His fellow coffee drinkers may have seen him play the serial killer Dexter, or the hot, perennially freaked-out undertaker David Fisher in Six Feet Under, but today Michael C. Hall’s anonymity in an Upper West Side cafe is guaranteed thanks to a baseball cap inscribed with a rainbow atop Brian Eno’s name. The actor lives nearby with his third wife, Morgan Macgregor, and their black long-haired dachshund Salamander.
Handsome, charming, and eloquent, and with a light beard of reddish-gray stubble, Hall will talk about death, both as a shadow in his own life and in the roles that have made him famous. Having played one of television’s most radical and remembered gay characters, he will talk about "leaning in" to his own "fluid" sexuality, and the vexed cultural politics around the roles available for openly gay and trans actors and straight actors playing gay and trans roles.
He will talk about giving up alcohol, marijuana, and becoming a vegan. And the Golden Globe and Screen Actors Guild winner will also remember David Bowie, who walked into his life (while Hall was working on Bowie’s final project Lazarus) smelling divine and holding a silver-tipped cane, and who died soon afterwards. Hall still feels Bowie’s presence, he said, like an electrical charge near his solar plexus.
Bowie asked Hall the question that comes to many people’s minds: “So, what is it with you and death?” The full answer, which he gives today, is extremely personal and includes his own experience of cancer.
When we met, the 47-year-old Hall had already done two preview performances of his new one-man play, Will Eno’s Thom Pain (based on nothing), at the off-Broadway Signature Theatre.
He calls the 70-minute monologue “an extraordinary presentation of an ordinary life.” It is intentionally ambiguous, he said. We think we are meeting a man, who may or not be called Thom Pain, in a rented space that may be transitioning from one theatrical performance to another. It’s not clear where he has come from or where he is headed, if he exists outside this theatrical space. In crafting the character, Hall said he was disinclined to answer these questions, even for himself.
The audience helps each night’s performance change, and Eno’s language means performing it is “like riding a wave of language that is surprising and various, even if the character thinks he is experiencing linear thought.”
Hall has decorated his dressing room with abstract drawings he imagines his character would have drawn. He shows me these sequences of squiggles, and they are beautiful. I say he should exhibit them. He may auction them off, he said, calling them “scribbled pictures of scribbled feelings.”
The drawings are inspired by two photographs: Diane Arbus’ 1962 photograph of a boy with a toy hand grenade in Central Park, and Malcolm Browne’s 1963 Associated Press photographs of Vietnamese Mahayana Buddhist monk Thích Quang Duc, who burned himself to death in Saigon.
Hall said, “There’s something about both of those pictures that represents maybe where I imagine Thom at the beginning of the story and at the end, which is a place of such equanimity where you could set him on fire and he’d be OK. They are a sort of visual representation of what I understand to be the spiritual or emotional core of what he up to.”
Hall also listens to a lot of Thelonious Monk before the show, “music I have loved all my life and always will. It has its own logic. It is chaotic and unpredictable in its way and also follows its own rules, even if they are rules only Thelonious Monk knows about.”
Hall’s name and not inconsiderable fan base guarantees healthy audiences for Thom Pain, but he knows Dexter fans have a more pressing question: Will television’s best-known serial killer return, and if so when?
“Every time I’m asked about this I say, ‘never say never,’” Hall said, smiling. “The next thing I know there’s an announcement on the internet saying ‘he’s going to do it again.’ The way that show ended gave no sense of closure for people and a lot of questions unanswered. He seems to be in this self-imposed exile, he certainly didn’t ride off into the sunset. His sister died. It left a gnarly knot in some viewers’ stomachs. I stand by how that 8th season ended.”
For Hall, the tragedy of Dexter is that “if he had kept on killing people he’d have been fine, but he gets married, he opens his imagination and heart. He has a real connection to people, and all those people are compromised or destroyed in some way. For it to be all tidied up after that would have not been honest. For him to simulate his own death and extricate himself from the context of his life made sense to me. As far as any more of that happening, it’s possible.”
