People often struggle their entire lives to figure out who they really are, and what their true identity really is. This internal conflict is all to evident in the title character of filmmaker Michael Knowles‘ new comedy-drama, The Trouble With Bliss. Portrayed by Michael C. Hall, Morris Bliss is an emotionally stunted, unemployed man who has never fully gotten over his mother’s death when he was a teenager. While dealing with problems many people would down up as juvenile, Morris realizes that the only person he has to please is himself.
The Trouble With Bliss follows the 35-year-old Morris, who is out of work and still lives with his father, Seymour (Peter Fonda) in New York City’s East Village. Morris would like to travel, but doesn’t have any money; while he needs a job, he doesn’t have any prospects. He inadvertently finds himself in a sexual relationship with an 18-year-old girl, Stephanie Jouseski (Brie Larson), who turns out to be the daughter of one of his classmates, Steven (Brad William Henke). While also fighting off the advances of his married neighbor, Andrea (Lucy Liu), Morris must decide what he really wants from life.
Hall generously took the time to speak with us about filming The Trouble With Bliss over the phone. The actor discussed what attracted him to the role of Morris, what it was like working with Michael and how he transitioned into the role from his title character on the hit Showtime series Dexter.
Question: How has your theater training shaped your career as an actor, and has it been elemental in your success? What attracted you to The Trouble with Bliss in the first place?
Michael C. Hall: Well, what really attracted me (to the film) was the material and the character and the relationships. I just thought it was a great script.
As far as my theater background, I certainly think starting out acting on stage, and approaching things from there initially, served me well, transitioning to the small and big screen. Working with people who have experience on stage and in front of the camera is nice. It’s a sensibility and way of working and work ethic that wouldn’t be there otherwise.
My grad school years were spent living in the East Village. I actually lived on East Fifth Street, and was very familiar with all of these locations. It felt like a real homecoming, coming back to that neighborhood, where I started out. I wasn’t wondering what they were shooting down the street, but was actually in the movie and on the set.
Q: We saw a little bit about your character and his back-story in his high school years. Then there’s a gap between his high school days and what we see in the present day. Did you work out any back-story with the director, or in your own mind, about what happened between his high school years and the present day, and where he is now?
MCH: I did do some thinking about that. In my imagination, he worked for the city, as a paver. He had a relationship with a colleague, who was somewhat older than him, and had kids. She actually ended the relationship, and it really broke his heart. Now he’s unemployed, and doing odd jobs from time to time. That’s something I worked out for myself.
Q: Since Morris has the map of the world of places he would like to go, are there any places where you’d like to go?
MCH: I think all of us have done at least as much, if not more, traveling as Morris. I have done a bit of traveling. But I would love to go to India, that’s a place I haven’t been that I would love to go to someday.
Q: The screenplay for the film was adapted by Douglas Light‘s novel (East Fifth Bliss). Did you read the novel, or were aware of the story, before you were approached to star in the film?
MCH: No, I wasn’t. I saw the screenplay first. Once things were moving forward, I went and read the book and enriched the story. I think the book lends itself well to Michael’s adaptation. There were some details in the book that filled in some blanks and answered some questions. I only came to familiarize myself with the book after (I read the script).
Q: Was the book set remotely anywhere near when you lived in the area?
MCH: Yeah. I guess I lived in the East Village from 1993 to the late ’90s. It’s sort of the present day. I guess I lived in the East Village in a time when it was moving towards gentrification, but it hadn’t become the outdoor mall that it is now.
Q: Michael both directed and co-wrote the script. Do you find it easier working with a director who worked on the script before you begin shooting?
MCH: Yeah. Everybody’s different, but it nice to have, even if it’s not the actual director, the writer available to you to answer questions. It’s also nice for the writer to be there to discuss ideas back and forth, about why things change, or why they are the way they are. You don’t have to speculate. You can go straight to the source, and there’s nothing better than that.
Q: You have brought the character of Morris with your expressions. You also have a claustrophobic relationship with Peter Fonda. How did you find the right emotions through your physical and visual performances?
