Michael C. Hall on Going Drag for ‘Hedwig and the Angry Inch’ and Exorcising ‘Dexter’
The award-winning actor wows as a rockin’ drag queen on Broadway. He opens up about overcoming tragedy, letting go of the Showtime drama, and a possible spin-off.
“I just got my nails done,” gushes Michael C. Hall, extending his manicured, silver digits towards me. “I try to touch it up every couple of weeks. If it gets a little trashy and starts to chip off, it feels… appropriate.”
No, the 43-year-old isn’t in the throes of a midlife crisis. He’s currently starring as Hedwig, a bawdy transgender singer in the musical Hedwig and the Angry Inch on Broadway, recently extending his run through January 18.
Hall’s Hedwig is a self-proclaimed “girlyboy” growing up in East Berlin who falls in love with Luther Robinson, a U.S. soldier stationed abroad. Since their union must consist of a man and a woman, Hedwig is forced to undergo a sex change operation in order to be married—but it’s botched, leaving her with a one-inch scar between her legs. Eventually, she ends up fronting a glam rock band called “The Angry Inch,” named after her malformed vagina. And Hall, stepping into the glittery shoes once occupied by Tony-winner Neil Patrick Harris, is an absolute riot in the role, jumping off cars, air-kicking, and lap-dancing, all while belting out a roster of addictive rock tunes and sporting a plethora of designer wigs, hot pants, platform heels, and heaps of makeup.
The outré character is sure to throw even the most ardent fans of the Golden Globe winner for a loop. After all, Hall is best known for his masterful portraits of quiet storms, e.g. David Fisher of Six Feet Under or the title character in Dexter—characters whose eerily calm veneers belie inner turmoil. But believe it or not, Hall grew up with a penchant for far sunnier material, first singing in a series of choirs and then performing in high school musical productions of The Sound of Music, Oklahoma!, and Fiddler on the Roof.
We’re sitting across from each other at El Quijote, a vintage Spanish restaurant in the Chelsea area of Manhattan that appears lifted straight out of a Tarantino flick. Hall’s on a strict diet for the 7-performance-a-week show—one that not only requires him to cut out carbs, but also demands 40 minutes in the makeup chair each night.
So, while picking at a pair of grilled shrimp appetizers, we discuss everything from grinding on buttoned-up Broadway patrons to Dexter’s finale—and possible future.
You’ve starred in two Broadway plays back-to-back with The Realistic Joneses and Hedwig and the Angry Inch. Was this an inch you’d wanted to scratch while on Dexter?
Yeah. I had told my representatives that I was interested in doing a play again and getting back onstage, but I was interested in doing a new play by a young, preferably even American playwright. The Realistic Joneses fit the bill. And then this emerged. I do think that, with Dexter ending and Six Feet Under, that’s 13 years of playing two characters with small breaks here and there. It really predominated my experience of being an actor, and both characters were fraught with a certain tension, sense of conflict, and interior turmoil. There was a desire to perform an exorcism. Realistic Joneses got it started, and I think Hedwig has really cracked the nut; it’s completely recalibrated my instrument, and has been therapeutic. I’ll probably descend into a deep, dark depression when it’s over, but it’s great for now.
Did playing such a demented character like Dexter for so long mess with your head? Because as an actor, you have to rationalize his decisions constantly.
Definitely. I think I’m only now processing that issue. You can do some sort of intellectual or emotional alchemy and substitute whatever Dexter is doing away with, with whatever you might deem worthy of doing away with. But in the end, you’re simulating murder and a life based on fundamental, formidable secrets and lies, and that’s going to do a number on you. There’s a part of us that doesn’t distinguish between ritual and reality, and there’s some way that whatever you’re performing is encoded in you, hence the need to perform some sort of exorcism. I think actors have a degree of preoccupation with their sense of what it is to be authentic—they’re dedicated to simulating authentic human behavior—and to play a character who himself is claiming to be without the capacity for that authenticity takes it to another level.
If you play a character, initially you’re called upon to investigate and bring to the table certain things that are initially useful, but if you do it for five seasons or eight seasons, it can feel like you’re beating a dead horse, tilling dead soil, or trying to reinforce things you’re trying to transcend in your own life. It’s an occupational hazard, I guess.
How did you end up starring in Hedwig? John came to see The Realistic Joneses and we went out to dinner after and talked casually about the show, but that was it. He didn’t ask about me doing it. Then he sent me a text and asked if we could “chat,” and he invited me to do it. I took a couple of weeks before I said yes because it’s a lot. But I’m a big rock ‘n’ roll fan, and a big fan of the music. The first time I met John was at Kim’s Video many years ago, and I geeked out on the movie and also saw the show downtown a while back. I harbor a rock ‘n’ roll fantasy, just like anybody, and I welcomed the challenge. She’s extreme, and I welcomed the challenge. I’m living a rock ‘n’ roll reality now, which is actually a lot less glamorous than you’d think.