In terms of discussions around the series, Hall said, “There have been different possibilities that have come up. They haven’t felt worth doing. But there’s still something potentially there. But there are no immediate plans to do that.”
As well as plays like Thom Pain, Hall has been appearing in one-off roles, like playing John F. Kennedy in The Crown. Hall read books about his life, interested in finding out about the initial dependence and compounding dependence on drugs and steroids (which was his pain medication), and countering the debilitating effects of both with amphetamines.
Hall saw his JFK as a “nouveau royal,” a “quick drawing” compared to the depth of David in Six Feet Under and Dexter. “Because The Crown was so well-drawn it felt enough to create an impression and hopefully inspire spin-off: White House Nights. Just throwing it out there.” Hall laughed. “Just kidding.” (Here’s betting more than one producer reading this writes that pretty great idea down on a piece of paper.)
To answer Bowie’s golden question, Hall’s relationship with death can be traced to his childhood growing up in North Carolina.
“I was born into a family of two parents who had recently lost my sister, Julie, who was not yet 2,” Hall recalled. “She had a lot of developmental and physical problems and I think they knew she wasn’t long for this world, but she was in the world and did die and that was a very difficult thing for my parents.”
Hall recalls photos of Julie in photo albums. He was fascinated that she had once been alive, there, “the idea I had a sister.”
“So, there’s an awareness of the fact of death when I was very young. My father died when I was 11. My aunt Linda, my mother’s older sister, died a few years after that. In each year of my high school someone died: 3 instances of a car accident, 2 were in cars one was a pedestrian.”
He did not, he emphasizes, have a fascination or preoccupation with death, but rather “an awareness of the fact of it, its inevitability, the fact it is one fate no one escapes.”
He was an only child, and “somewhat solitary. Though I had friends, I tended to gravitate to kids who were part of really big families so I could be a surrogate satellite member of a household that had more literal life in it.” He laughed softly. “I think I was a preoccupied kid. I think I was in my head. I was pretty much like I am now. With less of a story.”
Hall said he isn’t sure where nature met nurture in his personality. It was a serious household, his parents were “hard workers from small towns.”
“There was a certain degree of seriousness about themselves,” he said. “More generally, the larger family and environment were somewhat repressive and puritanical. Not explicitly, but ebullience and enthusiasm were discouraged, a conditioning I have somewhat managed. But I also think I have an inherent playfulness and silliness about me.
“Part of it came from my mom. She laughs at my jokes. I can make her laugh. There was some impulse from a very early age to find an outlet for some sort of expression that went beyond somewhat restrictive boundaries.”
Hall traces his acting career back to the age of 8 in a play he performed at church called What Love Is, about a man visited by angels in the course of one evening—a little like A Christmas Carol meets It’s a Wonderful Life. He played Judd in his school production of Oklahoma. Performing was “invigorating.”
Another acquaintance with death unfolded when his father, William, who worked for IBM, died when he was 11. “It was as fundamental as anything; fundamental in such a way that is hard for me to imagine the world in which he didn’t die,” Hall said. “Whether I am consciously drawing on the fact of his having died when he did, or I am not, it’s there: a fundamental part of me.”
His mother, Janice, a mental health counselor, was in her late 30s when her husband died.
“She lost her partner, her companion, her best friend,” Hall said. “I lost my father. I was on the cusp of adolescence, you can’t just tidily fill in whatever blanks are there. And time doesn’t stop. You just move forward.”
In some ways, his mother’s profession helped both of them deal with the strange mechanics of grief. “It feels like as more time passes we have moments where we just shake our heads and say, ‘That was pretty intense, wasn’t it?’”
His mother had subsequent relationships but didn’t remarry. Hall doesn’t want to speak for her but thinks “she felt she had such a wonderful marriage, short-lived as it might have been, that she didn’t want to give energy to doing some lesser approximation. She had great friendships, a rich life and rich career and certainly didn’t withdraw from the world.”
Acting was always Hall’s love though he never felt confident or safe admitting that to anyone, “or even fully to myself,” until he went to college. He told people he was going to study pre-law, and hoped the conversation would end there. It was a smokescreen. After attending a liberal arts college in Indiana, he eventually studied acting at NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts.
