Tonight is the penultimate episode of Showtime's "Dexter's" penultimate season, and eponymous star Michael C. Hall, who has made a career of handling the dead for over a decade — first as repressed, gay undertaker David Fisher on HBO's "Six Feet Under," and now as a serial killer with a moral code who methodically dispenses Miami of its worst criminals — is starting to contemplate life beyond the macabre. It's been an eerie decade for Hall, having to portray two different men on either side of the corpse business who are both haunted and guided by the ghosts of their fathers, because it’s an experience that’s all too familiar. The actor lost his dad when he was 11, and had his own brush with mortality four years ago, when, at 38 — the same age Hall's father was when he died from prostate cancer — he was diagnosed with Hodgkin's lymphoma. (Hall has been in remission ever since.)
Hall talked with Salon earlier this week about his brilliantly morbid TV career trajectory, the virtues of playing an uptight funeral director, and the fate that awaits Miami’s most prolific murderer.
After last week’s episode, it would seem Dexter could be at a make-or-break point with his love of the season, the serial killer with a green thumb, Hannah. Killing your girlfriend's father could really be a dealbreaker ... On the one hand, I think, he’s come a long way since Rita, because when we first met him, he was abstaining from sex. Will Dexter ever be able to sustain a love relationship?
He’s obviously come a long way. When we meet Dexter, he comes without the capacity for authentic human emotion, and without the ability to really understand or appreciate what sexual attraction is about. So, he’s in a place now that I couldn’t have imagined, and I don’t think Dexter could have imagined it either. I think to move the story forward our writers have felt compelled to move Dexter in a direction characterized by a richer experience of his potential human self and human emotion and all that. With Rita, that relationship was characterized by a certain degree of deceit, of hiding. To salvage that relationship after what he’d done to her ex [killing Rita’s abusive ex-husband], he pretended to be a heroin addict and went to Narcotics Anonymous, and found himself confronted with a woman, Lila, who seemed to have an appetite for what he was hiding from the [world], for his darker impulses or characteristics. I think Dexter discovered in spite of himself that he had an appetite of his own for revelation.
Dexter makes claims about what he does and doesn’t want and who he is and who he isn’t, but we’re meant to be suspicious and he’s perhaps not the most reliable narrator. And in spite of anything he initially tells us, I think there exists in him a real appetite for connection, for revelation, for acceptance. And it was initially exploited by his brother (the Ice Truck Killer), and I think has been exploited since then primarily in his relationships with women. But also in relationships with Miguel Prado, Jimmy Smits’ character, or the Trinity Killer, John Lithgow. But if there’s anything that characterizes these very sort of dangerous relationships that are the most intimate for Dexter, they are the least burdened by hiding or deceit. I don’t know if he can have the relationship that he longs for. Is there any hope for Dexter to have a relationship that is ultimately happy, if not healthy? I don’t know if there is, given what he requires in a partner, in terms of the appetite -- someone who has willingness or eagerness to accept all of who he is. If someone does that, then they are in on some pretty dangerous secrets, and probably have some secrets of their own. We see that in the case of Hannah. There is a connection with her that’s certainly legitimate. There’s a real danger. I've had the experience with other people on the show, and I’ve certainly had it with Yvonne [Strahovski, who plays Hannah]. We would play scenes and just start laughing because the relationship we were simulating felt kind of traditional in a way, but the context is so beyond bananas [laughs].
I can only imagine the personal ad: I like gardening and boating, and sharing my kills. It's pretty cynical. But that's the direction TV has gone: Writers have become so enamored of this storytelling convention these last 10, 15 years, of cognitive dissonance, making us fall in love with a lawless, or amoral protagonist. Of course, we always want Dexter to get away with any murder, and you as an actor sell it. Because of what you bring to Dexter, we understand his motivation, you understand how this happens, and mentally disassociate with the darker side of killing and can rationalize your own blood thirst by saying, "Well, he is killing bad, hateful people." He's like Travis Bickle's dream guy, cleaning the streets of the "trash."
Yeah, the story is told subjectively, there is the voice-over, so we’re meant to see things through his eyes. Though I think everybody can relate to Dexter’s impulse in as much as most people would confess to have it in a fleeting way. In Dexter we’re invited to consider and maybe identify with someone who is overwhelmed by that impulse — for whom that impulse is perpetual. He has no hope but to manage it. It’s relatable enough, even though the level of severity is beyond anything 99.9 percent of people would experience. The fact that he’s seemed to have taken some responsibility for that impulse and focused it on people who arguably deserved it invites us to root for him.
