Q + LA Michael C. Hall
by ROBIN SAYERS / photographs by JAKE CHESSUM
The existential, elliptical issue of nature versus nurture permeates Showtime’s groundbreaking series Dexter: Did environment—witnessing his mother’s murder—literally demonize the title character and foster his nocturnal mien, or was he embryonically, hereditarily bad to the developing bone?
The antihero himself seems genuinely stupefied, rejecting neither innatism nor empiricism in the show’s oft VO’d phrase, Born in blood...this is fate. Or is even this mantra a weapon of obfuscation? The fact that these most fundamental, binary questions linger after four seasons is a credit to Dexter’s writing staff, but it’s Michael C. Hall who makes viewers still give a damn about the answers.
Prior to this year, it was inconceivable that the actor—also beloved for his portrayal of repressed, non-prodigal gay son David on HBO’s Six Feet Under—had much in common with his alter ego. But after fighting Hodgkin’s lymphoma into remission early this year, it’s apparent the two share, at the very least, a disdain for elegant surrenders. A clean bill of health is not Hall’s only cause for celebration—the fifth season of his lauded show picks up right where the jaw-dropping finale left off, and both a second wedding anniversary (with costar cum wife Jennifer Carpenter) and 40th birthday near for the North Carolina transplant.
Your childhood schooling was at a place called Ravenscroft in Raleigh, North Carolina. That sounds like it belongs in a horror film, with Edgar Allen Poe serving as headmaster.
And our mascot was a raven.
That’s so on-the-nose.
Yeah, I know.
And then you went to Earlham College in Indiana, ostensibly to become a lawyer?
[Laughs.] That’s just what I told people. I never had any intention of going to law school.
When did you first come to Los Angeles, and what were your early impressions?
In 1997. I was here doing a production of Skylight at the Mark Taper Forum. I thought the city was incomprehensibly vast, and the weather seemed perpetually decent. The first night I was here, I went with a group to El Matador State Beach and watched the stars, and that was fantastic.
That was before GPS was standard in most cars. Did you have a Thomas Guide?
Oh yeah. I didn’t have a GPS until very recently. I held out for a long time—kept the Thomas Guide in my car. There’s nothing like a hard copy, you know?
What neighborhood did you live in when you first arrived?
They put me up at the Oakwood, on Barham Boulevard. People there are in the midst of career changes or divorces, or maybe their house flooded. But for me, coming from New York, having lived in crappy apartments for years, it seemed amazingly deluxe. I mean, I had a dishwasher, for crying out loud!
What would you say is the most underrated facet of L.A.?
Its cultural diversity. People think of it as a homogeneous, surface-y, Hollywood kind of place, and it’s not that—or maybe it is that and a thousand other things, too.
As an Angeleno now, is there a piece of Tinseltown iconography you love seeing?
Every time I take Fountain, I think of Bette Davis.
Has anyone ever rendered you starstruck?
I don’t know if it was technically “starstruck,” but I went to a bar on Sunset with a friend several years ago, and O.J. Simpson was there. That made quite an impression on me!
Rattle off the names of every job you’ve had besides actor.
Clothes salesman, furniture mover, OR recovery-room technician, toy salesman, bartender, busboy, knife seller.
Knife, as in...knife?
Knife, as in, you know, stab you with a knife.
“I didn’t have a GPS until very recently. I held out for a long time—kept the Thomas Guide in my car. There’s nothing like a hard copy, you know?”
You narrated the History Channel programs Cannibalism Secrets Revealed and Mysteries of the Freemasons. Which of those two groups has the crazier secrets?
I don’t know that there is an actual cannibalistic society that you can be a card-carrying member of. But to me, their secrets seem fundamental—and there by necessity. The freemasons’ secrets are more various and designed.
Dexter fans were weirded out when you started dating your now wife, Jennifer Carpenter, because she plays your sister. Isn’t that just a testament to
what incredible actors you both are?
It’s a testament to the investment people have made in the show, and it messes with their minds to have to make room for that information. But the freak-out phase on that really seems to have come and gone.
On both Six Feet Under and Dexter, prop masters put some pretty grisly things in your scenes. Was something ever so realistically gory you had to take a deep breath before shooting?
Seeing Peter Krause’s prosthetic corpse the day that Franny [Frances Conroy] and I shot the scene where we washed his body was...uh, there was very little left to the imagination. I mean, it was such a real-seeming body—someone we knew and loved both as a character and as a person. That was pretty heavy.
I always thought the Fishers were basically a functional family and that maybe we were just dropping in on them during their most dysfunctional span.
I hope so. [Laughs.] I mean, you can see all those characters looking back and thinking, Gosh, you know, right when Dad died, everything just kind of went crazy for five years. I think the show’s [final] montage serves to say there was a return to some sense of health or normalcy—or higher functioning.
What movie could you watch over and over?
The Big Lebowski.
Do you have a rug you love that much?
I do, actually! It’s Moroccan.
What do you TiVo?
The Simpsons. It’s the greatest television show.
You and the Dexter folks were at this summer’s Comic-Con to promote season five. Is it as wild a scene as reports would have us believe?
The three times we’ve been, they brought us in the back door. I have never walked through the convention hall unaccompanied.
You’d be lovingly torn limb from limb.
That’d be an intense way to go!
How are you feeling physically?
Fine—as good, if not better, than I did before the Hodgkin’s. I’ve always tried to take care of myself. I might appreciate the fact that I feel good in a way I didn’t before going through treatment. But really, while it was a six-month slog doing the treatment, it feels like a blip in hindsight.
Was it like what Debra Winger’s character says in Terms of Endearment—that when people know you’re fighting an illness, they overshare about their own health stuff, either to bond or to make it about themselves?
I could never take issue with someone feeling compelled to share their story with me, and for the most part, it did feel like a genuine desire to identify with and maybe be identified with. It’s not something I had any plan to talk about—the stages of my treatment coincided with an awards-show season where I, thankfully, was invited, and I didn’t want to not show up.
With Golden Globe and Screen Actors Guild awards a week apart, you really scored, too.
I’m glad I went. I think I underestimated—or wasn’t aware—that it means something to people to see someone they identify with being active and going through treatment. It gives some sense of hope. As much as that happened as a byproduct of me making the announcement, I’m happy about that.
Do you have any pets?
Two cats. I just love to watch them move.
Dexter’s a little catlike.
Yeah, he’s kind of aloof, watchful—quick to pounce when necessary. And certainly not declawed.
Stylist: Arianne Tunney
Producer: Hannah Harte
Grooming: Sylvia Viau