Michael C Hall arrives to the set of his photo shoot—a sprawling Glendale estate—in army-green attire, the earthy ensemble that his longtime character, beloved serial killer Dexter Morgan, sports as camouflage to hide his alienation and blend into society. In Los Angeles, where Hall’s face seems to occupy every billboard, his nondescript apparel masks the celebrity—seems like he learned a thing or two from channeling Dexter, the enigmatic antihero he plays to such great effect on the hit Showtime series, Dexter.
The 40-year-old actor began his career on the stage. Equipped with the necessary chops—he can sing, dance, and act—Hall appeared in numerous theater productions before booking a part in the revival of Cabaret, his first Broadway role. Cabaret’s director, Oscar winner Sam Mendes, recommended Hall to producer Alan Ball for the part of David Fisher, a closeted funeral home operator in the drama series, Six Feet Under (True Blood creator Ball’s firstborn with HBO). A year after the show wrapped its fifth and final season, Hall landed the lead role on Dexter, which is currently in its sixth season.
A Miami-based blood splatter analyst, his occupation allows Dexter to access confidential information as well as solve cases—for his own vigilante agenda—which he then uses to kill the area’s most notorious killers. A childhood trauma left him not only with an insatiable appetite for violence, but also with an acute sense of alienation, which is often obscured by his always-placid disposition. As he puts it, if he could love anyone, it would be his sister, Deb, played by Hall’s real-life ex-wife Jennifer Carpenter (the pair filed for divorce in December 2010), the only non-murderous human to whom he can kind of relate.
The hypocrisy of Dexter’s actions—it’s okay to kill, so long as the person you’re offing is morally bankrupt—isn’t enough to keep the show’s zealous fans from rooting for him as he avenges the bad guys, always making sure he has proof for his (and for our) peace of mind. We like to believe that he cleans the streets while turning a blind eye to his peculiar rituals, and we look the other way as pleasure flashes across his face at the sight of his kind. We grant him immunity as if he were his own one-man secret society, for he allows us, in exchange, to indulge vicariously in our own suppressed appetites for justice without consequence.
Before being adapted for television, Dexter was a series of crime novels written by Mormon apologist Jeff Lindsay. The author has admitted publicly that he was, at first, skeptical about having Hall portray his prized antagonist, as he associated him too much with his previous role, “the gay brother from Six Feet Under.” Hall had fallen victim to the curse of the convincing actor, but what Lindsay failed to realize was that just because Hall excelled in one extreme didn’t mean he couldn’t take on another just as gracefully. The writer was later quoted saying, “I didn’t know there were actors that good, and I didn’t know Michael was one of them.” Thanks to Hall’s Golden Globe–winning performance, Dexter reached an average of five million weekly viewers last season, earning the title of Showtime’s most-watched original series.
In person, Hall appears quite handsome and charming when his infamous gaze, the “blue-steel” of sinister, is safely tucked away. He seems reluctant as he surveys the Jim Jones–inspired ranch where we’ve scheduled his photo shoot, scanning a clumsily built shack, a rickety trampoline, and rusty cages overgrown with ivy. He’s obviously worried that he’ll forever be associated with all things creepy, a concern that worsens when he meets the models we’ve hired: young women who’ll play the child-brides to his cult leader. But as he’s always done throughout his varied career, Hall welcomes the challenge of entering the world of a new character.
The photographer motions the model to put her hand on Hall’s thigh. He shuffles uncomfortably as their bodies entangle into one another on the dusty matress. His often-masked masculinity becomes overwhelming in a white tank top. His piercing eyes transition effortlessly between darkly intense and amicably placid as the shutter clicks. From the looks being thrown his way by his nervously giggling “cult girls,” it becomes obvious Hall could play the role of a heartthrob in his sleep.
The next morning, Hall meets me for breakfast at Café 101, a ‘30s-themed Hollywood diner on Franklin Avenue. His mask this time is a baseball hat, pulled all the way down so that it covers the top-half of his face. Not long after his oatmeal arrives topped with a sad, brown banana, I begin to probe him for secrets, using the theme of this issue as an excuse. “I have a childhood secret,” he offers, smiling.
Back in the second grade, he and his friends hung out by a creek near their homes in Northern Virginia, until a construction crew threatened to replace their sanctuary with an apartment complex. “We took it upon ourselves to drive them out and get them to stop building the complex,” he says. “We did all kinds of things to their equipment when they weren’t there. The tamer version of what we did involved spreading a concoction of peanut butter and jelly all over their truck’s console, steering wheel, and shifting gears. When we got particularly adventurous, we’d pee all over the tractor seats, and, you know, it got progressively worse over the course of a few weeks.” While describing the exhilaration he felt from hiding his youthful rebellion from his parents, he looks every bit the part of Dexter—albeit a milder version.
Hall’s mainstream success is being the lovechild of HBO and Showtime, who aren’t bad parents to have in this industry. The actor has marked his territory in contemporary television by starring in two of the most reputable networks’ highest regarded series. By abandoning traditional television’s repetitive formulas and refusing to give into predictability, Six Feet Under was among the first of its kind: a cinema-quality drama that didn’t have to end in 90 minutes. Centered on a dysfunctional family running a funeral home, Six Feet Under examined death from the perspective of characters who were born into its casualty. The series concluded in 2005 after five years on the air, leaving behind a loyal following and well-deserved critical acclaim for Hall.
