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Hall of love and

Hall of love and


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

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 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]

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. It's ridiculous. 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 Keith is? 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 story line. 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 cliche--David must feel like "the girl." 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 a daddy? 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."

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Anne Stockwell