Michael C. Hall: Playing A Killer Role On 'Dexter' The star of Showtime's bloody crime drama talks about the show's eventual plans for an ending — and also about matters both professional and personal, from how he plays an emotionless killer to how Hall himself, while filming Dexter, has dealt with both cancer and a divorce.

Michael C. Hall: Playing A Killer Role On 'Dexter'

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This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. This Sunday, the Showtime drama series "Dexter" presents its sixth-season finale. The show stars Michael C. Hall - who played the mortician David Fisher on HBO's "Six Feet Under" - as Dexter Morgan, a serial killer who kills other serial killers, and who also works for the Miami Police Department as a blood-spatter expert.

"Dexter," the series, has just been renewed for two more seasons, and Hall, one of its executive producers, talked with our TV critic David Bianculli about the show's eventual plans for an ending - and also about matters both professional and personal, from how you play an emotionless killer to Hall himself - how Hall himself, while filming Dexter, has dealt with both cancer and a divorce.

DAVID BIANCULLI, BYLINE: Michael C. Hall, welcome back to FRESH AIR.

MICHAEL C. HALL: Thank you.

BIANCULLI: This sixth season of "Dexter" has thrown so many twists and you've been able to do so many things. And the sixth season finale is going to be coming up on Sunday, so we're very close to the end of this season, which has had a great surprise in it, and also has enabled your character to go dark and then go towards the light again and shift. And what can you say without making people want to change the channel right now?

HALL: Well, there's a thematic element in each "Dexter" season and I think the theme of season six has to do with his coming into a sense of a relationship to a spiritual life, a relationship to God, a relationship to the idea of religious belief. And that's initially happening because he feels an obligation to his son. He's enrolling him in a school that has a religious affiliation. It makes Dexter uncomfortable initially, but he realizes that the boy might have an appetite that Dexter at least consciously isn't aware of in himself, and so he moves forward and enrolls the boy in the school.

He also encounters a potential victim, who actually becomes a friend and confidant, and a Brother Sam character played by Mos...


HALL: ...known by many as Mos Def. He just goes by Mos now.


HALL: I think he's changing his name again. But an amazing actor...

BIANCULLI: Yeah. He can't shorten it much more. He'll just be M.

HALL: He'll be Mo. M, yes.


HALL: But he's someone who seems to have rehabilitated himself and managed his darkness by letting in the light of God, as he describes it. So that's something that's foreign and intriguing to Dexter. On the other side of the spectrum, in terms of what people can do with religious belief, are these killers, the Doomsday Killer, or killers, who are basing their heinous crimes on Scripture, specifically reenacting scenes from the Book of Revelation.

BIANCULLI: And played by Edward James Olmos and Tom Hanks.

HALL: Correct.

BIANCULLI: Well, it's difficult to talk about where the story is right now, but I think that I've found a clip that I can use without anyone yelling at me.


HALL: Okay.

BIANCULLI: This is from a very recent episode and it features you, as Dexter Morgan, and Josh Cooke, who plays Louis Greene, your babysitter's boyfriend. And he also happens to be a computer geeky intern at the Miami Police Department where Dexter works. And in this scene he's showing Dexter a new video game he's been designing. And as he describes the game, first we'll hear Dexter's thoughts in voiceover, and then when Dexter is asked for his opinion, you get to speak out loud.


JOSH COOKE: (as Louis) In my game, you can be the serial killer.

HALL: (as Dexter) What?

COOKE: (as Louis) See, you have these character choices. You can be Dahmer, Jack the Ripper, the Bay Harbor Butcher.

HALL: (as Dexter) I am the Bay Harbor Butcher.

COOKE: (as Louis) So what do you think?

HALL: (as Dexter) I think this is offensive. Who would choose to be a serial killer?

COOKE: (as Louis) Well, I mean it's like a - like a vicarious thrill.

HALL: (as Dexter) Vicarious thrill? How could you possibly know what it's like to take a life? Why would you even want to? It's a bad idea. Do something else.

BIANCULLI: That's Josh Cooke as Louis Greene and our guest, Michael C. Hall, as Dexter Morgan, the sometimes moralistic serial killer.

As you prepared for that scene, did you interpret it as fake outrage on Dexter's part or real outrage?

