Before Michael C. Hall played a funeral director on HBO's Six Feet Under, he had many odd jobs: He worked as bartender, a busboy, a knife salesman, and a suit salesman, among other things. But as he told Ophira Eisenberg, host of NPR's Ask Me Another, his worst pre-career posting was working as an operating room recovery room technician. "Being the first thing people saw when they woke up from anesthesia... intubation breath is the worst breath, that first exhale when you're like on the elevator and they're facing up at you and there's just nowhere to go."
Hall made his Broadway debut in 1999, starring as the Emcee in Cabaret once Alan Cummings, an original member of the 1998 revival cast, stepped down from the role. While Hall was new to the cast, he was not new to playing the Emcee.
"I didn't tell them when I came in," Hall said, "after having found out just six hours ago that I was going to audition, that I'd played that part in college. They were like, 'Wow, he really learned those songs quick,' and I was like, 'Yeah, they're catchy.'"
Following the end of his tenure in Cabaret, Hall moved into television with Six Feet Under. His character, David Fisher, is a funeral director who initially struggles to come to terms with being gay and ultimately marries a man named Keith, played by Matthew St. Patrick. Hall reflected on what playing the role meant for him as well as fans of the show.
"I think it was a valuable thing for people who were coming of age and maybe struggling with their relationship to their sexuality, coming out, whatever it may be," he said. "I hear from people that the relationship between David and Keith, and that character, helped validate something in them, and that's one of the most gratifying things I could ever hear."
Hall's next major television role also involved dealing with matters of the dead as the titular serial killer in Dexter. He told Eisenberg that, before shooting the pilot episode, he got into character by lightly stalking someone in real life. He explained that he "got on the subway one car away, and it was remarkably easy to follow. I mean, it was in New York." Hall turned to The Bell House audience, and told them, "You know, there's probably someone following all of you right now."
Once Dexter ended in 2013, Hall returned to Broadway, first starring as Hedwig in Hedwig and the Angry Inch, and as Thomas Jerome Newton, the lead role in David Bowie's Lazarus. Hall said he had the unique and nerve-wracking experience of performing Bowie's own songs in front of the musician at the cozy apartment of the show's music director, Henry Hay.
"[Bowie] was seated on a couch sort of in my peripheral vision," he recalled. "And I was focused on Henry, and he [Bowie] said something like 'Yes, now sing my songs for me.' He just kind of named the absolute absurdity of the moment and really kind of took the pressure off."
In 2018, Hall divided his time across stage and screen. May saw the release of Safe, a Netflix mini-series in which Hall stars as a widower searching for his daughter. In October, Hall began his run in Thom Pain (based on nothing), a one-man, off-Broadway production.
Taking inspiration from Hall's performance of Radiohead songs with his friend and prior Ask Me Another guest Lena Hall — and his previous jobs selling suits and knives, Eisenberg challenged him to a special round of This, That or The Other: Radiohead song title, suit fabric, or knife part.
JONATHAN COULTON: This is ASK ME ANOTHER, NPR's hour of puzzles, word games and trivia. I'm Jonathan Coulton. Now here's your host, Ophira Eisenberg.
OPHIRA EISENBERG, HOST:
Thank you, Jonathan. Our first guest played David Fisher on HBO's "Six Feet Under" and starred in "Dexter" on Showtime for eight seasons. He's now performing the one-man show "Thom Pain (Based On Nothing)" at the Signature Theatre in New York. Please welcome Michael C. Hall.
MICHAEL C HALL: Hello.
EISENBERG: Welcome, Michael.
HALL: Thank you.
EISENBERG: Thanks for coming on ASK ME ANOTHER - really happy to have you on...
EISENBERG: ...The show.
HALL: My pleasure.
EISENBERG: So I thought it was very interesting that as you were trying to find your way in your acting career, you had a lot of odd jobs. You sold knives.
HALL: I did.
EISENBERG: You sold suits.
HALL: I did - not very well, but I did.
EISENBERG: You sold toys.
HALL: I did.
EISENBERG: You were a furniture mover and OR recovery room technician.
HALL: I - yeah, basically I kept the towel warmer full and just did whatever the nurses told me to do. And I took people back to their rooms, which I think technically I wasn't supposed to do, but I did.
EISENBERG: (Laughter) OK, they were like, whatever, that's fine.
EISENBERG: Bartender, busboy - what's the gig that sticks with you, maybe haunts you?
HALL: Probably recovery room technician.
HALL: Yeah, just being the first thing people saw when they woke up from anesthesia.
EISENBERG: That sounds terrible.
HALL: And intubation breath is the worst breath.
HALL: That first exhale when you're, like, on the elevator and they're facing up at you and there's just nowhere to go, yeah.
EISENBERG: Yeah. Suit salesman - was that a good job, fun?
HALL: I was terrible at that job.
EISENBERG: OK (laughter).
HALL: It was one of the few places I left my application. I got the job, and the next thing I know, I was, like, marking somebody's suits for alterations. I had no idea what I was doing.