MCH: I feel the key to the movie, or the lenchpin, is when Morris talks about his sense of waiting for something, while he’s not doing much. I think he’s motivated by some sort of hope that things will change, and he’s open to at least looking to find it. I think his relationship with this girl (Stephanie) is the crack in the pavement that leads to his out.
When I put on that blue jacket, the wardrobe really informed the physicality. I just really wanted to find clothes that were stuck in time. He’s wearing some version of what he may have been wearing when his mother died. Things are kind of ill-fitting, and not exactly fashion forward.
A lot of the movement was informed by that. Some of those decisions aren’t really conscious, you sort of instinctively go with what feels appropriate or right, if it serves the story.
Working with Peter, when you’re working with somebody like that, there’s a lot of antagonism in the relationship between a father and son. Peter’s a legend, so working with him was easy. He had such an openness and desire to be there and tell the story. He had an easy availability to the moment, which was nice to work alongside.
Q: Morris is an anti-hero of sorts, as he’s sleeping with a girl 17 years his junior, and is still living with his father at 35. How did you delve into making him likable, while dealing with some of the more taboo issues of society?
MCH: He is doing things that are maybe on the fence morally, or are questionable in some way. I think Morris is without malice. I think we learn enough about what precipitated him feeling stuck emotionally, when we learn about his mother’s death. His case may be somewhat extreme, but we may all be able to relate to a sense of being directionless, at least at times.
But I didn’t really worry about making him likable. I just tried to consider his circumstances, and take it from there. But I do think Morris is a good guy, he’s got a good heart. He’s not out to hurt anybody.
As far as what happens with Brie Larson‘s character, an 18-year-old girl, I think in that case, and the case with Lucy Liu, who was married, the women were inexplicably pursuing him. (laughs) I certainly didn’t want to give the impression that he has lots of flings. We catch him in the movie in an unprecedentedly good time (laughs), as far as getting attention from women goes.
I think the fact that Morris being likable makes up for the fact that on paper, he’s a loser. But he’s got a good heart, and he’s really without any real malice towards anybody but himself.
Q: Working with Brie, this brings the Showtime family together, as she was on The United States of Tara, with Toni Collette, for three years. What was it like working with hers, since she has a great career starting to happen? Would you like to work with her again, or are there any other stars in the cast you think are on the rise?
MCH: I think it was a great group. I think Brie was so talented and smart, and capable as an actress. I’m looking forward to seeing how her career unfolds. I would love to work with her again. I think a short film she directed was actually recognized at Sundance this year.
Chris Messina‘s a guy I first met and worked with on Six Feet Under. I think he’s a phenomenal actor, and has done so many different things already. He’s worked with so many amazing directors, and I’m sure that will continue.
I think Brad William Henke is great, and is really talented and funny in the movie. He’s also really grounded. Lucy is a dream to work with. It’s an incredible group, not only in terms of talent, but also people.
Q: Have you seen any scripts for the upcoming season of Dexter? Can you compare the fans’, and your, reactions to the most recent season finale, as opposed to the season finale when Rita died?
MCH: I think when Rita died, the reaction was more of shock. While there was shock over what happened this time, it’s more, now what’s going to happen? (laughs) How are things going to change? I think that’s the question people had with the Rita death too, but there’s a different tone to it.
I have been in touch with our writers about the process for next season. I have a sense of the broad strokes, as they’ve been initially pitched for the season. There are no actual line-by-line scripts that have been executed yet, but I do have a sense of where they are, but it sounds exciting.
Q: Speaking of Dexter, how did you transition from that character to Morris? What was your preparation period for the film like?
MCH: I spent time really with the material. I kind of took it from what was there on the page, and took it from there. Along with doing a bit of rehearsing with the director, and some of the other actors. Finding his look, and knowing the East Village, and imagining myself there.
But really, I think it was spending time with the script. I think each job requires you to prepare differently. With this one, I just went with my gut. I really relished the opportunity to play a character who was so unspectacular, after playing Dexter, who is remarkably capable. He’s intelligent and vicious, so it was fun to play a guy who didn’t know what he was doing. (laughs)
That concludes our interview, but we’d like to thank Michael C. Hall for taking the time to speak with us. Be sure to check out The Trouble with Bliss when it hits select theaters and VOD this Friday, March 23.