HALL: Certainly not. No. I think, I think it's an outrage that - I love moments on the show where Dexter surprises himself, where he doesn't have the time to calibrate whatever his response to something might be. I think that was actually a very genuine response on Dexter's part. And it's articulating a sense that he is - in spite of his emerging humanity, if you will - is still very much primarily engaged in the management of his darker impulses and is beyond the hope that he could wish them away or rehabilitate himself, but at the same time alive in him is some sort of wish that he didn't have to. And he's disgusted by this guy suggesting that you could just have a vicarious thrill pretending to be a serial killer.

I enjoy that scene. It's always nice when Dexter is able to covertly reveal some sort of truth to someone without telling them exactly why he's saying what he's saying or where he's coming from specifically.

BIANCULLI: And if this isn't too inside baseball, how different do you think Dexter's reaction in that scene is in season six compared to what it would have been in season one?

HALL: I think it's quite different. I think he would've had an easier, breezier response to it. Or may have kept his cool in a way that he wasn't able to. There have been ramifications. Dexter's lost his wife. He's indulged in relationships with killers that have nearly done him in and have done other people in. There are consequences that go beyond the sphere of his own world and his own life, but extend into the sphere of those around him and those he has grown to acknowledge he cares about and loves.

And what's interesting about the show, we're always walking a bit of a tightrope from the beginning, but now that tightrope feels like a piece of dental floss sometimes, you know.


HALL: It's - as he becomes more human - arguably, at least - or as he has experiences that are pushing him into realms that he never anticipated going - he moves toward a sense of humanity, towards a sense of light in a way. But that throws into relief what he does when he's indulging in his darkness. And the spectrum gets ever broad between the light and the dark, I think.

BIANCULLI: I think that's exactly the point that was made in a recent PBS documentary series, "America in Primetime." I don't know if you saw it, but in it - this surprises me: Two producers whose work I really love, Tom Fontana of "Homicide: Life on the Street" and David Simon of "The Wire," both said in this documentary that they think that "Dexter" goes too far by putting a serial killer as the protagonist.

HALL: Mm-hmm.

BIANCULLI: And - but I love "Dexter" too. So you're an executive producer. Defend your series.

HALL: Well, I think as, you know, the cards are not all on the table. As we spoke about earlier, the show has yet to end. I think when we reach the conclusion and it can be appreciated in its total, maybe then I could both weigh in on or defend "Dexter" in terms of what it's saying. But I'm honestly thrilled to be a part of something that...


HALL: ...that people like that feel goes too far.


BIANCULLI: It is an odd compliment, isn't it?

HALL: Yeah. I suppose. I mean there's a definite subversiveness to the show. It's inviting people to relish in the identification with someone who on paper is doing reprehensible things. I mean the whole anti-hero notion has been talked about a lot and I do think the show operates in a grey area morally. I like that about it. I like that it encourages people to - hopefully, at least - ask themselves a question about who they're rooting for and why they're rooting for him. I think the show is there to be appreciated on many different levels.

Some people do probably just have a thrill taking a ride and watching Dexter get the bad guys, but that really isn't what the show is about - at least not at this point.

BIANCULLI: Was it easy for you in reading scripts and shaping the role that first season to find the empathy in Dexter when he was very, very slowly finding any sorts of emotions in himself?

HALL: Yeah. It was something that I found ultimately I had to stop asking questions or stop thinking too hard about the fact that an actor - me - who is preoccupied with cultivating a sense of authenticity, and inasmuch as I am able, actually having an authentic experience, playing someone who claims to be without the capacity for authenticity, emotionally or otherwise, who's always pretended, in a way - pretending, rather - in a way it was liberating to let go of that preoccupation: Does this feel right?


HALL: Does this feel authentic? Am I telling the truth here? Playing someone who, as far as he was concerned when we first met him, was always simulating his behavior. But - so Dexter is an actor of sorts. But you want to honor the fact that at least, you know, back then he is completely clueless and completely without any sense of the reality of the moment he's simulating. But also he's got to be a good enough actor for us to believe that he's pulling this off. Even now as I talk about it, I find myself sort of just, you know, flushing myself down some sort of conceptual toilet. It's better just not to think too hard about it.


BIANCULLI: My guest is Michael C. Hall, star of the Showtime series "Dexter," which presents its sixth season finale this Sunday.

More after a break. This is FRESH AIR.


BIANCULLI: We're talking with Michael C. Hall, the star of Showtime's "Dexter," which is presenting its sixth season finale this Sunday.

In "Six Feet Under," which is I guess the first time I became aware of you as an actor, you played David Fisher, the pent-up mortician whose father, also a mortician, dies in the opening scene of the pilot of the premiere episode.

