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The Transformation Of Jennifer Carpenter From Childhood To Dexter

"Dexter" came at a time when television was well into its golden era. The first episode arrived near the end of 2006, with the crime drama launching the careers of several actors throughout its controversial run. These included lead star Michael C. Hall and a little-known up-and-coming actor in the form of Jennifer Carpenter. While Carpenter was not a complete unknown, having had memorable roles in the likes of "White Chicks" and "The Exorcism of Emily Rose," "Dexter" brought her mainstream attention and helped make her a familiar face to households across the U.S. and the rest of the world.

Playing the adoptive sister of Dexter Morgan, known affectionately as Deb by fans, may well have been the career highlight for the actor. Her highly charged and emotional performances certainly left an impression on her as well as on fans of the show. But many people may wonder how Carpenter came to be cast in the hit television series and how it affected her career. We're taking a look back in time at Carpenter's transformation from childhood to her starring role in "Dexter" and beyond.

Jennifer Carpenter had a humble start

Jennifer Carpenter was born in Louisville, Kentucky, and went to Catholic schools before joining the Walden Theater Conservatory. Her parents never pressured her into the arts — instead, she found her love of acting on her own. She told Richard Ouzounian of the Toronto Star, "I committed at a very young age to live an extraordinary life. To be aware of my choices, and my trajectory. And the folks in my hometown all hoped and believed in me." She went on to describe Jon Jory, the founder of the Actor's Theatre of Louisville, as "a friend and one of the very first directors I ever worked with," which helped cement her life goals.

Carpenter went on to study theatre at Juilliard, the prestigious performing arts university. In an interview with Broadway Buzz, Carpenter discussed her time in the program, saying, "My first day at Juilliard, they said, 'If you have a backup plan, you should go execute it now,' and I didn't have one. When I got into Juilliard, my Dad said, 'Well if it doesn't work out, I can always get you on at Ford,' and that was actually really nice, a strange but comforting safety net. But I still don't have a plan B!" Thankfully it doesn't look like she needed a backup plan as she's continued to be a working actor since the early 2000s.

She was in a Broadway show with big stars

Before she graduated from Juilliard, Jennifer Carpenter landed a role in the 2002 Broadway revival of "The Crucible." Not only is it impressive to have a Broadway show on your resume while still a student, but Carpenter got to rub shoulders with two of the biggest stars in Hollywood — Liam Neeson and Laura Linney. Carpenter played the role of Mary Warren, a servant to the Proctor family (whose matriarch and patriarch were played by Linney and Neeson, respectively).

"I loved working on that show so much I would show up every day for rehearsals, whether I was called or not," Carpenter told The Toronto Star. "And on opening night, I stood there during the bows, holding Laura's hand on one side and Arthur [Miller]'s on the other. I really didn't think it could get any better than that."

Carpenter's early success is a perfect example of her natural talent, though it's clear she's also worked hard to hone her skills. After graduating from college, she took her talents to Los Angeles to try her hand at film and television and found success there as well.

She was in several early 2000s movies

Carpenter started her career in Hollywood with several small film roles. She was in the 2002 drama "People Are Dead" alongside Angela Bettis and Kristen Bell as well as another 9/11-centered drama entitled "Ash Tuesday." In 2004, Carpenter was in "D.E.B.S.," an action-comedy about college-aged women who are training to be spies at a secret paramilitary academy. Carpenter was credited with the role of Hysterical Student — not quite Oscar-worthy, but a fun project to have on her resume.

Life in Los Angeles was hard for Carpenter at first, as her beginning roles were usually small and she had to hold up other jobs as she waited for her big break. She told Broadway Buzz, "I went out there with two suitcases and I lived on lawn furniture in the guest house of a friend of a friend who didn't know I was staying there. When he came to town, I would go sleep on someone's couch. It was pretty terrible."

Thankfully, Carpenter landed one of her biggest early roles in 2004, only a few years after her cross-country move.

She's known for her role in White Chicks

"White Chicks" is an underrated gem of the early aughts that boasted a talented list of cast members. The Wayans brothers' comedy centers on Kevin (Shawn Wayans) and Marcus Anthony Copeland II (Marlon Wayans), two Black FBI agents who go undercover for an assignment. The twist is that they have to disguise themselves as two spoiled white women named Tiffany and Brittany Wilson and blend in with an upper-class socialite group to get to the bottom of a kidnapping case.

