Michael C. Hall has killed 125 people as Dexter Morgan since we first met him seven years ago. Yet it’s breaking into all those apartments and houses that’s bugging him.
“The Miami of Dexter’s world is a world without home alarms or deadbolt locks,” he notes after having quickly lock-picked yet another suspect’s residence. “He’s like Houdini.”
Hall is sitting at the kitchen table of a Long Beach house used in the production of Dexter‘s eighth season. For his next trick, he will help bring to a close Showtime’s long-running hit series, which launches the first of its final 12 episodes on Sunday night. The lock-picking comment is very Hall. As you’ll see below, he’s quite thoughtful and analytical about his character and the series. If he were to take a Meyers-Briggs personality test, one suspects he would strongly index as a “thinking” person vs. “feeling” (the unedited transcript of his interview originally contained about a dozen uses of “I think”).
On the set, Hall comes across as cool and capable. He can switch quickly into character and causally endure a chilly submersion into a lake, for example — no complaints or slacking, but occasional “does this make sense?” questions. Since his character is almost Spock-ian in his reliance on pragmatic logic vs. emotions, Hall’s own seeming left-brain tilt has likely served him well. This season, in addition to being the star and a producer on Dexter, he’ll also make his directing debut in the second week’s episode.
Below, Hall teases the final season, tackles some burning questions about the series and wonders: Who is Dexter talking to during his voice-overs, anyway?
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Let’s go way back. What did you think the moment you first heard of Dexter?
HALL: I finished Six Feet Under in the spring of 2005. I got a call about a new pilot. I was reluctant to the idea of doing another television series in general. When I heard it was about a serial killer who only killed criminals … I didn’t roll my eyes, but I did think, “Do I want to be surrounded by dead bodies for another indeterminate number of years?” And second, I wondered how tonally you’d pull something like that off. But once I looked at the book and the pilot script I realized it was a totally unique character and I knew I’d kick myself if I didn’t take the leap.
The show’s sense of humor helps sell it, I think.
Yeah. I think, obviously, his code, too — the code that he’s defied more and more significantly over the course of the seasons. The audience’s affection for the character has been challenged in more intense degrees. And there’s his voice-over, so you are in on the secret and implicated as a result.
There’s definitely a voyeuristic quality.
You’re a silent passive accomplice.
When asked about Dexter’s morality, you once said he “should be given a medal and then beaten to death with it.”
I’m reluctant to come down on one side or another, with this or any character. I like that he operates in a morally gray area. He’s moving toward the light in some ways, but as a result the darker stuff is all the darker because of it. I like that the spectrum between the light and dark of the character has broadened. He has an undeniable and insurmountable compulsion.
Do you ever lose sympathy for him?
No. No. I wish that he could be liberated from his compulsion. I have sympathy for him because of that.
Do you have any compulsions that help you relate to the character?
[Pause] I’d acknowledge that they exist, but I wouldn’t [reveal] them.
Every time he veers from the code, as you’ve pointed out, innocent people die.
Arguably the tragedy of Dexter is that it’s not his homicidal behavior that’s gotten the people in his life in trouble but it’s his appetite to play at becoming a human being — his desire to have real relationships. I guess a lesson that’s emerged is that you can’t have your cake and kill it too.
NEXT: Why Dex always has stubble; Hall’s favorite part
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Have your feelings changed toward character, or the show, over the years?
HALL: Dexter was like a baby when we first met him. Now he’s kicking and screaming into adulthood. A very tense adulthood fraught with uncommon issues. I still have a fondness for the character. It’s nice to play a characters who’s such a go-getter, who’s always moving forward. But life was simpler before his appetite for humanity had been whetted. When his life was compartmentalized and no one aside from his victims were suffering for his sins. You know, he is remarkably capable in certain ways and phenomenally clueless in others. It’s fun to play somebody who can be both those things. He still likes to eat, but we don’t see him eat much any more. Once he discovered he had the ability to have sex, that may have replaced it.
Did surviving cancer midway through the series impact how you felt about such a death-soaked show?
Not really. It’s a show that’s death-soaked, but it’s what I’ve been doing with my life so it feels more vitalizing than anything else. I was just thankful I got through it and was able to go back to work. If I were playing an oncologist or cancer patient it would have had more resonance.
I read that after having to shave every day for Six Feet Under, you lobbied for Dex to always be unshaven, and sold the idea to producers by saying the character is a serial killer, yet hates the sight of his own blood. Are there any other anecdotal stories like that behind creating the character?
One thing I’ve always felt is the character needn’t be bound by his voice-over. I’ve always thought that he wasn’t the most reliable narrator. There might be some voice-over beyond the voice-over that we don’t hear. I’ve also wondered where this voice-over coming from. Who is he talking to? Early on, I imagined Dexter had died and he had gone to purgatory and they were playing back footage of his life and he had to narrate the footage in such a way that justify his admittance into heaven. I don’t know if I believe in heaven or hell, but it was fun to think about. That idea will only go so far — because sometimes the voice-over is expository.
