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Interview: “Back Onstage, With Fewer Secrets Michael C. Hall Finally Plays a Man Who Loves to Open Up”

Michael C. Hall has made a career of playing men with something to hide, the sort who manage their anxieties by pouring themselves into their work, which in the case of his two best-known television roles happened to include embalming and burying the dead (on “Six Feet Under”) and violently avenging the dead (on “Dexter”). Onstage now in the playwright Will Eno’s gnomic, desperate comedy “The Realistic Joneses,” Mr. Hall plays John, a man with plenty to hide but no real trade to busy his hands and thus to take his mind off a mortal secret he carries.

That may explain why John is not as practiced at repression and sublimation as Mr. Hall’s previous characters were. “Listen, I’m a very spiritual man,” he blurts out at one point to Jennifer (played by Toni Collette), a neighbor with whom he’s conducting a cryptic flirtation. Barely missing a beat, he auto-corrects: “I take it back. I’m not that spiritual.”

“There’s not a lot of room for worry or hesitation with John,” Mr. Hall, 43, said recently over lunch in a Greenwich Village restaurant. “I realize that those were muscles I had been flexing in my job on the TV show, and I really relish the fact that I find myself in a situation that requires me to put those tools down.”

Whether it’s because of John’s relative idleness — he does some work as “an HVAC guy, but I don’t think he’s very good at it,” Mr. Hall says — or to a kind of free-floating attention deficit disorder that also afflicts his neighbor Bob (played by Tracy Letts), the character “seems to lack self-censorship.”

“He doesn’t have a filter,” Mr. Hall said. “And that’s fun.”

He makes it sound like a lark, but after 13 years on Hollywood soundstages, a return to the legit stage in Mr. Eno’s odd, Beckett-in-the-’burbs meditation constitutes something of a gamble as well.

Though trained as a stage actor at New York University, Mr. Hall hasn’t been in a play since an Off Broadway production of Noah Haidle’s “Mr. Marmalade” in 2005, and he hasn’t been on Broadway since doing a brief stint as Billy Flynn in “Chicago” in 2002.

But Mr. Eno and the director, Sam Gold, had their eye on Mr. Hall for the play after it had its premiere at the Yale Repertory Theater in New Haven in 2012 (with Glenn Fitzgerald in the role of John). Knowing that Mr. Hall’s work on “Dexter” was about to wrap up, Mr. Eno got his phone number through a mutual friend and approached him directly about doing a reading.

“If you look at his television work, you could think he was strange and dark to be attracted to those roles,” Mr. Eno said recently during a telephone interview. “But once you watch him, you realize it’s a measure of his intelligence and compassion. He’s just a very understanding person, and he shows such an ease in playing an extreme point of view. We wanted someone who could be lightning-quick and deep and dark, but not feel the need to push those things.”

For Mr. Gold, the most important requirement of the actor playing John is that he have “an extremely high technical proficiency with witty dialogue,” because in “The Realistic Joneses,” the “focus is on the language; the language is the star.”

Yes, Mr. Gold conceded, Mr. Hall has “that deep interiority he explored on television.”

“But he’s also extremely facile and technical and funny and alive,” Mr. Gold said. “He has a really great deadpan sense of humor. This part isn’t a stretch for him at all. It’s just something people haven’t seen him do.”

Never quite a conventional leading man despite his tall, dirty blond, brown-eyed good looks and a voice that evokes Philip Seymour Hoffman’s quizzical baritone, Mr. Hall’s breakthrough role was replacing Alan Cumming as the M.C. in “Cabaret” on Broadway in 1999. That performance landed him an audition for “Six Feet Under,” and the rest is TV history.

He’s had few breaks from the TV grind since then, and he seems determined not to rest even now. After finishing “Dexter” last summer, Mr. Hall shot the lead role in the director Jim Mickle’s bloody neo-noir thriller “Cold in July,” scheduled for release in late May, then began work on “The Realistic Joneses.” He may be closer to the driven characters he has played on TV than he’d like to admit.

“As much as I theoretically looked forward to it, and felt compelled or obliged to take some time off, I haven’t managed to do that yet,” Mr. Hall said. “I think in part because I really relish a chance to do other things and reboot my system, and things have come along. But also I’m not that good at just being idle.”

The restless energy that runs through the actor’s work might be traced to his youth as an only child in Raleigh, N.C., in a household visited by untimely death. Before he was born, his parents had a daughter, Julie, who died at 18 months of a congenital heart defect. Mr. Hall recalled: “I was aware that she had been around as early as I was aware of anything. I was fascinated by that.” Then, when Mr. Hall was just 11, his father died of prostate cancer.

Mr. Hall found refuge in the theater. He was first impressed by a musical version of “A Christmas Carol” at Raleigh’s Theater in the Park, in which the man who wrote the adaptation, Ira David Wood, also played Scrooge. “He was this mean, very funny old man who sang and danced, and then I discovered at the end that the guy who played him was, like, 21 years old.”

Later, doing his first role in a play in a church basement, Mr. Hall came offstage flush with “a feeling I’d never had before and that I couldn’t quite name,” adding, “I think I’d actually fallen in love.”

But in a theme that recurs throughout Mr. Hall’s life and work, it was a romance he didn’t talk about at first. “I kept the aspiration secret, because I didn’t want anybody to scoff at it or tell me it was unreasonable,” said Mr. Hall, who openly embraced acting only when he got to college.

Years later, near the end of production for Season 4 of “Dexter,” he received a diagnosis of Hodgkin’s lymphoma but chose to keep the news from his colleagues until the season was finished. (He received treatment, and the cancer is in remission.) He said he “probably would have kept it quiet had the awards shows not come up, and I felt obliged to explain my lack of eyebrows.”

Asked about this propensity for secrecy, Mr. Hall could have been describing the interior life of many of his characters when he replied: “I maybe came to feel that it was only by the secrets I kept that I had a sense of myself. I felt otherwise invaded. Or that the boundary between me and the rest of the world was blurred. But if I had a secret, I felt some sort of confirmation that I was real.”

Compartmentalization has also characterized his personal life: After his four-year marriage to the actress Amy Spanger ended in 2006, he eloped with his “Dexter” co-star Jennifer Carpenter in 2008, then quietly divorced a few years later, all the while remaining professional on the set.

A certain amount of close-to-the-vest preoccupation also applies to John in “The Realistic Joneses.” He may be chattier than some of Mr. Hall’s other characters, but he is hiding a mysterious condition from his wife (played by Marisa Tomei), and he uses his double-edged language to obscure as much to reveal.

“John says these contradictory things, and neither is true,” Mr. Hall said. “The unarticulated thing is the middle way to which he aspires: The truth is somewhere in between, and it can’t be named.”

Mr. Hall added, with a smile that almost — but didn’t quite — undercut what he was saying, “Maybe he is spiritual after all.”

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