It’s a grueling performance. What sort of preparation did you do for Hedwig?
Two or three weeks before rehearsals officially started I stopped eating bread and tried to get my cardiovascular fitness up, because singing those songs while executing all those moves—among many other things—is a real cardio challenge. I got a pair of heels before I started rehearsing that I used for a time before the ones they made for me for the show came, and they were higher than the ones I wear in the show and more difficult to negotiate. I started walking around the apartment in those and never rehearsed out of them. By the time I transitioned to the ones they made for me, which are made for my specific foot and calibrated to a male’s weight distribution versus a female’s, they felt like sneakers.
How do you choose your victims in the crowd who you kiss and give lap dances to?
[Laughs] Well, it’s good to pick someone who’s not too big because if they’re too big, it’s difficult for them to get both arms off the armrests so there’s nowhere to put my feet when I do the carwash thing. It’s good to choose someone who seems to be enjoying himself—not too surly, not too enthusiastic, but who will just let it happen. It’s pretty much a game-time decision. I try to pick a man just because it’s more fun for the audience, and seems more appropriate.
Have there been any strip club violations on you? Any unwanted ass-grabs?
No. There have definitely been people who haven’t cooperated and didn’t take their arm off the armrest—which is a mistake if you’re looking not to be humiliated, because I’ll really end up humping your face if that happens. And with kissing, I try to pick a male. Sometimes they’re game, but sometimes they get very wide-eyed and shake their head at me, so I’ll just kiss their cheek… or lick their forehead.
You have a very rich history of portraying gay characters, even going back to the Off-Broadway play Corpus Christi, which depicted Jesus and the Apostles as gay men in modern-day Texas.
Right. Corpus Christi was controversial because of a firestorm surrounding the idea of it, but the reality of the play was it was a pretty tame retelling of the story of Jesus that’s contemporized, and had a not-incidental gay theme, but didn’t really warrant the bomb threats and metal detectors at the theater. But yes, if it weren’t for the invitation on the part of gay writers, composers, and directors, I probably wouldn’t have my career!
I heard that after Sam Mendes directed you in your Broadway debut in Cabaret, it was him who recommended you to Alan Ball for Six Feet Under.
Alan just happened to be in New York auditioning people, and I got in the room to audition for the first time. Maybe at some point during that process he made the connection, but Sam certainly didn’t convince him not to hire me—although I’m not sure if he told him that he must. But it did seem like there was a serendipitous thing happening. I did a workshop of this Sondheim musical that’s had many incarnations called Wise Guys, and Sam directed that, and that happened to coincide with him looking for someone to replace Alan [Cumming] in Cabaret, so I was invited to do a workshop with him. I didn’t tell them that I played the part in college, so they thought I was an incredibly quick study.
Have you been singing and dancing your entire life?
I guess I have! The first formal singing I did was in a boy’s choir when I was in fifth grade, and was in choirs and musicals in high school. I sang for a second in a rock cover band in college, but that was pretty short-lived. We did some Police and Nirvana covers—and In Living Color. But I was a choir geek, and then got frustrated and took an acting class and realized that was the thing for me.
People who have only seen you in Six Feet Under and Dexter are going to be very surprised to see you as Hedwig.
Hedwig calls on me to have a much more expansive energy—not so interior. But still, someone who’s in some sort of state of conflict.
Right. You’re so great at capturing that inner turmoil. Are you plagued by your own sense of inner turmoil?
Sure. I sometimes feel vexed by—but also addicted to—a sense of conflict, or a sense of being at odds with myself, or my choices. They say your strengths can become your weaknesses, but in my case, perhaps my weaknesses have become my strengths.
You’ve faced plenty of adversity in your life, from your father passing away when you were just 11 years old to being diagnosed with cancer at 38. You’re a resilient guy.
Yeah… or maybe I’m just not really here. Maybe I’m just a cipher.
I saw you in Hedwig. You seem very much present.
[Laughs] Oh yeah, I was there. That happened. But it’s the only life I’ve known, and I think that anybody can make room for whatever comes their way, and on some fronts I’ve had to make room for things that not everybody has. But all in all, I feel pretty fortunate. As far as the cancer goes, it wasn’t a 50/50 scenario as far as my prognosis. I was told from the beginning that the odds were overwhelmingly in my favor as long as I decided on a course of treatment and went through with it. As far as cancers go, it’s one that they’ve known how to treat effectively, and because I was young and in good health, I could take the assault of the treatment. It coincided with a hiatus from work, too. I have a friend who said, “You know, when you have wet pants? It’s like having wet pants for six months, and then you take the pants off.” I try to keep that in mind.
