Michael C. Hall: Dial C for Carnarge

Michael C. Hall isn’t two steps through the door before I understand his entire career. On paper, his clean-cut, all-American good looks make him an unlikely choice to play the sexually depraved Emcee in the Broadway hit Cabaret, much less the dysfunctional mortician in HBO’s Six Feet Under, and they make him a downright preposterous choice for the sympathetic serial killer in the current Showtime hit, Dexter. Why, you have to wonder, does he keep getting cast so perversely when his face looks tailor-made to play a Mormon missionary?

But, in person, he walks with his head bowed down and eyes turned inward, too burdened by inner turmoil to notice the silly red-fringed bordello lamps and “Grandma’s Burrito” signs kitsching up the Silverlake eatery. The immediate impression is not of a man with a problem but a man haunted, and maybe by something he can’t quite understand. The high cheekbones suddenly seem skeletal, the large eyes clouded. This is Dexter if he had a conscience, maybe. Or Dexter if he could actually feel the horror and pain he has caused.

What’s interesting about the show is that the viewer isn’t completely sure about what constitutes the full spectrum of the main character’s moral compass. Says Hall’s former Six Feet Under co-star, Peter Krause: “He does a great thing on Dexter. I liken it to Leonard Nimoy’s Spock. He’s supposed to be a sociopath with no feelings, but every now and then you get a little glimmer that maybe the wires are starting to spark inside, and that he’s starting to feel something, that he’s starting to become a whole person, or has a chance to. And I think that’s pretty tough to pull off.”

Hall keeps his olive-drab military cap on backwards as he slides quietly into the booth, so only a few wisps of his auburn hair slip free. “Part of what I like about Dexter,” he says, playing with his VW key ring, “is that he has a really formidable and sizable shadow side, but it’s one he has faced and is taking unique responsibility for.” He means Dexter’s unusual moral choice of only killing other killers. But the murders are still gruesome and committed for his pleasure, not justice. “People admire him for that,” he adds, and I think of how fans of The Sopranos often found themselves liking Tony, forgetting for long stretches that he was a brutal sociopath.

But to Hall, Dexter is just a monstrous expression of things we all feel. “Shadow energy is something that lots of people have. Some people drag it around and never unpack it, and it conspires against them in ways that they probably can’t appreciate.” Abruptly, Hall looks straight into my eyes. “I relish the opportunity to play someone who invites me to unpack my own bag of shadows.” Then he surprises me with a smile. “It’s hard to say: perhaps if Dexter hadn’t come along, I’d be killing people in my real life, instead.”

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It is one of only a handful of smiles I get to witness, but the effect is as remarkable as it is disconnected: his eyes clear, his body slouching rakishly against the booth. For the moment, he is easy-going and quite sexy and seems to have no idea. But as the conversation rolls on, this sense of disconnect turns out to be a hallmark of his life. For instance, he didn’t know he wanted to be an actor until he applied to graduate school and, abruptly, realized, “I wanted it in a way I’d never wanted anything before.” Then he found himself doing Shakespeare and musical comedies, until director Sam Mendes noticed the dark side Hall hadn’t, ultimately getting him cast on Six Feet Under. “There was always a sense of waiting,” he says. “A sense of ‘This isn’t it.’”

But if acting seemed the answer, it’s not clear that it settled his questions. He can be quite astute, noting, for instance, that the real similarity between Dexter and David, his troubled character on Six Feet Under, “is not that they’re surrounded by dead bodies, but that they are both secret keepers.” But he himself is determined to keep his private life secret, just as, he admits later, he kept his interest in acting “under wraps” as a child in North Carolina. Today he lives in central Hollywood, in between L.A.’s artsy east side and its moneyed west side, just as, in North Carolina, he lived in between the Appalachian mountains and the seaside. He nods when I point these things out to him, but does not find any of it revelatory. As for speculation about him dating his Dexter co-star Jennifer Carpenter or anyone else after the unraveling of his four-year marriage to actress Amy Spanger in 2006, he remains mum.

“Dexter is incredibly self-aware,” he says, with some wistfulness. Interestingly, he adds, “When we meet Dexter at the top of the new season, he has a sense of self-possession that he hasn’t experienced before. You’ll see that the rigidness of his ritual restrains him less in how he goes about things, and he finds himself taking chances he might not have taken before.” I’m struck by the inverse parallel: the less self-possessed Hall is, the riskier and more dangerous his performances become. He doesn’t notice the irony.

But maybe self-awareness is overrated. Just as therapy only made Tony Soprano a more efficient sociopath, and Dexter’s ritual helps him kill without being caught, who is to say that excising Hall’s dark cloud would necessarily make him better off? As Janet Malcolm once pointed out, a wholly successful psychoanalysis would be “monstrous,” removing the patient’s humanity along with his suffering. Hall drains his coffee cup. “I think most actors would say they’d be crazy if they didn’t have the chance to exorcise their chaos in their acting. Once it’s all stirred up and swirling in the air, you have to have something to focus it on. If David on Six Feet Under had been a completely self-actualized person, he wouldn’t have been as enjoyable or maddening to watch. And if Dexter stopped killing, would we really have a show?” But his larger point is that most of our deepest problems don’t have solutions, they can only be managed, often with the help of the artists who act them out for us. “I’d like to believe I’m wide open in my work, there aren’t any rooms that I’m afraid to go into.” He leans in closer. “Whether actors cop to it or not, there has to be some sort of intersection between their characters and their own lives.”

Then is there something in your own story, I ask, that intersects with Dexter?

He smiles broadly, and with unnerving brightness. “Well, sure!” But then he doesn’t say anything more.

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