It's not easy getting Michael C. Hall to smile, but when it happens, it's worth the wait.
Hall is all business as he deconstructs his TV alter ego, the charming serial killer and title character of the cable hit Dexter. But ask Hall how he steps outside the role of Dexter Morgan, and his face briefly brightens with a shy grin. It would be creepy if it wasn't so adorable.
"I just leave him behind at work," he finally says. "Inevitably, if you spend this much time moving through such intense material, it's going to get into you on a cellular level. But there's no formal ritual that I do to shed Dexter's skin. Ultimately, it still feels like playing."
And then the smile is gone.
Back for a fifth season (Sunday, 9 p.m., Movie Central; TMN, 10 p.m.) Dexter remains a freakish anomaly in broadcast television. The TV world has produced its share of anti-heroes over the years, but a police blood-spatter expert who moonlights as a vigilante? If played by a lesser actor, Dexter would come across as a sick aberration of society, period. In Hall's hands, he is immensely charming and likeable: There aren't many occasions when viewers can root for a psychopath.
"I recognize the show appeals to different people for different reasons," muses Hall. "For some reason, many people can relate to a character who has temporary flare-ups of bloodlust."
Since premiering in 2006, Dexter has grown to become one of Showtime's top-rated series. Last December's fourth-season finale was the most-watched original series episode in Showtime history.
The creative caveat with Dexter, of course, is that only the truly evil die by his hand - murderers, child molesters, rapists. From the beginning, the character has adhered to the Code of Harry - his late adoptive policeman father (James Remar), who turns up in flashbacks. That code dictates that Dexter kill only those who deserve it.
"Dexter doesn't require any validation for the things he does," says Hall, 39. "His primary allegiance to the code prevents him from indulging in any overt show of who he is."
Of course, Hall can't take all the credit for creating his lovable monster. The series was originally based on the novel Darkly Dreaming Dexter by Jeff Lindsay, which provided the plotline for the first season. After that, Lindsay continued to pen Dexter novels, but the TV show opted for original storylines.
"The first Dexter book was invaluable in terms of getting the character's personality," says Hall. "I read and reread the book. Beyond that, subsequent books and subsequent seasons haven't coincided, so I haven't spent time on the other books."
A native of Raleigh, N.C., Hall was nipped by the acting bug at 5, when his parents took him to a musical production of A Christmas Carol. "The actor playing Scrooge was so good, so funny and so scary," he recalls wistfully. "And he was wearing this prosthetic nose and chin and a wig. Later, I was amazed to discover he was only 23. That was the first thing that really excited me about acting."
Hall later studied acting in New York and honed his craft in off-Broadway productions of Macbeth and other classics. His big break came in 1999 when director Sam Mendes cast him as the flashy master of ceremonies in his Broadway production of Cabaret. A few years later, he took the role of Billy Flynn in the touring edition of Chicago.
Hall played to a much larger audience with the HBO drama Six Feet Under beginning in 2001. Series creator Alan Ball, currently helming HBO's True Blood, thought Hall would be a natural to play tightly wound funeral director David Fisher. The character spent the first season of SFU as a tortured soul hiding the fact that he was gay from family and friends; the character was out of the closet for the next four seasons, though no less tortured.
"Having done five years of a TV show helped me step up and take the added responsibility of playing a title character," he says. With barely a break, Dexter came next, and a different sort of body count began.
In person, Hall becomes animated when discussing the show and his character, but is less so when it comes to talking about his personal life. He married Dexter co-star Jennifer Carpenter, who plays Dex's foster sister, Deb, in 2008, but says little else. "We're very happy," he allows.
Last year, he found himself battling Hodgkin's lymphoma. When Hall picked up his Golden Globe for Dexter, he wore a knit cap to hide his hair loss from chemotherapy. Today, he says, "The Hodgkin's is in remission and I feel great."
Hall concedes the fame of Six Feet Under and Dexter has brought in movie offers, but he has been judicious in choosing roles. He played a dour FBI agent in the Ben Affleck feature Paycheck and an unhinged techie in last year's sci-fi entry Gamer.
Two weeks ago, Hall turned up at the Toronto International Film Festival for the premiere of the quirky low-budgeter Peep World, a black comedy in which he plays a porn-addicted miscreant. The suggestion that he might want to try a flat-out comedy role results in a furrowed brow.
"I don't want to do something that's comic just for the sake of doing something that's comic," he says. "I'm interested in telling stories."
For now, Hall's focus is trained on Dexter. He acknowledges there is probably more anticipation than usual about the new season, since the previous campaign closed on a shocker. Dexter finally caught the Trinity Killer (John Lithgow), but not before Trinity murdered Dexter's wife, Rita (Julie Benz). In the closing scene, Rita was dead and drained as their infant son, Harrison, sat in a pool of her blood.
"Rita's murder set the bar higher, to an extent," says Hall. "It fundamentally changed the world of the show's central character. In that regard, it was a really invigorating storytelling choice. Dexter has to take responsibility for the mess he's made. There's a sense of 'Now what?' "
But as bleak as the future looks for TV's favourite serial killer, the challenge has been life-affirming for Hall. "The show feels like a journey," says Hall, and his smile returns. "My take is, Dexter was like a baby when we first met him. In the second season, he's kind of an adolescent, and the third and fourth seasons moved him into adulthood. Now his innocence is gone.…"
And then, Hall's smile disappears as quickly as it came. "He has blood on his hands now."