Michael C. Hall Wants to Make Up for That ‘Dexter’ Finale
The acclaimed actor talks to Marlow Stern about his new band Princess Goes to the Butterfly Museum, working with David Bowie, and the return of “Dexter.”
“I’ve grown so deeply accustomed to being in the middle of nowhere,” offers Michael C. Hall. “I’m really enjoying it, actually.”
The actor is Zooming with me from his pandemic hideaway in upstate New York, where he’s been holed up since March. Between the wool beanie, dark winter coat, and forest background, his is a scene straight out of the (infamous) Dexter finale.
Hall has kept busy during isolation recording music with his new band Princess Goes to the Butterfly Museum, a group he formed with Morningwood drummer Peter Yanowitz and Blondie keyboardist Matt Katz-Bohen. The three met when Hall was starring on Broadway in Hedwig and the Angry Inch, where Yanowitz served as the band’s drummer and Katz-Bohen its tour music director. And the group’s unique name came from Katz-Bohen’s then 4-year-old daughter. “I asked my daughter what the name of her future band would be. Without hesitation she said, ‘Princess Goes to the Butterfly Museum.’ As it was perfect for our music, I asked her if we could have the name. Luckily she said ‘Sure,’” Katz-Bohen recalls.
Princess Goes to the Butterfly Museum has a new wave-y, synthpop sound, and will release their debut album Thanks For Coming—much of which Hall tells me was “conceived in collective isolation”—later this year. According to Yanowitz, Hall immediately caught his eye as “the Hedwig with the most heart” and “incredible range as a singer;” he was also mesmerized by Hall’s startling transformation into a “Southern belle character who was starring in her Broadway debut” while he was backstage.
Katz-Bohen and Yanowitz showed Hall some music they were making, and as Hall tells it, “I casually said, ‘If you ever want somebody to sing on that stuff, that might be fun.’ Some lyrics came, some melodies came, songs started to come from all of us, and we realized that we were onto something that was feeling like a band.”
The Daily Beast spoke to Hall about fronting his first major band at the age of 49, his unforgettable interactions with David Bowie during the making of Lazarus, and the revival of Showtime’s Dexter that’s coming in fall of 2021.
Where are you right now?
I’m at a house up in Ulster County, where I’ve been living for a while, since late March, very shortly after what turned out to be not just our—but what seemed to be the final gig in New York at Mercury Lounge, which was [March 12]. I think they closed their doors the next day.
What was that gig like? It must have been a strange vibe.
It was spooky, you know? There was a sense of mischief on the one hand, like, “Oh, we’re doing something that’s allowed but sort of discouraged, so that feels a little subversive,” but it also felt like we were on that last little breath before you fall away on a rollercoaster, you know? It was surprisingly well-attended, and that was nice in hindsight but a bit of a dice-roll. We jokingly said, “We’re playing the last show on Earth.” I know that wasn’t the case, but it did feel like the last little gasp of normalcy before we stepped into some unknown.
There are finale-of-Dexter jokes that could be made now, given how you’re hiding out in the woods.
I’m in Oregon! And I was just chopping down a tree! [Laughs] It’s a new place to us, so we’ve been very gradually moving into it. One thing that’s taken up a lot of time has been recording remotely. I would say a significant number of the vocals on the full-length record that we’re going to release were recorded in my shed off the garage. I recorded some of them into my iPhone as audio files and they got folded into the mix. People would be like, “Wow, that’s cool! How did you get that vocal sound?” We’ve been periodically meeting in the city—we have a studio there—but we’ve been sending audio files around and constructing things remotely as well, which has been interesting and certainly a godsend as far as not just twiddling my thumbs. It’s helped counter a feeling of stasis and pure waiting at a time of so much uncertainty as to when we’ll get on the other side of this, and what the other side will even look like.
I had the pleasure of seeing you in Hedwig, and it was a fantastic, feral performance. You actually gave the person sitting in front of me a lapdance. Did it awaken something in you musically that was maybe a bit dormant?
I think so. I’d been singing since I was first soprano in the boys’ choir, and have done a decent amount of stuff in musical theater. I’d always been a fan of rock music, but aside from a millisecond in college had never fronted a band or anything. More than anything else, Hedwig was the chance to front a band. And I loved it. It just cracked me open.
What was this college group that you were fronting for a millisecond?
I think we played like two parties. We just played covers. We covered some Nirvana, some Police, I think a Violent Femmes song. This was early-‘90s. We didn’t get booed off the stage! People didn’t seem to be offended, at least.
With “Eat an Eraser,” the Bowie influence is palpable. Did some of it rub off while collaborating with Bowie on Lazarus?
I mean, being able to be a part of bringing to life this theatrical piece that I know was important to him at this late stage in his career was a highlight of my career, and my life. Bowie was someone who I probably became aware of when I was in junior high, which was the “Let’s Dance” phase, and then went back to his earlier stuff. He’s definitely an influence for all of us [in the band]. If there’s someplace where all of our sensibilities intersect, it might be in a Bowie place.
It was a swan song, so to speak, since Bowie must have known he was not long for this Earth. Did he impart any wisdom to you?
[Long pause] As far as any wisdom he imparted, none of it was explicit. It was more about the example he set as one of the iconic artists of the last century. He seemed to be approaching things with such a genuine enthusiasm and collaborative spirit. The first time I met him he said, “Thank you so much for doing this!” and I said, “Thank you, David Bowie!” [Laughs] That’s the thing: He had this ability, and it was invisible and really uncanny, to diffuse the iconic stature that if he were a less kind person would lord over people, and would lord over the room. I was as inspired by the way he carried himself as I was about anything else—the easy kindness, and genuine childlike enthusiasm, and the chance-taking that characterized his whole story.
