Anthony Michael Hall had just started filming The Breakfast Club when he went to John Hughes’s house for dinner. Hughes had directed him in the coming-of-age classic Sixteen Candles a year earlier, and liked Hall’s gentle melancholy, partly because it reminded him of himself. They had grown close. Hughes was both a big brother and a fatherly mentor to him, and would invite him to hang out with his family so often that Hall jokes he was practically the filmmaker’s “third kid”.
After dinner, in the hallway outside his writing room with its stacks upon stacks of cassettes and vinyls, Hughes excitedly broke the news to the young actor. He’d been up all night writing the entire first act of a new script he’d titled Weird Science, and he wanted Hall to star in it. “I was 16 but looked like a bobblehead of 12,” Hall remembers with a cackle. “And John goes: ‘Yeah, it’s gonna be you and another guy, and you’re gonna make a girl on the computer.’ I’m like, ‘What? What the hell’s he talking about?’ My head is spinning. We’re probably two or three weeks into The Breakfast Club and he’s already telling me about another film we’re going to do. But that’s how prolific he was.” Just three years after they made that vaguely unsavoury computer-girl film, the pair had what would be their final conversation. By the time Hughes died at the age of 59 in 2009, he and Hall hadn’t spoken for over two decades. But we’ll get to that.
Hall is reminiscing from his beach-front home in Los Angeles. It’s overcast outside, but the 53-year-old is smiling. He’s also firing off anecdotes somewhat breathlessly, as if his line to London is on a countdown clock. Interspersed are wholesome niceties, lots of thank yous, “yes, sirs” and apologies about having just rambled. It’s all very Brian Johnson, the timid “Brain” of The Breakfast Club who didn’t say much and didn’t get the girl, but who felt so endearingly real that it was almost painful to watch him. Never has a virginal loser in a high-school movie been so rich with pathos.
Along with his fellow Breakfast Club alumni and others closely associated with teen movies of the era – among them Molly Ringwald, Judd Nelson, Andrew McCarthy and Rob Lowe – Hall came to be associated with “The Brat Pack”, or American youth of the Eighties as it was captured on film. That nickname – a vaguely dismissive one inspired by a New York Magazine journalist’s night on the town with the cocky, party-hopping trio of Lowe, Nelson and Emilio Estevez – left Hall and many of his peers as enshrined in cinematic lore as they were trapped by it. Over the years, though, Hall has matured into one of Hollywood’s most interesting character actors. He seems to pop up in the most unexpected places: as a tabloid hack in The Dark Knight, as Steve Carell’s mysterious assistant in Foxcatcher; or as an overgrown bully with a stick-on moustache in the cult TV comedy Community. Now he’s squaring off against Michael Myers.
In the horror sequel Halloween Kills, Hall plays Tommy Doyle, the grown version of the little boy babysat by a teenage Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis) in the original 1978 film. Tommy, says Hall, is not too dissimilar to himself. “I’m of Italian-Irish descent, so I have this kind of pugnacious quality already,” he jokes. “Applying that to Tommy was honestly a very natural thing to do.” His Tommy is a haunted brute, the leader of what amounts to a therapy group for survivors of masked murderer Michael Myers. It’s all very silly, but rapidly gives way to bonafide horror. Tommy and his acolytes turn vigilante, descending into a violent frenzy that’s sometimes tricky to separate from the carnage inflicted by Myers himself. Hall doesn’t quite see it that way.
“They decide to fight, and decide to be more than victims and more than just survivors,” he says. “I think that’s a very interesting and powerful message. What’s so fascinating for me about this franchise is that people love Michael Myers despite the fact that he’s not the hero [of it]. He’s the villain, but in this context the villain is the hero, right?” He pauses. “Forgive the long-winded answer, but my job as Tommy was just to represent the good of the town and the good of its people. It’s about becoming united and rising up against him.”
He also sees parallels between the Halloween movies and his own career. “I’ve been in this business for 45 years and this franchise has been around for 43 years. For me, I felt it was very important to just show all the fight I have in me naturally. It’s the same fight that’s made me an actor for all of these years. To never give up is how I’ve approached this industry. I feel like my whole career prepared me for this role.”
Hall was born in Boston but raised in New York. There, he enrolled at the Professional Children’s School – which trained former child actors from Christina Ricci and Sarah Jessica Parker to Macaulay, Rory and Kieran Culkin – before finding work in plays and adverts. He landed in John Hughes’s orbit in 1983, at the age of 14, when he played Chevy Chase’s gregarious son Rusty in National Lampoon’s Vacation, which Hughes wrote. A year later, Hughes cast him as a lovestruck geek in Sixteen Candles. The film hasn’t aged entirely well, but it made Hall a star. Everywhere he went, he was trailed by cameras, groupies and the gasps and shrieks of teenage fans.
