Michael C. Hall has largely become famous for his roles involving dead people, first as a funeral director in Six Feet Under and as a murderous sociopath in Dexter, now in its sixth season. In New Zealand to promote the latter, he talks to Rebecca Barry Hill about his success, surviving cancer and finding meaning in nature.
Life is short. No one knows this better than Dexter, your friendly television serial killer who, unlike the murderers he dispatches, has survived six seasons. Michael C. Hall, the actor who plays him, knows it too. The Golden Globe winner arrived in New Zealand with little fanfare last month, accompanied by his manager and his best friend, Ben. Sitting on a park bench overlooking the morning sunlight glittering on Auckland's waterfront, dressed in jeans and a grey hoodie, he has the wistful look of a tourist - and an itinerary like one too.
While on a promotional tour for Sky's new SoHo channel, which screens both the sixth season of Dexter and Hall's other deathly hit, Six Feet Under, the star has plans to finish the day-long Tongariro Alpine Crossing, go kayaking in the Milford Sound, check out Queenstown and have lunch on Waiheke Island. If there's time, he'll go diving. No rest for the wicked, then?
"Living in Los Angeles, I get the opportunity to get out into the natural world. But it doesn't quite compare to this."
If the thought of Hall paddling through the wilderness seems weird, it's probably because it's hard to separate him from his alter ego. The traits that make Dexter an alluring character are alive in Hall too: the affable demeanour offset by hints of a deep and calculating mind. He leans in, or out, when he speaks, depending on his taste for the question. Asked about the connection between his morbid TV roles, he breathes heavily, folds his arms, and gazes out toward the horizon.
"I certainly didn't set out to be surrounded by dead bodies for the past decade but I think it's got to be more than just a coincidence."
Dexter is a complex character, a Miami blood splatter analyst by day, eliminator of bad guys by night, a sociopath trying to use his murderous urges for good. Dexter must also pretend to be someone he's not to avoid attracting attention to his after-hours obsession, his cheery nature constantly at odds with the character's deadpan narration. Hall's great skill, and one that has earned him multiple Emmy nominations for the role, is his ability to act within the act. And it's to his credit that viewers get onside with a guy who wraps his victims in plastic and tortures them for a bit before the final deed. Hall shrugs off the difficulty of playing a duplicitous character.
"I consider myself the guardian of the character's truth and I operate from there. If there are things in the scripts that I feel are out of sync with that sense of his truth then I'll collaborate with our writers and directors to make it work. But there's a real unspoken communication, an intuitiveness that's happening at this point between the actors and writing staff. We know these characters so well and have lived with this material for so long. Sometimes you've just got to get out of its way and let the story tell itself."
The sixth season pivots on a theme of faith and belief, as Dexter tries his best to cultivate a spiritual life for his offspring, while exploring the light and dark sides of what killers do in god's name. Forty-year-old Hall admits to a spiritual curiosity himself, although his leans more towards being "in the moment". Which might explain that love of outdoor pursuits. Or acting, for that matter.
"I long to have some kind of direct experience of what might be called divine, a direct experience of God. I'm not partial to dogma or organised religion. If anybody lays claim to some sort of fundamental truth it makes me nervous. Sometimes a sublime experience of the physical world can feel spiritual," he adds, gesturing at the view. "All moments are divine if you can be fully alive to them."
Plenty has happened in Hall's personal life during Dexter's six seasons on air. Towards the end of the fourth season, he was diagnosed with Hodgkin's Lymphoma. A treatable cancer, he underwent chemotherapy during hiatus.
"I know a cancer diagnosis is not something that is cause for celebration but I felt a real sense of relief and gratitude that I had something that they knew what to do with. I felt confident from the beginning that I would be cured.
"Basically with all the poison going into my body, I tried to counter it. I really just wanted to eat when I could, rest when I needed to and get through it. It was more day-to-day. I've always been physically active and tried to take care of myself so I don't know that the episode prompted some huge change in my behaviour."
A few months after he was given a clean bill of health, Hall experienced more personal upheaval. He and his second wife, Jennifer Carpenter, who plays Dexter's foster sister Deb on the show, divorced after two years of marriage. Hall admits it's hard working in such an intense environment with your spouse but stresses that it hasn't affected their working dynamic.
"I don't think my relationship with Jennifer has ended at all, I think it's changed. We're still dear friends. As colleagues we have a commitment to one another, to our characters, to the show, it's really been okay. Truly.
"There's a lot of mutual respect and affection among the Dexter family. It's a really good place to work and we've been doing it long enough that people really appreciate the unique working environment. But it's a deep form of play or pretending that we do and requires a certain degree of trust so there's a lot of residual affection."
