It’s a funny thing sometimes, how the public’s perception of someone can be so at odds with how they see themselves. To much of the public, Michael C. Hall is a Golden Globe-winning television actor, and a brilliant one best known for two iconic roles in two groundbreaking series—as David Fisher in Six Feet Under and as the title character in Dexter. But Hall is also a classically trained actor, renowned for his interpretations of Shakespeare, hand-picked by Sondheim to star in the workshop version of one of his new plays, becoming the toast of Broadway with his lead performance in Sam Menges’ legendary revival of Cabaret.
It’s a dichotomy Hall is aware of, but he’s philosophical about it: “I think a lot of the specific things that confront you, if you have some sort of presence in the public’s consciousness through work that you’ve done, encourage you to check yourself in the same way that you’d encourage yourself to do it otherwise. We all struggle not to project onto other people an idea of who we are, and to act either in accordance with, or in a way that is resistant to, that imagined perception. I don’t know. I’m glad that people associate me with stuff that I’m proud to have done. While maybe they don’t have a sense of who I am as a person more broadly, or of what I’ve done as an actor beyond those two roles, I’m just glad they don’t associate me primarily with something that I see as way down on my own list of accomplishments. I think I’ve been lucky that some of the things that have been the most artistically viable for me have also been the most commercially viable things I’ve done. But I challenge myself generally not to concern myself too much with what other people are thinking of me; that’s always an inherent preoccupation, admittedly. But when it comes to people’s perceptions of me as an actor, if someone comes up to me and says they’re a fan of Dexter, I don’t feel compelled to recite a soliloquy or anything.”
Despite his extensive training and Broadway and other stage experience, Hall was basically a neophyte in the TV world when he landed the role of David Fisher in Six Feet Under, and the five seasons that followed turned out to be an extended masterclass for him. The two actors who played David’s parents particularly informed his own work. “I certainly was perpetually in awe of and inspired by Frances Conroy,” he remembers, “and her sort of egoless-ness. Her willingness to put herself in very messy places, and her ability to completely give over and commit to those places, without being in any way hampered by ego constraints. It just made her performance that much more beautiful. I think there was an ease with which Richard Jenkins acted. And by no means do I mean laziness or anything like that. But there’s just such an ease with which he is able to inhabit a character in a scene. That was an inspiration as well. Those are two touchstones. But I was inspired every day by all those people.”
In a play, or in a film for that matter, an actor knows the whole story ahead of time, can find his character’s arc and pace his performance accordingly. Hall had to learn to approach his television characters without all that knowledge. “It’s a different assignment in that way,” he muses. “You’re making an open-ended commitment to a character, and you don’t know exactly where the character’s headed, nor do you know exactly how long you’ll be doing it. The Dexter who I encountered and tried to crack open in the pilot is a far cry from the Dexter that exists in the final season. So I don’t know; it’s always a leap of faith when you sign on to something and commit to the way it’s being told, but I think the leap is all the more significant when you have a sense of the beginning, and a vague sense of the middle, but no idea of what the end might be. That is a different proposition.”
In the current New Golden Age of television, where the field of possibilities is so much wider, that challenge is even more difficult. That doesn’t intimidate Hall; it thrills him. “I think there was a time,” he says, “where when you did a television show, you had a sense of what is was going to be from the beginning, because they didn’t evolve as much, and they weren’t as adventurous in the storytelling as they are now. So that’s part of what makes it that much more of a leap of faith, but also that much more exciting for an actor. And that’s part of why so many great actors are gravitating towards what’s being done on television right now. It’s a little more like life in that way. Life is what happens when you’re making other plans, and maybe television is the same way.”
To make the challenge even more pronounced in the case of Dexter, Hall’s character is not only the protagonist, but really the brain center of the entire show.
“Six Feet Under was much more of a true ensemble piece,” he says. “Dexter is more subjectively told; you’re seeing things from his perspective and hearing his private thoughts. I think, in a way, for Dexter, who is as much an idea as he is a real person, for him to be surrounded by characters who aren’t as fully dimensional as he is, is part of the conceit of the show. Along with the core cast of people, acting with Jimmy Smits and John Lithgow and Julia Stiles and Charlotte Rampling and the list goes on… I certainly had some great guest players to work with. But it’s apples and oranges, I think.”
In the last decade or so, many a critically acclaimed television series has gone out with a finale that fizzled, leaving critics and fans unsatisfied. Dexter avoided that pitfall, and that makes Hall proud. “I feel proud about the story as a whole,” he says, “and I feel good about the way it ended. I think there’s this general trend with television finales, and it seems to have reached this sort of critical mass, that finales are more and more galvanizing or criticized or just sort of an invitation for people to take issue. And yeah that’s cool, but today’s newspapers wrap tomorrow’s fishes. I think we are left to wonder. But I don’t get the impression at the end of the show that he has in any way been cleansed or cured.”
As different as they are, there are still a few similarities between the fictional character Dexter and the real-life David Kammerer, who Hall plays in this month’s film Kill Your Darlings. Kammerer was a rather tragic figure in the early days of the Beat movement, part villain and part sacrificial lamb. “Both guys have a compulsion that they are saddled with,” Hall explains. “Dexter is unable to let go of his compulsion to kill people. David Kammerer is unable to let go of his compulsion to have his feelings for Lucien [Carr] reciprocated—and in a way, that is a more desperate situation.”