“It was always there,” he said of his love of acting. “I was just waiting to have enough distance between the external and internal impediments in admitting what I wanted to do and then announced it to myself.”
His mother was nervous, though comforted herself that with a masters degree in acting he “could teach in a theater department somewhere.” She was never a stage mom, Hall said, and while she expressed her concerns about his ability to make a living as an actor, she allowed Hall’s enthusiasm to belong to him.
His ambitions initially were to work in theaters he admired like The Public in New York (where he performed in Henry V). He did Shakespeare and Sondheim, and made enough money so as not have to do other work. He lived in the East Village, then between Carnegie Hill and Spanish Harlem.
It was when he got the role of the emcee in Sam Mendes’ 1999 Broadway revival of Cabaret that Hall said he realized that his career might extend beyond anything he had dreamt of, possibly on screen, although his mind was focused on the stage then.
When Six Feet Under began in 2001, actors were still ambitious to do film, Hall said. The kind of prestige television Six Feet Under helped originate wasn’t a mainstay then
Playing a gay role back then was also considered brave, and for some actors and agents foolhardy enough to kill a career.
“No representative of mine, or anyone who knew about it, discouraged me,” Hall said. “I suppose I was aware of the time we were in. I was also aware that David was a new kind of gay character on TV, film, or stage. He was a fantastic character and as rich and well-drawn as the larger world he existed within. I never lobbied to audition for any other part.
“Any role that you are in can pigeonhole you, but to be associated with a role as multi-dimensional as David was a relatively good thing. More than the risks I was aware of, I just felt charged to get it right. I knew the character was unique in the landscape of gay characters up to that point, and he was an integral part of the show. He wasn’t incidentally gay or comic relief or that kind of thing. He was fully fleshed out and at the eye of the storm.
“A bit of the appeal of playing the part was the subversion of playing a gay character in an interracial relationship (alongside Mathew St. Patrick). It was a political statement aimed at the environment I had grown up in.”
I asked if Hall had ever had same-sex experiences himself.
“I think there’s a spectrum. I am on it. I’m heterosexual. But if there was a percentage, I would say I was not all the way heterosexual. I think playing the emcee required me to fling a bunch of doors wide open because that character I imagined as pansexual.” He laughed. “Yeah, like I made out with Michael Stuhlbarg every night doing that show. I think I have always leaned into any fluidity in terms of my sexuality.”
Has he ever had sex with another man?
“I’ve never had an intimate relationship with a man. I think, maybe because of an absent father, there has definitely been a craving for an emotional intimacy with a man. I don’t mean to suggest that an emotional relationship between a father and son is any way homoerotic. I mean an emotional intimacy or connection that at least in the milieu I grew up in was considered fey. I had an appetite to have emotional connections with men beyond beer, sports, and fist pumping that were considered ‘gay.’”
Was he ever attracted to other men?
“No. I mean, I was attracted to John Cameron Mitchell when I saw Hedwig. But no, as a rule I am heterosexual.”
As such, he played the trans title character in Hedwig and The Angry Inch and David in Six Feet Under: what did Hall think about the continued controversy around straight actors taking LGBT roles?
“That was something I was aware of when David Fisher was happening,” said Hall. “For me, I was playing this aspirationally iconic gay role as a straight man. I felt all the more charged to do it justice. I certainly understand anyone who takes issue with the phenomenon.
“Cate Blanchett recently said that any actor should be able to play anyone. But the fact is there are scores of heterosexual actors winning accolades and awards for playing gay and trans characters. Its undeniable that the public finds it more palatable to see a straight actor do their own sexual or gender stunt work—‘Oh look at him, pretending to want that man, it’s so convincing’—as opposed to looking at a gay or trans person being themselves. It’s acting no matter what. It’s a character.
“When I was in Six Feet Under I was aware that I was a heterosexual man playing a gay role that was unique in the TV landscape. I was also aware that given the way things are and maybe still are to a degree that not many gay actors were pursuing the role. It would expose them in a way. That irony wasn’t lost on me.”
