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! …