Michael C. Hall and the Lone Star Noir

The 'Dexter' actor messes with Texas and broadens his horizons in the pulpy thriller 'Cold in July'

Michael C. Hall  Cold in July
Ryan Samul
Michael C. Hall as Richard Dane in 'Cold in July'
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Michael C. Hall is totally, absolutely, 100% responsible for the mullet.

It started on the set of Dexter, the popular Showtime series for which Hall's portrayal of the eponymous, morally avenging serial killer netted him a Golden Globe award and five Emmy nominations over eight seasons. Impressed by the fake beard he wore for series' finale, Hall asked the makeup artist if a different kind of extension could be prepared for his next project: Jim Mickle's Cold In July, an adaptation of Joe R. Lansdale's pulp-gothic thriller set in East Texas. (It opens in limited release on May 23rd.) With the shoot set to start soon after Dexter wrapped, there wasn't enough time to harvest the real thing.

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"I said 'Do you think you could make me a little something that I could attach to the back of my hair?'" Hall recalled with a mixture of pride and glee, the remnants of his native North Carolina accent pealing through. The "mild mullet," as the actor described it — still business up front and party in the back, though shorter than the Billy Ray Cyrus model — became crucial to his getting into the character and, per the actor, to the functioning of the entire film. "There was something about the mullet that felt like it supported the craziness of the movie," he said. "It was nice to put him on. I felt like it was mine."

Such costuming serves to transport audiences to the film's late-Eighties, Lone Star landscape of faux-wood-paneled station wagons and microwave ovens, but it also offered Hall an opportunity to distance himself from the homicidal Dexter Morgan. Although Cold In July opens with his character — a frame-store owner named Richard Dane — shooting a prowler in his home, the family man isn't exhilarated so much as traumatized by the incident. "In a way it was therapeutic to play an everyman who, without meaning or wanting to kill somebody, kills somebody," he said. "When Dexter ended, I kind of re-entered the non-psychopathic realm of murder. It was a way to kind of disengage with the crazy one."

Which isn't to say that Dane doesn't exhibit some darker undertones. Even as this local pillar of the community fights for his family, fending off the vengeful harassment of his victim’s father (Sam Shepard), there are hints that he’s a man who could — and might even want to — come unhinged. So when events shift the stage from his home to an out-of-town criminal operation, Dane goes along for the ride — forming an uneasy alliance with his terrorizer and a flashy private eye (Don Johnson) as they stake out a vicious snuff-film ring. Suddenly this small town also-ran is running with the bulls. "Despite his conscious befuddlement about everything that's happening, he's like, 'Finally, I'm going to get to happen to life as opposed to life happening to me,'" Hall said. 

If Dane seems worlds away from the protective Dexter Morgan, this isn't the first time that Hall has made a clean break from a character. Signing on to play the bloodthirsty serial killer had itself been a palette cleanser after a five-year tenure as David Fisher, the uptight gay funeral director on Six Feet Under. "I always say that David Fisher was Dexter's first victim," Hall said, acknowledging how one character helped him from being typecast by another. "Not that David deserved vigilante justice."

Though Dexter emphatically proved that Hall had more to offer, it's only in recent years that the 43 year-old has been able to show off his considerable range. After supporting turns as a modern day mad scientist in the Gerard Butler action film Gamer (2009) and a tragically lovesick professor in the Beat-writers biopic Kill Your Darlings (2013), the former Shakespearean performer returned to Broadway opposite Toni Colette and Marisa Tomei in The Realistic Joneses. "He’s not just a guy playing different variations of himself. You can't really do that until you get to a confidence in your career, and in your ability to shed your skin and lose yourself," July director Jim Mickle says.

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Hall hasn't ruled out returning to the marathon run of episodic television — or at least he knows better than to never say never again. "I finished Six Feet Under and I was like well, you’re never going to do a TV show again," he said. "Eight years later Dexter ended. You know, famous last words." It's an interesting moment for former or soon-to-be former TV antiheroes starting new chapters, with Breaking Bad's Bryan Cranston also on Broadway — playing LBJ in the play All the Way — and Mad Men's Jon Hamm currently starring in the baseball movie Million Dollar Arm. Hall jokes about their "secret society" (“I can't tell you where we convene…[but] we have secret handshakes, the whole deal"), but also seemed untroubled by the fact that audiences will always associate him with certain characters. "It'll probably be in the first paragraph of my obituary," he said about Dexter. "And that's all right. As long as there’s maybe other sentences or paragraphs."