My worst moment: Anthony Michael Hall on rejection as a child actor

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In the original 1978 horror movie “Halloween,” Jamie Lee Curtis plays a teenage babysitter to a little boy named Tommy Doyle. In the latest incarnation of the franchise, “Halloween Kills,” Tommy Doyle is all grown up and facing down Michael Myers once in again, and he’s played by Anthony Michael Hall.

“It’s really fun being part of a franchise people are anticipating,” said Hall. “The movie starts out with the survivors having a group session in the bar, so it’s directly threaded from ‘78 to the present.”

Hall, who goes by Mike, has been acting since he was a child. He was a staple in films either writer and/or directed by John Hughes in the 1980s, including “National Lampoon’s Vacation,” “Sixteen Candles,” “The Breakfast Club” and “Weird Science.”

Despite the prevalence of reboots at the moment, Hughes’ most famous titles have yet to be re-imagined. “I’m kind of glad, to be honest,” said Hall. “Out of respect for Mr. Hughes (who died in 2009). If he was rebooting them himself and giving them his blessing, that would be one thing. But I think his work is so special, I think it should be left alone. Time will tell, I guess.”

When asked about a worst moment in his career, Hall recalled a memory from a time before everything took off for him professionally.

My worst moment …

“There are some raunchier versions I could have responded with here, but also stories about people I’ve worked with, but I don’t really like to disparage people. So I thought of a story, and it’s actually kind of sweet.

“I auditioned for ‘On Golden Pond’ (from 1981 starring Katharine Hepburn and Henry Fonda) and I went through a series of auditions on the project. And I think what made it unique was working with the director Mark Rydell in the audition phase, he was just really cool about it. There were multiple callbacks and I was just a little kid, like 8 or 9 years old at the time.

“And on the final callback, after my audition, I was sitting there with the other kid actors in the waiting room and Mark Rydell came out and kind of broke the news to me (that the role was going to someone else), but the way he did it was really special. He did it with the love of a father or a grandfather. He was very forthright and honest. It’s like those parents who speak to their kids as adults from a young age. I think he said something to the effect of, ‘Unfortunately we’re going to go in a different direction, but I just wanted you to know that you did such a great job.’ Very gentle and caring.

“It was incredible. I was upset in that moment. I mean, I did want it. Even as a peanut of a kid, I knew how big of an opportunity it was to work with the Fondas (Jane Fonda also has a small role in the film). But at the same time I was very impressed with how he took care of it, in a very nice and caring way. And I wasn’t even really working as a child actor at the time.”

Hall had one or two minor screen credits when he auditioned for the film.

“This was a brand new thing for me. I was raised in New York City, I was the son of a single mom, and I remember I had a seriousness about it. I would leave school and take a bus or train and go to these auditions, and I kind of had this workman ethic even as a little kid. And that project, that was a bummer not to get it. A letdown. But I also thought the way he handled it was cool. That always stuck with me, I thought Rydell was classy and a very nice man about it.

“It taught me respect for the work and that it was a process. That I had to hit the streets and pound the pavement. Even as a kid, on a subconscious level, I think I was making that connection. This was a job and I took it seriously and that was kicking in for me.

“If I looked back at my life and it was a document of all the awkward auditions I did, I mean that would be pretty funny to watch. Because you can feel when it’s not working. You feel off. You don’t care or they don’t care or there’s too many people in the room looking at you like: Show us something (laughs). Just scores of awkward auditions, where you’re in a small room and there’s eight people on folding chairs all pushed to one side of the room, and that can throw you if they start talking among themselves or say little judgy things. You build a thick skin. And what I learned to do is just go right into the scene, that was the easiest way to circumvent that. But I have literally decades of awkward auditions.”

Hall landed “National Lampoon’s Vacation” two years after “One Golden Pond” came out. Did those two years feel like a long time?

“Like career stress? No, that’s a great question. I don’t recall. Hopefully, I just kind of reflexively fell back into being a kid. When I think it got serious for me was after I did the movies for Hughes. It was like: Wow, I have a career. I gotta work at this and treat it with respect. Not to sound funny, but I was like, I want to do this until I’m an old man, so I want to take it seriously and have a long career.

“When I got ‘Vacation,’ it was elation. I’m 53, so I growing up in the ‘70s and watching ‘Saturday Night Live’ was a big deal. I really always loved and enjoyed that original cast, so as a kid working with some of these legends on that film was incredible — Chevy Chase and John Candy, Imogene Coca and Brian Doyle Murray. Harold Ramis (the film’s director), he had a lot of the same qualities as John Hughes; two great guys from Chicago.”

Hall was in back-to-back hits as a teenager, what was it like to acclimate to sudden fame?

“That could be a very long answer. I think it took me a while to process what I went through in those three or four years — including my time on ‘SNL’ (he joined the ensemble for the ‘85-’86 season when he was 17) — it was very intense (laughs). But when I look back on it, I’m proud of myself. I realized I met those challenges, even though I made a lot of mistakes as a kid and even into my adulthood, I might add (laughs).”

The takeaway …

“I think that audition for ‘On Golden Pond’ was a hard, tough lesson about showbiz. You’re not always gonna win ‘em. But I also thought it was a lesson in grace from Rydell, too. The fact that he was able to be tender with a little kid.

“But I think on another level, I was learning what the industry expects and demands. So you really always have to earn it.

“I did end up watching ‘On Golden Pond’ when it came out and it wasn’t awkward. It was more like, wow, that became a great film. Maybe I did feel a sting knowing I didn’t get the part, but I don’t think so. I wasn’t so attached to the business of it all, because I was just a little kid.”

nmetz@chicagotribune.com

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