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Why Michael C. Hall was never the same after Dexter

For as long as there's been television, there have been viewers obsessed with murderers and antiheroes. And perhaps no character better encapsulates the quintessential hero who's hard to love better than Dexter Morgan.

A member of the Miami Metro Police Department by day, a code-obsessed and highly efficient serial killer by night, Dexter provided TV audiences with something they hadn't seen before. Sure, there had been villains on TV, even lovable ones, but Dexter broke the mold by refusing to fit into any traditional archetypes. To achieve this, the role required a world-class actor.

When the show premiered in 2006, actor Michael C. Hall was somewhat fresh off a role on another genre-defining series, Six Feet Under. All the same, he agreed to take viewers on a visceral romp through the mind of a man who needs to kill. Armed with a brutally honest inner monologue and a set of skills that no rational human being should spend their time harnessing, Dexter required the actor to not only go to that dark place himself but also come back from it, which is harder than it sounds.

Although the show took its final bow in 2013 after eight seasons, the effects of playing Dexter Morgan remain with Hall in a myriad of ways. To give fans some insight into what it takes to craft a role as complex as a serial killer, below is a rundown of how Michael C. Hall was never the same after playing Dexter.

Michael C. Hall had to relearn how to act

Before landing Dexter, Michael C. Hall was a well-trained actor. After graduating from a liberal arts college in Indiana, he studied at the prestigious Tisch School of the Arts at New York University. He got his professional start in the unforgiving world of theater with the even more unforgiving plays of Shakespeare. In short, he was bringing a lot of education and experience as an actor to the role of Dexter. Unfortunately, when one spends his life learning how to feel different emotions, it can be a real bummer for their most prolific role to be a man who can't show them.

"An actor — me — who is preoccupied with cultivating a sense of authenticity ... playing someone who claims to be without the capacity for authenticity, emotionally or otherwise, who's always pretending. In a way, it was liberating to let go of that preoccupation," he told NPR. "'Does this feel right? Does this feel authentic? Am I telling the truth here?' Playing someone who, as far as he was concerned, was always simulating his behavior. Dexter was an actor of sorts."

Hall found it an interesting acting challenge at first, but once Dexter Morgan was behind him, he realized he spent the past seven years shedding away all the emotional mirroring he'd learned in order to play the part like the champion thespian he is. Needless to say, it took time to find his abilities again once he was free to play characters with emotions.

He had to work to stop having dark thoughts

Playing a serial killer is a tricky proposition, and as a result, there's no road map for getting inside the mind of a murderer that doesn't directly lead to handcuffs. But that didn't stop Michael C. Hall from walking that legal line when he followed strangers around Manhattan just to see what it took before shooting the pilot.

Hall had no trouble getting into character, especially early on when there was some levity to Dexter. When the character is first introduced, his life is actually great. It's only over time that the audience sees the negative impact that murder has on the character's relationships. As a result, the well-trained actor said it was easy getting to the dark places required thanks to the show's gradual pace. However, getting back was a struggle.

"I think that if you spend that much time preoccupied with whatever you were simulating, that a part of you is affected, and a part of you is recording the simulated experience in a way that is more than just fluff, you know?" he told The Hollywood Reporter in 2018. "A part of you is absorbing it and marinating in it. It takes some time to get it out of your system and to unlearn whatever increasingly ingrained reflexive behavior results from doing something for that long." In other words, it seems like Michael C. Hall was kind of experiencing what Will Graham of the Hannibal TV show was going through. Gaze into the abyss for too long, and it gazes right back, and all that horrifying jazz. Fortunately, Hall was eventually able to move on from Dexter, telling THR, "I certainly know now that I feel a lot farther from the character than I did two months after [the show] ended."

He was afraid to take another TV project after Dexter

After Dexter wrapped, Michael C. Hall was having trouble figuring out what direction he wanted his career to go in. After winning a Golden Globe and being nominated for several Emmys for his part as everyone's favorite blood-spatter analyst, it's likely there were no shortage of offers coming Hall's way. However, after doing the same thing and playing the same role in the same city for the better part of a decade, he had to ask himself what kind of actor he wanted to be from there on out. 

