MICHAEL C. HALL plays a character who has, by his own count, murdered more than 60 people. He has also done battle, in a kind of Ultimate Serial Killing Championship, with a succession of bloodthirsty adversaries, one of whom turned out to be his own brother. So when Mr. Hall announced in January that he was undergoing chemotherapy for Hodgkin’s lymphoma — shortly before accepting trophies in January at the Golden Globes and the Screen Actors Guild award ceremonies wearing a knit cap on his bald head — it was hard not to feel a shiver at the coincidence: the star of the Showtime series “Dexter,” the most death-obsessed show on television, contracting a potentially fatal disease at 38.
For Mr. Hall, though, any resonance between television and real life was trivial. There was another parallel that struck much closer to home: his father’s death from prostate cancer at 39.
“I think I’ve been preoccupied since I was 11, and my father died, with the idea of the age 39: Would I live that long? What would that be like?” Mr. Hall said last month, over breakfast at a restaurant off Los Feliz Boulevard. “To discover that I had the Hodgkin’s was alarming, but at the same time I felt kind of bemused, like: Wow. Huh. How interesting.”
Mr. Hall received his diagnosis while Season 4 of “Dexter” was still being shot, and his calm, studied approach included keeping his condition a secret on the set until production had wrapped. He began treatment the next day, and the cancer is now in remission. (He turned 39 in February.) Production on Season 5 was in full swing when we spoke; his illness had caused no changes in the “Dexter” schedule, and he had even managed to shoot a movie, “East Fifth Bliss,” in the East Village during the show’s hiatus. His hair had grown back, and the only possible sign of concern for health was his breakfast order: a lonely cup of chamomile tea.
If anything, he said, he felt an extra energy after the effects of the chemotherapy wore off. That could come in handy in the new season, which begins next Sunday night. Dexter Morgan, police forensics expert by day and avenging-angel serial killer by night, will be going through some big changes. As dedicated viewers know (spoiler alert here if you’re still catching up with the show on DVD), Season 4 ended with the shocking murder of Dexter’s wife, Rita (Julie Benz), by a fellow serial killer. As Season 5 begins, his usual burdens of secrecy, guilt and uncontrollable homicidal urges are supplemented by single fatherhood and being a suspect in his wife’s death.
“Obviously the fourth season recalibrated everything,” Mr. Hall said. “Everything we’d seen him build up is now gone. It was sad to see Julie Benz go and leave the ‘Dexter’ family, but from an acting standpoint, creatively, it’s really been invigorating to have him so completely decimated.”
In addition to Mr. Hall’s tightrope-walking portrayal of a sympathetic killer, one that has earned him three consecutive Emmy nominations, “Dexter” has been marked by a series of flashy, season-long guest-killer performances by actors like Jimmy Smits and, last season, John Lithgow, roles collectively known on the set as the “big bad.” But that too is in for a change.
“I think as far as the emergence of the adversary, the big bad if you will, that form may have been perfected last season,” Mr. Hall said, “I think there was a desire to move beyond, to break that mold.”
The biggest name joining the cast this season is the actress Julia Stiles, and while not much has been revealed about her character, it appears that she won’t be a thoroughgoing killer in the mold of Mr. Lithgow’s Trinity or Christian Camargo’s Rudy, Dexter’s seriously disturbed older brother.
“There will certainly be adversaries, but it’s more plural and as far as Julia’s role, it’s not an adversarial relationship,” Mr. Hall said. “You know, Dexter’s yet to get involved in any significant way with someone he hasn’t ended up killing, so we’ll see if he can manage.”
The one successful, essential relationship Dexter has is with his bull-headed and passionate foster sister, Debra. In this case the parallel between television and real life can’t be denied: Debra is played by Jennifer Carpenter, who married Mr. Hall after they finished shooting Season 3. Ms. Carpenter, who appears as high-strung and vulnerable in person as Mr. Hall seems measured and guarded, recalled during a break in filming at the “Dexter” soundstage in Hollywood that she cried for a couple of days after the cancer diagnosis arrived, one year into their marriage. Then she began to take her cues from how he handled it himself.
“The triumph of a man, to have gone through something like that and not even give the crew any suspicions that he was in any sort of need, it’s impressive,” she said. “And I’m not sure he ever would have told anyone about it had he not been expected at those award ceremonies.”
With five seasons as the bottled-up funeral director David Fisher on the HBO series “Six Feet Under” and now another five as the secret killer Dexter Morgan, Mr. Hall is aware that he has spent a decade, and built a career, playing men with an almost comical degree of repression.
“Yes, I think simulating that kind of repression day in day out for a decade probably has its effect,” he said. “At the same time the fact that I’ve been called upon to play these characters is probably not a complete coincidence, so I have my own repressed people in my life that I’ve drawn on, and had my own tendency toward repression. Maybe it has to do with not knowing quite what to do with the storm of feelings that accompanied my father’s death. Maybe it’s a learned behavior.” He smiled. “Now I’m taking it to the bank.”
How long he’ll continue taking it to the bank is, he acknowledges, a good question. He said the writers have done a good job of maintaining the “fundamental disconnect, or wacky justification” necessary to pull off a show in which the sympathetic protagonist has to murder people continually to keep the plot going (even if those people, by Dexter’s reckoning, deserve to die). But time will run out, perhaps sooner rather than later.
“We finished the first season, and I thought we should just stop,” Mr. Hall said. “It’s sort of beyond the beyond as far as the landscape of Dexter’s life now.”
Chip Johannessen (“24”), who joined “Dexter” as this season’s show runner, pointed to two things that continue to close in on the writers: the growing likelihood that Debra, a crack police detective, will discover her brother’s secret life, and Dexter’s gradual normalization, his progress toward “some recognizable human place.”
When either happens, the show will be over. “I think it’s going to be up to Michael,” Mr. Johannessen said.
Mr. Hall, who is an executive producer of the show, will also have a say in the nature of Dexter’s fate. “With the way the fourth season ended, the suggestion seems to be that there are consequences. And it’s hard to imagine it ultimately ending well for him.”
It’s hard to imagine that even the show’s most hard-core fans could protest too much if Dexter’s fate were a grim one, in keeping with the punishments he has handed out himself. In the meantime Mr. Hall continues to see how human he can make a character who doesn’t believe in his own humanity.
“When I first encountered the character, my first question was: Is this a person who could ever be? Really?” Mr. Hall said. “And I’m still not sure. I think I’m coming closer and closer to believing that he’s real. And I think Dexter’s coming closer and closer to believing that he’s real too.”
I heard that in the new season, Deb moves in with Dexter to help him take care of the kids. I hope that happens, because Deb has become my favorite character, and I love her evolution, and I love the way she and Dexter feel about each other. Her radar with men and with people in general is so screwed up – and I blame Dexter for that. The person she’s closest to, the person she trusts the most is a serial killer. It’s f-cked her up in ways she doesn’t even know. Plus, I can’t wait to see how Angel and the
chief’s lieutenant’s marriage plays out. Ah… f-ck, I love this show!