With Jim Mickle’s latest film Cold in July, Michael C. Hall is finally killing with remorse. Set in 1980’s small town Texas, Mickle’s southern drama oozes with pulp pleasures, twisting the narrative through different genres to tell the story of Richard Dane (Hall), an unassuming family man who accidentally shoots and kills an unarmed home intruder in the middle of the night. While trying to wrestle with his own guilt and confusion, Dane and his family find themselves threatened by the presence Ben Russell of the jailbird father of the man he killed (played with stoic force by Sam Shepard). But when Dane begins to suspect the cops might be burying a secret and lying about the identity of the man he killed, the innocent family man becomes entrenched in a seedy and dangerous world of crime.
Best known for his role as the titular secret psychopath serial killer on Dexter, as well as for his years spent as the emotionally-removed undertaker David Fischer on Six Feet Under, it’s evident that Hall has always had an affinity for the dark side. And although there is something about the actor that always brings an added chill into the room on screen, when we sat down last week to talk Cold in July, that was certainly not the case. Having met just before the theatrical release and Cannes premiere of the film, Hall divulged more about distancing himself from his psychopathic past, his custom-made mullet, and dreaming of Sam Shepard.
Can you tell me about how you met Jim?
I met Jim at Sundance while I was there with Kill Your Darlings and he was there with We Are What We Are. I had read the script months, if not a year, before that and was always on my agents case about what was happening with it because I thought it was amazing. Nick Damici, his writing partner, introduced himself to me at a party and said, “You really like the Cold in July script, right?” And I said yeah, and he said, “Well, Jim’s over there.” So I went over and talked to him and asked him what was happening with it, and it was just good timing. They were about to go to Cannes and it had just got the ball rolling in terms of securing financing. So I just impressed upon him just how much I loved it and how much I wanted to do it and I guess he believed me.
What about the script resonated so strongly with you?
After doing Dexter for a long time I was interested in something that would allow me to play a normal guy to whom, or around whom, crazy things would be happening.
A normal guy who would kill with remorse.
Yeah, I mean the killing thing was not something I was necessarily looking to do, but there was something about when Dexter ended, playing someone who kills someone without wanting, meaning to, or needing to and has immediate remorse and misgivings about it having happened, felt sort of therapeutic. It was a nice epilogue as I try to distance myself from the psychopath. So both of those things, along with Jim’s obvious filmmaking talent.
Your character changes so much throughout the film, as does the narrative arc. How did you work with Jim to solidify who Richard Dane was?
We talked via text or Skype about it, generally. I imagined him having a mullet and bounced that off Jim and he was all for it. So I had that little hair piece made because I didn’t have time to grow it.
And why did that mullet feel so important to you?
I think it goes a long way in letting you know you’re in a particular period. I had a desire for him to have a look that was distinct, but in a way that was justifiable. We joked that this was a movie about a guy who decided to grow a mustache a few weeks ago. He’s just a regular guy—a guy who really comes into his mustache. But yeah, there’s a lot more explicit stuff in the script that I think they lost a lot of it because they felt the story was being told without being told explicitly about Richard and his father. His father died when he was young, and I think he has nagging misgivings about his manhood, masculinity, his ability to be a father, and he feels like his son doesn’t really like him, he feels kind of ineffectual. One phrase we used was, that he’s a guy whose life has happened to him up to this point and this, as horrifying as it is, gives him a chance to actually happen to life. But as far as the cohesiveness from beginning to end, that was an ongoing conversation as we were making it.
Right after the initial murder when the cop says, “This must be hard for a man like you,” it really seems to set something in motion.
That was sort of explicitly laying down a gauntlet for him. In this particular circumstance he’s invited to be a patsy—”Just don’t worry about it,”—and I think he has a general, vague sense of having been a patsy his whole life. But when that train starts coming down the tracks, he has a decision to make. Once you cross a certain threshold, even if it’s totally foreign territory and not a place you’re entirely comfortable, you can’t go back, it just had to keep moving forward.
He’s also attracted to the excitement and thrill of danger as he spirals further into it.
When he’s telling his wife the lie that allows him to go to Houston with the guys the first time, a lie about some contract for work, it’s within the context of a lie, and yet he says something very true about himself: “I’ve been waiting for something big like this.” In spite of himself, he’s telling something very revealing there.