Hall's real family had a similarly close bond, despite him keeping his deepest desires to himself. He grew up in Raleigh, North Carolina, and enjoyed a happy childhood, albeit an occasionally lonely one. When he wasn't playing with his cousins, or singing in the school choir, Hall was lost in his thoughts. An only child, his father died of prostate cancer when Hall was just 11. His dad never knew of his son's theatrical aspirations.
"As a kid I had experiences performing and they turned me on more than anything else I did. I dreamed of being an actor but I didn't share that dream with anybody. I didn't announce it out loud to myself. I think sometimes, to keep those things close, to keep them secret, keeps you protected from people offering unwelcome opinions or discouragement. I also thought the actors I saw in movies or on TV just came from a different world. I didn't know anyone who was an actor. Nobody in my family was in the arts or a performer or anything like that so I had no sense of how I would go about doing it."
It was only when he got to college and took an acting class that he began to take it seriously, eventually completing a Master of Fine Arts in acting at New York University. Hall was good enough to land a few stage roles in regional theatre that paid the rent and allowed him to focus on acting full-time. He has starred in more than a dozen off-Broadway shows, including Macbeth, Corpus Christi and Wise Guys. In 1999, when Hall was 28, came a breakthrough: director Sam Mendes cast him as the MC in the Broadway production of Cabaret, a role that also called on his singing talent.
"Getting to star in a production of that quality, one of the best musicals, is more than anything that's happened before or since. That was the moment when I thought, okay, this is my direction."
In 2003, Hall toured as Billy Flynn in the musical Chicago and in 2005 he returned to off-Broadway theatre in the premiere of Noah Haidle's Mr Marmalade, playing the title character, an emotionally disturbed little girl's imaginary friend.
It was Mendes who recommended Hall when casting was taking place for Six Feet Under. Hall found himself completely changing tack. From the flamboyance of Cabaret, he then tackled the part of a closeted gay man. The show ran for five seasons and was a critical and commercial hit.
"I feel very lucky. When Six Feet Under ended I thought maybe I would just stop. I had an appreciation for how unique an experience that was. It's a miraculous thing when all the elements required to make a television show come together, and to find myself in the midst of another experience that has gone on even longer and is characterised by the same sort of miraculousness, I'm very, very lucky."
Dexter made a vivid first impression. Based on the novel Darkly Dreaming Dexter by Jeff Lindsay, here was a serial killer the viewer found possible to empathise with, a bit like Bret Easton Ellis' American Psycho - only willing to bring you donuts and ask about your day. Not everyone saw the humour, though. Some critics questioned the moral ambiguity of the show, baulked at its unflinching violence. Last year British teenager Andrew Conley claimed it was Dexter that inspired him to kill his brother - it later transpired that for many years he'd felt a similar urge to kill.
Hall has always said the show's violence isn't gratuitous. The fans who approach him are smart enough to see the humour in the show, he says.
"Sometimes people want me to be pretending to kill them in photos which I tend to resist but people are remarkably level-headed and sane. Maybe there are plenty of crazies keeping their mouths shut."
Even now he finds it odd when strangers want to engage with him. He rarely features in the tabloids.
"I'm glad I'm recognised for something I'm proud of. But I don't really think of that as being me. I know it's a result of work I've done but I don't think of myself as a famous person. It's important to me to hold on to whatever sense of privacy I can without being a recluse. It's just my nature."
Hall has also starred in a smattering of films over the years. In 2003 he played an FBI agent in Paycheck with Ben Affleck and Uma Thurman. In 2009 he was an eccentric online game inventor in the science fiction thriller Gamer with Gerard Butler. Hall has also done independent dramas Bereft and East Fifth Bliss and most recently a short film, Porn Rental.
"Even if it's low-profile, it's nice to sink my teeth into something over hiatus. It helps to recharge my Dexter batteries when I do return. I have been seeking out characters who are remarkably capable or uniquely afflicted or maybe who are just more average, less spectacular, in whatever circumstance they find themselves in."
In the first episode of the sixth season, Dexter attends his high school reunion. At school he was invisible. Suddenly, the successful blood splatter analyst is popular. Does Hall relate? "I've never been to a high school reunion. I'm a terrible alum. Don't look back. I try not to anyway."
So what of looking forward? Hall says he's not furiously planning to fulfil any major career goals, but if there's one role he's keen to tackle, it's something Dexter knows all about.
"I'm not a parent. I may one day be, I don't know if that's a goal but it's an intriguing possibility. As for life goals, I'd like to cultivate a better relationship with myself and through that, a better relationship with my fellow human beings. Treat myself with a certain degree of gentleness and grace and respect and do the same with my loved ones, strangers on the street, whoever it may be. Beyond that we'll see what happens. If I do become a parent I'll be glad I don't have to leave every other night to stalk or kill someone."
Michael C. Hall stars in the new series of Dexter, Tuesdays 8.30pm, and repeats of Six Feet Under, Fridays 7.30pm, both on Sky's SoHo channel.