Humanity

05.23.14

Michael C. Hall on Where ‘Dexter’ Went Wrong and His New Killer Role in ‘Cold in July’

In ‘Cold in July,’ Michael C. Hall ditches the bloody world of ‘Dexter’ to play a nice suburban dad—who accidentally kills someone. Here we go again.

Michael C. Hall knows you hated the ending of Dexter.

The 43-year-old actor, best known for playing vigilante serial killer Dexter Morgan on the Showtime series, isn’t even sure he liked the ending himself.

“Liked it? I don’t think I even watched it,” he says of the finale, which aired last September. The once-gripping saga of the nerdy blood spatter analyst (spoiler alert) ended on a flabbergasting note, with the death of Dexter’s adoptive sister Debra; his self-exile from his kids, his job, and Miami; and his transition into a new career as…a lumberjack. Hall chooses his words carefully when discussing his feelings about that last episode. “I thought it was narratively satisfying—but it was not so savory.”

“I think the show had lost a certain amount of torque,” he says. “Just inherently because of how long we’d done it, because of the storytelling capital we’d spent, because our writers may have been gassed. Maybe some people wanted a more satisfying—maybe they wanted a happy ending for him, either a happy ending or a more definitive sense of closure. They wanted him to die or something, but I think the fact that he’s sort of exiled in a prison of his own making is, for my money, pretty fitting.”

Now, with eight bloodstained years behind him, Hall has taken on the role of another murderous suburban dad in Jim Mickle’s slick indie thriller, Cold in July. Hall plays Richard Dane, the hapless, bemulleted owner of a framing business who finds an intruder snooping around his house late one night. Petrified, and holding his gun a little too tightly, Dane accidentally shoots the intruder in the head, spraying blood and brains all over his living room couch and setting in motion a noir-ish chain of events that never quite turns out the way you think it will. Cops turn into bad guys and ex-cons into allies (after twist, after twist, and so on) against a 1980s East Texas backdrop, complete with a John Carpenter-esque synth-heavy soundtrack.

“This guy felt closer to me than Dexter, inasmuch as I would be horrified if I actually shot and killed somebody. I wouldn’t kill somebody then go eat a sandwich after I dismembered them,” Hall says, referencing Dexter’s preferred method for disposing of dead bodies.

But for a movie that choke-holds you in suspense from the very first scene, Cold in July is also surprisingly funny. Don Johnson blasts in midway through the movie in a practically neon cowboy getup, with a swagger that only the former Miami Vice star could pull off (“[Johnson] can talk about himself in the third-person in a way that is charming,” Mickle laughs). And Dane’s mullet (a hair piece which Hall brought to the set himself to give his character a “reaching, uncool” vibe) and ‘80s-dad clothes put him hopelessly out of place in the bloody antics he’s involved himself in. Topped off with a “good supply” of Polo cologne—“along with Drakkar Noir, it was like, the manly scent at the time,” Hall recalls—and one sad, half-grown mustache and voila: “He’s the guy who decided to grow a mustache last week and then this thing happened to him,” as Mickle puts it.

“I would be horrified if I actually shot and killed somebody. I wouldn’t kill somebody then go eat a sandwich after I dismembered them.”

“I was really struck at first by how funny Michael was in his comic timing,” Mickle adds. “It was a great surprise, you know. When you see the characters he’s played, you’re not expecting him to have a lot of that. There’s a humor to Dexter that I think hints at that, but [Cold in July], I think, takes that even further.”

Part of the film’s humor comes from Dane’s need to prove that he’s man enough to hang with Jim Bob (Johnson’s character) and Russel (a gruff, reticent ex-con played masterfully by Sam Shepard). It becomes obvious at one point that Dane no longer needs to be involved with the two older men’s mission—but Dane is clearly just bored by the idea of going home to his wife and son and picking out a new couch.

“There was a big element to that character who wanted to feel tested,” says Mickle. “There was a time in this century when it was totally okay to challenge someone to a duel. You’d get in a fight with somebody at a bar and it was totally cool to walk out and shoot ‘em. That’s kind of gotten tamed out of us in a way, but I think there’s an element to guys that [still want to know] how we’d stack up or how you’d be when you’re tested…In [Dane’s] mind, when someone like Russel shows up, that becomes the symbol of what a man should be. But is that really what it should be?”

Hall more than holds his own alongside veterans Shepard and Johnson, bringing enough nuance to his character that Mickle was able to cut down scenes that had previously put into dialogue what Hall was already instinctively emoting. And though his resume so far reads somewhat morbidly (before chopping people up on Dexter, Hall played a funeral director for five years on Six Feet Under), he’s relishing the chance to take on new projects. Hall currently stars alongside Toni Collette and Marisa Tomei on Broadway in The Realistic Joneses, co-starred in last year’s Beat poet epic Kill Your Darlings, and is looking at more film projects (none of which he can talk about, of course).

In the meantime, Richard Dane occupies a special place as the character that brought Hall back from Dexter’s bloody, broken world.

“It was nice when Dexter ended to have a chance to play somebody who didn’t mean to kill a person, but nevertheless killed someone and dealt with the immediate befuddlement, remorse, and confusion that went along with that,” he says. “It was like a way to come back to humanity.”