Hall is careful not to be prescriptive on the issue.
“How fundamental is one’s sexual orientation or gender identity if both are in fact fluid, if there is some sort of spectrum and we are just moving the dial? Or is it more fundamental than that? Is my playing a gay character as absurd as my playing an African-American?”
Are there enough roles for gay and trans actors?
“I think there are more and more. I hope we get to the place where it’s just not at the forefront of our consideration or focus, and that when we think of actors we think of human being working in service of whatever human experience they are called upon to simulate, so there are not just gay and trans actors playing gay and trans people but being able to play everyone. It’s about characters and it’s also about stories.
“Sometimes I feel like executives say, ‘Let’s put someone in this show who is incidentally gay so we can check a box,’ rather than telling the full stories of gay and trans people.”
The debate is “dicey territory,” said the ever-cautious Hall; he hopes “we get beyond it, but we are obviously not there.”
For Hall, fame was something he “needed to make room for.” It began with Six Feet Under, but Dexter (2006-2013) “took it to a different place, where you can’t turn the faucet off.”
When he was playing David, people looked at him with a degree of affection: “‘Oh gosh, you’re such a long-suffering doormat,’ they’d say. ‘I can’t wait to give you a hug. Sorry that guy put a gun in your mouth and poured gasoline over your head.’ Of course, I got to turn the tables on that guy when played I played Dexter. I got to pour the gasoline on the guy’s head. Then people would say (and he puts on a butch growl), ‘Yeah, get him, Dex.’”
For all his killing, people liked Dexter “because we live in a world where we increasingly lack agency and control,” thinks Hall. “People loved being presented with this character in this little corner of the world, eliminating things and people metaphorically and literally. It was cathartic, like a pressure valve being released.
“I will say that it was on the days driving home from work after having shot a scene where I killed someone that I felt the greatest sense of relaxation, release, and just ease. The days where I was playing Dexter hiding from something were harder. I guess playing him was cathartic for me in a way. You do whatever the internal alchemy is, or take the imaginative leap you have to, so you can connect with what you’re doing.
“I certainly experience road rage and anger at people who deserve a good pummeling, but ultimately I do not want to kill people.” He smiled. “But it’s fun to pretend to. People would say, ‘You’re giving me the Dexter look, and I’d say, ‘No, it’s just my face.’”
Hall’s best-known characters are often very inside themselves, dark, and intense. Are any of them like him, or are they all utterly fictional phantasms? “Well I don’t know how many of them are like me, but I’m definitely like them because that’s all there is—otherwise it’s just words on the page. Sometimes it comes down to combination of contours of the face and the sound of a voice.”
Hall found ways within Dexter and David to connect with audiences differently. Thom Pain appears severe and cold at first, but is also quite fearless, even though he is preoccupied with fear and his history of fear. He is also more outrageous and funny than other characters Hall is famous for, even though Hall thinks David and Dexter “are funny, but under a dark umbrella. The sun just gets snuffed out.”
Both Six Feet Under and Dexter were such well-known shows it makes Hall “think long and hard” about taking a similar long-running series on. “When Six Feet Under ended, I thought I should quit, because how do you top that? Then Dexter came along. I was very fortunate. What gives me pause now is I know what the commitment to such a show entails, and there is some sort of high bar that has been set.
“The shows were exhausting at times. Inevitably, if you do something for that long, no matter how developed or evolved it feels, it feels like you’re tilling soil that is no longer as fertile as it once was.”
Now he likes “mixing it up” with cameo roles, or plays, or indie films, or definite-end TV series like the recent British-made drama Safe. “They’re more like affairs or flings than marriages,” Hall said of these shorter-term projects. “There was 13 straight years of constant work, and I am enjoying catching my breath periodically,” he said. “Whatever work I do is better served if I do that. If I’m simulating what it’s like to be a person it’s good to live an actual life aside from all the simulation.”
