Ask Michael C. Hall about the recurring theme of morbidity in the roles he plays, and the 43-year-old actor will quickly agree with you, but he'd also point out that it's in those darkest places that he—and, by extension, we—discover what it is to be a human. So it should come as no surprise that in his first big-screen appearance since wrapping an eight-season run as the lovable serial killer Dexter Morgan, Hall's character murders someone. But the truth is much more complicated.
In Jim Mickle's Cold in July, which screens as part of Cannes' Directors' Fortnight today before opening in theaters on May 23rd, Hall plays Richard Dane, a small-town Texan who gets drawn into a dangerous circle of men after bravely protecting his wife (played by Vinessa Shaw) and son from a home intruder. To reveal more would ruin the experience of watching this enthralling crime thriller set in the 1980s, which Mickle and Nick Damici adapted from Joe R. Lansdale's novel. What is safe to say is that while the movie, which co-stars Sam Shepard and Don Johnson, does dabble in darker themes, it also serves as a sort of on-screen exorcism of Dexter's more devious past. Thus begins a new chapter in the Golden Globe winner's career.
On his day off from the Broadway production of The Realistic Joneses, Hall spoke with us about the allure of the macabre, the likelihood of seeing him in another Henley shirt, and why he wasn't afraid to kill again.
DETAILS: Cold in July is your first project following eight seasons of Dexter. Were there any character elements that you consciously attempted to embrace or avoid?
MICHAEL C. HALL: No. If there were certain things I didn't want to do, one of them would probably be killing someone, and I probably wouldn't have done Cold in July in the first place. But the strength of Jim Mickle's previous work, the script itself, and the character trumped any concerns in that regard. I have an awareness of what I've done and what I might be associated with, but I don't want to be too rigidly limited by that. When Dexter was over, in a way it was therapeutic to go and play a character who killed someone but didn't mean to, didn't want to, and didn't need to...The craziness in his world is happening externally as much as internally, so it was sort of a nice epilogue to the Dexter experience.
DETAILS: Before Dexter, you spent five seasons on Six Feet Under. So you went from playing a funeral director to a serial killer. And now this. Are you drawn to the macabre?
MICHAEL C. HALL: I'd be lying if I said I didn't tend to be grabbed by things that maybe are characterized by some degree of darkness. The play I'm doing now is much lighter, in a sense, and more comic, but it also does deal with our common mortality. I think things that in one way or another address some of the more fundamental and perhaps weightier aspects of what it is to be a human do entice me.
DETAILS: When it comes to separating your on-screen persona from your real life, how easy is it for you to "turn it off" once you leave the set? And is that different when you're working on a film versus a television series?
MICHAEL C. HALL: I think a film is a shorter-lived affair. I don't mean that in the romantic sense, but it's appropriate, I guess. A film is kind of an affair and a TV show is a marriage. With a film, you can really live in it more intensely without quite needing to learn how to let it go in the same way as you need to when you play something for a really long time. I think I probably still have residue of David Fisher inside me. I probably always will.
DETAILS: Does that mean that every so often you have to throw on one of Dexter's Henley shirts, walk around, and get back into that?
MICHAEL C. HALL: No I do not. (Laughs) I don't cultivate the residue!
DETAILS: Will you ever wear a Henley shirt in real life?
MICHAEL C. HALL: That's a good question. I have yet to. And they're really popular nowadays. But I just can't go there.
DETAILS: I'm sure that "downtime" isn't a phrase you know all that well these days, but having been a part of some of television's most iconic series, are there any shows that have really captured your attention recently?
MICHAEL C. HALL: I feel like I'm so behind. I just watched all of Breaking Bad in about a month. I was a little late on that. (Laughs) As far as stuff that's out there right now, I have a lot of backlogged DVR.
DETAILS: Let's talk for a moment about the mullet that you get to sport in this movie. Who's idea was it?
MICHAEL C. HALL: It was my idea. I texted Jim and said, 'What do you think about a mild mullet for Richard?' and he texted back, "Mild at least!" I did this right on the heels of Dexter ending, so I didn't have time to grow it. That little back piece was actually a piece that I ended up naming "Richard Dane."
DETAILS: Is it the first time you've ever sported one?
MICHAEL C. HALL: No, I had a haircut like that when I was in high school.
DETAILS: Did it help to get you into badass mode?
MICHAEL C. HALL: I feel like it served both the dorky, patsy, milquetoast mode and the badass mode. It was doing double duty.
DETAILS: Actors talk about the different ways they go about finding a character from the get-go—for some it might be the voice, for others it could be the physical appearance or an article of clothing. Is there one part of a character that's most important for you to find first?
MICHAEL C. HALL: It varies from role to role. And I feel like coming back to the words is always the most useful thing. But certainly, in this case, finding his look [was important]. I would joke with Jim that this is a movie about a guy who decided to grow a mustache a few weeks ago, but it was actually really useful to have the mullet and the short-lived mustache and the high-waisted, pleated pants and loafers and short-sleeved plaid shirts and matching ties. It all taught me a lot about who this guy was and how he moved. Without putting on the character's clothes, you really don't have a complete sense of how he holds himself and how he moves.
DETAILS: You've had the chance to work with some amazing collaborators in your career. And Cold in July is no exception, particularly with Sam Shepard and Don Johnson. Are you ever intimidated by someone you're working with?
MICHAEL C. HALL: In the case of Sam's character, if I was intimidated it was completely useful, because I think Richard is completely intimidated by Sam's character. But it's more surreal. If you ever study acting at all you're probably going to move through Sam's material as you're coming to terms with what it is you're doing. So it was a pretty heady thing to have a chance to work with him. And growing up in the '80s, Don was a cultural icon. They're both sort of icons of American male masculinity, which is appropriate given that Richard, as he's trying to own his own sense of himself as a man, has these two sort of divergent but iconic models to look to.
DETAILS: The Realistic Joneses is bringing you back to your Broadway roots a bit. Besides the fact that you get to tweak your performance with every new show, what's the thing that most attracts you to the theater?
MICHAEL C. HALL: That you're there with the audience. You're all hearing the same silences, hearing the same words, and breathing the same air. There's nothing like that sort of alchemy.
DETAILS: What's your secret to maintaining your energy levels and stamina when you're knocking out two performances for live audiences in one day?
MICHAEL C. HALL: Getting on stage in a room full of people in the dark watching you goes a long way, but I would say sleep!
DETAILS: Do you have a regular workout routine?
MICHAEL C. HALL: I do a sort of circuit training. Basically, I just try to break a good sweat three or four times a week.
DETAILS: What's next for you?
MICHAEL C. HALL: I'm not sure. We're running The Realistic Joneses well into the summer. I'm looking at the possibility of some different film projects in the fall, but have yet to commit to anything so I'm reluctant to say. But I'm excited to have the chance, now that the series is over, to mix it up a little bit more.