Hall of love and death

Michael C. Hall, the straight actor who so perfectly embodies the gay funeral director on HBO’s Six Feet Under, talks frankly about internalized homophobia, sex on-camera, and what’s next for David Fisher

BY Anne Stockwell

May 24 2004 11:00 PM ET

Michael C. Hall
sits near the window, his deep-set eyes further shadowed
under the bill of a blue cap. It’s sunny outside, but
the ancient Hollywood eatery where we’re
meeting is as dusky and quiet as, well, a funeral
home. All that’s missing is some fellow diner
choking on a piece of roast beef, soon to become Six Feet
Under
’s next corpse of the week.
Not that the 33-year-old star of the HBO series,
which returns for a fourth season on June 13, needs
help getting into character. In his intense
performance, Hall embodies David Fisher, the gay Los Angeles
funeral director “with doormat issues” (as
Hall puts it) who has broken free of the closet only
to land in an obsessive love affair with red-hot black
cop Keith (Mathew St. Patrick).
In person, Hall conveys much of David’s
wariness. The 33-year-old North Carolina native is
polite, reserved, good-looking, well-bred. He focused
on New York theater before being cast on Six Feet
Under,
which is why most of us know him only as
the buttoned-down character he plays. And why we might
be surprised to learn that Hall played 500 Broadway
performances in lipstick, leather, and rouge as the Emcee in
Cabaret. Show director Sam Mendes (who would later be
known for directing the film American Beauty)
hired Hall in 1999 for the musical revival to replace
Alan Cumming, who created the role and set the
flamboyance bar exceedingly high. Hall learned the show and
in three weeks was leading it. “It was
fantastic!” he remembers. “I had the
time of my life.”
Then he would get the call to read for…a
closeted funeral director? No problem. Alan Ball
(fresh off American Beauty himself, for which
he won an Oscar for his screenplay) was casting a show that
would puncture TV niceties with a series about a
family of morticians whose lives work around the
business of death. The uptight gay son would begin the
show deeply closeted. “Everything I opened up for
Cabaret,” Hall says, “I slammed shut
for David.”
“We did four days of casting in New
York,” Ball remembers, “and I heard
about Michael C. Hall right before he walked in the
door. Then he started reading, and I just saw the character
come to life. And it was David.”
Hall has a leg up on the youngest Fisher son in
terms of finding happiness. Two years ago he married
fellow actor Amy Spanger; on his last hiatus the two
toured together in the musical Chicago, with
Spanger as Roxie Hart and Hall strutting his stuff as
showboating lawyer Billy Flynn.
But most fans don’t separate Michael from
David. When Hall is out and about, people step right
up to scold their favorite gay mortician—or,
more often, to give him a dose of encouragement.

Part of the reason we wanted to know more about you,
Michael, is that we know you have to be
less repressed than David. And I just wonder what
that’s like—playing a character
who’s so shut down.
You mean, knowing that no matter what happens,
I’ll probably be associated with this role?
That will unfold as it will. I certainly know there
are people in positions of power in the business who lack
imagination and, perhaps as a result of that, think of me as
David. But I wouldn’t really want to work with
those people, you know?
I’d rather play David than pretty much
any other television character I can think of.
It’s not like I took the part or pursued the
part even though he was gay. I pursued the part
because he was a gay man. He’s inherently
conflicted and inherently dramatic as a result.

How would you describe Michael, as opposed to David?
I’m definitely not as fastidious as David.

Shall we say “sloppy”?
Yeah, sloppy. Ultimately, I’m a mess. I
don’t mean I’m a mess, like,
emotionally—I mean, I think probably
everybody’s a mess. David’s a mess. But
I’m talking about…I’m messy. [Chuckles]

Do fans know the difference?
Generally people respond to the work we do as acting. I
mean, yeah, people see me and some of them think, Oh,
my God, David Fisher! But I’d rather they think
Oh, my God, David Fisher than Oh, my
God
…well, I don’t want to dis any other [shows].

You are a Southern gentleman.
Oh, yeah. Well, you know…Mom’s gonna read this.

Is there anything that you find difficult to do in the
character of David?
Over the course of the first season, spending that much
time in a place characterized by that much tension and
self-loathing…it wears on you. I think [now]
I’m better at moving in and out of David. The
challenge is always just to be the guardian of this
guy’s truth.

Are you suffering from the character’s
internalized homophobia?
Honestly, no. But that’s an irony that
nobody’s ever touched on before. In a strange
way, playing David during the first season required me
to get in touch with my homophobia. He had such
internalized loathing for who he was. I certainly have moved
forward in my life, in my own relationship to my
self-loathing, by having played David.