EISENBERG: In 1999, you meet director Sam Mendes, who people know from "American Beauty" and "Road To Perdition." He decides to direct "Cabaret" on Broadway...
EISENBERG: ...Which was huge.
EISENBERG: And Alan Cumming's - is cast as the emcee.
EISENBERG: He leaves.
EISENBERG: You are brought in.
EISENBERG: And did you tell them at the time that you had formerly played the role in college?
HALL: I did not.
EISENBERG: So - but just so people know...
EISENBERG: You did play the role - that role.
HALL: I did. I did. I was - I did a workshop of a musical that Sam Mendes directed, and it coincided with him needing to find someone to replace as the emcee. The timing was good. He saw something that made him think that maybe I'd be right for it. I was called at noon. I went in at 6 to do what they called a work session. And I found out, like, at 7:30 I got the job. And then I went to see the show that night. I hadn't seen it before. But I didn't tell them when I came in at 6 after having found out just six hours ago that I was going to audition that I'd played the part in college. They were, like, wow, he really learned those songs...
HALL: ...Quick. And I just was, like, yeah, they're catchy...
HALL: ...You know?
EISENBERG: So you play a serial killer on "Dexter." You play this character who's a part of a funeral director family on "Six Feet Under"...
EISENBERG: ...Who is gay. And you have said that friends and family sympathized more with the serial killer than they did...
EISENBERG: ...With the...
HALL: I mean, I grew up in North Carolina, and both my parents were from a very small town and somewhat conservative. And maybe just the horizons on certain levels aren't so broad maybe. But yeah, I didn't really appreciate just how much David Fisher freaked my family out until I came home after they'd seen "Dexter," and they're like, you're so great as Dexter. You know, just, I love the way you killed those people. But...
HALL: I hate the way you kissed that man, you know?
HALL: What are you going to do?
EISENBERG: I mean, let's be honest. You did play a very likable serial killer.
EISENBERG: But I have to imagine your role as David Fisher - I mean, I was just - I savored every single second of "Six Feet Under." And I loved your character. And I imagined that many people watching who were thinking about their identity were very moved to have this on television for them.
HALL: Yeah. I think it was a valuable thing for people who were coming of age and maybe struggling with their relationship to their sexuality, coming out, whatever it may be. I hear from people that that relationship between David and Keith and that character helped validate something in them and give them - and that's, like, one of the most gratifying things I could ever hear.
EISENBERG: Yeah, absolutely.
EISENBERG: While you're preparing for the role of the serial killer in Dexter, you would, like, as I've read, like to kind of get into characters before they are debuted, whether it's on the screen or onstage. And you were lightly stalking people in New York.
HALL: Yeah, I was.
HALL: I killed seven people. No, I didn't.
HALL: I didn't kill anybody. I mean, yeah, I think ultimately - certainly in the case of Dexter and with any character, an imaginative leap is ultimately required. But I did, you know, have some time on my hands between getting the role and the pilot happening. And I was living downtown, and I didn't even plan it. I was just out eating dinner by myself one night and saw some guy sitting at the bar. And he seemed to be alone. And I just endowed him with a bunch of reprehensible characteristics and followed him...
HALL: ...Around and got on the subway one car away. And it was remarkably easy to follow him.
HALL: I mean, I was in New York, you know?
HALL: It's - there's probably someone following all of you right now.
EISENBERG: Yeah, yeah.
EISENBERG: You were in "Lazarus," a musical composed by David Bowie. And the musical is the unofficial sequel to the book and film "The Man Who Fell To Earth." You had to sing David Bowie songs in front of David Bowie during rehearsals for "Lazarus." What was that experience like?
HALL: So the first time I'd met him, I already officially had the job, but I felt like I had to cross this final threshold of course. And I sang through all the songs with the music director in his East Village apartment of probably about the size of this stage with a baby grand piano in the corner. And then David - I mean, he came over, but it felt like he materialized, you know? He was just there...
HALL: ...Head to toe in Alexander McQueen. He had this silver skull on his umbrella. He smelled amazing. He was exactly my height, so his eyes were just right there, you know? And it was mesmerizing. And I had to turn off a part of my brain so that I could - you know, and I was doing OK. And we were shooting the breeze, and...
HALL: And everything was fine, you know? I was, like, little butterflies, but I was OK. And then it was time to sing the songs. And Henry Hey, the music director, started the opening chords of "Where Are We Now?" - a song from the show. And the butterflies turned to bats, you know? I was like, this - how - I (stuttering), you know? And David - he was seated on a couch sort of in my peripheral vision. I was focused on Henry. And he said something like, yes, now sing my songs for me.
HALL: You know, just - he just kind of named the absolute absurdity of the moment and really...
EISENBERG: Oh, that's...
HALL: ...Kind of took the pressure off. And by the end of the song - and this is definitely one of the peak experiences of my entire life. I was singing the final verse or chorus, rather, and I heard these ohs. And I looked, and he had his eyes closed, and he was singing what he had orchestrated as the backing vocals of the song. And I was like, well, I have nothing to be afraid of now.
