Michael C. Hall on Becoming 'Thom Pain' and the Lure of the New York Stage

Joan Marcus
Michael C. Hall in 'Thom Pain (based on nothing)'

The 'Six Feet Under' and 'Dexter' star discusses why theater matters to him and how he handles unexpected audience behavior while performing Will Eno's existential monologue.

Michael C. Hall is having a hard time distinguishing between his thoughts and those of Thom Pain, the absurd and elliptical titular character of Will Eno’s play Thom Pain (based on nothing), in which Hall is starring in a revival at off-Broadway's Signature Theatre.

When asked what he’s given up to play the role, Hall begins to contemplate, almost philosophically: "What is something I've given up? I've given up whatever else I would have been doing. I don't know what that is because I'm doing this. I've given up my evenings. I've given up, as an offering, whatever it is I have to offer the audience every night through the vehicle of these words."

Reflecting on that thought, which sounds a lot like it came from his character's mind, he adds: "I've given up having thoughts that aren't in one way or another influenced by Thom Pain's thoughts."

The Hollywood Reporter called Hall’s performance "mesmerizing," adding, "he makes the piece accessible and engaging, laying himself bare and connecting with the audience in ways both friendly and subtly hostile."

The 2004 solo play marks the second time the actor has collaborated with playwright Eno, after The Realistic Joneses on Broadway in 2014. That production marked his move back to New York, where he has plunged into theater work, replacing Neil Patrick Harris in the title role in the revival of Hedwig and the Angry Inch on Broadway and starring as the enigmatic "man who fell to Earth" in David Bowie’s Lazarus at New York Theater Workshop and later in London.

Hall spoke with THR about reconnecting with Eno, starring in a one-man show and what keeps him coming back to the stage.  

This is your second time working with Will Eno, can you talk about your collaboration and how this production came to be?

I was invited to do a reading of The Realistic Joneses back some months before we actually did the production. I wasn't familiar with his work. Probably five pages into the play I was just completely enamored with his dialogue, his singular sort of take on and mastery of language, and so I was really excited to do the reading. When we were doing The Realistic Joneses, he actually slipped me a copy of Thom Pain without explicitly saying that maybe we could do it together some day. I'd had the sense that maybe one day, if it could work out... and luckily it did. It’s unlike anything I've ever done, unlike anything I've ever read.

What is the most nerve-wrecking part of doing a one man show?

That there's no one to turn to. There's no one to hand the baton to. There's no time to regroup, collect yourself, catch your breath. I've never done stand-up comedy, but this is probably the closest thing I'll experience to just being on your own. That was the thing that was daunting about it, and that was an exciting challenge about it. It's nice to be not too scared but scared enough.

You interact with the audience and ask a lot of rhetorical questions. Do people ever respond?

Yeah. There are some questions he throws out almost immediately that usually get some sort of a response. Do you like magic? Do you need to see me to hear me? Things like that. And then he ends a lot of somewhat provocative statements or observations with an open-ended "Yes?" — or actually opens it up for questions at certain points. It's certainly designed with the expectation that answers to those questions won't be given.

There was one early preview, and there was an older guy sitting in the middle of the front section and early on I said, "Shall I save your life? Shall I love you slowly and be true?" And he responded to each of those questions by saying, "Noooo." He did not want his life to be saved. He did not want to be loved slowly or truly, and he didn't want a glass of water. It was very strange. But it was nice because at the end I got to say, "Whatever." What's nice is Will has constructed the show in such a way that when people say things, almost every time they do, whatever my next line is serves as an answer to whatever they throw out there.

Is there any room for improvisation if something happens or someone responds oddly?

There's room. There are things that I have in my pocket that I can throw out there should certain things happen, whether it's latecomers or cellphones ringing or unanticipated responses. It's obviously scripted in such a way that if it's delivered properly, it feels extemporaneous, but it's pretty much what's on the page is what I say.

I've had conversations with Will about the A, B and C response for the 1, 2 or 3 possibility. If a cellphone rings, my favorite thing to say is "Nobody's perfect." Also, because winter is coming on and there are more and more coughers, sometimes violent coughers, I keep a handful of cough drops in my pocket so I can just hand them out.

There was someone in my audience who definitely needed one.

Was it the matinee on Saturday? Well that's what inspired the cough drop thing. I thought she was gonna die, but she made it.

This is your first one-man show, but you played the Emcee in Cabaret and the lead in Hedwig, both of which are hostlike roles. Did you draw from those experiences?

In the case of both of those, the primary partner is the audience, so I definitely had a little taste of what it feels like to interact with a roomful of people. There's just so much more information that's new every night when you're dealing directly with a brand-new roomful of people, especially when you're interacting with them individually as well. But it just keeps it alive and makes it easier to act as if it's the first time because for the vast majority of the people in the room, it is.

Thom Pain is a pretty dark character, and you have a history of playing twisted or tortured roles onscreen in Dexter and Six Feet Under. Do you bring anything from those roles with you as you approach this piece?

Only residually or incidentally. I certainly don't think about either of those characters as I encounter this, but there is definitely a rich and multifaceted interior life going on with this guy. I mean, he's presenting what he's presenting, but I think, ideally, there's a sense that there's a lot that's not being said. The most interesting characters have some sort of mystery or secret about them. If that's going on with this, I certainly leaned into it.

How do you get ready before a show?

I usually have a cup of tea or a cup of coffee and do a little qigong just to center myself a little bit and that's about it. I listen to Thelonious Monk a lot. There's something about his music that reminds me of Will's language in the way it follows its own logic and seems chaotic but also makes some sort of sublime sense.

Do you keep anything special backstage in your dressing room?

You know that wall they have outside the theater with all those photos? There are a couple of photos of me when I was very young that I gave them, and the original ones of those I have back there. Thom is so preoccupied with himself as a child. You know that Diane Arbus photo of the kid with the toy grenade? I have that — it somehow reminds me of the boy [in the play] in the puddle with the stick. I have that photo journalist's photo of the monk who self-immolated in Vietnam sitting there on fire. Both of those images were in my head one way or another and just came to mind when I was working on this show as opposite sides of the spectrum of the character — in terms of who he's presenting and who he was and who he comes to be at the end.

I also made a lot of drawings that I imagined were Thom's drawings. I'm not an artist, but that was fun. Usually to learn lines, I write them down in the process of learning them. I bought this notebook of drawing paper thinking that I would write them down more formally, and I never did. I wrote them down in another notebook. And I thought well I should use this for something and I bought these pens, so I just sort of started to draw these abstract drawings when I got into my dressing room because the walls were bare.

Are they of anything?

I suppose they're somewhat inspired by the two images, but they're abstract by necessity, not by choice. It's a testament to my lack of skill as an artist.

What keeps you coming back to the theater?

I came back to do The Realistic Joneses, and it was shortly after Dexter ended, and I never left. I just moved back to New York. I did that largely because I just feel more at home here generally, but also, I didn't want to uproot my life to do theater. It's where I started. I think I keep coming back because it feels like home, and I feel like it keeps me challenged and honest. There's nothing that matches the experience of being in the same room with your audience and not filtering your performance through a film director's vision or an editor's editing or whatever camera angle might be used. There are as many camera angles as there are people in the audience, and there's one take and it's happening right now.

— Michael C. Hall appears in Thom Pain (based on nothing) at the Pershing Square Signature Center in New York through Dec. 9.