Back in 2009 I was editor of a website called TV Scoop. One of my favourite moments was when I was invited to interview Dexter’s Michael C Hall and Jennifer Carpenter. Dexter was one of my favourite shows at the time, and I was beyond excited to actually meet and spend some time with the two stars. I just had to make sure I didn’t mangle my words through all the excitement. It was an interesting experience: Hall was friendly and accommodating but slightly guarded and super-professional, while Carpenter was a riot someone who you just couldn’t help but loving immediately. Interestingly, they ended up marrying a year later (and subsequently divorcing). Anyway, to kick things off, here’s the interview with Hall…
Paul Hirons: Well, it’s very nice to meet you Michael. I have to tell you that you have been part of two of my favourite TV series from the past decade.
Michael C Hall: Well, thank you very much.
PH: So here we are with Dexter. I’m in a hotel room with Dexter. We’re approaching series three, and by now we know what Dexter is all about. But what or who is Dexter to you? Is it a satire on peoples’ obsessions with serial killers? Is the show a morality play? Is it a comment on vigilantism? Is it a look at the duality between light and dark this is in everyone? Or is it one man’s struggle from the shackles of his family?
MCH: I would say yes to all of those things! [laughs] I think people enjoy the show for lots of different reasons. I don’t know whether I quite agree with the last question you posed. I don’t know that Dexter quite struggles with his affliction. I think he manages it, and sometimes that can result in a struggle. But by the third season he has, at least for the time being, surrendered any delusions that he can rehabilitate himself. He got involved with someone in the second series that played a large part in encouraging in him the idea of rehabilitation. But he ended up killing her. [laughs] So… You know, I don’t preoccupy myself with how the show might be described. I’m just more focused on standing guard over what I perceive to be Dexter’s truth. That, in itself, is somewhat elusive at times!
PH: Yeah, I bet. How do you get your head around it? You say that you preoccupy yourself with Dexter’s truth, but I can imagine that’s a shifting entity all on its own…
MCH: Yes, absolutely. I think it shifts for him too! I also think that the audience is in on his secret in a way that no one in Dexter’s world is. I don’t know how reliable a narrator he always is. I think we’re meant to be sceptical in the beginning, when he claims that he’s devoid of all human emotion. But on the flipside he starts entertaining the idea that he is experiencing himself in authentic, human ways. I think it’s never one thing or another. There’s a sense that whatever strides he makes in becoming more human, it allows him, from a more pragmatic point of view, to be a much better killer.
PH: Let’s take his relationship with Rita, for instance. I know it escalates in series three to levels we never thought possible when we first met Dexter. Even that… is that part of what he thinks reality should be?
MCH: He certainly didn’t set out to develop with Rita the way that they have. But at the same time the relationship has really served him. Aside from his obvious skeletons in the closet, whether it’s a simulation or not he’s a good companion to her and a very good surrogate father to her children. Also, if Dexter does make commitments to move forward in more formal ways with Rita, or becoming a father or whatever it is, while on the one hand those are human-seeming, conventional choices and commitments, they’re also acts of rebellion too – his foster father always told him that those sorts of things were never going to available or he’d never be able to pull them off. So every time he moves towards the light he’s also exercising a form of rebellion.
PH: Do you think that, as you put it, moving towards the light surprises Dexter in how nice and pleasant life can actually be, and the fact that he can be, genuinely, affected emotionally?
MCH: Yeah, I do. I think there is something that is, in spite of himself, soothing about her physical home and presence. Her and her children too. I’m reluctant to come down either way, part because I think it’s all meant to be ambiguous.
PH: I guess by the very nature of the show, and the cult viewership it attracts, and the forums and discussion boards that can pore over these things ad infinitum… as the person who actually plays Dexter, do you sometimes think, you know, isn’t it best just not to think about these things too hard and just enjoy the show for what each person enjoys it for?
MCH: Yeah. I think that my role as the person playing the character, and as much that I’m a producer on the show, is to make sure that we don’t veer too far in one direction or another. Otherwise it does become gratuitous. If you don’t honour the inherent sociopathic nature of this guy, and try to have him grow a heart… and yet he continues to kill people… you’re having you’re cake and eating it and being a bit disingenuous. For example, at the end of the second season where he kills Lila… before that he toys with the idea of turning himself in. That was something I initially recoiled from, because the first rule of Dexter’s code is to never get caught. The way that it was presented… there was too much of a sense that he was being ruled by this emerging sense of empathy, which I thought was really dangerous. In the end, it became an act of rebellion. He discovered that his father had passively killed himself when he saw what he created, so Dexter, in a way to defy his father, wanted to break that rule of getting caught. That was a way to shift the motivation. With Lila we saw him developing too, and growing a sense of gratitude. We see him thank Lila for helping him to move towards a place, in his world, a place of healing. But the healing has resulted with him becoming an even more potent killer. He stabs her in the heart. Remorselessly. So it’s tricky. [laughs]
PH: You’re not kidding! He must be incredible to play. You have the most amazing look for Dexter – the raised eyebrow, the passive look… a nice guy. You’re in this beautiful city, which I think is a perfect setting for Dexter (nice and sunny and gorgeous on the outside, a bit grimy underneath)…
PH: The show also makes me starving hungry every time I see the opening credits too! There seems to be metaphors around every corner. Man, I’m thinking about it all a bit too much, I know. But how do distance yourself from the show and its implications? How do you switch off?
MCH: It’s nice that our shooting schedule only last for about four-and-a-half months, so for the greater part of the year I’m not playing the part. I can catch my breath and reacquaint myself with other characters or myself. I think the longer you spend playing the character, the easier it gets. On the other it becomes trickier, because you’re negotiating what are, when you sign on to do another season, completely unchartered waters. I don’t know… yeah, I take my work home with me. When the show’s happening, there’s always some level of consideration or preoccupation about what story we’re telling. I wouldn’t have it any other way – it’s nice to be telling a story that’s so compelling.
PH: Dexter is one of TV’s greatest characters, for sure. You look at Dexter, who is essentially an actor…
MCH: Yeah, I agree with that.
PH: You look at David Fisher [from Six Feet Under] too, he was kind of a repressed actor type too. Do you like playing these ambiguous characters?
MCH: I think David is acting when we first meet him, but by the end of the first season he’s come out and realised that it doesn’t really solve everything. He has been his own worse enemy. Dexter has secrets that can’t be revealed, only covertly. Certainly, if you make an open-ended commitment to do a television series it is nice to play a character where there’s a great deal of complexity, conflict and room for growth.
PH: And I like the way he has developed. The first series saw him as the hunter, then it kind of switches roles in the second, and he becomes the hunted. What does series three hold for him? You mentioned that he goes towards the light a bit with Rita – does that have an effect on the way he kills?
MCH: I think the main thing, along with the sense of resolution and getting off the hook at the end of the second season, is that the code belongs to Dexter. He’s no longer beholden to this internalised version of himself by his father.
PH: Sounds dangerous to me!
MCH: Yeah, he can play fast and loose with the code now. Almost immediately, he’s willed himself into killing someone in a moment of passion. In a moment where he had no choice, but in a moment that sparks something within him that’s a bit of a turn on. So as he moves towards the light, that movement also sees him broadening his spectrum.
PH: How far can Dexter go?
MCH: Oh, I don’t know. Not indefinitely. We’ve signed up for seasons four and five. I’m hoping the writers will decide on an end game now, and start telling the story with that in mind so we’re not spinning plates.
Dexter ran for a further five series.