Jennifer Carpenter played a friend to the real Wilson sisters. Carpenter's character, Lisa Anderson, is perhaps most famous for her meltdown scene in a dressing room with Brittany/Kevin. In the scene, Lisa snaps and goes on a tangent about her insecurities, both shocking Kevin and giving viewers some of the best one-liners of the film.

It turns out that Carpenter actually met the Wayans brothers before she was cast in their movie. "I waited tables," she told Broadway Buzz. "I actually waited on the Wayans brothers the day before I auditioned for White Chicks, and they didn't remember me at my audition but they gave me my first job out there. They taught me a lot about working in front of a camera. They're very patient and very ridiculous. And very good tippers."

She earned critical acclaim in The Exorcism of Emily Rose

In 2005, Jennifer Carpenter starred in "The Exorcism of Emily Rose," a legal drama horror film inspired by the true story of Anneliese Michel, a young woman who died after undergoing several exorcisms. Carpenter herself played the lead role of Emily Rose, a college student who is believed to be possessed by demons. The horror narrative is intertwined with a courtroom storyline in which the priest who performed the exorcism (Tom Wilkinson) is on trial for Emily Rose's death.

Carpenter received overwhelming critical praise for her role, including the Scream Award for breakout performance, MTV Movie + TV Award for best frightened performance, and a Fangoria Chainsaw Award nomination for best supporting actress.

Life on set of "The Exorcism of Emily Rose" was understandably upsetting at times — and Carpenter almost passed out during a pivotal scene. "During the exorcism in the barn — I wasn't sure if I was allergic to hay or not," she explained to Dread Central. "I took an antihistamine and I didn't know that they make your blood thin and your heart race. So I was spending all day screaming and I almost fainted once. Right before I fainted I came to and opened my eyes and I didn't know where I was or who anyone was so I took a breather and started up again. ... It was so scary for me how I was feeling that it scares me now."

Her role on Dexter saw her nominated for many awards

Although "Dexter" received both criticism and acclaim over its years on the air, Jennifer Carpenter's acting remained consistently good. Praising her part in the show, Jack Marx (via News.com.au) particularly pinpointed her authentic and convincing performance that made her character feel completely real. "Carpenter's performance is so perfect that viewers and critics alike appear to have mistaken the character's flaws for the actor's," said the critic. "In a profession where the task is to convince people you are someone else entirely, that's what I call a mission accomplished."

It is little wonder that Carpenter received plenty of awards during her time on the show. These have included a number of nominations for best supporting actress and best actress from the Academy of Science Fiction, Fantasy, & Horror in the organization's annual Saturn Awards, with one win, in 2009. Carpenter was also nominated at the Screen Actors Guild Awards as a member of the "Dexter" ensemble, and her individual performance was honored with nominations at the Prism Awards and the Critics Choice Television Awards, establishing her as one of the most celebrated actresses working on television at the time.

She put lots of effort into developing the character

In many ways, Jennifer Carpenter's career has been defined by her role as Debra in "Dexter." So it makes some sense that she would have a strong connection to the character and a sense of responsibility over how Debra progressed throughout the seasons. Considering that, it perhaps shouldn't be a huge surprise to discover that the actress had a lot of input when it came to fleshing out and developing the character.

Speaking to Entertainment Weekly, Carpenter detailed how she often made changes to her dialogue, especially when it comes to the swear words the famously foul-mouthed Debra often utters. "I do a lot of editing of the cusswords," she says. "I think it's a character trait, but it's not a character trick." She also said she helped come up with Debra's secret attraction to Dexter, something that emerged in later seasons to the chagrin of many fans. Carpenter, however, said she never intended that to become more than subtext: "I found it's important to come up with a secret for a character that you don't tell anybody about," she said. "And that was mine."

Carpenter involves herself so deeply in her roles that she is often shaken by her character's actions. She explained how things Debra has done or experienced in the show can stay with her for months after filming has ended. "I work with this character from a very emotional place," she said. "I don't know how to do anything without going full out."

Jennifer Carpenter said she would miss playing Deb after the show's original ending

Jennifer Carpenter played Debra for eight seasons in the original series. That meant the actor was engrossed playing a single character for the better part of a decade. Losing that completely would be difficult for anyone, but it was especially hard for Carpenter, who said she loved performing in "Dexter" and had become very attached to the show's cast and crew.