How was the experience of working with Sam Shepard and Don Johnson?
It was amazing. As an actor, I obviously worked with Sam’s material when I was training and everyone in one way or another comes to terms with or encounters him as a playwright, and I admired him as an actor. And Don, in the 80s when I was kid, he was this gleaming icon of American masculinity. It was a pretty heady thing to literally be sitting in the backseat of the car wanting to hang out with the guys—it wasn’t that much of a stretch really. But they were great and we laughed a lot. We’re all very different people, but there was an odd chemistry that we really enjoyed.The story does move through a person could have believable relationships with these two divergent guys.
I was telling someone about the film and they said, “Oh, Sam Shepard’s in that?” And I said, “It’s a Southern drama with difficult father and son relationships, of course he’s in it.”
Oh, yeah! When we did the scene in the cabin, we shot it on a soundstage and it was like the last day of shooting. There was this little proscenium, which looked like the set at a downtown black box theater, and Sam’s literally throwing food at me. It was like I had a dream I was in a Sam Shepard play but Sam Shepard was in the play with me but it was a movie. It was pretty wild.
As someone who works in television, film, and theater, what have you learned as an actor by getting to play in those different mediums?
It keeps you on your toes in a way that you wouldn’t have to if you just focused on one thing. You appreciate it all the more if you have other mediums to compare it to. I appreciate acting on stage in a way that I probably didn’t before I started to act on screen—what’s unique about it, what’s special about it, and vice versa.
Are you in a show now?
I’m in a play called The Realistic Joneses on Broadway into the summer.
After being on Dexter for so long, is it a nice change of pace to do films—a project where there’s a definitive end to it?
Yes, indeed. That’s nice. It’s nice to be able to mix it up and go from one thing to the next, and do a job and when the job ends, you’re not waiting and taking a hiatus and coming back to it, it’s over. That’s a new thing that I welcome. I don’t mean to say I would never play a character on a TV show again, but it’s nice to take a break.
You’ve been known to take on darker roles—
Oh, what do you mean? [laughs]
Are these characters what you naturally gravitate towards or have people begun to seek you out for them specifically?
Well, probably both at this point. When I was coming out of school I didn’t think, you know, that I wanted to have a really sort of shadowy, dark career. [laughs] But it’s not totally by accident that I’ve been asked to do or sought out the things I’ve done. My father died when I was a kid and David Fischer, Richard, Dexter, and even Dane have internalized, conflicted, unresolved father issues. That is probably not a complete coincidence. It’s only in hindsight that you can point to these trends, it’s not like I had a plan.
But you’ve also done musical theater, like Cabaret. Have you seen the latest production of it?
I haven’t, though I’ve been told it’s the same production, and if there’s a production worth re-mounting, it’s that one. And that’s a musical that’s pretty dark though. It’s a party that ends really badly.
I feel like I was just interviewing Jim for We Are What We Are, so I imagine the making of Cold in July was a pretty fast process.
Yeah, the shoot was like 25 days. This all happened super fast, it’s remarkable. I met Jim at Sundance, he was there with We Are What We Are and a year later we were there with this film. I Skype’d with him while he was at Cannes, and now we’re about to be there. So it’s quite a year.
Did ending Dexter open up your desire to do more film and theater work?
Absolutely. The idea of mixing things up, of picking things up and putting them down is very attractive and just being perpetually available to do the next thing that comes along is exciting.
I was speaking recently speaking John Slattery about how he had his initial directing experience on Mad Men before making his first feature, and as you’ve directed a bit of Dexter yourself, would you have any aspirations to direct more?
It’s not an immediate aspiration, but I could see it happening again. If came upon a piece of material that really resonated with met that way I’d definitely be interested in doing that.
Do you have anything else coming up that you’re excited about, aside from the Broadway show?
Years of Living Dangerously—I went to Bangladesh for that right after we wrapped this movie, which was pretty amazing experience. I have a couple films I’m looking at for the fall, and I’m looking forward to catching my breath for a bit because I’ve been going and going since the show ended.
I’m sure being in a show every night is exhausting.
Yeah and it’s pretty immersive, everyday you’re sort of tied to the train tracks.