriending co-star and life-long pal Robert Downey Jr. on the set of Weird Science, the two of them went to L.A. to develop a script with Downey’s father, Robert Downey Sr. (of Putney Swope fame). It was called Seth & McWiggin, and told the story of “a Jewish coke fiend and an Irish drunk who get in a car wreck and end up in rehab together.” When it didn’t work out, the two young actors moved to New York together and Hall introduced Lorne Michaels to Downey, who also joined SNL’s cast in Season 11. They were canned after a year.
Or there was the time Paul Gleason, who played the dickhead assistant principal in The Breakfast Club, took him to see Mike Tyson fight at Madison Square Garden around the time of that film’s release. Gleason was friendly with Tyson and, after the burly boxer knocked out his opponent, they greeted him as he exited the ring, Tyson turned to Hall and remarked in his squeaky voice, “I’m a great admirer of your films!” It was, as Hall recalls, the beginning of a beautiful and most bizarre friendship.
“We started hanging out after that,” remembers Hall. “We went to this all-black club in Midtown a lot, I forget the name. It was dope. I’d be rolling with Tyson and people would be saying, ‘Who’s this kid with you?’ We even had a double-date with some girls once…”
He had a few interactions with 1980s Donald Trump, too, though he’s not at liberty to share most of the details. “I hit a few of his parties,” says Hall, rather vaguely, before launching into another thought. “OK, I have a Trump story I can tell. This is how old I am: I was invited by Mr. Trump to be a part of Miss Teen USA, and Kobe Bryant was on the panel, too, and he was a rookie that year… To be honest, I have nothing but good things to say about him. He was a gentleman and really commanded the room. He treated me very well.”
These days, aside from War Machine, Hall is producing a cop movie called The Lost Shield with his NYU buddy Brett Ratner, and developing a TV series with childhood pal Downey Jr. called Singularity—a comedy about a crazy, rich, wildly dysfunctional family. He also runs a company called Manhattan Films, which has various projects in development.
Though Hall has worked with a number of directorial giants over the years, from John Hughes to Tim Burton to Christopher Nolan, there is one that got away: Stanley Kubrick. The legendary filmmaker personally sought out Hall to star as the lead of Full Metal Jacket, a Vietnam War film that came out thirty years ago. He looks pained as he recalls the “long, drawn-out period of negotiation” over the part, where financial terms ultimately couldn’t be met.
“Kubrick gave me the greatest compliment of my career though,” recalls Hall. “He said, ‘I just screened Sixteen Candles three times. Michael, you’re my favorite actor since I saw Jack in Easy Rider.’”
He laughs. “I almost dropped the phone. I was bugging out.”