The season-three finale of IFC’s parody series Documentary Now!, titled “On Any Given Saturday Afternoon,” showcases a low-key comedic star turn by Michael C. Hall as Billy May “Dead Eyes” Dempsey, a professional bowler known for his unflappable and unreadable presence on the lanes. Now living with his Alf-obsessed wife in a retirement community, Billy is recruited to take part in a nostalgia-driven promotional tour that organizers hope will restore the league to the prominence it had decades earlier, when (in the minds of bowlers, if no one else) it was bigger than all other sports combined.
The episode is a sendup of the beloved 2006 film A League of Ordinary Gentlemen, and of sports-driven “comeback” documentaries in general. Hall’s tightly-wound-nice-guy performance is another keeper in a career filled with roles as eccentrics whose only consistent feature is their intense emotion, which is flagrantly exposed in some cases and buried fathoms deep in others. Billy falls into the second category. We talked about bringing this strike machine to life, then we asked Hall about some of his other signature roles, including the title character of Dexter, David Fisher on Six Feet Under, the Bulgarian in Game Night, the Emcee in Cabaret, Billy Flynn in Chicago, John F. Kennedy on The Crown, and Thomas Jerome Newton in Lazarus, a musical by David Bowie based on The Man Who Fell to Earth.
Do you bowl?
I mean, isn’t it obvious? I’m probably about average, in terms of the number of times I’ve bowled as a kid, or done bowling birthday parties, outings in college. I’m a once-every-fourteen-months sort of bowler.
How did you end up playing a bowler on a Documentary Now! episode? Most of the lead roles on this show have been played by the same two guys.
The guys who customarily make it were not as available as they’d been, and so I jumped at the chance to do this.
When you’re playing a character in a parody or spoof of something — especially in something very specific — does it feel any different for you as an actor than when you’re playing somebody in a more straightforward comedy or drama?
Well, you’re certainly aware of what you know, or imagine to be, the tone of the thing when you’re playing it. And ultimately, you have that in mind. This show is more of a sketch than an oil painting. It’s not a real delve into the psychology of the person. But you’re still just doing your best to behave as if you’re this person in these circumstances.
And Billy is a character. This guy is the best bowler in the world. He’s detached from the things that tend to preoccupy other people engaged in activity like this, such as competition and what it does to people. He’s very simple, in a way. He loves games. He loves being good at them. He loves winning. But the prospect of competing is something that doesn’t get his heart racing as it does [for] the next guy, which is probably why he’s always able to perform.
And yet he’s not on quite as even a keel as we initially believed.
No, he isn’t. Some element of his Zen or his detachment when he’s competing is a learned behavior, having to do with horrible childhood trauma! [Laughs.]
Did you get Dexter flashbacks at all?
Ha! No. If this guy is a psychopath, he’s more of a benign one.
Maybe he’s somebody who’s seen every episode of Dexter ten times?
Yeah! The thing that really got me was the bit where he says that he doesn’t care for Alf in part because he doesn’t like the way the alien treats his host family. [Laughs.] When I read that bit, that’s when I said, “Okay, I really have to do this.”
I like that he’s so specific in his disapproval.
Well, you know, people celebrate Alf for his zaniness, but I think he’s kinda rude.
I’d like to ask you some acting questions about your other roles. Looking back on Six Feet Under, what would you say are the most important things you learned from playing David Fisher for all those years?
I hadn’t done anything significant on camera before I got that job, so it was like going to school for me, in terms of learning about the more technical aspects of acting on camera and being on a set, and also working with different directors on every episode. In working with different people each week, you learn to work with different kinds of energies, and with people whose focuses or sensibilities may diverge from your own.
Mainly, I learned that the big difference between acting onstage and acting on camera is that when you’re onstage, there are as many camera angles as there are seats in the audience. Some are close and some are far away, but when you’re acting for the camera, there’s one perspective in a shot, and it’s unblinking and in one very solitary place. Obviously it varies from shot to shot, but your relationship to the camera is consolidated. Your relationship to the audience is consolidated, in a film or on a TV show, by wherever that device happens to be located for the moment. And your sense of performance and how to communicate it must be adjusted accordingly.