He has been married for two years to Macgregor, a former editor at the Los Angeles Review of Books now “working on her own stuff,” said Hall. “It’s the charm,” he said, laughing softly at the “third” marriage. The fact he has been in three committed relationship shows he is a “coupler,” he said. “I think I romanticized for a time being a solo lone person, maybe in the way my mother modeled it. But I don’t think that’s who I actually am.”
He said he was disinclined to talk about the relationship as it was “one corner of my life that doesn’t belong to anyone but us. But it’s been great. She’s just an incredible friend and is a remarkable combination of intelligence and kindness, and she’s able to tell me the truth that in a way that I can actually stomach.” He laughed. A “great reader,” he values her opinion on scripts and anything he is considering career-wise.
Hall and Macgregor have discussed having children. “It’s no news to anyone but it’s a crazy world, and bringing somebody into that world for a front-row seat is something that gives me pause. But it’s also something we talk and think about.”
Hall is not a political junkie, he said, but is as engaged as he ever has been, “which is true for a lot of people right now maybe. I’m not sure how much good comes out staying abreast of all the bad news. The most important thing that happened for me politically is really a personal and ethical decision. I became a vegan. That grew out of a desire to do something aside from keeping myself informed about how dire everything is.
“The general question that occurred to me was what I could do about the welfare of actors, the environment, and my own physical body and a desire to combat corporate corruption. All those things led me to veganism. That’s felt good.”
Taking a more overt political stand is “a dicey thing,” Hall said. “It’s such an obviously contentious environment that sometimes taking a stance is fuel for someone else’s fire. I just hope that moving forward that we can find ourselves with leadership that encourages to have more in common with each other than at odds.”
Hall smiles widely when I ask about working with Bowie on the musical Lazarus in late 2015 into early 2016, when Bowie died. Later Hall traveled with the show to London.
“He was all the obvious things that you would imagine when you think of encountering someone who’s lived in the physical body and realities of what David Bowie is and represents,” Hall said with a delighted smile. “The molecules in the room change when he walks in. Countering that was such genuine kindness, humility and presence. He was very real.”
You touched him, I smile. He was actually made of flesh?
“I touched him,” Hall replied, laughing. “And he was so kind and appreciative of the work we were all doing. If he was a rock god, he could lord that over people, but he put people at their ease effortlessly. The first time I met him, at our music director’s little apartment in the East Village, I sang for him.
“He appeared at the door. He smelled amazing. He was dressed head to toe in Alexander McQueen. There were skull designs on his shoes, and he carried a beautiful silver-tipped umbrella. He didn’t disappoint.” Hall laughed.
“His eyes were the same height as mine, so he was always right there. It was so exciting. He said, ‘It’s so great to meet you.’ What do you say to David Bowie when he says that? ‘Oh y’know, you’re welcome!’ We talked about song keys. He set himself for a lower key and did a bass baritone crooning version of ‘Changes.’ I am pinching myself in my mind.”
He did say to me, ‘So, what is it with you and death?’ He knew (the actor) Rebecca Hall, they were in the same book club and we had just filmed Christine, about the on-air suicide of TV reporter Christine Chubbock in 1974.
At one point, Hall was singing through one of the musical’s songs, and Bowie asked if it would be useful to hear his demo of the same. “No put it back in your bag, David! Of course, go ahead, throw it on.”
Hall wasn’t aware that Bowie had liver cancer. He died on January 10, 2016.
Looking back Hall recalls the couple of times he didn’t show up for work, saying he was unwell. “But I never had any awareness that it was as dire as it was. If he was feeble it was completely overwhelmed by his life force and his energy, his spiritual energy generally, and his enthusiasm. We were making this piece which wiped out any infirmity.”
The first time the cast was together after Bowie’s death was to record the show album. It felt good to get together and do something for him, said Hall. “When we did the performance the following night that was harder. We were hearing everything through a new filter. But I never felt his presence more potently than after he passed at that Tuesday performance and beyond. It was like a charge right around my diaphragm and solar plexus. A low grade buzz.”
And so, to continue to answer David Bowie’s question, what is it about Michael C. Hall and death? The parts that made him famous—from undertaker to serial killer—also have mortality at their complex hearts. “They certainly haven’t discouraged the consideration,” Hall said wryly, “and I had a cancer episode myself.”