However, the biggest loss for the actor was the excitement and wonder at how she and the team behind the show would pull off each story convincingly. "I'll miss the fear of playing Deb," she shared with The Hollywood Reporter. "Getting the script going, 'That's great. Oh God how do we do it?'" Yet she also said she was thankful for the opportunity to play Debra and learn from her time on the show.

Carpenter's final scene with Michael C. Hall was also emotional, and the actor said she was determined to make it as good as possible as a send-off, not only for her character but the series as a whole. She said, "My last scene with Michael is when he leans over in the hospital and says, 'I love you.' When I knew it was one of the last takes, I said to him, 'Say it like you mean it.'" After that final take, Carpenter said, she was able to release the character from her psyche. "It was like an eight-year meditation," she said of the experience.

The actor married, and later divorced, her co-star

As close as the siblings Debra and Dexter appear to be in the hit Showtime series, the actors are even closer off-screen. Just a few months after the first episode hit television screens in October 2006, reports emerged that on-screen family members Jennifer Carpenter and Michael C. Hall were dating. Within a short time of the relationship first starting, the pair eloped on New Year's Eve in 2008, and they were married in a ceremony in California. They regularly appeared together in public after this at events.

The marriage didn't last long, though, and less than two years after the wedding they had filed for divorce. According to court documents, the two actors had been living apart for a significant amount of time before December 2010 and wanted to separate due to irreconcilable differences. Despite the divorce, both Carpenter and Hall remained good friends and continued to work with each other on "Dexter" until the end of the show in 2013.

She continued acting on major network series after the original Dexter series ended

Jennifer Carpenter's "Dexter" role might have been a high point in her career, but the award-winning actress by no means shrunk from appearing in major network series after the show ended. Since playing Debra Morgan, she was announced to be playing another law enforcement officer: She would be starring as FBI Agent Leah Pierce in the murder mystery "Sea of Fire," although ABC ultimately decided against picking up the series. She continued her streak of horror films — after "The Exorcism of Emily Rose" and "Quarantine" — as a member of the ensemble of "The Devil's Hand" in 2014. She teamed up with celebrated director S. Craig Zahler and actor Vince Vaughn in the action thriller "Brawl in Cell Block 99," playing the wife of Vaughn's character. Carpenter also had a smaller role as a bank teller in Zahler's 2018 film "Dragged Across Concrete."

Compared to her film work, Carpenter's biggest roles have come on television. Perhaps due to typecasting, she landed the part of FBI Special Agent Rebecca Harris opposite Jake McDorman in the CBS drama "Limitless." The two work together fighting crime as McDorman's character, Brian Finch, is exposed to a miracle drug that makes him one of the smartest men on the planet. Carpenter later went on to star in NBC's "The Enemy Within" in the main role, portraying a disgraced CIA agent working with the FBI to unmask a spy within the organization's ranks.

She has landed many voice roles on TV and film

While Jennifer Carpenter might not have had the success on-screen that she or her fans may have desired after she played Deb on "Dexter," she added another string to her bow as a voice actor. Her voice-acting resume includes the animated children's Hub Network original series "Pound Puppies," in which she voices the puppy police dog Pepper across five episodes. Carpenter also provided vocal talent for characters in the 2014 "Robot Chicken" episode "Victoria's Secret of NIMH" and the direct-to-DVD film "Scooby-Doo! and Kiss: Rock and Roll Mystery."

In some fandoms, Carpenter's voice will be more recognizable. The "Dexter" actress voiced Selina Kyle aka Catwoman in the steampunk DC Comics animated film "Batman: Gotham by Gaslight" and voiced the superspy Black Widow in the 2014 Japanese anime film "Avengers Confidential: Black Widow & Punisher." More recently, she took on the role of Sonya Blade in the direct-to-video "Mortal Kombat Legends" movies "Scorpion's Revenge" and "Battle of the Realms."

She had a starring role in the video game The Evil Within

2014 saw Jennifer Carpenter join the cast of "The Evil Within." In the game, she voices junior detective Juli Kidman alongside her police colleagues Sebastian Castellanos and Joseph Oda (voiced by Anson Mount and Yuri Lowenthal). The three characters find themselves pulled into a supernatural alternate reality where they experience terrifying creatures. The game, which was developed by Tango Gameworks and published by "Skyrim" and "Fallout" publisher Bethesda Softworks, received mainly positive reviews from critics and was widely praised for its horror elements and the creepy atmosphere that keeps players constantly on the edge of their seats.

