‘My life was surreal’: Anthony Michael Hall on John Hughes, therapy and his ‘wild ass’ childhood

Estimated read time 10 min read

If your formative years were shaped in any way by the 80s teen movies of John Hughes – crushes, triumphant underdogs, and an everlasting hankering for American high-school lockers – those actors feel something akin to long-lost relatives. Anthony Michael Hall has had an enduring acting career doing other work: he’s a 56-year-old father and looks nothing like his teenage self. But he can’t escape the nerdy kid in Weird Science, Sixteen Candles and The Breakfast Club. If he is tired of reminiscing about films that are 40 years old, he doesn’t show it.

Hall has now been acting for 48 years. One of the biggest lessons his career has taught him is to “stay humble, because the journey will humble you. You have to continue to earn your place.” He has seen it all: extreme fame in his youth, followed by a bit of a crash in his 20s. Hall struggled to re-establish his career until he became the lead, in his 30s, in the sci-fi series The Dead Zone in the early 2000s. There have been highs – he has worked for directors such as Tim Burton and Christopher Nolan – as well as lows (he had a part in Freddy Got Fingered – watching the 2001 comedy, the Guardian’s Peter Bradshaw wrote that it, “was among the worst experiences of my life”). Such is the life of a steadily working actor.

The Breakfast Club.View image in fullscreen

When we speak over Zoom, Hall is at home in LA, warm and courteous, carefully deflecting questions about his support for Donald Trump in a 2020 interview (I’d asked if, working in a liberal industry, he had experienced any pushback; he insists he is apolitical and didn’t want to talk about it). He has recently finished shooting a villainous role in Reacher, the Amazon show based on the Lee Child thrillers. Last week, Trigger Warning, a Netflix film, came out. Hall plays another villain, a corrupt senator in small town America, alongside a special forces commando – Jessica Alba – out to avenge her father’s death. Villains are fun, he says. “You can pull out all the stops. I think it’s important to inject some brevity, some humour.”

Hall’s first role, at the age of eight, was in a play with Steve Allen, talkshow pioneer. His mother, a jazz singer, had heard about it through a friend and Hall got the part. As a child, he got attention mimicking his relatives, making them laugh. He and his mother lived together in Manhattan, and he would sometimes accompany her to gigs when she couldn’t get a babysitter. Dressed in his pyjamas, he was looked after by waitresses at the back of jazz clubs. “I think back now about the courage she had, like many mothers, especially single mothers. That sense of bravery and really walking the walk in an artist’s life is something I learned from my mother.”

After the play, Hall continued to audition for other jobs. When he was 13, he got a part in a film called Six Pack, with Diane Lane and Kenny Rogers, which didn’t do very well but did bring him attention. His next film, playing Chevy Chase’s son in National Lampoon’s Vacation, was a hit. Hughes had written the screenplay and cast Hall in his directorial debut, Sixteen Candles, then in his next two films, Weird Science and The Breakfast Club. Like Molly Ringwald, who also starred in several of Hughes’s films, Hall had become something of a muse, with his comic timing and nerdy, but angelic, look.

“He was so collaborative and fun and easygoing,” says Hall. “He wasn’t precious or uptight about his words or shooting it one way. We would often do two or three takes his way and then we would try something else.” Between films, they would talk on the phone about movies and music, or Hall would go to Hughes’s house and hang out with him, his wife and two sons. “I was like the third son in their family. We would watch everything from Richard Pryor to old comedies, Laurel and Hardy, Abbott and Costello.”

Hall (right) with Ilan Mitchell-Smith in Weird Science.View image in fullscreen

Hughes was in his mid-30s, but his films were hugely influential on Hollywood coming-of-age depictions. Why did he get teenagers so well? Hall thinks that, as an adult, Hughes just remembered his own youth keenly, and never forgot the feeling of being the middle child, or of wanting to escape his Chicago suburb. “Everybody wound up a little better off than they started, which was beautiful,” says Hall. “Everybody has a little comeuppance, and at the same time everybody’s struggling through their insecurities and their vulnerabilities.”

If the essential adolescent emotions have stood up well, many other elements – racism, sexism, homophobia, casual attitude to rape – in Hughes’s films have not. “Yeah,” says Hall with a smile. “A lot of those things do not age well, and I concede that. But in the time and the spirit they were made, it was certainly not the intention to be offensive. But there are some things that don’t age well, absolutely. We evolve over time. We’re human.”