In 2010, Hall was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma. He’d had a cold which he couldn’t shake off. “Along with the diagnosis came the assurance that my prognosis was really good if I just decided on a course of treatment and just did it. I was never in a 50/50 life or death proposition. It was scary, but I wasn’t really frightened. I was more just interested in finding out the answers to questions surrounding what I needed to do, and eager to do them in terms of treatment.”
Hall had chemotherapy, but not radiotherapy, in part because it wasn’t required but also because the affected area of his body was around his throat and he didn’t want any treatment to jeopardize his vocal cords. “When they did the scan it almost looked like I was wearing an amulet,” he recalled, “like a chunky chain and then a bigger thing right behind the sternum.”
The most invasive surgery he had was a biopsy of two lymph nodes which were “sticking out of my neck. I’m glad it went that way. If it had developed in a different direction, I wouldn’t have noticed it.” The timing was lucky in one way: he could finish up the filming of the fourth season of Dexter, organize what he needed to organize, have treatment, then return to filming season five wearing a wig.
“I just kept going,” Hall said. He was very practical. He laughed recalling something a friend had said: “It’s just like having wet pants. Your jeans will be soaked through for six months, but after that you’ll be able to take them off.” Hall held on to that idea, and counted his blessings for having good care and health insurance, and that the cancer had been diagnosed quickly and found early. Hall felt more “grateful than cursed in any way.” He is now “well out of the woods.”
Hall said the experience had changed his attitude to life in different ways.
“I got sober. Became vegan. All those things are not unrelated to the fact of that mortal illness.” His drinking was “functional, but not something I could deny. It was an ebb and flow, but the general trajectory was more drinking, pot smoking and recreational this and that. There was an undeniable, long-sensed of diminishing returns and the sense that life was shortening; and in terms of those preoccupations and those behaviors it was progressing in a certain direction that I felt wasn’t sustainable. I don’t do any more of anything now.”
Hall rightly thinks he looks better than he did five years ago, with his vegan diet and “no booze and marijuana, or anything else.” Of aging, he laughed. “I have a sense of that things are going to start falling apart. But yeah, I feel pretty good. I’m thankful.” He’s done yoga in the past, circuit and weight training. Doing the show is his formal workout of right now. How does 50 seem to him? Another laugh. “Soon. I found myself thinking, ‘I’m not 35 anymore. No, wait, I’m 37. No, wait, I’m 47.”
He doesn’t have dream roles. He said he could never have imagined David Fisher or Dexter, and even though when we spoke he had only performed Thom Pain twice, it already felt “such a rich and fundamental experience” that he cannot imagine not having done it. “I hope to find myself in that version of a state of grace again.”
I asked if David Fisher and Dexter Morgan had stayed with Hall.
“I feel like I’m able to walk away from them, and I think there is some part of us that doesn’t distinguish between reality and ritual. I think they remain part of my lived experience.”
Today, Hall will walk Salamander in nearby Central Park. After that, he will prepare for that evening’s performance of Thom Pain. While Hedwig had elements of monologue, it was “more of a mask with a band protecting you,” said Hall. With Thom Pain, it is all monologue and all on him to deliver. “It’s exhilarating. There is nowhere to turn but back to the house. You can’t get off the ride, even if the ride feels wobbly or gnarly you’re still on it. You’re staying on that wave all the time.”
It’s so intimate and intense the audience matters every night: what they laugh at or vocally respond to. On the first night a woman replied to one of Pain’s questions “very eagerly as if it was her assignment. That was great. I loved it. I just hope the quality of the silence remains.”
It is the quality of their silences—charged, pained, tentative, shocked; less what they say and what we imagine rumbling inside their unquiet minds—that distinguishes Hall’s most memorable characters. As well as all that death.
Rest assured that the smiling Hall wasn’t worrying about mortality when we said farewell. “I’m going to buy some dog food,” he announced.
Thom Pain (based on nothing) is at Signature Theatre, New York City, through Dec. 2.