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
“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
Are you suffering from the character’s
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.”
Do people often say, “You must be gay to be able
to play a gay part”?
Not quite. But sometimes people’s eyes widen when
they find out in one way or another that I’m
not gay. All of a sudden, their praise for my
performance gets ratcheted up. [Stockwell laughs] As
if Peter Krause isn’t acting because
he’s playing a character who’s straight.
One of the things I like—something that’s
so keenly observed—is that David is such a
self-checker, like he’s thinking, God,
did I do anything else wrong today besides being
gay? That’s such a giveaway that
somebody’s just hating that he’s gay.
Initially some people told me that they didn’t
like David. He made them uncomfortable; he was such a
control freak. It was really fun when David comes out,
has his epiphany in church, comes out to his mother at
the end of the first season. But those habits, that
self-checking impulse that’s been so
overdeveloped in him, don’t just go away.
There’s nothing on television that rivets gay men
like what’s been happening to David and
Keith. Each is dealing with how being in love
intersects with being a man: “Will I be a man if
I help you? If I let you help me?”
David sees Keith and his relationship with Keith as a
primary thing in how he defines himself as a man and
also, oftentimes, the thing that seems to keep him
from being a man.
The two characters combine—and then
disassociate—sex and violence. Was it the
second-season finale where—
Where there was a fight, and then they cut, and you
realize the fight ended with them having sex?
Yeah. How did you guys shoot that?
We just got to the set and we knew that we wanted
something to happen against the wall—there was
a big push. And so the wall was reinforced, so we knew
that that was a checkpoint, something we had to get
to. And then we just—I think that scene started with
David coming over and sitting on the couch and rubbing
Keith’s feet. There was something about that
that was so intimate and just another nugget in the
treasure chest of resentment—like “What am I
doing?” [Stockwell laughs]
“Resentment nugget.” I like that. So what next?
I don’t know, we just sort of figured it out.
It’s not that studied. We just have a
shorthand, especially at this point, ’cause we
work together so much.
How do you approach your love scenes with Mathew?
I consider what it is that the character wants
[chuckles]. And I can appreciate that
Mathew’s a beautiful man. It’s really
not that big of a deal.
Do you think David’s going to get to a point where
he can vamp? Where he can be the seductive guy
Yeah. Yeah. I think so. I do think things will
happen this season that will be catalysts for
that—that will move him in that direction. In
subtle ways, you know—baby steps. But maybe not
always baby steps. I think less subtle, less gradual,
more significant things will happen this season.
[Pauses] I can’t reveal anything about this
At least give me a hint!
When we see David at the end of the third season and he
has that conversation with Keith in church,
it’s huge. And I feel like David is now at a
place where he has a lot more sense of humor about himself,
about his situation, about his relationship. He’s
much better at not censoring himself: at locating
something he feels and actually saying it. When we see
him at the beginning of the fourth season, he’s
about in as a good of a place as he’s ever been. And
then things happen.
I want to talk about Cabaret. It’s as far
from David as you could possibly get. Was it the
most out there you’ve ever been
onstage?Yeah, it’s certainly…
Here’s a guy who’s a pansexual party boy
and throws a party every night that ends badly
[chuckles]. I feel like I really grew so much as an actor.
You were hired by Sam Mendes, right?
I got a call at noon to come in for a 6 o’clock
work session, so I knew that it was serious. I went in
at 6 and I had the job at 7, and I sat and watched the
production at 8 for the first time. Talk about being
thrust into the mix you’ve imagined. Like, Oh, my
God, what the hell am I gonna do now? And I
knew that in three weeks I’d be throwing that
party myself. It was like being shot out of a cannon
that first night. Stepping on the stage that first show and
behaving as if “Yeah, this is my
club”—I drank bottles and bottles of
Pepto-Bismol from the refrigerator in my dressing room.
But it passed. I really had a blast.
Then a couple years later you’re playing David and
he’s in the L.A. Gay Men’s
Chorus—talk about choir geeks! I think
there are two kinds of gay men: guys who’re in a
gay chorus or who attend every performance, and
guys who think it’s just so…geeky, I guess.
I was able to play on that. It was really nice for
David. He’s literally and figuratively making
an attempt to sing out. And in terms of the story
line—I’m not talking about the real
chorus—David both enjoyed being a part of the group
and also getting sex out of it!
It was the same season that David and Keith wind up in a
three-way with Sarge, the supermacho paintball
guy. How did David feel about that?
Actually, I think it was fantastic. I think Sarge is so
attractive to David because he’s like a
dog—completely without self-consciousness. And
there’s something about that energy that is
just so exciting and attractive to David—and Keith. I
imagined that, ultimately, David felt like he
couldn’t compete with this paintball superstar,
so I think he had a love-hate relationship with the
three-way, which was a large problem.
Of the two—not to use the biggest
cliché—David must feel like
It’s not entirely accurate, of course, but I do
think if you had to assign that role to Keith or
David, you’d give it to David. When we meet
them, Keith is this rock, supersupportive and understanding,
and David is in the midst of his trauma. And they shift.
David becomes a caretaker in his own way, especially
when Keith is dealing with his family, his father, and
all that. I love how imperfect [their relationship]
is. It’s what makes it so great to play and so rich.
So does David want to get married? He does, yeah? And be
Yeah, you know, I’m sure he has his days where
it’s inconceivable or unmanageable, but
generally, it’s a goal that he has, a dream
that he has. And the quickening moments, the sense that it
could really happen.
Do you get funny reactions from fans? What do people
think of this guy that you play? Do they relate to
you as him? Do they talk to you?
Every once in a while people will approach and it seems
they’re not really interested in making the
distinction between reality and Six Feet Under
[chuckles]. There was a guy—I think it
was during the first season, right after David had come out
to his mother, and I guess the previous episode was
the episode where David has sex in Vegas with a
prostitute—some old man walked by me in the gym
on his way to the shower and looked down and did not
introduce himself; said nothing but “Hey,
I’m glad you’re finally starting to
behave yourself.” [Stockwell laughs]
One woman put her hand on my arm after having
approached me, and she said, “Are you on Six
Feet Under?” She didn’t address
me as David, but at the end of our conversation she touched
me on the arm and looked into my eyes and said,
“You’re gonna be OK.”