Monsters as horrible as Chucky or Jason or Freddy Krueger can't compare to the title character on Showtime's Dexter. He's doubly frightening because real serial killers like him exist.
As embodied by actor Michael C. Hall, the antihero Dexter not only harbors an evil side but a benevolent one: He is a respected Miami police-department analyst who has a sideline as a vigilante killer of criminals who manage to escape justice. Combining the opposites is what makes Dexter fascinating to watch and to portray.
"Dexter's a vexing character," Hall says of the character he has played for seven seasons and for which he has won A Golden Globe and earned five Emmy nominations. "In some ways I feel like he's a person who could never be; he's an idea. It's implausible to think that someone could pull off what we're invited to believe he's pulling off. So that's tricky. And you can't really spend too much time thinking about logistical implausibility. (You must) let it work on a more symbolic or metaphoric level.
Just accepting the creepy role was an act of valor. Hall had just come off playing mortician David Fisher in Six Feet Under. He was severely cautioned against both roles.
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"I've welcomed that, and I don't entirely feel they're choices I've made. I feel that the roles chose me," he says.
"It's not like I looked at every other part that was available for an actor on television and decided, 'You know, I think I'll play David Fisher.' It just came across my desk. And when I read that script for Six Feet Under's pilot, I had the sense I knew how to do it," says Hall, 41.
"Because he was a gay character — and this was back in '99 — when I auditioned there was a sense, 'You're going to be pigeonholed. You're going to shoot yourself in the foot.' I heard that, but the question I asked myself was, 'Well, am I an actor or not? This is as complex a character and rich an overall world as any I've read in any play, television script or new film script that I've seen. If there is some issue of typecasting or hamstringing myself, I'll deal with that.'"
But it turns out he has dealt with much worse. Hall was diagnosed with a form of Hodgkin's lymphoma and had to undergo chemotherapy while he was making Dexter. About that he says, "Thankfully I'm fine and out of the woods. "
A short time later he and his second wife, Louisville native Jennifer Carpenter, divorced. She plays his sister on Dexter, and they continue to work together on the series.
"It's a challenge, I won't pretend it's not a unique and unprecedented dynamic that exists for both of us in our relationship," he says.
"But I think we really have truly remained friends and certainly colleagues who have a lot of respect for one another and a lot of respect for the show. I've always taken pride in that and wasn't going to allow whatever transpired to jeopardize that, and I'm very thankful that we were always on the same page about that — whatever twists and turns we had to navigate personally ... ."
Pausing, he adds, "I think we both actually take a lot of pride in the way that we maintained our professionalism, our commitment to one another, our commitment to the characters we're playing in the show. It's certainly a lot more interesting than we anticipated going in."
Though he confesses he sometimes feels unequal to the task, taking risks has been part of his life. For that he credits his mother, Janice Styons Hall. When the actor was 11 and growing up in Raleigh, N.C., his father died. He was an only child, and his mother supported him as a teacher, guidance counselor and eventually dean of students.
"I think my mother has everything to do with everything that's strong about me," he says. "She's the constant in my life. She's the one who's always been there of course, and before I was born she lost her first-born child and lost her husband, which I saw happen.
"A few years after that, her older sister and best friend and her mother died. It was sudden and a blow. Mom bore up through a lot of loss and not only managed to survive but to continue to grow and evolve as a person, and keep her mind and heart open. And that's been a really good model."
A spiritual person, Hall explains, "I don't identify myself with any ... particular religious faith, though part of my exploration is reading and talking about different faiths. I'm more interested in finding commonalities than differences, and I think that's probably something that informs what I try to do in relationships with people. That's something that continues to evolve. My experience of the spiritual is probably most potent in my experience interacting with other people and doing my best to be present for that."