HALL: Right.

BIANCULLI: And so in the premiere, in this clip that I'd like to play, you're working on your own father's body, filling his facial wounds with putty when suddenly the spirit of your father peers over your shoulder and watches you work, very vocally and very disapprovingly. Your dad is played by an actor who would become much better known in subsequent years, the wonderful Richard Jenkins.


RICHARD JENKINS: (as Nathaniel Fisher) Couldn't this wait? I don't want you ruining my face.

HALL: (as David Fisher) It's a little late for that.

JENKINS: (as Nathaniel Fisher) Not funny.

HALL: (as David Fisher) I need to stay busy right now.

JENKINS: (as Nathaniel Fisher) So go reorganize some files or develop a new bookkeeping system, that's what you're good at. You never really had any aptitude for this stuff.

HALL: (as David Fisher) I know. What did I do with my life? I went to school to learn exactly how to do this stuff. Other kids my age were going to frat parties. I was draining corpses and refashioning severed ears out of wax.

JENKINS: (as Nathaniel Fisher) Thank you God I didn't lose an ear. I can only imagine what you'd do with that.

HALL: (as Dexter) I did it all for you. I did it to make you happy, you ungrateful son of a bitch.


BIANCULLI: You're laughing. What are your memories or your reactions?

HALL: I just love Richard. I mean he has such a sense of play, always, and can couple that with such a grounded sense of, you know, true emotional life. And I don't know, those are good memories. You know, that was the first time I did anything of any significance onscreen. And I just remember being so thankful that I was playing a character who was fraught with tension, and I didn't have to pretend I wasn't. And I don't know, it's just - I haven't heard that in a long time.

BIANCULLI: So I know that everybody's worried about spoilers, but it's been enough years. I feel like it's okay for me to ask you about the ending of "Six Feet Under," which I consider one of the, you know, five best endings of a TV series ever. And I'm a TV critic, so I'm geeky enough to keep track of these things.

The very end of "Six Feet Under" you think that it's ending with one person's death, and then it keeps going and you sort of go into the future and get the deaths of every major character. And the second that it happens and you start to realize what that pattern is, you go, oh. So when you found out about it the first time, was your first reaction oh, or was it oh with a different intonation?

HALL: I remember the story was that Alan went up to some cabin up north, northern California, and holed himself up and wrote that final script and he came back. And I remember reading it and being very taken with the script as a whole, but that final sequence, I loved it because it felt simultaneously surprising and obvious to - after having watched this show that has each episode start with a death, and you see that card, you see these people living a life in the midst of that - that they're implicated as well. That they die as well, that we all do. I think it provided the audience, certainly, with a sense of catharsis, a way to say goodbye to these characters that they spent this time with.

And as actors it was actually a gift to simulate the death of these characters that we'd been playing for so long. It might've helped us to put them to bed, as it were.

BIANCULLI: In "Six Feet" you played David, who was a gay character from the very first episode, and it wasn't so much that there were gay issues; there were just relationship issues.

HALL: Right.

BIANCULLI: With that character.

HALL: Yeah.

BIANCULLI: That's obviously a conscious choice from Alan Ball, the creator, but how did that make that different to act?

HALL: It made it a pleasure to act. David was relatable for many reasons but ultimately he was just a fundamentally human character. He was inherently contradictory. He was like a real person. He wasn't incidentally gay. He wasn't the, you know, wacky neighbor upstairs with the little dog or the comic relief. He was an integral part of the fabric of that world. And, you know, people used to ask me, did you - so, in spite of the fact that the character was gay, you decided to do this. And I said, well, no. I decided to do this in part because the character was gay.

That had so much to do with why he was such a rich character, why he was inherently conflicted and inherently dramatic. And I was doubly charged with a sense of wanting to get it right. I knew that David was unique at that point in the evolution of gay characters in television. And I was - I felt charged with something and honored to bring it to life.

BIANCULLI: My guest is Michael C. Hall, star of the Showtime series "Dexter," which presented its sixth season finale this Sunday. More after a break. This is FRESH AIR.


BIANCULLI: We're talking with Michael C. Hall, the star of Showtime's "Dexter," which is presenting its sixth season finale this Sunday. One similarity between "Six Feet Under" and "Dexter" that I find really odd is that here you go from one TV series where you work for several years to another series where you've worked now successfully for six years and you're going for two more, where your character gets to interact with your late father.

HALL: I know.