It’s a project that immediately appealed to Hall when he was approached to play the part. “I was aware of this story,” he says, “and I had gone through my period of fascination with the Beats. I was excited that it was being told, and especially told as well as it was in John [Krokidas] and Austin [Bunn]’s script. I was excited more specifically about the opportunity to humanize this guy who was in many ways a footnote in accounts of the formative years of the Beat Generation, and was if anything characterized as a bit of a two-dimensional villain, a stalker. I liked that the movie seemed to aspire to round him out a bit.”
Playing a real person always brings its own challenges, but there are some advantages to the job as well, says Hall: “It’s fun to have some real things to hold onto. It makes it, to some degree, a different exercise to play a real person. And certainly, I think whether it’s purely fictional or based on a real person, judgment must be withheld—or not exist on the first place. And in the case of David Candler, I didn’t think of him as a stalker. I thought of him as someone who was in love with the wrong person and couldn’t let it go. I think just tolerating being in a place of such unfulfilled passion—that’s a challenging place to live, and to tolerate.”
In this case, though, there was a limit to the amount of research he was able to do. “I did as much research as I could,” Hall says, “but there is obviously not as much available about him as about the others. Aside from the book that was under lock-and-key at Columbia, And the Hippos Were Boiled in Their Tanks that Burroughs and Kerouac co-wrote about the murder, there was never anything explicit. Though ‘Howl’ was dedicated to Lucian Carr, and there were sort of eerily evocative lines in the opening of that poem that could possibly have something to do with the murder.
“Actually, it’s remarkable how little is known about him considering his association with these guys, but enough was there for me to make informed decisions as I imagined what I needed to imagine to flesh him out as a person. So, it consisted of a degree of research and a degree of imaginative leaps that were at least informed.”
One of Hall’s challenges was to see through the stereotyped received wisdom of who Kammerer was and try to get into his skin. “I mean, part of the appeal,” he says, “was to humanize or even sympathize the guy. I think he’s been characterized, at least as much as he’s been discussed, as a sort of shadowy stalker, one-dimensional if anything—and I was turned on by the movie’s aspiration to do something other than that. And yes, it’s tough to live in a place that is that desperate. He certainly isn’t cool, and he’s surrounded by a lot of younger, more vivacious people, and he is desperately hanging onto the one thing that allowed him to once feel that way about himself.”
Because of the strangeness of his personality and the manner of his death, Kammerer’s literary contributions to the Beat Movement have been unfairly devalued, argues Hall: “I mean, I think he was making the scene with these guys (Carr, Burroughs, Ginsberg and Kerouac) and was on the periphery at this point. And as much as he wasn’t a student—he had to make a living, he had a job, he was older, he was unhealthily obsessed—but I think he also was contributing things. Lucian claims that David got his ideas from him, but I think that’s bullshit; if anything I think the opposite is true.”
What can’t be argued, though, is how much impact his death had on the Beats. “It was a creative catalyst,” says Hall, “and a life catalyst for them all. It scattered them all over the place. Kerouac went back to sea, Burroughs wound up in Mexico and probably got more into drugs and Ginsberg had his own trajectory affected. So, yeah, some people say Kammerer is the father of the beats. And even if he wasn’t in life, I think his murder inspired them all. I think he was a frustrated artist. I think he was someone who desperately wanted to create something, but couldn’t generate anything on his own, so he worked to create some sort of critical mass of inspiration amongst his peers.”
Daniel Radcliffe also stars in the film (speaking of actors whom the public strongly associates with a single role), and Hall was impressed by how nimbly Radcliffe erased any traces of Harry Potter-ness from his persona. “No, he’s a real actor,” he says. “He’s really talented, thoughtful and remarkably self-possessed—especially considering that he’s been famous since he was nine. Very intelligent and talented guy.”
Unlike big productions Hall has been a part of in the past, Darlings was essentially a tiny indie, despite the star power of its cast. That was invigorating to Hall. “It was nice to be reminded,” he says, “of how little you need when the most essential things are in place. We didn’t have a lot of time we didn’t have a lot of money, we didn’t have any trailers, we didn’t have any of that, those trappings… I think it actually facilitated a sense of camaraderie that we might not have otherwise had, which was good for this film in particular. It was a dream. It was a really quick dream, but it was a dream. Everybody brought something so unique and vital to the table.”
And it was meaningful to him to be a part of a story about writers who have been meaningful in his own life. “I think we’re still feeling the ripple effects,” he says, “of the cultural revolution that they started. And I think a fascination with their work probably does coincide with a period where you are coming into awareness of the ways in which conventions might constrain you. It speaks to that awareness, and the appetite to break through or transcend those boundaries. I definitely have some journal entries that are characterized by… well, ultimately just run-on sentences, really. But I was definitely trying to emulate what had inspired me.”
So where else does Hall go post-Dexter? He just finished shooting Cold in July, Jim Mickle’s follow-up to We Are What We Are. And he took part in the shooting of a yet-to-be-relased global-warming documentary called Years of Living Dangerously. But he’s most excited about returning to the stage.
“Rehearsals begin in late January,” he says, glowing, “and then we have previews, and I think the play officially opens around the beginning of March. The play is called The Realistic Joneses. It’s by an American playwright called Will Eno. I think this is the first play he’s written that has been produced on Broadway, so I know he’s happy about that. The cast is great: Toni Collette, Tracy Letts, Marisa Tomei. And Sam Gold—you can’t even call him and up-and-coming director, you just think that because he’s young. But he’s a really exciting director. So I’m excited about the people I’m collaborating with. As far as the play itself, Will’s language is unique and, to my mind, captures the fragmented way in which our current culture encourages us to think. And it’s also very funny. I’m really excited about it on all fronts. It’s gonna be nice to get back on stage.”
Michael C. Hall’s return to the boards has been a long time coming, but for him it’s really like coming back home.