The meeting place designated for my interview with Michael Carlyle Hall couldn’t be more grim: a colourless, low-ceilinged conference room in the bowels of a grey carbuncle nobody would miss if it vanished from Toronto’s skyline. Yet it feels entirely apposite to face the man who played Dexter Morgan in this drab dungeon; and when his publicist suggests that we stretch our legs and stroll over to a nearby park if the urge takes us, Hall’s face registers instant reluctance. He is happy to remain confined in this barren space, the sort that Dexter, the pragmatic, stubble-sporting serial killer hiding in plain sight, might select to dispatch the criminal filth he altruistically rids society of.
In person, as on screen, Hall’s deep-set eyes, square jaw and polite, soft-spoken charm make him seem ideally suited to locking away dark secrets. When I raise his reputation for being guarded, cited regularly in interviews, he shrugs a mildly irked acknowledgment: “I’ve noticed people say that about me.” It’s not how he sees himself, or feels his nearest and dearest view him. On the contrary, he has an appetite, he says, for “emotional intensity in my relationships. I like to really get into it and talk about things of consequence, rather than shooting the breeze.”
And so it proves as, thawing out minutes into our hour-long chat, Hall really gets into it: thoughtful, analytical, deeply intriguing. In the passionately told biopic Kill Your Darlings, the debut of the writer-director John Krokidas, Daniel Radcliffe stars as the young beat poet Allen Ginsberg, while Hall plays David Kammerer, a writer/intellectual obsessed with Ginsberg’s damaged college roommate, Lucien Carr (Dane DeHaan). Kammerer’s behaviour turns cruel and desperate as his grip on Carr slips away. “He’s pathetic, lovesick, not a cool dude,” says Hall, who was keen to put flesh onto a character who could appear the cartoon villain of this beats origin story. He meets a shocking death at Carr’s hands; at the murder trial, not shown in the film, Kammerer was painted as a moustache-twirling homosexual predator, helping Carr to land a reduced sentence.
Hall rejects this sinister reputation, having used a former assistant of the writer William Burroughs as a sounding board — though the screenplay doesn’t help by painting Kammerer as a sour gooseberry orbiting the hallowed quartet of Ginsberg, Burroughs, Carr and Kerouac. Yet these are baby steps for the actor, who needs to remind the film world he’s not just Dexter.
His breakthrough came late: he was 29 when he first came into pop-culture view as Six Feet Under’s uptight closet gay, David Fisher, having spent his twenties almost exclusively on stage, including a year on Broadway as the Emcee in Sam Mendes’s Cabaret. He took on David Fisher at a time when playing a gay man brought more potential for career blowback than now. But it’s with the death-soaked Dexter that he has etched his name in the small-screen annals. Initially sprung from a twisted novel by Jeff Lindsay, Darkly Dreaming Dexter, the killer is a hypnotically disturbing, singularly intense protagonist who ranks as one of the most extraordinary television characters of all time.
Subversively inviting its audience to embrace a serial killer, it became a unique phenomenon. “I thought we might have a cult following,” says Hall, who appears in almost every scene, as well as giving a darkly witty voiceover. “I didn’t anticipate the cult would be as wide or deep as it has turned out to be, or that there would be souvenir bobble-heads, or that we’d do eight seasons and Dexter would be a father and get married.”
Hall has, at the same time, ploughed a furrow of significant life experiences himself. “Fell in love, got married, got divorced, got cancer, had six months of chemo,” he recounts with a rueful smile. “Don’t try this at home.” In 2008, he married Jennifer Carpenter, the actress who plays his sister Deb; in 2009, he was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma; by 2010, he was in full remission; in 2011, he and Carpenter finalised their divorce. On a rosier note, he became a producer three seasons in, and proved instrumental in convincing eminent thesps such as John Lithgow and Charlotte Rampling to join the murderous fun.
Spending six months a year excavating the mindscape of a high-functioning psychopath sounds precarious, but Hall says the emotional toll only hit him during Dexter’s final season, which aired earlier this year. “All of a sudden, it was driving me crazy that I was playing these scenes,” he says. “It was like I was allowing myself to feel the full weight of what I’d been simulating because it was almost over. One of my first sensations was, ‘My God, what have I done?’ It chills me in a way that it didn’t when I was in the midst of it.” After 130-odd kills, now he feels guilty? For Hall, Dexter’s killing spree was about doing away with unchecked versions of himself, but, eight seasons in, there wasn’t much left to excise. “Once Deb discovered the truth, it created a built-in endgame. A part of me just couldn’t do it any more.”
For someone possessing his all-American-boy demeanour (down to the unprepossessing faded olive shirt he’s wearing today), it’s startling how steeped in death and darkness Hall’s career has been. He ascribes that to the legacy of losing his father to cancer when he was 11 and having a sister who died before he was born. “I think we attract the parts we play as much as we seek them out,” he muses. “There must be something that I’m still trying to work out about death and dying.” There’s also the feature Hall shot over the summer, Jim Mickle’s Cold in July, in which his small-town Texan kills a burglar and is left coping with the fallout. The film acted as a palate cleanser, “a way to visit murder from a more everyday perspective”.
Can he ever get away from Dexter? He doesn’t know, is the honest answer, and for now just intends to mix things up. He recently shot a documentary series about global warming in Bangladesh, hopes to do a play in New York in the new year and craves jobs that aren’t explicitly preoccupied with annihilation.
“I was reeling after Six Feet Under. Cut to eight years later and I’m Reeling 2.0,” he says. “But I couldn’t have imagined Dexter before it came along, and I’d like to believe I can’t quite imagine what the future holds now.”