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When Sam Mendes recommended Michael C. Hall to his American Beauty scribe Alan Ball for the role of David Fisher, the closeted brother in HBO’s Six Feet Under, it was the beginning of a 13-year period in which he starred in two critically acclaimed cable series, taking the lead role in Showtime’s Dexter after Six Feet Under ended.
The actor recently sat down with The Hollywood Reporter to talk about what he thought of Dexter‘s controversial ending and how he plans to move on from his Emmy-nominated role as a serial killer.
Dexter is a unique role that has the potential to really define an actor. How conscious are you of the “Dexter baggage” in deciding what roles to play?
There’s no individual role that is going to undo the Dexter-ization of your image, but it’s nice just to continue to move forward and start to mix it up. The biggest thing is not being bound by the schedule of having to return again and again to the same TV show.
How conscious of it am I? I was conscious of it when I looked at the Cold in July script and saw that my character killed someone in the first few pages. The context, though, in which that happens is so fundamentally different, both in terms of the character himself and the world he’s living in. Frankly, it was therapeutic to do this on the heels of Dexter and to play someone who has a greater sense of human remorse. That’s actually how I felt after Dexter ended. I realized there was a part of myself that I probably had short-circuited so I could play someone who was able to kill someone and go have a sandwich. One of the first spontaneous thoughts I had when it was all over was, “What have I done?”
On the heels of playing David Fisher [in Six Feet Under] and Dexter, what is like now to play a character with a finite arc, where you know how his story will end? Is there something freeing about it?
There something really fun about it. It’s like having love affairs after a marriage. You’re there and then it’s over. It’s very refreshing to put things down you know you won’t pick up again.
When did you know how Dexter would end?
I knew broad-stroke-wise only when we were going into the final season. I had the sense of how Dexter might end at different junctures over the life of the show, but those started to fall away as we moved forward.
Meaning that the success of the show led to there being additional seasons and new endings had to be created?
Yeah, if we ended at the fourth season, that would have been a pretty bad-ass ending. But we moved forward, and the character was reeling from that point on. I think he really lost access to a center once Rita (Julie Benz) was killed. And the rest of the show showed a world and a character who were really spiraling.
How do you feel about how the show ultimately ended?
I feel good in the sense that Dexter made a recognition about the way he lived his life and the way it had affected those closest to him, which inspires him to fake his own death and exile himself from the world. The way it was executed was maybe less than optimal. I think you spend more and more storytelling capital as a show goes on and on and on, and I think we struggled to have the inherent torque we started with.
Is this a case where having a successful TV show creates the added challenge of needing more story?
Yes, but it was a many-headed monster. Clyde Phillips, who was our leader for the first four seasons, jumped ship, and we were without that definitive captain. It was a tough time to lose that, given that the fundamental construct of the show had been obliterated.
Showtime president David Nevins has said that they are considering a Dexter spinoff where the character would go in a completely new direction. Is that something that you’ve been discussing with them?
I’ve sort of kept that at arm’s length. It’s not something I can really consider. For my own part, I can’t imagine something being conceived of and written that would be compelling enough to do that. I’m not saying it’s an impossibility that someone else might come up with it.
In other words, show me the script?
Yeah, yeah exactly.
Back in April, there were rumors about you being considered for Netflix’s Daredevil. Is that something they ever actually called you about?
No. It was some sort of Internet-generated rumor. I think the character as he’s been conceived for that is in his early 20s, so I don’t see that happening. I’m flattered, though, that anyone would think that would be a good idea.
Your roots are in theater, and you are now back onstage with The Realistic Jones through July 6. Has it been weird to be away from theater for so long?
My first play was when I was seven, so it’s the longest I’ve gone in my entire life without being onstage, which was a crazy thing to consider. It’s been a real blast.
Have you thought about how theater will be a part of your acting career post-Dexter?
I would like to continue working onstage periodically, but I want to keep a foot in all waters. It’s funny to do these interviews and talk about the arc of my career — there was no plan; I just went where things took me. I would like to continue to work onstage periodically and do film. I also wouldn’t rule out the possibility of doing another television show at some point, maybe something that was less open-ended, but maybe something open-ended if it wasn’t another version of something I’ve already done. … Just not quite yet.
Last year you said you wanted to do projects that were more lighthearted and fun after Dexter, yet Cold in July is dark and really intense. So what happened?
Cold in July is really intense, but it was a lot of fun. It was a lot of fun to work with Sam [Shepard] and Don [Johnson]. It was a lot of fun to be on Jim‘s [Mickle] set and to have a sense of being that well taken care of. It was a lot of fun to play a regular guy. And yeah, it’s got its darker themes and is grappling with some weighty stuff, but I also think it has a sense of humor.
Yeah. [Laughs.] I said that, and the first two things I did were Cold In July and I went to Bangladesh to do a documentary about climate change [HBO’s Year of Living Dangerously], which isn’t exactly a barrel of laughs. The play I’m doing now is a lot of fun, although it does deal with fundamental issues of the perils of relationships. But it’s absurd and hilarious, and getting that live feedback is invigorating.
It’s easy to imagine if you hadn’t spent the last decade on two successful TV shows you would have been a staple in indies like Cold in July.
Does this world of low-budget 25-day shoots appeal to you?
I love it. It’s like joining the carnival. There are no overlords. Sure there are money people and producers, but there isn’t this Big Brother-ish behemoth. You are left to play and make what you make and construct it on the fly. Yeah, it’s really fun. Well, it can be. It also could be a nightmare if it’s falling apart.
Cold in July is now playing in theaters and on VOD.
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