The films made Hall a star, though he was slightly too young to get the “Brat Pack” tag that others, such as Andrew McCarthy, Demi Moore and Rob Lowe, were given. Hall wasn’t included in the 1985 New York magazine article that coined the term, and he declined to take part in McCarthy’s new documentary, Brats, about the era. But he was sensitive to the need to break away from Hughes and he turned down roles in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off and Pretty in Pink, both huge hits. Did he regret that? “Only insofar as I think it hurt John to some degree,” he says. “But it wasn’t intended.” They didn’t speak for many years, though were reconciled before Hughes’s death in 2009. “I had done the three films with John, four if you include Vacation, and wanted to try different things.”

Michael Anthony Hall in Palms Park in LA.View image in fullscreen

He was given a slot on Saturday Night Live – an intimidating prospect for any comic, let alone a 17-year-old without experience in standup. “It was daunting, because it’s rock’n’roll and theatre and comedy all in one, plus you’d have some superstar act or band each week.” It was competitive and hard work, but Hall loved it. “I’m so thankful I was a part of the show, even though the season I was on was probably one of the worst, if not the worst, maybe in its history. Nonetheless, it was a thrill.” He wasn’t asked back, which he was disheartened by. Around the same time, his first post-Hughes film, the action thriller Out of Bounds, tanked.

Hall had found fame difficult to handle. “I joke with my family that it took me 20 years to process the first 20 years of my life. By my early 40s, it started to make some sense. It’s a weird thing when you start getting recognition, particularly at that age, when you’re already self-conscious. It was like my puberty-on-film trilogy.” He credits his family – his mother remarried when he was 12, and his stepfather was his manager – for keeping him grounded, but by the time he was making Saturday Night Live, he was living on his own, making good money and renting a big house. But he was still too young to get his driving licence and took the bus to work. “My life was surreal.”

Moving to LA shortly afterwards, he lived at the famous Chateau Marmont hotel for a while. “It was exciting. It was fun.” What was he like? Partying? “Yeah. I’m not gonna deny that.” He didn’t get into drugs, but he did develop a drinking problem. “I had to get that in check because I was a little bit of a wild ass when I was a kid.” Tabloid stories from the time are unflattering – it’s something Hall has also faced in recent years. In 2017, he was convicted of assaulting a neighbour in a dispute, and in 2020 he apologised after footage was shown of him berating fellow guests in a hotel pool. “I’d rather not address any of that,” he says.

In his early 20s, Hall ended up taking a couple of years away from the industry, moving back to New York to hang out with friends and have a more normal life. “Growing up in New York in the 80s and 90s, clubs were a big thing,” he says. It was around then he got help for his drinking and started therapy. He also met his biological father for the first time, who hadn’t been in his life since he was a baby. “It was pretty bold of me to do that, but it was a good thing. It was healing to meet him and to finally come to grips with that part of me.”

Hall readjusting his tieView image in fullscreen

Was he worried that taking time off would harm his career? “The idea of: what if people forget about you? I fought with some of that. But my [stepfather] was really great. He would say, ‘Hang in there, keep chipping away at it, stay accessible.’ His point was: keep working.” And that’s what Hall did. He’d had a lucky early start, but now he had to learn “the value of what had happened to me, and that came through hard work. I had to really earn it. There’s a certain point where the stuff you do as a kid doesn’t work any more, so I had awkward periods and I struggled through my 20s to keep going.”

He was cast in Edward Scissorhands as Winona Ryder’s bullying jock boyfriend, and after that he plugged away at small films and TV shows, then later got the lead in The Dead Zone. He has worked steadily since, including roles in The Dark Knight and Netflix’s War Machine. In recent years, Hall has returned to comedy, with TV shows The Goldbergs and Community, and has written a TV series with his friend Robert Downey Jr.

His career has taught him that he’s “just a piece of the puzzle, no one works alone”. He has survived child stardom, tricky headlines and decades in an industry that is a “difficult business for many people, and it eats people up. Nothing is promised or guaranteed, but I thank God that I had the wherewithal to be tenacious and to stick with it. You have to have a thick skin, you can’t take it personally. People work their butts off as an actor for hire. Nothing is guaranteed. You’re only as good as your last job – so you’re constantly proving yourself.”

Source: theguardian.com

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