Michael C. Hall said good-bye to Dexter four months ago when the series finale aired on Showtime. But the now 42-year-old actor is fully aware that the title character he played for seven years is one he’ll most likely be associated with for the rest of his life.
For instance, though he’s been making the rounds in Park City, Utah, at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, promoting his new movie Cold in July, he was also asked to help a Dexter fan propose to his girlfriend at the independent film fest.
“Some guy came up to me and recruited me to be the ring bearer for a proposal, basically,” Hall said with a laugh while he sat down with BuzzFeed at a bar in town. “I was like, ‘OK, but doesn’t he want to just give her the ring himself?’ And the guy said, ‘Well, he wants it to be memorable.’ And I thought, Well, it seems like it’s an inherently memorable thing. But I was happy to do it. And she said yes! It was kind of sweet. It felt very intimate, really, to be witness to that moment.”
Hall spent nearly a decade inside the mind of the enigmatic serial killer at the center of Dexter. He nabbed a Golden Globe and a SAG Award for the performance, and countless nominations over the Showtime series’ eight seasons. The Dexter cast became a fixture at Comic Con each year, developing a loyal and rabid fan base, and, as the Sundance proposal suggests, the iconic role isn’t something the audience is willing to let go of just yet.
“It’s definitely what people are most likely to mention,” Hall said while taking a sip of his beer. “They mention Six Feet Under too, but I imagine that Dexter will be, if not the first sentence, at least in the first paragraph of my obituary. And I’m sort of comfortable with that. I’m not actively trying to shake anybody else’s idea of me. I just would like to have the opportunity to shake things up for myself.”
Choosing his first post-Dexter role was important, and deciding to play Richard Dane in Cold in July, in which he also stars with Sam Shepard and Don Johnson, may have seemed like an unlikely choice since Dane, much like Dexter, is a killer.
“I knew going in that some people, if they looked at it on paper would say, ‘Well, he’s really just going back to the murder well,’” Hall admitted. “But any concerns about typecasting or pigeonholing myself were totally trumped by the script and the differences that I could appreciate.”
The difference is that Dane is a man who doesn’t relish in his kill. In fact, it’s the act of unintentionally shooting an intruder in his home that launches Dane on a bit of a crusade to right his wrongs. He’s a character who’s deeply disturbed by the life he’s taken, feeling intense remorse about his actions — a kind of remorse that Dexter rarely exuded.
“When I finished Dexter, there was this thing that happened to me, because people would say, ‘How do you do it? How do you kill all those people and go home at night?’” Hall recalled with a laugh. “I reminded them that it was all a simulation, but at the same time, I realized that there was something maybe that I had deactivated in myself. Because, when it was relatively safer to do so, I finished the show and I thought, What have I done? You know, My god. And that feeling is definitely what’s alive in Richard Dane. He wants to know who he killed. He wants to somehow make it right for himself.”
Cold in July director Jim Mickle admitted he was concerned that Hall’s performance in the film would be affected by his having just wrapped Dexter, which had only just started when Mickle began his seven-year journey to make Cold in July. “I thought, this is either going to be something where you’re going to come to us and you’re going to hate it, or you’re going to come to us and it’s going to be your whole baptism, just to wash this character away,” he said, as if speaking to Hall, at the same Park City bar where BuzzFeed spoke to the actor earlier. “And I think, right away, you could tell [the latter] was what it was going to be about.”
Though Hall admitted he “was a little nervous about” heading to the Cold in July set shortly after wrapping up Dexter’s series finale, “it was actually kind of therapeutic, after simulating all that serial murder, to play a normal person who was very troubled and horrified by that fact that he — without even intending to — killed somebody,” he explained. “So while it was a daunting proposition, it actually turned out to be the best possible thing. It really helped kind of remind me that Dexter had ended, and life goes on.”
The character of Dane is designed to be achingly average: He lives in a small Texas town in the ’80s with a normal family and conventional job. There’s truly nothing noteworthy about him, except for the extraordinary circumstances he comes to meet within the first 10 minutes of the film.
“Most people don’t want to play normal guys,” Mickle noted. “And then, weirdly, Michael was in a position where that was what he was craving to do — play someone normal.”
“There was something about Cold in July that really specifically appealed to a general desire I had to play a character who, in and of himself, was not particularly remarkable, or uniquely afflicted, or capable,” Hall added. “But around him, crazy things were happening, and that was very much the case with this movie, so it really fit the bill there.”
Even though fans may have a hard time scrubbing the memory of Dexter out of their minds, there’s truly no trace of that former character in Cold in July. After all, before Dexter, Hall was closely linked to Six Feet Under, where Hall played an anal retentive and painfully by-the-book mortician. And last year, Hall took another sharp turn with the role of David Kammerer, a lovesick and possessive writer in Kill Your Darlings.
“Coming off of Six Feet Under and Dexter, I was amazed at just what an incredible ability he had to play characters, because they’re just two totally different characters,” Mickle said. “And yet, so believable in a way that few actors can really inhabit something. So I think that shows how nimble he is.”
Cold in July marks the beginning of a new chapter in Hall’s career. A chapter that, post-Sundance, will include The Realistic Joneses on Broadway with Toni Collette and Marisa Tomei — which Hall starts rehearsals for in February — and one that, for now, starkly lacks any TV. Which is just fine with Hall.
“I don’t really know what’s on the horizon,” he said. “I’m excited to be unbound by the … I mean, I’m very thankful for the work I’ve done on television, but it’s nice to be able to mix it up a little bit more. And I’m excited about that.”