With Deborah now in on the secret, it's like she’s assumed the viewer's burden, trying to rationalize his moral code, such as it is, along with us. Except with her, she is wondering if she could use her brother as an additional weapon in her artillery as a law enforcer. She is the only person he's been able to trust through the years. Each season, Dexter is presented with a person who baits his desire to trust, and rebel against his father, who warned him since he was a child to never trust anybody. What a burden to put on a child — it's a kind of life sentence, to doom them to an eternity of companionlessness.
It's the saddest thing about Dexter, the way he was brought up: His father really focused on the monster side of Dexter and worked to whether he was harnessing it, or managing it, or augmenting it, or encouraging it, basically shut the door on an appetite for any more traditional experiences. I think when we meet Dexter, at the beginning of the first season, he’s doing OK, because his appetite for humanity has yet to be exploited. And it’s really only Dexter’s appetite for collection and revelation and acceptance that gets other people in trouble.
Your entire TV career has focused on death, you've gone from undertaker in "Six Feet Under" to serial killer.
Yeah, I’m on the supply side now.
And in both series, you've been haunted by your dead father. You lost your father when you were young. What has this been like for you to be guided by the ghosts of two fathers?
I never had a sort of conscious desire to, in one way or another, surround myself with dead bodies with my work, but I can’t say it’s purely coincidental that I’ve found myself playing these two characters. But I feel, at the same time, that these characters found me as much as I found them. It wasn’t like I had the choice between Dexter or David Fisher and a hundred other things. They just sort of materialized at the right time and I took them on. But, I think, I’ll probably need to have some time away from this decade-plus of my life before I can appreciate the number it’s done on me. It’s been such a constant. I know we don’t shoot the season 12 months of the year, but as long as the ball is still in the air and it’s on the horizon in some way, it’s never quite finished in your subconscious. Only when Dexter is really put to bed will I appreciate what I’ve carried around with me.
I can imagine that these characters creep into your head, and hold you captive and you develop a kind of Stockholm syndrome, where you start identifying with your captor, and internalize them so deeply. I can’t imagine what it must have been like to let David Fisher go and then transition into Dexter.
With "Six Feet Under," we were given a gift in a way, by Alan Ball. The show ended with collective grieving when Nate died and we were all able to, I think in the second to last episode, bury him and grieve his loss as actors, and as a family of actors grieve what was the imminent loss of the show. And then all of us got to simulate our own deaths, which, I think, actually really helped. At least in my case, it really helped me to let the character go, actually film him dying. I don’t know that Dexter will provide that opportunity, but that would probably help the grieving side of it. As far as David versus Dexter, sometimes I wonder if Dexter is a person. Sometimes he feels more like an idea. David is more relatable in a more everyday sense, he was unique in his way, but I think he was more of an Everyman than Dexter. When I got the role of David, I really felt charged with a responsibility to get it right. I appreciated that David Fisher was a character unique to anything. You know, such a fundamental part of the rich fabric of that show — he wasn’t an incidental character, he wasn’t incidentally gay.
You've had a lot to grapple with during your tenure at "Dexter," not least of which, battling Hodgkin's lymphoma. Was it cathartic to be playing a serial killer while you were facing your own mortality?
The real resonance was not so much about my work, but my life, insomuch as my father died of cancer when he was 39, and I found out I had my own form of cancer when I was 38. I turned 39 when I was being treated; that age had always been a sort of threshold that I imagined crossing. And to cross it while undergoing treatment created a sense of bemusement. But more than anything I felt very lucky. I felt very lucky to have something as treatable as it was, to have caught it at an early age, to be in otherwise good health, to have good health insurance, to have the treatment coincide with a hiatus from work, so I could focus on doing the treatment and getting through it. I kind of bristle when people say, “You beat cancer.” I didn’t beat anything. I took a combination of four chemotherapy drugs that effectively sent it into remission, but I didn’t beat anything. And people who die of cancer don’t lose their battle to cancer: All that language kind of makes me crazy. I don’t want to be submissive, or underplay its significance, but at the same time I feel like I kind of made room for what I needed to make room for and focused on the day-to-day process of going through the treatment. And I got through it, and thankfully it worked. You know, I’ve had members of my family who have successfully treated cancer; I’ve had members of my family who have died from it. Enough people in my family have had cancer that when I told my mother about it she said, "Well, welcome to the club."
The series has one more season. Do you want Dexter to get caught?
I don’t know. I imagine Dexter is going to get caught one way or the other. And by that I mean, can we really expect him, at this point, to walk into the sunset? Or get off without a blemish on his conscience or character? In a way, he is already caught. Once Rita dies he is caught. Once Deb is in on the secret he is caught. And what he’s caught by is the undeniable fact that how he conducts himself has an effect on more than just him and his victims. As far as whether he goes to jail, or gets put to death, or gets hit by a bus or whatever it might be, I can’t say. But I think, in a way, we are watching someone slowly but surely get caught.