BIANCULLI: There aren't too many series - I mean, there's "Due South" and maybe a couple of others, but the idea of being able to get two in a row is odd enough and to have them be two terrific shows is upping the odds even more.

HALL: Yeah. My father passed away when I was 11 so I suppose I know in my own experience what it's like to have an internalized parental energy that really, as time goes on, has less and less to do with that person and more and more to do with some conversation I'm having with myself. So I can - I could and still can relate to that dynamic being very alive in someone's life, the fact that both characters have that relationship.

I guess Dexter initially, in the first couple of seasons we saw Harry and Dexter in flashback. We saw Dexter as a young boy, as an adolescent, as a young man or a younger man. But as we moved on, we wanted Harry's presence to remain, and so I started talking to him and there I was again.

BIANCULLI: Your dad died when he was 39.

HALL: Right.

BIANCULLI: And then if I have the timetable right on this, you were diagnosed with Hodgkin's lymphoma and underwent treatment like between seasons four and five for "Dexter" and somewhere while getting those treatments you turned 39. Is that right?

HALL: That's all exactly right. Yeah. My father died of prostate cancer at age 39, very young to die of that particular kind of cancer. So that age was always a marker for me.


HALL: And as I approached age 39 towards the end of the fourth season I had what I was jokingly referring to as alien eggs growing out of my neck. Had them biopsied to discover that they actually weren't alien eggs but were Hodgkin's lymphoma, they were infected lymph nodes. And I - in that little window between the biopsy and getting the news, which was probably 36 hours, I had a sense of what it might be. And when I discovered that I did in fact have Hodgkin's lymphoma, that I did in fact have cancer, I think I met it with a sense of bemusement as much as anything. It had been an age and a threshold in my life, given my dad's death from cancer...


HALL: ...that I'd always been preoccupied with and to have that present itself as part of the movement through that threshold made some kind of strange sense. I think I was able to meet it with some bemusement in part because I was assured from the beginning that, if you're going to get something, this was a good thing to get and that they knew how to treat it. I just needed to decide on a course of treatment.

BIANCULLI: Well, let me not waste any more time without asking how is your health now?

HALL: I'm good. I had a checkup about a week ago and, yeah, my blood work is all good. I go and see my oncologist periodically. But, yeah, all good. Thank you.

BIANCULLI: As we're speaking, I think very recently your divorce from your co-star Jennifer Carpenter was finalized.

HALL: Mm-hmm.

BIANCULLI: And yet while you've gone through a marriage and then a divorce in real life, on the show she plays Dexter's - your sister, Debra - she's been promoted on the show. She's done astounding work this season and having even more written for her. You're both delivering great performances. What are you comfortable about saying in terms of how you've managed to get through serious real-life stuff while still being true to the characters and being there for each other as actors? That can't be easy.

HALL: It's a challenge. It's a unique challenge, one unprecedented, I think, in my experience certainly, and I haven't been able to really compare notes with anyone about it. But I think Jennifer is an astonishing actress. I love working with her. She remains a dear friend, along with a dear colleague, and I think we take some pride in the fact that we've maintained not just our professionalism but our sense of enthusiasm about the story that we continue to get to tell.

And the story continues for us. We're still in the other's life, in a different capacity, I suppose. But it's an amicable situation, to say the least.

BIANCULLI: As you see it, whenever "Dexter" does end, in a general sense do you think that he should be apprehended or somehow punished? Or in the final episode should he get away with murders?

HALL: I sometimes feel like Dexter's press secretary, finding a way to answer this without saying anything.


HALL: In part because I truly don't know with any sense of certainty how things will end. I will say that I don't think we want to watch Dexter on trial or watch Dexter go through the food line in prison. But I could be wrong. Maybe I don't want to watch that.


HALL: It is hard to imagine him getting away with it and I imagine wherever we are in the story, at the end, if he gets away with it on paper I don't know that we'll see him getting away with it internally. But I really - I don't know.


BIANCULLI: That's fair enough. Well, Michael C. Hall, thanks for being here on FRESH AIR.

HALL: Yeah. It's my pleasure.

GROSS: Michael C. Hall spoke with our TV critic David Bianculli. Hall's Showtime series "Dexter" will present its sixth season finale this Sunday. David is the founder and editor of tvworthwatching.com and teaches at Rowan University. You can download podcasts of our show on our website, freshair.npr.org. And you can find us on Facebook and join us on Twitter at nprfreshair. I'm Terry Gross.

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