He quickly realized that he didn't want to do any projects that might occupy his life for several years, which he continues to consider when choosing parts today. In 2018, he accepted his first role back on TV in Netflix's Safe. Speaking to The Hollywood Reporter, the actor credited the script with convincing him to take to the small screen again. However, a real deciding factor was the fact that Safe was conceived as a limited series. 

"I was interested in the fact that there was a definitive end in sight. We were going to do eight episodes, and that would be that," he told the outlet. "So it wasn't an open-ended commitment to another TV show in that way. But ultimately, it was really just about the quality of the script." Looking back on it, it's almost like he didn't realize he'd be spending seven years of his life inside the mind of a serial killer when he signed on for Dexter.

He needed to find his roots once again

After Dexter was over, Michael C. Hall decided to throw himself back onto familiar ground — the stage. After all, he needed to unlearn the mental habits and peculiar acting style that he picked up during his time on Dexter, and for a while, he was afraid of stumbling into another long-running TV. So what better place to redefine himself than the world of Broadway?

Early in his career, the actor got his start doing Shakespeare, but he quickly moved on to acclaimed roles such as Billy Flynn in Chicago and the flamboyant Emcee in Cabaret. And after Dexter finished, he got back to his roots in the Broadway production of The Realistic Joneses, but that was just a warm-up for his run as the title character in Hedwig and the Angry Inch, where he replaced Andrew Rannells, who replaced Neil Patrick Harris, and those are both odd names to say in conjunction with the guy who played a psychopathic serial killer for the past decade. 

Sure a handful of independent movies helped, but it was Hall's theater work that really helped him put Dexter Morgan in his rearview. He also went on to play the part of a new cerebral character in David Bowie-created hit Lazarus. Today, Hall is a staple in the theater community, which he had to work hard at so that he wouldn't spend his life frequenting casting calls for men who kill.

He became desperate to play a regular guy

After Dexter, Hall said time and again that he would relish the opportunity to play someone who wasn't soaked in other people's blood. So he spent most of his time after the show trying to avoid being cast in roles about killers or as a crazy person himself. However, he wasn't completely able to avoid the typecasting of the grim specter of death. 

For example, he appeared in the 2013 film Kill Your Darlings. This time he wasn't a killer, but the infamous victim of one. While that's different, it's still a role that puts him hand-in-hand with death and darkness. The following year, he took on another role riddled with grimness and violence in the film Cold in July. In 2016, he managed to find his "regular guy" role in the film Christine. Unfortunately, the movie itself is about one of the most infamous and horrific live TV deaths in American history. 

The list goes on, but any way you slice it (pun intended), Hall has spent his post-Dexter years being seen in the eyes of his Hollywood peers as the go-to guy for sociopathic emptiness. Even a recent run on the comedy series Documentary Now saw him play Billy May "Dead Eyes" Dempsey, a professional bowler whose thousand-yard stare makes you wonder what's really going on behind those very dead eyes.

Michael C. Hall's relationship with fandom is complicated

Although he acknowledges the impact that Dexter had, Hall can't exactly boast about the series as people's fondness for it goes hand-in-hand with their hatred of the ending.

For those who need a recap [SPOILER ALERT], after another killer renders Dexter's sister, Deb, brain dead, Dexter kills him and allows his son and girlfriend to flee the country without him. As a hurricane bears down on Miami, Dexter uses the confusion to steal his sister's body and bury it at sea like the rest of his victims. He steers his boat into the hurricane in an apparent suicide attempt, only for it to be revealed that he faked his death and is living in exile as a lumberjack ... for some reason.

Despite several seasons of gold, the finale left a bad taste in even the most ardent fan's mouth. As a result, Hall couldn't even discuss the role he was trying desperately to escape with any fondness. "I think the show had lost a certain amount of torque," he finally confessed in 2017. "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. ... 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."

Getting married to his Dexter co-star

For a serial killer, Dexter Morgan had a shocking number of stalwart companions, but none more so than his adoptive sister, Debra Morgan, played by actress Jennifer Carpenter. Because she spent the bulk of the series oblivious to his double life, those who tuned into the show mostly saw them interact as a loving brother and sister. That's why so many fans were vexed when the actors got married to each other in 2008 in the middle of the show's run. 