Is this your first time dressing in drag, or have you ever had an Ed Wood moment?
When I did Cabaret I wore a dress at one point in the show, but it’s certainly the first time I’ve played a character like this. But, oh sure, when I was a kid I did. It’s like Hedwig says to Luther in the “Sugar Daddy” number: “Oh, heaven knows I’ve never put on women’s clothes—except for once, my mother’s camisoles.” I’m like that. But it’s liberating!
Being called upon or invited to open yourself to, or welcome in your woman. I would recommend it for all men. And that it’s not all softness—there’s a certain kind of strength there. It’s very liberating to dress up like a woman. And for me, probably because my father passed away when I was young—and he was young, and my mother modeled the full scope of my experience of parents, that I do associate the feminine with a certain resiliency and strength—because of my mother. Strangely, my Mom came to see the show last week over Thanksgiving, and I was a bit worried that it might be a little much for her. But it’s up there among the favorite things she’s seen me do, and she said after, “I kind of think Hedwig is more like you than a lot of the characters I’ve seen you play!” which was an amazing thing to hear.
I would be remiss if I didn’t ask you about the Dexter spin-off that Showtime’s hinted at.
First off, doesn’t a spin-off mean that it’s focused on another character? I don’t see how it’s a spin-off, but more of a recontextualized Dexter. He’s still alive as far as the story goes, and he didn’t really share with us what was going on with him in those final moments, which is a part of what some—not many viewers—found upsetting about the ending: “He’s not talking to us! What’s going on? What’s he doing?!” It was definitely an anti-closure ending, and if the character—and show—has life behind it, it leaves the door wide open. I finished Six Feet Under and said I’d never do another TV show and then Dexter happened almost immediately after, so if I said right now that there will never be another incarnation of anything involving the character of Dexter , cut to three months later and I’ll probably be on set shooting it. Never say never. But right now, I’m interested in doing other things.
I caught Cold in July at Sundance, and it’s a very good film.
I did that right after Dexter ended. It was the first step in my Dexter detox—to play a guy who killed someone without meaning to do it.
How’s the Dexter detox going?
It’s good! Really good. I feel like it’s in its final stages now that I’m doing the rock ‘n’ roll thing. The general notion of Dexter existing in a different context and, because of who he is, being a very different person, is interesting. I don’t know how to execute it, but that’s potentially compelling. Let me know if you have any ideas!
It’s funny that you’re involved in what many consider one of the greatest series finales in history in Six Feet Under and also one…
…That’s the most exasperating, frustrating, and roundly ridiculed? [Laughs]
And now Sia is huge. Every time I think of her I think of that Six Feet Under finale.
I know! Have you seen that “Chandelier” video? I only saw it recently, and I think I watched it ten times non-stop. She can really wail. I know some people who can’t hear that song [“Breathe Me”] without crying. I think Dexter was reeling ever since The Trinity Killer killed his wife, and was trying to make amends on some level, and it did nothing but destroy the lives of everyone around him. The idea that he chose to exile himself from the world by simulating his death and going to the middle of nowhere and disappearing is a justifiable choice as far as my sense of the character goes. The way it was executed was maybe not satisfying to people, and it was in no way tied up in a bow.
But would it have been strange to tie up Dexter in a bow?
Well, the only way Dexter could have been tied up in a bow was if the last episode would have been the last episode of Season 4. There’s his own son lying in a puddle of blood. Then I would’ve been in the two best finales! [Laughs] But we did four more seasons. Also, at that point the head of Showtime, Bob Greenblatt, left, and then our showrunner, Clyde Phillips, told that story and then left, so we were left without somebody running the writer’s room and how to deal with the mess that had been made of Dexter’s DNA and the world of the show, and I got cancer so I wasn’t very focused. Those last four seasons were inherently different, and there were times where I really struggled with my sense of who he was, but then I always fell back on, “Oh, well I guess Dexter is struggling, too.”
There’s a miniseries you’re set to executive produce, God Fearing Man, whose script is co-written by the late Stanley Kubrick.
It’s based on a script that he wrote called God Fearing Man about a guy who was initially a man of the cloth who became the most successful bank robber of his time. The script would be used as more than just raw material, but would need to be fudged. We’re in the process of figuring out who might be the right person to do that, and it’s in its early stages. I’m not positive that it would work out that I’d play the part, but I’m interested in playing it. When I start talking about the character with writers, I feel like I’m talking about Dexter sometimes.
Do you feel liberated now that you’re no longer tethered to a long-running TV series?
As most actors are, I’m convinced that everything is going to disappear and that I’m not going to be able to do this anymore, but it’s nice to commit to things that have an immediate end in sight. That’s a whole new world. I didn’t anticipate things would go this way. Maybe I’ll just go to the Pacific Northwest and chop down trees.