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Q&A: “DEXTER’s” Michael C. Hall Talks Reluctant Killing in “COLD IN JULY”

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For eight seasons in the title role of Showtime’s DEXTER, Michael C. Hall devoted himself to ridding the world of assorted villains. Jim Mickle’s excellent new thriller COLD IN JULY also sees Hall taking out bad guys—but as a much more conflicted character.

Based on the novel by Joe R. Lansdale and scripted by Mickle and his STAKE LAND/WE ARE WHAT WE ARE collaborator Nick Damici, COLD IN JULY (opening theatrically and on VOD tomorrow, May 23 from IFC Films, and reviewed here) casts Hall as small-town-Texas family man Richard Dane. When a burglar breaks into his home late one night, Richard shoots him in the head, and becomes a reluctant hero to his neighbors. The act also draws the attention of the dead guy’s ex-con father Ben (Sam Shepard) and outspoken detective Jim Bob (Don Johnson), drawing Richard into a darkly spiraling scenario as surprising as it is violent. FANGORIA spoke to Hall about getting into the head of a man discovering his own killer instinct, and got a postmortem on DEXTER from the actor as well.

FANGORIA: When you first read the COLD IN JULY script, was it as surprising an experience as it is to watch the film?

MICHAEL C. HALL: Perhaps not quite as surprising, just because the film is such a visual feast, but yeah, I loved that it was a story about an unremarkable person around whom, or to whom, remarkable things happen, because that was sort of the antithesis of what I’d been doing on DEXTER. On the whole, I was impressed and delighted by the fact that this story broke its own rules and redefined itself more than twice. It felt like so many movies in one, and once I familiarized myself with Jim’s other work, I became excited about what I knew would be his sure hands; that he would be capable of allowing all this stuff to coalesce into something that was of a piece, but not bound by the rules that most narratives are.

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FANG: Did you read the novel or any of Lansdale’s other work to get a feel for his point of view?

HALL: Just the novel, none of the other books. I appreciated both the novel itself and the ways in which the screenplay Nick and Jim had written diverged from it, both in broad and specific ways. Every decision they had made in that sense encouraged me, inasmuch as they knew this was something that was going to appear on screen. The book was told first-person, with all kinds of exposition that you can get away with when that’s the case, and they obviously had in mind that they were doing something quite different, and made decisions that really understood the new requirements they needed to address.

FANG: Was there anything in the book that wasn’t in the script, and made you think, “We need to put this into the film”?

HALL: There were things that were explicit and talked about extensively in the book that I hoped we would capture in a moment or a glance, and I certainly was interested in that. They were there, but in more spare or subtle ways. I was interested in the fact that the relationship between Richard and his son is in no way chummy or shiny or happy, that he’s a guy who questions whether or not his son even likes him, and maybe harbors a fear that he himself is without an inherent affinity for the kid. That is perhaps a taboo thing that people don’t usually talk about, but a very real one, and one that speaks to something potentially relatable. There’s also the broader issue Richard has with his right to be a father and to be a man, and it speaks to an appetite that he has despite himself—to take this adventure all the way to the end.

FANG: The whole film, in fact, is about fathers and sons and the relationships between them. Is that something that was developed beyond the way it exists in the book?

HALL: No, it’s very explicit in the novel, because it’s Richard’s voice and he can go on and on. In a film, of course, he’s not going to stop and talk to somebody about these secret feelings he harbors about his son, so it has to be intuited by an audience, but I think we managed to do that. And yeah, this is all about fathers and sons. Richard himself is a fatherless son—his father died. There were scenes about that that actually ended up being cut from the movie, because they felt redundant. He craves a surrogate father, in a way, and I think he looks to Sam’s and Don’s characters, to an extent, to provide him with a model of masculinity that has been absent in his world. And of course, Ben has a relationship with his own son that goes where it goes.

FANG: How was it working with Shepard and Johnson, who play very forceful characters while yours is all about repressing everything?

HALL: Well, it was great that they were the actors playing those characters, because, you know, sitting in the back seat of a car with Don in the driver’s seat and Sam in the passenger’s side, it was easy to want to lean forward and say, “Hey, guys, what’s going on? Where are we going next?” There wasn’t much of a stretch. It was great, and I think I was kind of the straight man in this film. I would talk with Jim about the fact that I felt I needed to play Richard in a way that allowed him to be initially afraid of Ben, but then drawn to him, but also to behave in a way that gave some sort of opening for Jim Bob to walk in and take over. I felt like a facilitator that way.