For the sequel three years later, none of that voice cast returned, Carpenter included. "The Evil Within 2" instead features Meg Saricks as the actor portraying Juli Kidman, with Marqus Bobesich also taking over the role of Sebastian Castellanos from Mount. An exact reason for this cast change was never given, although it may have been due to the SAG-AFTRA video game voice acting strike that happened in 2016 and 2017 in addition to the lower budget for the sequel. "The Evil Within" remains Carpenter's only video game role to date.

Jennifer Carpenter is married to Seth Avett and has a child with him

After the conclusion of "Dexter," Jennifer Carpenter didn't just find herself in a new place in her career but also in her personal life. Just a few years after leaving the role of Debra Morgan behind, Carpenter became engaged to Seth Avett. Avett is a musician and one of the lead singers of the folk-rock band the Avett Brothers, where he performs alongside his sibling Scott Avett. Outside of his success with the band, Avett has also released several solo albums and collaborated with other musicians.

The two married in 2016, with the wedding ceremony described as a small, private affair. Carpenter and Avett had earlier welcomed a baby boy in 2015, with the actor later revealing that she found out that she was pregnant during the filming of "Limitless." However, the pair have not revealed the name of their child, choosing instead to keep him out of the limelight as much as possible.

She returned to Dexter in 2021

With Michael C. Hall's character of Dexter Morgan surviving the events of "Dexter" by the end of the series, it always left open the possibility that the franchise could be revived in the future. That finally happened in 2021 with the release of "Dexter: New Blood." Set 10 years after the events of its predecessor's finale, the new series follows Dexter now living under a false identity after faking his death and fleeing his former home. Now working in a wilderness store and in a new relationship, he has successfully avoided his serial killer urges — that is, until his son, Harrison (Jack Alcott), tracks him down and sets into motion a chain of events that ends in tragedy.

Jennifer Carpenter's involvement in "Dexter: New Blood" was confirmed at an early stage, although it wasn't clear how she would appear in the story considering her character Debra Morgan was killed off in the original series' finale. When the show aired, it emerged that Debra had effectively replaced Dexter's own father as the manifestation of his "Dark Passenger" within his own mind. This imaginary version of Debra offers advice to Dexter to help him avoid returning to his old ways and acts as a guide as Dexter discusses his life and choices with her.

The actor was excited to return to the franchise and contribute to the show

Returning in such an unusual way to the series provided Jennifer Carpenter with a new way to approach her character. She told Digital Spy that this version of Debra had many new faces, doing everything from punishing Dexter to providing him with loving guidance. "I don't think of her as a ghost [per se, but] more of a link or an echo or an inconvenient truth for Dexter," she said.

The actor was not just excited to return to "Dexter" because it meant reuniting with many of her friends and reentering a world she had such fond memories of. It also offered the chance to get creative and explore how Debra can interact with her brother in her new form. She was even behind the suggestion to have the character grimly pull a bullet from her side in a powerful moment during the first episode. "That was my idea," Carpenter told USA Today. "It was just to viscerally remind him of the gore."

More importantly, though, the new series gave the cast and crew the opportunity to redeem themselves following the disappointment that was the end of "Dexter." Speaking to Entertainment Weekly, Carpenter detailed how she felt following the criticism of the finale episode. "At the time I was happy to just sort of disappear into the abyss and disconnect," she said. "I hate that [people found it to be] a disappointment. It's the most personal investment you can make, playing a character. It was incredibly hard to hear."

Dexter: New Blood was her last on-screen role

Following the conclusion of "Dexter: New Blood" at the beginning of 2022, Jennifer Carpenter has not had any other roles. While 2021 did see her appear in the film "A Mouthful of Air," she has not voiced any characters or made an on-screen appearance in any other project since then. However, she was announced to be involved in the sci-fi thriller series "Ballistic."

The only other project that Carpenter is seemingly attached to right now is a film called "Control Group." The sci-fi thriller is set to be directed by Liz Manashil with a screenplay by Amy Starbin and Michael Nathanson. Carpenter is also attached as a producer. But without any information on when it will begin filming or when either "Ballistic" or "Control Group" will be released, fans of the actor will have to wait some time before they get to see her in a new project.