Your own self-loathing?
I don’t think closeted homosexual morticians have
the market cornered on self-loathing or sense of shame.

[Laughs] Definitely not.
It means reexamining, through the prism of David, the
world that I grew up in and the messages I got about
being gay. At NYU we were trained to ask this magical
“What if?” I look at my life and think of
the messages sent to me about being gay—and filter
those through the sense of “What if I were a
closeted homosexual when I heard those things? What
would that have meant to me?”

What did you learn?
I think David comes to discover that he’s been
his own worst enemy, and it’s really his own
internalized disapproval and disgust, his own
internalized homophobia, that must be reckoned with.
It’s not about changing the rest of the world,
it’s about changing himself.

You mentioned the world you grew up in. I know
you’re an only child, grew up in North
Carolina, went to college in Indiana, and studied
acting at New York University. What did you like when
you were little? What did you want to do?
There was always an impulse to perform in one way or
another. Most of my experiences performing growing up
were doing musicals, singing, being in choirs—I
sang in choirs when I was in college as well. I was a
choir geek the first couple of years. Then I became a
theater geek. I took an acting class my sophomore year
and realized that in terms of [my] enthusiasm and
aptitude, it was definitely the thing.

Why do you think that was?
I had a lot of stuff going through my head. I think as
an only child—technically, I’m not,
because my mother had a daughter who died in infancy
before I was born. And my father passed away when I
was 11. So there was a very one-on-one, immediate family
relationship, my mom and I.

That’s a powerful bond.
At that age, 11, my father’s death was a real
marker. Certainly, for a young boy, there’s no
good age, but I think I was on the cusp of a time in
my life where I was starting to reach puberty, to
relate to my father—or as a result, I was becoming
more like him. To have him… Something gets
frozen. As you revisit it for the rest of your life,
it’s sort of this slow but hopefully sure
crawling-out of that frozen moment.

Does it seem especially poignant talking to Richard
Jenkins [as David’s father] when you do
scenes with him?
Certainly when I did the pilot episode. There’s
that scene where David is working on his
father’s body and having a conversation with
his father. And of course the father, whenever he shows
up—for the most part, I think he represents whatever
internalized version of the father [that a character
seeing him has], and the internalized version David
has is obviously critical and less than generous.

What does your mom make of David?
She certainly grew up in an world where homosexuality, I
think, was equated with weakness. I don’t think
she feels that way now. But I remember a time when I
was doing a community theater production in Raleigh
[N.C.]—and I went to lunch with my mom and a friend
who was a doctor, I believe. [Afterward] my mom
communicated to me that the doctor sort of warned her,
“The theater is a place where there are a lot
of homosexuals.” Thankfully, for whatever reason,
when I heard that, I thought, That’s
fucked-up.
[Laughs] But what kind of number
would that have done on me if I were gay?

Were there gay people in your life growing up?
I had a job in high school moving furniture for this
interior design firm that was owned and operated by a
couple of gay men.

What impression did they make on you?
I certainly was impressed with what seemed to be a
refined aesthetic sense on their part [Stockwell
laughs
] and an ability to enjoy being alive. There
seemed to be sort of a celebratory aspect to the way
that they were living their lives. And I do think I grew up
in an environment in which, in subtle ways, enthusiasm
was not necessarily encouraged. There is something
wonderful about celebrating who you are, especially if
it follows a period where you get everything but that.

When you first saw the script for Six Feet Under,
did you think, Oh, my God, if it’s bad,
it’s gonna be awful.
[Laughs] I didn’t. I did anticipate that
the show would find an audience. I mean, it had a
built-in group of people leaning forward because of
Alan Ball, the HBO pedigree, the success of Sex and
the City,
and all that. I had a lot of respect for
Alan because of the work he’d done on
American Beauty but also the work
he’d done on this script. I felt that within 15 pages
he’d managed to create so many characters with
such dimension and vividness.

What did your mother say when you called her up and said,
“I got this part—it could be great
for me—it’s a gay mortician in Hollywood”?
My mom probably would never even cop to it, but I think
she definitely exercised some restraint at certain
points in my career in terms of her withholding any
judgment. I remember one time we went home and saw
some old friends, and out of the blue one of the friends
said to me, “And I just want to compliment your
mother, because she has dealt with this so
well.” As if my success were a burden on her
because of the nature of [my role]. Well, basically, it was
almost as if she were saying, “She has dealt
with the fact that you have come out so well.”
[Chuckles]

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