I have to say, I’ve been surprised by how good the songs I’ve heard are. It’s unfortunate how when actors are in a band now, there’s this tendency to shit on it—thanks to people like Russell Crowe and others. A stigma.
You have to swallow the pill that there is—at least in people’s minds, if not literally on paper—some sort of asterisk that goes along with a band with an actor in it, but you know, hopefully the music can transcend that.
There isn’t the same asterisk when a musician acts, which happens all the time. Lady Gaga just got nominated for an Oscar. It seems like that type of crossover is embraced, whereas when actors cross into music it’s seen as overstepping and there’s this attitude of “fuck them.”
I think good music is to some degree about authenticity, and someone who’s known for simulating things and pretending to be someone else, maybe people are disinclined to accept them being something more authentic, whereas someone who’s known for being authentic for their music can be celebrated for their ability to disappear into somebody else. I don’t know. It is what it is.
You’ve said that you’re “not all the way heterosexual.” I know you’ve explored sexuality in your work, but is that a journey you’ve been on as well in your personal life?
A lot of saying that has to do with a disenchantment with black-and-white either-or thinking generally, and the fact that I’m an actor and taking some kind of imaginative leap I want to feel is always available to me. I don’t want to lean against convention just for the sake of it, but I think creatively there’s tension there. So in my career, doing Hedwig, playing David Fisher [in Six Feet Under], playing the Emcee [in Cabaret], living in places where the “either” and the “or” intersect is a lot more interesting than the “either” or the “or.”
I wanted to go back to Bowie and Lazarus. There was something poetic about you playing that role given your public cancer battle—to star in Bowie’s final big live piece as he was dying of cancer. Do you feel that had something to do with your being cast in it?
I don’t think that component of that experience had anything to do with my being cast, but the first time I met David was in a little apartment in the East Village where the music director for Lazarus lived. At one point, he looked at me and said, “What is it with you and death?” and I said, “I don’t know.” I wonder if for him that was a more loaded question than I realized at the time.
They recently announced that True Blood was coming back, and I was thinking, “Why?!” So I would be remiss if I didn’t ask why you’ve decided to do the Dexter revival? It apparently took them a number of years to convince you to do it.
Yeah. It’s a conversation that’s been ongoing, and different possibilities have emerged over the years. I think in this case, the story that’s being told is worth telling in a way that other proposals didn’t, and I think enough time has passed where it’s become intriguing in a way that it wasn’t before. And let’s be real: people found the way that show left things pretty unsatisfying, and there’s always been a hope that a story would emerge that would be worth telling. I include myself in the group of people that wondered, “What the hell happened to that guy?” So I’m excited to step back into it. I’ve never had that experience of playing a character this many years on.
Do you feel those criticisms of the finale were warranted?
A criticism that speaks to someone’s experience is warranted. I certainly thought it was justifiable for Dexter to do what he did. I think some of the criticisms were about that, and some of the criticisms weren’t so much about the “what” as they were about the “how,” and those were valid too. We certainly do live in an era where the bar is very high as far as the simultaneous surprise, satisfaction, and closure that should go along with a series finale.
I think it’s a bar you helped set with Six Feet Under.
Talking about broad spectrums, I’ve dabbled in the extremes of “extremely satisfying” and “extremely dissatisfying” television finales.
It’s such a great finale. People have been revisiting Six Feet Under during lockdown, and that show seemed quite ahead of its time on a number of fronts.
I just recently did an interview with someone who’s putting a book together about HBO, and I came to realize that we shot that pilot over twenty years ago. At the time, we all appreciated that we were signing up for something that was unlike anything any of us had encountered, and it’s so gratifying to know that it still resonates with people. I must say, as I’ve watched the television landscape move forward and proliferate and sprawl, I can see so much of it is infused with ground that that show broke. And I also feel like if that show hit the scene right now, it would still feel like it was taking chances. And that’s so cool.
And the character of David Fisher was an important one. This was over 20 years ago, and gay marriage didn’t pass in a state until 2004, and across the country in 2015. It was rare to have a gay character that was normalized, and whose gayness wasn’t used as a cheap punchline.
They were incidental or comic relief, and David was a fundamental part of the fabric of that show, and his sexuality was a part of what made that character vital. I was aware of just how unique he was as far as how the television landscape existed then, and I felt charged with a sense of responsibility to really give him what he deserved.
A part of what Six Feet Under was able to achieve was it presented characters of a pretty broad spectrum, as far as where they were coming from and their sensibility, and there was someone for just about anyone to relate to and provide an “in” into that world; and once viewers were in, they found themselves branching out and relating more or less to everyone. In that sense, I think the show was subversive in as much as it welcomed people to recognize a broader sense of our collective humanity. Everything that does that, I’m all for it. And I don’t think that kind of material will ever lose its relevance.
To take it back to Princess Goes to the Butterfly Museum—where do you see it headed? Is the goal to one day play a big arena show and really bust out the Hedwig-esque theatrics?
That sounds pretty good! That sounds fun. I do think our sound can fill up a big space and big landscape, so doing it on a broader scale is appealing. Hopefully all that stuff will start to take care of itself, and move forward how it’s going to move forward once people are able to convene again. But as far as goals, we just want to keep making music, keep it rollin’, and try not to think too much about it.