Darkness follows actor Michael C. Hall everywhere, from his television roles in Dexter and Six Feet Under, to his family’s battles with cancer. Now it’s crept into his big screen career.
20 Jun 2014 - 3:59 PM  UPDATED 23 Jun 2014 - 10:28 AM

When I first met Michael C. Hall at the Monte Carlo Television Festival (which movie star-loving Prince Rainier created to rival Cannes), it was for the final season of Six Feet Under, where he’d played the role of a gay undertaker. Always brave in his choices, Hall at the time had been flashing his buttocks on Broadway in Cabaret and vowed he’d never do another television series. Not only would he go on to receive the highest acclaim of his career for his subsequent eight seasons as a fastidious serial killer on Dexter, he would return to the death theme which even pervades his own life. Tragically, cancer runs in his family and no manner of fame or fortune can keep you immune.

Hall and his mother, Janice, who is a college guidance counsellor in North California where Hall was raised, are cancer survivors, while his father, William Carlyle Hall, who worked for IBM, died of prostate cancer in 1982 when Hall was 11 years old.

Perhaps because of his own delicate position on this planet, Hall is the most affable actor you could imagine. Even so, the 43-year-old remains dark in his movie choices, though at least in his two recent movies he’s played the victim. In Kill Your Darlings, he portrayed the real life David Kammerer as a homosexual paedophile stalker who is bumped off by Lucien Carr, the young man with whom he’s obsessed. Now in Cold in July, he's the fictitious Richard, a mild-mannered East Texas family man whose accidental shooting of an intruder makes him a target for the boy’s furious hardened criminal father (Sam Shepard). Against his better judgment, Richard finds the world of underworld violence strangely seductive and he transforms from accidental killer to bloody avenger.

Based on Joe R. Londsdale’s novel, the 1980s-set film was one of the hits of Sundance—where one reviewer gleefully called it “a real piledriver of a film that starts with a home invasion and spirals into a vigilante assault movie”.  It screened in Cannes as a result, and later at the Sydney Film Festival. The film marks the third collaboration between Mickle and his co-writer Nick Damici (who also appears as a cop) after they created a vampire apocalypse in Stake Land and a cannibalistic clan in We Are What We Are.

Hall is currently starring on Broadway with Toni Collette in Will Eno’s The Realistic Joneses, which is set to finish early on July 6. Edgy new plays are struggling on Broadway even if the New York Times raved about the production.

“Plays as funny and moving, as wonderful and weird as The Realistic Joneses, by Will Eno, do not appear often on Broadway,” writes Charles Isherwood. “Having appeared in the cable series Six Feet Under and Dexter, Mr. Hall certainly is at home riding the currents of anxiety in Mr. Eno’s play. But his performance is most rewarding for its buoyancy, the manner in which Mr. Hall imbues his character’s despair with an offhand lightness of touch, as if a festering sore were just a scratch.” Isherwood also notes that Collette “exudes a touching, exasperated dignity” as Jennifer, who finds herself in unexpected intimacy with Hall’s character.  

