For Actor Michael C. Hall, 'Cold In July' Is A Departure (Of Sorts)

May 22, 2014
Originally published on May 23, 2014 1:48 pm

Michael C. Hall is most famous for playing a serial killer on the television show Dexter. In his new movie, Cold in July, he plays an ordinary guy whose life changes after one accidental act of violence. Audie Cornish talks to actor Hall about the making of a violent man.

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This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Robert Siegel.


And I'm Audie Cornish. And the actor Michael C. Hall knows his way around a graveyard. For years, he played the title character in the Showtime series, "Dexter," about a serial killer who goes after other killers. Before that, he won acclaim as a funeral director in the HBO series, "Six Feet Under." In his new movie, "Cold in July," Michael C. Hall plays a very different character, Richard, a mild mannered family man who accidently kills an intruder in his home.

In this scene, he comes face to face with the convict father of the man he killed.


MICHAEL C. HALL: (As Richard) I'm sure this doesn't make it any better for you, Mr. Russel, but I'm sorry for what happened. He didn't give me much choice.

SAM SHEPARD: (As Russel) You're right. Doesn't make it any better. Oh, that was a nice picture of your family in the paper. Your boy, he looks a whole like you, doesn't he?

CORNISH: "Cold in July" is a moody film noir directed by Jim Mickle who got his start making horror films. But this new movie is about the aftermath of just one act of violence. When I spoke with actor Michael C. Hall, he told me his character, Richard, is struggling with what it means to be a strong man.

HALL: I think he lives in a world where people are inclined to pat him on the back for shooting an intruder, but he has no interest in being celebrated for that and I don't think the movie is suggesting that for a man to come into his own he has to kill bad guys, but that is what happens in this case. Spoiler alert.

CORNISH: How did you approach his transition? I don't know if it was in style of dress or in sort of some of his verbal ticks, but how does he change over the course of the film and how did you go about that?

HALL: I think he comes to a conscious appreciation of just how much of a patsy he is expected to be in this whole thing. Richard is living in a late '80s small east Texas town that probably has some antiquated or rigid notions of what it is to be a man and he seems to have an inherent distaste for that because of something inherent in him, but maybe also because of some insecurity or lack of connection to whatever raw material allows you to feel like a macho man in that world.

CORNISH: And he sort of suits up. At the beginning of the film, he's wearing dad jeans, I guess, even by '80s standards.

HALL: Yeah, yeah. I didn't want to get clothes from 1989. I wanted them to be, like, from '84, but yeah, yeah, he's not...

CORNISH: So he is sporting a stellar mullet.

HALL: He is.

CORNISH: That was amazing.

HALL: Yeah. I just texted Jim Mickle and said, what do you think about a mild mullet? And I think his response was, oh, definitely, and maybe more than mild.

CORNISH: But towards the end, he, you know, he's wearing a little bit of leather. He's wearing dark clothes. Like, you see him putting on the costume in a way of the men around him, of the violent around him.

HALL: Yeah. I mean, the thought at the end of the film is that he's wearing a shirt that Jim Bob gave him.

CORNISH: Right. Jim Bob, who's like the most kind of outlandish Texas man, you know, the big red car, the biggest boots. Richard takes a little piece of that.

HALL: Yeah, yeah, he does.

CORNISH: In a way, this story takes you through the process of the making of a violent man and how did this compare to, you know, a past character like your television characters? Like "Dexter" who is kind of, you know, a serial killer, right, essentially violent on arrival, and a funeral director who is around death. But this about somebody who becomes violent and what kind of questions did that bring up for you in terms of that being innate, right, versus something triggering it?

HALL: Well, it was actually kind of therapeutic to, after "Dexter" wrapped, just a couple weeks later start working on this film and from a very different perspective revisit the idea of violence, the idea of taking a life and doing it as a person who is in no way uniquely capable. He has no inherent desire to kill or even intention in the moment to kill.

CORNISH: And we should remind people with "Dexter," this is a character who was compulsive, a serial killer with his own kind of twisted moral code about how he went about it and goes about it in a very clinical way.

HALL: Yeah. I relish the opportunity to play an everyday person to whom or around whom crazy things were happening, as opposed to someone within whom crazy things were happening. I finished "Dexter" and realized that I'd maybe set aside some of my inherent qualms with what he was doing because he was able to live with it all.

But "Dexter" ended and one of my first thoughts was, what have I done, you know?

CORNISH: Really.

HALL: Yeah. I mean, not that I'd done something wrong, but I realize that maybe I had deactivated some more human part of myself that would've necessarily struggled more with the fact that I was simulating this compulsive murder.


HALL: (as Dexter) The fact that I'm a killer, that's something I can't control.

So to play someone whose immediate thought is what have I done, who have I killed, why did this happen felt like a way of kind of reenter the more human aspects of violence.

CORNISH: How do you see this distinction between violence that provokes thought and violence on screen that, you know, entertains and even has the potential to inspire violence.

HALL: Yeah, I think in the case of this movie, we're presented someone who has no inclination toward violence. There's nothing inherently violent about him. I don't think the movie takes the violence lightly. It's heightened in its way, stylized. I don't have the impression at the end of the film that even if he is able to finally get some sleep that he won't have some pretty bad dreams.

CORNISH: It's funny hearing you express relief over that, in a way, right?

HALL: Yeah.

CORNISH: Phew. People feel, you know, like, traumatized by death.

HALL: Yeah. I think, you know, I'm only coming to appreciate just what a number it's done on me. I'm only recently starting to dream about "Dexter."

CORNISH: Really.

HALL: As maybe it's - yeah, I didn't really dream about it while I was doing it, but I think I like to believe that that signifies working it out of my system. Of course, you could say that it just suggests that it's really just locked in there in my subconscious, but yeah, I think there's a part of me, a part of any actor, especially if you play a character for a really long time, that records some of what you're simulating on a cellular level.

So I choose to believe that the dreams are an encouraging sign.

CORNISH: Well, Michael C. Hall, thank you so much for talking with us.

HALL: You're welcome. It's a pleasure.

CORNISH: Michael C. Hall, his movie, "Cold In July," comes out on Friday. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.