What’s your favorite part of shooting the show?
There’s always a sense of catharsis and completion whenever we shoot kill scenes. He’s vanquishing some unchecked external manifestation of his internal darkness and that always feels good. And any scene where things come to a head with someone who Dexter has indulged in a relationship with — Thanksgiving with Trinity, or having it out with Lila, or the rooftop with Jimmy Smits’ character. It’s fun to play someone whose pulse slows when the heat rises and perhaps he even cultivates chaos in his life because it’s the only place where he is calm. I can also say that anytime I have to put a wetsuit on under my wardrobe and jump into the salty waters of San Pedro is not one of my favorite [parts to shoot].
And now we’re up to the final season. How is Dexter at the start of season 8?
Well, of course, Deb found out [he’s a serial killer]. Then over the course of the seventh season we saw Dexter managing the way that’s changed their relationship and seeing maybe that, perhaps, she can live with that information and he can continue [his pattern]. With the cliffhanger that ends the seventh season, all bets are off. For the first time the person who’s always revered and looked up to him is turning his back on him, and that’s sent him into a bit of a spiral.
He’s also been increasingly seeming more like a regular killer covering up tracks.
I’ve always been interested in challenging the audience’s affection for the character. I’m all for it.
Is there a romantic interest this season?
Yes, but the primary relationship with a female is a more maternal figure.
Yes, Dr. Vogel [Charlotte Rampling]. He gets to “meet his maker,” so to speak.
The presence of Dr. Vogel in his life, this woman who did as much as anyone to fashion the code [when he was a kid], she’s encouraging Dexter to believe his humanity is a misguided indulgence and who he’s really meant to be is a psychopath and all the other stuff is bogus. It’s a reasonable argument. Dexter isn’t so good at being human. He’s always been an effective killer. His appetite for humanity has compromised his effectiveness. But something that’s always existed in him is an appetite for rebellion. So if he’s told he can’t be somebody, he’s going to want to defy that diagnosis — to his and many people in his world’s peril.
How was directing?
The thing I liked about it the most is it forces you to be decisive. You have to be decisive or other people can’t do their jobs. It required a more welcome opening energy on the set. I probably relished most the scenes I wasn’t in.
Yeah, rather than trying to direct that Michael C. Hall guy.
You have to be a little less precious about your own work.
NEXT: Hall on the show’s final episode (spoiler free) and what’s next
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: I’ve heard you were an advocate for ending the show.
HALL: I’ve been an advocate for having a dialog with the writers and having a sense of how to best bring this story home. Not wrap everything up with a tidy bow, necessarily, but find some sort of conclusion. We based the first season on [Jeff Lindsay’s] first book. We didn’t base subsequently seasons on subsequent books because we didn’t want to do a different version of the same thing. There was a desire to explore the blurred line between his emerging humanity and his psychopathy. So there has to be an end game. Once Deb found out, it felt like we were moving toward a place where the world as we knew it would have to end.
I was told you said even if Showtime backs up a Brink’s truck full of money to your house, you were done.
I don’t know that I ever said that exact statement. After Six Feet Under, the last thing I wanted was another television show and then I ate my words with this. So I never say never. But everyone is focused on bringing the eighth season to a sense of overall conclusion.
Do you know the ending?
[Smiles] I have a good sense of the broad strokes…
And you like it, I can tell.
I do! I’m pleased. I’m intrigued and compelled where things are headed. The end is not something I pitched or lobbied for. I don’t aspire to write this show. I talk about where I imagine Dexter to be or where he’s coming from. There are many people [involved with the show] who inform what he ultimately ends up being. I’m along for the ride.
So how you do you feel about this show you’ve worked on for so many years ending?
At this point I have an anticipatory feeling more than anything else. I look forward to finding out what life feels like without Dexter. It’s been something we’ve done 5.5 months out of the year. It’s a constant preoccupation. I think it will be a pretty broad-spectrum experience. I think there will be some wistfulness, some relief, some pride, some sadness…
You’ve been nominated for an Emmy six times but haven’t won. Is winning important, at this point?
[Dryly] If someone gave me one I’d go get it. [Awards are] its own sort of animal. They don’t seem to have had much to do with our grander trajectory. Having been in that conversation has been gratifying, especially since he’s a dicey character.
What is your plan after Dexter?
I don’t have one. I’m focused on bringing this home. I don’t have an itinerary for life beyond [production wrapping on] July 1.
So if your agent calls with a script all excited, you won’t read it?
Not on July 2! But I’ll read it, sure.
So you’re not swearing that you’re going to take a break from TV.
I don’t imagine I’ll jump right back into something. But to rule it out entirely would be silly.
After the premiere Sunday night, be sure to come to EW.com as we’re reviving our Dexter recaps for the final season. Recap is now live!