FANG: Getting back to what you mentioned before, you went from playing Dexter, a violent person keeping his impulses under control, to Richard, a nonviolent person discovering his capacity to let those impulses out. Was there any kind of challenge in going from one extreme to the other?

HALL: The challenges were just about guarding my sense of the character’s truth. I found it somewhat therapeutic to wrap up DEXTER and then go play a more everyday person who doesn’t mean to kill someone, doesn’t want to kill someone, doesn’t need to kill someone, but nevertheless does and immediately has a sense of befuddlement and remorse and conflict. He’s not gonna chop the body up and go have a sandwich; he’s going to have nightmares and be unable to sleep, like a normal person would. And yet, he’s a guy who refuses to be the police department’s patsy. His whole life has maybe been characterized by a nagging sense that he’s a bit of a patsy, or that his life has happened to him but he has yet to happen to life, and he has the opportunity to make a choice and have a sense of agency in spite of the horrors involved.

It’s also enticing, and when he tells his wife the lie that allows him to get away with going to Houston with these guys the first time, it’s some story about an opportunity for his frame shop or whatever—but he tells her, “I’ve been waiting for something big like this,” and in spite of himself, he’s revealing something very fundamental and true there. He wants to be tested in a way he’s never been tested. He wants to have an experience that allows him to own his sense of himself as a man, as a father, as a husband, and when it’s all over, while he’s probably going to have ghosts of this experience haunting him, he also has a sense of ownership over his role as that woman’s husband and that child’s father that he doesn’t have access to when we meet him at the beginning.

FANG: I was going to ask where you think Richard goes from here…

HALL: I don’t think he becomes a periodic weekend vigilante. I think he goes back to work, but he has that sense of ownership. He doesn’t get pushed around anymore. The mailman doesn’t give him shit, and the sheriff doesn’t characterize him as a softie. It’s not about him going around looking for a fight, it’s just about him having a sense of solidity within himself that maybe he didn’t have. I don’t believe the movie suggests that the only way to go about having that is to waste bad guys, but it does suggest that we live in a world where we’re not tested in the same way we once were, and a lot of people crave a test.

FANG: Going back to DEXTER, and being in that headspace: Having done the show for so many years, did you ever find yourself getting overtaken by that persona, and needing to escape it once in a while?

HALL: Yeah—you know, only recently, probably within the past month, have I started to dream a lot about Dexter, which suggests that it’s sort of working its way through my unconscious. I’d like to believe that that’s a sign that it’s flushing itself, but I think there’s a part of us that records ritualized behavior in the same way that we record real-life events, and simulating something as an actor is a form of ritual. There’s a part of me that recorded all that stuff, and I need to flush it out. COLD IN JULY was a way to do that, by visiting the idea of murder more from the perspective of a person with a sense of true remorse and horror of the fact of having murdered.

I’m sure time will pass and it will be more and more out of my system, but yeah, when DEXTER ended, one of the first thoughts I had was, “What have I done?” I realized that there was some part of my consideration that I had shelved because of the obligation to play someone who was able to kill someone and have a better night’s sleep than he had the night before for having done it, as opposed to the other way around [laughs], but I don’t know. It’s a tricky thing, and it’s hard to know exactly where the line is or what you do or don’t take home. I mean, you know what you take home consciously, but as far as the unconscious part of yourself, it’s hard to quantify.

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FANG: Who is your favorite opponent or archvillain from all your years on DEXTER?

HALL: Well, Trinity [John Lithgow] would have to be the most formidable foe. There was a cat-and-mouse game we played for many, many weeks, and he was as prolific and skilled a killer as Dexter had ever encountered—and, in a way, a model for Dexter. Indulging in that relationship ended up getting his wife killed, and I don’t think Dexter ever quite recovered from that. As far as one-off kills, I would always point to Little Chino [Matthew Willig], just because he was so big, and it was fun to vanquish such a space-eating foe.

FANG: As time went on, did you have more creative input into DEXTER, both in terms of the writing and also casting actors you wanted to work with?

HALL: Not exactly; I think the producer credit I had was a recognition of the contributions I was already making. Because we never had writers on set, I was, more often than not, the only producer there, so if there were logistical issues, I would be able to address them and maybe make whatever changes necessary. I left the scripting, the broad-strokes storytelling choices, to our writers.

FANG: Do you think you’ll reunite with Mickle on any future films?

HALL: I hope so; I’d love to work with Jim again!

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About the author
Michael Gingold
Michael Gingold has been a member of the FANGORIA team for the past three decades. After starting as a writer for the magazine in 1988, he came aboard as associate editor in 1990 and two years later moved up to managing editor, the position he holds to this day while continuing to contribute numerous articles and reviews.
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