Michael C Hall on playing Bowie on stage and why demise stalks him

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As the lead in David Bowies musical Lazarus, Michael C Hall felt the singers demise like an internal fist clench. The former Dexter star talks about inhabiting the role Bowie first played in The Man Who Fell to Earth and his own struggle with cancer

When David Bowie and Michael C Hall met for the first time, the stone superstar looked at the actor, held him in his gaze for a moment and then asked: What is it with you?

Hall didnt ask him to elaborate; he knew Bowie entailed death. You cant shake how strange a constant it has been in the 44 -year-olds life and work. Consider his great TV roles. First, there was HBOs wonderful Six Feet Under, in which Hall made his name as the tightly wound David Fisher, a mortician in the familys funeral parlour. Then, his stardom explosion with the Showtime series Dexter, in which he played a droll forensics expert who moonlights as a serial murderer of serial killers. And now, Hall is the star of a display bound up, inside and out, with demise, afterlife and the afterlife. In Lazarus the David Bowie musical that sold out long before it opened and well before the Starman himself succumbed Hall plays Thomas Newton, a human who cant die.

So when he woke up last Monday and learned, via 25 or 30 texts, that Bowie had passed away, Hall felt a familiar internal fist clench.

Handsome and anonymous in a West Village cafe, he balls his right hand and then spreads his thumbs broad as he tries to explain: Some sort of old survival mechanism kicks in. I think its about holding on, its about mirroring what I see to not be victimised by trauma. And then these words come out in a quiet rushing: To not be a pitiful, fatherless son.


Bowie in 1980. Photo: Marty Lederhandler/ AP

When Hall was 11, that fulcrum age of not really child but not quite adolescent, he lost his dad to cancer. It is young to experience death, but Halls life was coloured by it from the start: his older sister died from congenital heart disease before he was born.

It is easy, in other words, to get pretty heavy pretty fast with him.

Its all right, he giggles, its inevitable … and he makes a laissez-faire wave. Because, fortunately for him, Hall also has a great capacity for silliness. You can see levity in everything he does in the eyes of that affable murderer Dexter, or in the movement of the leaping but gravity-bound Newton on stage at the New York Theater Workshop.

Before Lazarus, Hall was splattered with glisten on Broadway in the title role of the gender-bending Hedwig and the Angry Inch. Which served, he jokes, as a very elaborated glam audition. He already had the job before he met Bowie, but when it came is high time to sing, I felt the butterflies start turning to at-bats. And Bowie said, Hall affects a voice of self-mocking kingliness Now sing my ballads for me.

In other words: He was sort of naming the absurdity of the moment, which I truly appreciated. I think he took pains to set people at ease. He was so generous, and palpably kind.

Hall began to sing Where Are We Now ?, from Bowies album The Next Day, facing the pianist, and it wasnt until he reached the last verse that he became aware of oohs coming from the figure in his peripheral vision. He turned and looked. Bowie, eyes closed, was singing the backing vocals.


Since hes passed, theres probably been a most potent sense of his presence Bowie at the premiere of Lazarus, 8 Dec 2015. Photograph: BR/ dana press/ PA

And I guessed: OK, this is it. I have nothing left to fear. And that, he smiles broadly, was an amazing day. I maintained it together, but when he left, I was alone in the apartment and my legs used to go, and I sort of fell to the floor. Ive never gratified someone for whom I had such reverence. And the thing about satisfying him was not just that I knew him , because I was so familiar with his music, but, because of the resonance of his music and the style it affects anyone who comes to love it, there was a sense that he knew me .

On opening night, Bowie sent him, a very, very amazing gift and note. Out of respect for his intense privacy Ill just say that it was an artefact from his past that he had passed on to me. And it will be a talisman to me for the rest of my life.

There is a magnificently long pause as Hall seems to internally weigh up whether or not to say more. His forehead creases deeper. Eventually, he signals that the gues has been rejected and we move on.

With yet more Bowie eeriness, the cast were scheduled to record the reveals soundtrack on that Monday of his death. The record session became a sort of wake.

I did feel that a part of my work was to empty myself out and let it move through me, Hall says. As is often the case when youre perform, but in this case, all the more so. Since he has passed, theres likely been a more potent sense of his presence.

Like countless others, for example, Hall has expended the past few days playing Blackstar on recur. This, the elegiac album Bowie released two days before his death, includes those lines: Look up here, Im in heaven.

On the table between us are the iPhone and earphones that Hall was listening with when he walked in. He indicates them: This is what he gave us so Ill take it. Its heavy, but its soothing. He employs similar terms to describe getting through the demonstrate last Tuesday: So much of what I love about him characterised what I loved about doing the show that night it was simultaneously heavy and as light as air.

Hall calls Bowie dichotomous uncovered and impenetrable, and heartfelt and detached. Even his presentation of himself as an alien is what attained him so universally relatable to humans. Because we all, in some way or the other, was of the view that route, and depending on your appetite for airy-fairyness or scientific background he brought the stardust in.