“Fame was off-putting and kind of scary,” he recalls. “It’s not unlike a horror movie. When celebrity hits you, all of a sudden people are staring at you and looking at you in odd ways. Even though I was just a pubescent teenager, suddenly I was thrown into this world of showbusiness. You don’t know what people are thinking, people are whispering about you, and it’s a strange thing to have to adjust to.”
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He calls celebrity his “least favourite word in our language”, but admits that he struggles to complain about it too much today. “Over time, you put it in perspective because, look, you should be more worried when people are forgetting you,” he says, sounding a bit like the Simple Minds number that gave The Breakfast Club its theme song. “If they don’t remember you, that’s when you should be worried.” It’s an approach that mirrors that of Hall’s Breakfast Club co-star Ally Sheedy, who fought deep misogyny in the film industry as she aged out of her teens, but told me last year that she’s largely put any acrimony to bed now. “If you look back at what you were doing 30 years ago, you’re gonna have some conflicting feelings,” she said. “Bad things just happen to be woven in there for me.”
As his fame rose, though, Hall’s career went a bit awry. Despite its scrappy charms, the 1986 thriller Out of Bounds – a star vehicle designed to pivot Hall away from playing loose-limbed, bookish types for Hughes – was a box office flop. At 17, he became Saturday Night Live’s youngest ever cast member – a record he holds to this day – but the season in which he starred was notoriously poor. “To be very honest and candid with you, it was not great – it was a shaky-legs season,” he says. “I’m grateful for the experience, but I didn’t have a breakout season. I didn’t even have any breakout characters or anything like that.”
Hall took the offer because he grew up glued to the show every weekend, with cast members such as Bill Murray and Gilda Radner among his earliest heroes. “I was, forgive the language, scared s***less,” he laughs. “I agreed to do the show and then I was walking around like a mummy for about a two-month period before we started the season. But it just meant so much to me, to watch that show as a kid and then suddenly be asked to join the cast. Because I was that same kid. Like, I was still living at home!”
It was all understandably overwhelming, and that run of career misses was only broken up by the masterful Edward Scissorhands. Hall played Winona Ryder’s jock boyfriend in the Tim Burton fantasy classic, proving eerily convincing as a loutish bully and sporting a collection of shirts and jumpers that wouldn’t look out of place in a millennial wardrobe. After Edward Scissorhands, Hall had dalliances in music and film directing, before finally making an acting comeback in 2002 when he starred in the acclaimed TV adaptation of Stephen King’s The Dead Zone. If Hall has any regrets about the zigzaggedness of his career, they’re limited to the end of his relationship with Hughes.
In 2018, in an essay for The New Yorker about watching Hughes’s occasionally problematic teen movies through a post-#MeToo lens, Molly Ringwald described the filmmaker as a “phenomenal grudge-keeper”: after a falling-out with him, she hadn’t spoken to Hughes in more than 20 years. In an earlier essay for The New York Times, she recalled how she adored working with him, but felt at the end of the Eighties that she “needed to work with other people as well”. “I wanted to grow up,” she wrote, “something I felt (rightly or wrongly) I couldn’t do while working with John. Sometimes I wonder if that was what he found so unforgivable.”
A similar falling-out occurred between Hughes and Hall, with the pair also not speaking for the 20 years between their Eighties work and Hughes’s death. Hall famously turned down two post-Breakfast Hughes movies: Pretty in Pink and Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, the latter of which Hughes had written as a star vehicle for him. “It was a sad occurrence,” Hall says today. “Because it was because of John that I was doing other projects and that I had other work lined up. I was doing Out of Bounds and trying to go in another direction. I was just a young actor wanting to grow, you know? And while I can’t confirm this, I think that was difficult for John.”
In The New York Times, Ringwald wrote that Hughes used a handful of characters in his films as avatars for himself, and wondered if that same kind of transference occurred with the actors playing them. Hall thinks she may have been right. “John had a very sensitive soul, and I think that’s what also gave him an ability to tap into the internal experience that we all have as kids, as we become teenagers and then grow into adulthood,” he says. They last spoke on the phone in 1987, as production began on the Hughes-scripted comedy The Great Outdoors. It was inspired by family holidays taken by Hughes and the actor John Candy, who starred in it. Candy’s co-star Dan Aykroyd was more or less playing Hughes.
“At that time, he did mention the potential of doing a sequel to The Breakfast Club,” remembers Hall. “It would have been all of us in our middle-age. His idea was to pick up with them in their twenties or thirties. That [idea] was on his mind, but that was the last conversation I had with him.” His voice drops an octave. “I wish I could have spent more time with him. To let him know how much I loved him and how much he meant to me. Because, you know, he gave me my start, and so much more.”
It all comes back to gratitude, he says. Hall is on the press tour for a big movie, has just shot a “female John Wick” with Jessica Alba, and has other projects in the works. He thinks back to Halloween Kills, and the idea of relentlessly fighting for something. “I do feel like a survivor,” he says. “I’ve been through a lot, and just like the hero of a film, I’m looking forward to the future.”
‘Halloween Kills’ is in cinemas now
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