"We certainly pride ourselves in being professionals," Hall told Us Weekly of their marriage at the time. "Like I said earlier, we work on the same show, but we're not in every scene together. We don't see each other on set as often as you'd think."

However, things took a turn in 2010 after just two years of marriage. The couple announced that they were officially divorcing, and that they'd been separated for quite some time. Ironically, that's when the show decided to tackle a weird romantic storyline between the adoptive siblings. 

All that aside, the show continued for a few more seasons before the finale, forcing the now-divorced couple to maintain a professional relationship. It's worth noting that Carpenter was Hall's second wife. He was previously married to actress Amy Spanger from 2002 to 2006. He lived the bachelor's life for a little while before he started dating Morgan Macgregor, who's notably not an actress. Perhaps after his experience with marriage and divorce on the Dexter set, he learned his lesson.

He had to acknowledge that the role saved his life

Many may not know that during the run of Dexter, Michael C. Hall battled Hodgkin's lymphoma. After receiving his diagnosis in season four, he kept it a big secret from even his castmates until production wrapped. According to The New York Times, he began treatment the following day.

Fortunately for the actor, his fans, and all the future roles that benefited from his presence, Hall beat the cancer and has been in remission ever since. However, unlike Dexter, Hall isn't emotionless. The journey of battling cancer took a toll on him, but he couldn't let it show on-screen. Fortunately, he managed to bury himself in his work and, despite the character being all about death, he found it liberating to not be himself for a while. 

In fact, Hall explained to Entertainment Weekly that he might not have made it through that whole ordeal if he didn't have work to focus on when it was all over. As he explained, "It's a show that's death-soaked, but it's what I've been doing with my life so it feels more vitalizing than anything else. I was just thankful I got through it and was able to go back to work." 

For a role that took such a toll on his personal life and his connection to his own fans, he had to acknowledge that Dexter Morgan may very well have saved his life, or at the very least, his post-treatment sanity.

He may have inadvertently inspired a real killer

Part of the appeal of watching Dexter is that the character made it seem like anyone could buy a ton of plastic, sharpen a few knives, and do what the character does. The idea was to make everyone's friends and co-workers seem scary. However, for real-life murderer Mark Twitchell, the show was an instruction manual. 

Twitchell, a devoted Dexter fan, claimed to be obsessed with the character and the idea of killing. In 2011, he was convicted of doing just that when he lured, murdered, and dismembered a man in Canada. When asked how he felt about the character that he worked so hard to craft being the inspiration for real-life horrors, Hall was clearly disturbed by the prospect. 

"All I can say to that is, it's horrifying to entertain the notion that something you did inspired that," Hall said at the CBC arts program Q (via The Huffington Post). "I immediately found myself saying, 'Well, you know, he would have found something else to inspire him,' but I don't know. To be perfectly honest, it's a troubling thing to consider."

While people can debate the responsibility of actors for the real-life events their characters may inspire, the fact of the matter is that it's not a hypothetical scenario for Hall when it comes to Dexter. A human being died, and the killer blamed the veteran actor's character for the murder. That's got to be a tough thing to shake off.

Michael C. Hall still can't escape Dexter

As anyone from the cast of Friends, Frasier or Firefly will tell you, if you've been on a fan-beloved show, all anyone cares about is whether or not you'll do a reboot, revival, or reunion. Such is the case for Dexter. Since it ended in 2013, Hall hasn't been able to avoid questions about a comeback. 

In a 2014 interview with IGN, he tried to be as blunt as possible about his indifference to the idea, saying, "It's very difficult for me to imagine someone coming up with something that is compelling enough for that to be worth doing. I certainly have no interest right now in playing Dexter. You know, some time passes and somebody has some newly imagined landscape for him that I feel is worth exploring, I would perhaps consider it."

Unfortunately, that quote led to a firestorm of rumors that Hall was open to the idea, and it wouldn't be the last time someone would ask Hall if he'd be interested in revisiting his famous role. And in 2018, that prompted Hall to tell The Hollywood Reporter that, "There are no plans in the works to make more Dexter. I don't say absolutely not, never, because who knows if somebody might come up with something that feels worth doing. But it's not something that I'm preoccupied with, considering or thinking about at the moment."

In other words, it seems that, career-wise, Dexter has become Hall's very own dark passenger.