One of the first things I shot was that scene in the [Six Feet Under] pilot where we’re going to the morgue and looking at the body of Nathaniel Fisher Sr., the patriarch of the family whose death sets the story in motion. I don’t know if the shot in question even wound up in the final cut. But I did it, and Alan Ball, the creator of the show, watched it and told me, “You could do a lot less.”
Yes, and so I endeavored to do what Alan suggested. I was very lucky in that role. When I came to Six Feet Under, I was wound up and bound up and nervous at the prospect of playing a major character on a TV series. It just so happened that I was able to pour all of those feelings right into the character.
I’ve heard actors and filmmakers say that they believe that the camera can record emotion. Do you think there’s any truth to that?
I don’t know. I do know that the eyes are the windows to the soul, as they say. And I know that thought and feeling are ultimately not divergent things. The camera can see something think a thought, without that someone doing anything other than thinking the thought in order to convey that that’s what happening.
Have you ever heard Michael Caine talk about acting for film? He says that if you lean back, or fall back, the camera will catch you. In a way, doing less allows an audience to project themselves onto a character. If you’re filling in all of the blanks, there’s no “in” for a viewer. Sometimes if you do a lot less, more will be communicated.
And yet doing more can be fun, as we saw in Game Night. The Bulgarian was fun, right?
Yeah! Sometimes you get to do things that are a bit more broad. That was a lot of fun. I have so much respect for Jason [Bateman] and Rachel [McAdams] and Kyle [Chandler].
It’s also as close as you’ve gotten to being Kurtz in Apocalypse Now — the character everyone else talks about for the whole movie, and finally he appears.
Yeah, and I never swallowed a bug.
Tell me about playing the Emcee in Cabaret on Broadway.
That was one of the greatest things that ever happened to me as an actor. I got to play somebody who loved the audience and who the audience loved, and as a result, I got over the unconscious adversarial energy that I had never really acknowledged when it came to my own relationship with the audience. That role was a gift.
Sounds like another Kander and Ebb part that you played: the attorney Billy Flynn in Chicago.
I love their musicals, and that was fun, singing those songs.
So many of your songs in that one are fast. The words are just tumbling out of you.
That ventriloquist song especially, there was something vaudevillian about it. And that role was also the closest I’ve ever come to feeling like being a big-band singer. Especially because of the way that production was staged, having the orchestra not in an orchestra pit, but on the stage behind you, feeling the power of that brass.
Was it intimidating playing President John F. Kennedy on The Crown, after so many other actors of note had put their own strong stamps on the part?
What happened was, I just happened to be staying in London and that opportunity came up. Because I was already an admirer of the show, I jumped on that ship for a bit. But intimidating? Yeah, in the sense that I was aware that Kennedy has already been embodied in different ways by different people, But I was also aware that they were presenting a slightly different version of the person in this story, a version who had a bit more unseemliness. I knew that would help differentiate him.
How much contact did you have working with David Bowie on the stage production of his work Lazarus?
Quite a bit. He was there during the preliminary stages, during the rehearsal process, and then the next time I saw him was opening night. He was very much around, and he was just an amazing presence. He was tremendously kind and enthusiastic and appreciative of what we were all doing. He was thankful that we were bringing a thing to life that had been a dream of his for some time. It was and will remain one of the highlights of my career. Of my life.
You’re a lymphoma survivor. How do you process that? You’re healthy, you’re working, you’re past it, but I would imagine there’s always going to be a little bit of fear in the back of your mind. What is that like?
What I learned is that it’s amazing what you can make room for, you know? I never really imagined that I would discover I had cancer. But once it becomes something you’re actively dealing with, you make room for what’s there and for what you need to do, and focus on the task at hand, or the treatment at hand.
As far as the aftermath, on the one hand, because I’ve had the experience, the idea that it’s some kind of dormant thing is always going to be there in some way. But on the other hand, I’ve come out on the other side of it. And in that sense, it’s somewhat less of a daunting proposition now. And I am beyond the threshold that allows me to be considered to be in the regular pool, in terms of my risk level. Once five years passed, that was the case.
Would you say that the experience altered your perception of art or drama in any way?
Yes, it made me all the more inclined to only do things that I really want to do.