HALL: I mean, no matter who I perform this for or whatever, you know, it's - it was an incredible moment.
EISENBERG: Right. Basically David Bowie for a brief second was your backup singer.
EISENBERG: (Laughter) That's pretty cool.
EISENBERG: So your latest project is a one-man show called...
EISENBERG: ..."Thom Pain (Based On Nothing)" written by Will Eno, who you worked with before.
HALL: Yeah. About 5 years ago, I did a play of his called "The Realistic Joneses" here in New York and have maintained a relationship and friendship with him since.
EISENBERG: Yeah, and this is a solo show.
EISENBERG: I mean, you're used to working with, I believe, like, mostly huge ensemble casts.
EISENBERG: I mean, how does that feel? Is it terrifying, or are you like, finally?
HALL: Yeah, it's all those things. It's exhilarating. It's something that I've always been intrigued by. It's terrifying as well, which is always good - to be a little bit scared...
HALL: ...Or maybe, like, 49 percent scared.
EISENBERG: (Laughter) Yeah.
HALL: But it's like taking a language ride. Will's sentences - I don't know. This guy speaks in a way that to him is linear but, when you read it on the page, feels like it's all over the place. But there's some sort of internal logic for him. And getting inside that is really fun. I mean, he says great things. Like, he says things like, I'm the type of guy you may not hear from for some time but then suddenly, one day, bang - you never hear from me again.
HALL: It's good, right?
EISENBERG: It's really good.
HALL: Like, one of Will's favorite jokes is, people laugh when they said I was going to be a comedian. Well, they're not laughing now.
EISENBERG: Brilliant, brilliant. All right, Michael, you ready for an ASK ME ANOTHER challenge?
HALL: Yeah, let's do it.
EISENBERG: All right.
EISENBERG: Michael C. Hall, we Googled you before the show.
EISENBERG: It's the least least we could do.
EISENBERG: And we learned a few things - that you're a fan of Radiohead, that you once sold men's suits and that you once sold knives. So you are going to play a custom version of our favorite game, This, That Or The Other.
EISENBERG: I'm just going to give you a word. You're going to have to identify which of three categories it belongs to. Is the word a Radiohead song, part of a knife or a type of fabric that a men's suit might be made of?
EISENBERG: And if you do well enough, you and Christy Deloose (ph) from Herndon, Va., will win an ASK ME ANOTHER Rubik's Cube.
EISENBERG: Here we go. Is "Faust Arp" a Radiohead song, part of a knife or a suit fabric?
HALL: Is that faust harp or arp?
EISENBERG: Yeah, two words faust and then...
HALL: Part of a knife.
EISENBERG: I'm sorry. It's a Radiohead song.
HALL: Oh, wow.
EISENBERG: It's from "In Rainbows."
HALL: Yeah - love that album.
EISENBERG: It was one of those pay-what-you-wish albums that you could download from them directly.
HALL: Yeah, yeah, I paid what I wished. I obviously didn't pay enough.
EISENBERG: Is gabardine a Radiohead song, part of a knife or a suit fabric?
HALL: That's a suit fabric.
EISENBERG: It is indeed.
EISENBERG: Yeah, gabardine was created by the founder of Burberry - Thomas Burberry. Burberry wanted a material that was breathable and waterproof. There you go.
HALL: What a guy.
EISENBERG: What a guy.
EISENBERG: Tang - Radiohead, knife part, suit fabric - tang.
HALL: Knife part.
EISENBERG: Knife part is correct, yeah.
EISENBERG: That describes how much of the blade extends into the handle. You know, so you actually...
HALL: Oh, yeah. I know.
EISENBERG: So you want full tang.
HALL: Yeah, yeah. You want full tang.
EISENBERG: You want full tang because that's the strongest.
EISENBERG: "Ripcord," Radiohead, knife part, suit fabric.
EISENBERG: That is correct - from "Pablo Honey."
EISENBERG: It is, by the way, also a linen blend - for those of you just going wait a second - but not typically used to make suits. Sometimes we have to stop listener letters from flooding.
HALL: No, no, smart. Nip it in the bud.
EISENBERG: That's right. This is your last clue - pommel, Radiohead...
EISENBERG: Knife, that's right. OK.
EISENBERG: No, great.
EISENBERG: What's the pommel?
HALL: It's the knife part.
EISENBERG: Yeah, you did great.
HALL: Did I do well enough?
EISENBERG: You did well enough. Oh, yeah. Christine Deloose (ph) and you, Michael C. Hall, are both going to get ASK ME ANOTHER Rubik's Cubes.
EISENBERG: Yeah, that's it.
EISENBERG: Michael C. Hall is performing "Thom Pain (Based On Nothing)" nothing at the Signature Theatre in New York City. Give it up for Michael C. Hall, everybody.
(SOUNDBITE OF MANAHAN STREET BAND'S "MAKE THE ROAD BY WALKING")
EISENBERG: Want our next special guest to play for you? Follow ASK ME ANOTHER on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.