clock menu more-arrow no yes

Michael C. Hall on playing a “benign psychopath” in the Documentary Now! season 3 finale

The Dexter star tackles another inscrutable character — this time, in a comedic take on a bowling documentary.

Tim Robinson, Michael C. Hall, and Bobby Moynihan play rival bowlers in the Season 3 finale of IFC’s Documentary Now!
Tim Robinson, Michael C. Hall, and Bobby Moynihan play rival bowlers in the season three finale of IFC’s Documentary Now!
Rhys Thomas/IFC

Michael C. Hall has built a career playing characters who spend their lives trying to tamp down their darkest secrets, from the repressed undertaker David Fisher in HBO’s Six Feet Under to the titular serial killer in Showtime’s Dexter. As it turns out, that was great training for comedy too.

The season three finale of IFC’s Documentary Now!, a show that spoofs classic nonfiction films while paying homage to the documentary form, is titled “Any Given Saturday Afternoon” (airing March 27). In it, Hall plays Billy May “Dead Eyes” Dempsey, a former bowling champ who joins some of his old rivals for a nationwide tournament designed to spark mainstream interest in bowling. Dempsey got his nickname from his apparent complete lack of emotion during tournaments, and it suits him well.

After his pro bowling career ended as bowling’s popularity waned, Dempsey had moved with his Alf-obsessed wife to a retirement community — he’s many decades younger than his neighbors, he notes — where he’s become an expert in petanque. But when bowling promoter Rob Seger (Veep’s Kevin Dunn) comes knocking, planning to put together an exhibition tour with Dempsey and his old rivals Rick Kenmore (Detroiters’ Tim Robinson) and Larry Hawburger (SNL’s Bobby Moynihan), he can’t resist.

The episode is based on the 2006 documentary A League of Ordinary Gentlemen and pokes gentle fun at the narrative into which players in “sports comeback” dramas are forced to fit themselves in order to get audiences interested — the bad boy, the nice guy, the lost cause. Hall’s performance as nice guy Dempsey is hilarious in its utter affectlessness, and the sense you get that something bizarre is happening beneath his affable but very dead eyes.

I spoke to Hall by phone about the role, his own bowling skills, and what he likes about documentaries more broadly. Our conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.

How do you play a guy whose nickname is “Dead Eyes”?

Alissa Wilkinson

So how did you end up playing Billy May Dempsey?

Michael C. Hall

Someone in my agency’s office who had a relationship with the producers pitched me and sent the script. So it came in the form of an offer.

I was reading the script and talking to my wife about it. I came across that line where Billy May says that he doesn’t care for the way Alf treats his host family. And we were just like, Yeah, this is kind of a no-brainer. I had to do this. I thought the script was really funny, and I think all those guys are so great. It was a nice chance to dip my foot into a different pool.

Alissa Wilkinson

So had you watched Documentary Now! before doing the episode?

Michael C. Hall

I’d seen a few episodes, but I hadn’t seen them all. The Grey Gardens episode [“Sandy Passage”] is a favorite.

Alissa Wilkinson

The character you play in this episode is pretty unique — he’s a professional bowler, and he’s kind of an enigma; his nickname is “Dead Eyes Dempsey,” after all. How do you go about getting into a role like this?

Michael C. Hall

It was honestly helpful to watch the documentary [A League of Ordinary Gentlemen] on which they based the episode. I didn’t feel completely bound by it, but it was a good jumping-off point.

Billy May struck me as someone who is a bit of a nerd, though he doesn’t think of himself as such. He loves competing, loves playing games, but that part of the brain that gets caught up in whatever stress is usually involved in competition or winning and losing just isn’t there for him. So he’s able to just have a nice time.

He’s like a benign psychopath.

Alissa Wilkinson

His nerdiness really comes out in the dialogue. My favorite bit is when he’s trying to trash-talk —

Michael C. Hall

Oh, yeah. He just can’t.

Alissa Wilkinson

One character tells him he’ll beat him, and Billy May snaps back with, “No you won’t, I hope!”

Michael C. Hall

Yeah, trash talk just isn’t the way he interacts with people or thinks about competition. He knows that they’re all trying to make a play for bowling to become a big commercial thing again, and he tries his best to engage in that, but he can’t really do it.

Michael C. Hall as Billy May “Dead Eyes” Dempsey in “Any Given Saturday Afternoon,” the season 3 finale of Documentary Now!
Michael C. Hall as Billy May “Dead Eyes” Dempsey in “Any Given Saturday Afternoon,” the season three finale of Documentary Now!
Allyson Riggs/IFC

Alissa Wilkinson

In this episode, you need a special skill: bowling. Did you do your own bowling?