It makes me want to hop on the next flight for the Big Apple.
I met you at Monte Carlo Television Festival, and you said you were never making another television show.
I remember those were famous last words. I definitely learned to never say never when it comes to career predictions. A lot of exciting things are going on in TV and I wouldn't want to forsake that. But I am interested in getting in and out of characters a little more.
And not being known as this homicidal maniac (Dexter).
Jim Mickle says you were great to work with.
I love Jim, I really do. He is such a great leader and has an effortless authority and confidence when he is on set. I play someone who inadvertently kills someone in the opening scene of the movie so it was a way to visit the notion of homicide from a very different perspective. My character is not compelled to murder people. It’s also a period piece, so I got to have a late ‘80s look, the mullet and the moustache and horrible clothes.
So you are not so sexy?
Well, maybe I emerge into something sexy, though at the beginning I am struggling on that front! (chuckles) But yeah, after meeting with Jim and seeing his films, particularly We Are What We Are, which I thought was just jaw dropping, I jumped at the chance to work with him.
You’ve worked so much with death-themed projects and have been diagnosed with cancer yourself. It’s been a very strange period.
It has been. I didn't set out to have things always be surrounded by an atmosphere of death. Though, I guess it’s the common denominator so a collective fascination with that makes sense. But I do think roles happen to us as much as we happen to them so maybe there is something I have unconsciously attracted in my work. But I’m not all storm and stress and death and darkness in my life.
How did you deal with your cancer?
It’s amazing what you make room for when you are forced to. Towards the end of the fourth season I discovered that I had it and the remaining time before the hiatus was taken up with getting third and fourth opinions and deciding on a course of treatment. I felt as fortunate as I felt in any way, cursed as I was, assured that I had a form of cancer that was treatable. I decided on a course of treatment that coincided with our hiatus at work, and although I had to back out from a movie, I had time to dedicate to treating it and I have good health insurance. It wasn't fun going through the six months of treatment but it worked. I wore a wig for the fifth season of Dexter and just got on with it.
Has that experience given you a different attitude going forward?
Perhaps. My mother is a cancer survivor, my father died of cancer, my grandmother died of cancer and my aunt died of breast cancer. There is a lot of cancer in my family and I suppose I have had more than my fair share of death, so maybe there is a parallel there. Everybody was like, “Oh God, have you told your mother?” Thankfully, she has reserves of stoicism when needed and she said, “Well, welcome to the club!” So it felt like a rite of passage, like some sort of poetic justice. And as much as my father died at 39 and I found out about my own cancer at 38 and turned 39 when I was doing the treatment, that was always a threshold that I imagined crossing. So it was a very heady time and if anything it just fostered a greater sense of gratitude.
You are still very handsome, it hasn't outwardly taken its toll.
Yeah, well, it takes its toll. I think it definitely put some miles on me but I was glad that I was in otherwise good health.
So you grew up with just your mum?
My mother did have a child who died in infancy before I was born, so death is number one in my story.
What was it like being the two of you?
It was intense. There is no triangulated relationship, no third or fourth or fifth person with whom to compare notes, like “Remember when that happened?” “What was your take on that?” We were definitely in survival mode. My father died when my mum was 37/38, I was 11, and it was time for us to not be completely victimised by that fact and survive it and that left its mark. I think as far as comparing notes goes, mum and I are still processing how that went.
In Six Feet Under you were this groundbreaking, sensitive gay guy. (Hall has been married and divorced twice, most recently to his Dexter co-star Jennifer Carpenter.) Do you think that came a bit from that close relationship with your mother?
I don't know. I certainly grew to associate my sense of strength and my sense of the feminine with her. There was something about David Fisher’s inherent repression that felt to me reminiscent of my intuitive sense of my father, and the world in which he grew up, an atmosphere which was sort of more conservative fundamentalist, a neo-puritanical environment that I think was reflective of David's interior landscape. A lot of things went into that soup.
But you are quite the opposite now, very left of field?
Yeah, I think so. I am definitely drawn to material that in one way or another has a subversiveness or antagonism toward the status quo.
Does that come from your father?
I don't know. Carl Yung said we are obliged to live out the unexpressed shadow energy of our parents so maybe it has something to do with what my father never had the opportunity to express.
Did you go to university or study philosophy?
I switched from major to major but ended up majoring in theatre because I realised it was the only way I graduated on time. I think it was a secret that I had kept from everybody, including myself, that what I really wanted to do was act. But it was a liberal arts college (Earlham College in Indiana) with a pretty extensive core curriculum in the humanities, so yeah, I took some classes in English, philosophy and history. (He then attended New York University's Graduate Acting Program at the Tisch School of the Arts.)
Were you good at school as a kid?
I was okay. I think I was a bit distracted. I was a bit in my own head, so I was never able to have the consistent discipline to be a top student in all subjects. Once I got to college I thrived a bit more because I was able to have more choice about what I studied.
What is it that made Dexter such a cult hit?
I don't know if it’s any one thing. I think the show appealed to different kinds of people for different reasons, but we are in a time where audience's appetites to identify with characters who are fundamentally flawed has been whetted and that’s what they're interested in. Dexter is obviously flawed and saddled with an undeniable compulsion. Maybe it’s as simple as we all at some time want to take people out! (He emits a typically beaming Michael C. Hall smile.)
Who have you wanted to take out?
I am not going to say. (Even wider grin.) But we’re living in a world that is shrinking in a way and a world in which we feel an increasing lack of agency or control. Maybe there is something about Dexter and his corner of the world taking control that appeals to people and speaks to some primal appetite.

Cold in July screened at the 2014 Sydney Film Festival.