Lazarus by David Bowie.

If anyone in the cast of Lazarus knew how ill Bowie was, they maintained it to themselves. Hall can definitely appreciate the wish to keep such a thing private. At the age of 38, he was diagnosed with Hodgkins lymphoma, a form of cancer. He told no one on the define of Dexter, just got the job done and then quietly began chemo the day after filming wrap on the presents fourth season. The show ran for a critically acclaimed eight seasons, during which Hall racked up five Emmy nominations. He has a characteristically modest explanation for its success: Some people like the bad boy and some people like the boy next door, and he sort of manages to present both. So I guess he kind of had that broad spectrum of appeal in his twisted way.


Blood-spattered Hall in Dexter. Photograph: CBS

With awards season looming following the conclusion of 2009, he foresaw a bombardment of questions over his conspicuous baldness and so, in January 2010, he released a statement corroborating he was undergoing therapy. At the Golden Globes four days later, he wore a knit hat with his tuxedo and when he won best actor he bounded up to the pulpit to deliver a brief and grinning adoption speech that built no mention of illness.

The language surrounding cancer is not language Im especially comfortable with, he says.( He is now in remission .) This idea of bravely succumbing or successfully opposing or winning the fight against … I didnt wishes to do anything to encourage that speech. People say: You beat cancer. And its like: No, a cocktail of chemotherapy medications beat cancer.

He goes on, scoffing: When people go get chemo, theyre not injecting themselves with will I have lost various loved ones to cancer, and I surely dont feel that I am any stronger or braver than them.

He did, however, receive his diagnosis with extraordinary calm.

There was a sense of bemusement, he says, but a sense of, of course yknow? Of course thats a part of the story.

He is referring to the fact that, at 38, he was a year younger than his papa had been when he died. The age had always had a morbid significance and so: I felt justified in what had been a preoccupation with this threshold in my life since age 11 Well, here I am.

Another vast and thoughtful intermission before he offers this: In a style, the comparatively sunny scene I had in terms of my prognosis, revealed to me the extent of my survivors guilt. I was like: Well, papa had real cancer.

There is something familiar about that filial inferiority complex. Im thinking of the pilot episode of Six Feet Under, in which the closeted Fisher( arguably TVs first great lesbian character) has to prepare the body of his own father. Who then appears beside him, a revenant, with this petty paternal put-down: Oh , no, youre doing me?


In the closet Hall as David Fisher in Six Feet Under. Photo: Contract Number( Programme )/ CHANNEL 4 PICTURE PUBLICITY

Hall, who lives in Manhattan with a cat and a dog( hes been married twice to actor Amy Spanger and then to Dexter co-star Jennifer Carpenter and is now dating Morgan Macgregor, an editor) has experienced similar kinds of psychological communion with his dad.

I mean, even in the moment when I received the diagnosis, I felt a twinge of connection. I believe this really is clues that Ive looked for my whole life. Im never more encouraged than to hear person talk about how eerie it is that I move like my father.

In December, for example, Hall sang Lazarus on the Colbert Show, and when the number aimed he stepped back and gestured to the band. Afterwards, his mother told him that in that moment he had seemed exactly like his father.

And that was heartening to me. Its some sense of not being alone, he says. Of being inhabited. In a route that feels good.

That description could serve for acting itself. Did his heartbreak coincide with his decision to become an actor?

I think it became all the more of a lifeline for me at that point, he says. And the need to escape and the need to process things or confront things indirectly was probably solidified by that trauma.

Most of his career, though, has been about inhabiting trauma, so much so that I half expect his IMDb page to be spattered with blood.

Michael C Halls performs Lazarus.

I dont have nightmares about embalming people or killing people or my home planet … he says, referencing Six Feet Under, Dexter and Lazarus respectively, but when so much of your spiritual, psychic, emotional energy is dedicated toward the authentic simulation of some fiction, it affects you in some way. I entail, thats the tricky thing about playing a character for a long time you initially feel its therapeutic. Youre tilling what would have otherwise been dead clay and airing it out. But after a while, it feels like youre reinforcing bad habits. I entail, yeah, it was nice to check in with my doormat issues, but after a while I was ready to stop playing David Fisher, you know? Or, it was nice to really explore the degree to which I struggle with my own sense of authenticity, but after a while I was ready to stop playing Dexter.

Hall once said said that it was only by secrets that he had a sense of himself. It sounds like a rather grave pronouncement, but when I mention it, he triggers into playfulness.

But we always have one, you know? He points at me: You have one! I always try to have one. It could be anything: Im wearing women underwear whatever or, I killed my family.

And that knickers and murder, the silly and the deeply dire seems like a very Michael C Hall pairing. Death comes for us all, even starmen, so lets put on our red shoes and dance while we can.

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