Michael C. Hall

Yeah. There were a few specific spare pickups, or shots that they needed to get, so they did have some guys who were stand-ins. But for the most part, they just used us.

Alissa Wilkinson

Do you bowl?

Michael C. Hall

As it happens, I had just gone bowling before this came across my desk — well, I don’t have a desk. It came across my dining room table. I wouldn’t say I had gotten back into bowling, but I had recently revisited my bowling skills. I think I’m probably average. I bowled when I was a kid with class groups, or bowling birthday parties, or over the years. I probably bowl, on average, once every 14 to 18 months.

But I was able to spend a little time with a guy they hired, just to make sure I did look okay. Obviously the bowling form that we’re all exhibiting is, you know, not completely expert or legit or pro. But it was good enough, and maybe wonky enough, to be believable, and also kind of silly and funny.

“It’s incredibly disturbing, sad, and hilarious”

Alissa Wilkinson

One thing I love about the episode is the hair and makeup, and how much we know about Billy May from his floppy hair and outdated mustache.

Michael C. Hall

At some point, he says something like, “I like old people. I like their games.” He’s like an 89-year-old man trapped in a middle-aged man’s body.

Alissa Wilkinson

But he’s also harboring a really dark side. That comes out in a speech at the end of the episode that he gives, apparently off the cuff, when he wins an award.

(Note: If you’d like to avoid spoilers, scroll down to the next subheading.)

Michael C. Hall

Oh, yeah. [laughs] There was more in the actual documentary — you know, these are 28-minute episodes based on movies that might be 90 minutes long. So not all elements from the longer movie end up in the episode.

Billy May is a man of few words. But in that scene, he has this impulse to say, “Yeah, I’m gonna talk about myself.” Without planning to — or without even realizing what he’s saying — he reveals this guarded secret about his upbringing. In the context of the episode, it’s very silly, but it does explain why he is the way he is, and why he’s cut off from most things that people are connected to.

I thought it was fun to get lost in that memory of his. He has someplace he wants to go, but he never had a map to get there. His ability to keep his wits about him under pressure was fostered ... by his attempts to throw rocks at stop signs from a basement where he was trapped with his sisters!

Then he ends this dark story with advice that kids should practice a lot. It’s incredibly disturbing, sad, and hilarious.

Michael C. Hall and Tim Robinson in the season 3 finale of Documentary Now!
Michael C. Hall and Tim Robinson in the season 3 finale of Documentary Now!
Rhys Thomas/IFC

Why documentaries are so appealing for an actor to watch

Alissa Wilkinson

I’ve found that nobody involved with Documentary Now! really has been able to figure out what to call it. Is it satire? Is it parody? Is it criticism? What do you think?

Michael C. Hall

It’s a kind of extreme version of reality, as it presents itself. Or maybe something styled from reality. It’s an homage to the documentary form. But maybe as much as anything, it felt like an homage to the specific documentary it was referencing. A satire and an homage simultaneously, I think.

Alissa Wilkinson

Are you much of a documentary watcher yourself?

Michael C. Hall

Yeah. I think I honestly probably watch as many, if not more, documentaries as scripted films.

Alissa Wilkinson

What is it that attracts you to nonfiction?

Michael C. Hall

I think it might have something to do with the fact that I’m an actor. Watching all types of human behavior, rather than the simulation of those behaviors, is appealing to me.

Alissa Wilkinson

Documentaries also sometimes explore how authentic human behavior is itself a kind of performance.

Michael C. Hall

Yeah, true. In a way, if you’re watching a documentary, you’re sort of a silent, never-blinking character in the story. Everybody there is aware of the camera to some degree. Sometimes people forget that it’s is there, but for the most part, they’re aware of that presence, and they’re acting (or not acting) accordingly.

Billy May Dempsey’s Pro Bowling League Championship Series poster.
Billy May Dempsey’s Pro Bowling League Championship Series poster.
Rhys Thomas/IFC

Alissa Wilkinson

Since you’re a documentary buff: Is there a particular character who, in your ideal world, you’d want to get to play from a documentary?

Michael C. Hall

Oh, wow. [long pause] Well, I really love the Wild Wild Country documentary that [the Documentary Now! season three premiere episode] “Batshit Valley” was based on. But I guess that’s already been done.

So — oh, man, I mean, I guess if I could somehow manage to have the skill to pull off being Alex Honnold in [the 2019 Oscar-winning documentary] Free Solo, that would be pretty good.

Alissa Wilkinson

And pretty frightening, too!

“Any Given Saturday Afternoon” airs March 27 at 11 pm on IFC, and will be available to stream on IFC’s website for a week following the air date.

Sign up for the newsletter The Weeds

Understand how policy impacts people. Delivered Fridays.