Fittingly, Six Feet Under ended its run with an episode that revealed the way each of the show’s characters would eventually die. Of his exit from the show, Hall says, “I had a conversation with Lauren Ambrose [who played David’s sister, Claire Fisher, in the series] the day after the finale aired. We were both like, ‘This is probably it, right?’ The last thing I thought I’d do was another television show. I certainly thought that I’ve been spoiled beyond the ability to appreciate any other experience in TV, given how sublime Six Feet Under was.”
It didn’t take long, however, for Hall to sign a contract with his “dark passenger.” About landing the part of Dexter only a year later, he says, “I felt so lucky. I felt like I had shit on both of my shoes.” His tone tells me that this is meant to be a pleasant thing. “It’s not supposed to happen this way.” Although Hall’s two most celebrated roles couldn’t be more different on paper (one cleans up the mess the other makes), they’re both deeply rooted in secrecy. As Dexter Morgan, his secret threatens to send him to death row, but as David Fisher, his secret—his homosexuality—is less destructive, although no less closely guarded for it. Whether by design or coincidence, Hall has become the poster boy for mortality, which can’t help but affect his personal life. Does he see a therapist? Hall nods to confirm. “It’s probably affected my psyche in ways that I can’t really appreciate or articulate, but I haven’t completely lost my mind or anything,” he says. “I still understand that it’s all make-believe.”
With Dexter’s new season comes a much-needed antidote to the monotony of Sunday nights, this time by tapping into some spiritual territory with its biblically charged villains and Dexter’s newfound curiosity about his divine purpose. Never before has America had a sweetheart that was an antagonist of such intensity. I turn to Hall for his secrets of making the self-rationalized character so relatable. Chalk it up to modesty, but he says it’s the darkness within us all—and not his superb acting—that’s responsible for Dexter’s popularity. “I can definitely relate to the simultaneous burden and exhilaration of behaving in some taboo way,” he says. “I think we all have a bag of shadows that we drag around with us. Maybe not as formidable as Dexter’s, but I think that’s a part of what we relate to. I can relate to a sense of compartmentalization, a sense of compulsion—I mean, I’m compelled to do things, but thankfully, it’s not killing and chopping people up.”
Hall admits that besides their mutual compulsion to misbehave, he shares with Dexter a search for authenticity, as well as an appreciation for anonymity. “He has a sense of lacking authenticity or faking of all human interaction. I mean I strive for authenticity in a way that he does. I know what it is to feel that I’m wearing a mask to suit whatever situation I’m in, I think we all do that.”
The increasing number of morally wayward characters stealing screen time from traditionally loveable protagonists—Breaking Bad’s Walter White, Weeds’ Nancy Botwin, The Sopranos’ Tony Soprano, Boardwalk Empire’s Nucky Thompson, Californication’s Hank Moody, to name a few—suggests that we, as a nation, are fascinated by—and perhaps envious of—those who embrace their darkness, disregard authority, and abandon all principles except that of nature: survival of the fittest. There is a visible shift of empathy from the hero to the villain, making the anti-hero the new hero. “I think we live in a time where a lot of people feel an increasing sense that they have no control over their world,” Hall says. “So there’s a vicarious thrill to spending time with a character, who in his own way, and in his own little corner of the world, has taken some form of control.”
Unlike Dexter, Hall is effortlessly “connected” to the world and those who surround him. For example, the man can carry a tune—and he’s not ashamed to let people know. “I sing,” he says. “But that’s no secret.” He has an authoritative voice that resembles a historian. (He is fittingly narrating a series on the History Channel about the Vietnam War) The thick quality of his tone must be what allows him to portray such a believable master manipulator. Even when he jokes, his voice carries such a tone of assurance that it makes you question his deadpan sarcasm. “Why did you close your little book?” he says. “Are you done with me?” with a steady stare. He is very funny, but seriously.
Even in 2009, when Hall was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma—something he shared with the world at the Golden Globe Awards when he accepted his trophy wearing a beanie to cover his hair loss—he was able to break the ice. “It is nice to have a justifiable excuse for accessorizing,” he announced, immediately cutting the otherwise palpable tension. Fortunately his illness went into remission soon after and he is now fully recovered. “I’m more comfortable with a society that values life, but also doesn’t deny the existence, the inevitability of death,” he says.
Hall has since been lending his name to the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society, an organization that raises money for research to find a cure, and to support fellow survivors battling the disease. His face is currently plastered across billboards in Hollywood to raise awareness about the foundation’s Light the Night Walk, an annual event that takes place around the world.
Then there are, of course, the other billboards, the ones for Dexter, in which Hall is flanked on either side by blood-splatter wings. It suggests he now serves a higher purpose than just getting off on human-stained plastic wrap. But what does it all mean? Will Dexter begin to see what we’ve seen all along: That he is the embodiment of divine intervention. “I want to believe in divine intervention,” Hall says before leaving the restaurant. “It’s hard to definitively say ‘yes’ or ‘no’ to questions like that, but there are facts of my own story or other peoples’ story that seem to have been guided by a knowing beyond their individual mind.”