Michael C. Hall talks “Cold In July”, life after “Dexter” and his delectably entertaining role in “Gamer”, for The Film Stage. Read the interview below.
Congrats on the film. I saw it at Sundance. It was quite an experience.
I know you had knowledge of the script awhile before you signed on. Did you also read the source material or was it the script that sold you?
No. I didn’t really take a look at the novel until after the movie was for certain moving forward. So, yeah, my initially excitement of it was based on the script itself. It was actually only after I had that part that I familiarized myself with Jim [Mickle]‘s work, too, which I was obviously pleasantly surprised to see how amazing it was.
I love movies that end in a place that’s far removed from where they began. Did that attract you to this project?
Absolutely. I think the film creates expectations and then defies them more than once and makes rules that it in turn breaks. That was a big part of the appeal, to really, genuinely not quite know where you are headed is a bit rare I think.
Were you able to attend the actual screening at Sundance? Was it your first time seeing it then?
I had seen it maybe the week before in New York. I think Jim and some of his fellow filmmakers watched it in its entirety, the final cut, I believe for them too. So I saw it then. But seeing it the first time when you’re in it, it’s difficult to be at all objective watching it with an audience. It was a pretty surreal thing to hear people and feel people responding to it.
Since it includes so many different genres in the journey I assume you didn’t shoot it chronologically, was it quite an experience seeing it all at once and seeing how far your character goes?
Yes, it felt like at least three movies in one. We didn’t shoot it chronologically, but we did shoot with some sort of continuity in as much as the first things we shot were the bulk of the domestic scenes in the house and some of the stuff in the frame shop. Then Sam [Shepard] showed up and we started to shoot a good amount of that stuff and it felt like a completely different movie. I remember we were shooting what felt like a Coens brothers-esque domestic drama — sort of comic elements, but also very tense. I go, ‘Wow, what is it going to be like when Sam comes?” and then Same came. And everything changed. Then I said, “What’s it going to be like when Don[Johnson] shows up? [laughs]. So in a way, the shooting of it did kind of feel like the experience of watching it. The world just kept shifting.
That’s great. I saw you had some experience yourself directing, on Dexter in the last season.
Yeah, I did direct an episode. Yes.
Is that something that changed your mindset when you went to film these feature roles? Are you picking up on more things that you might have not before?
Yeah, probably. Though, I certainly think that directing an episode of Dexter was something I’ve been preparing myself for for some time. Just being on that set, being the only producer on set, and really paying attention to the many really talented directors who were in our stable of people who helmed episodes. But, yeah, I think actually being in that aspect of production, being the person that had to have an answer for everybody, gave me an appreciation for what goes into it. And I certainly was able to maybe have a more informed appreciation of the work that Jim does.
Is that a path you would explore or would you focus on acting more now?
Yeah, I’m primarily interested in acting, but if the right piece of material or project emerges and thus an opportunity presents itself, I could see myself taking advantage of it at some point.
During Dexter, I’m really glad you got to shoot some movies. One of my personal favorites is Gamer. I know that film might not have been as well-received as it should have been….
Well, it was maybe geared towards 14-year-old boys and maybe not at least the broad base of higher-minded critics.
I love their style. Was that something where you saw the final product and said, “Yeah, this is exactly what I was going in for and this is what I wanted.”
Yeah, pretty much. I don’t know, they invited me to do it and it just seemed like a chance to be, you know, somewhat broad and ridiculous. In terms of what they seem to be going for, it wasn’t some sort of hushed voice, mustache-twirling villain. They wanted him to be sort of how he was. And also just the chance to do that lip-syncing of I’ve Got You Under My Skin was pretty irresistible.
Yes, I loved that scene. So, with Dexter over — you obviously owe a lot of your acclaim to that role — but does it feel almost like a weight’s been lifted off?
Yeah, it does. Even though we shot it for a little less than half the calendar year, it was always waiting. While we weren’t doing it, it was waiting there. And it was a preoccupation and there was a weight there but particularly giving the subject mater and the sort of challenges of wrapping my head around the twists and turns the show took. It’s nice to be without that waiting in the wings and to just be more professionally available to do things and just mix it up, you know? Play different roles and do things that have an end in sight at the beginning. Not like an open-ended commitment to something. Yeah, that feels good.
I was excited to hear this film got accepted to Cannes. Is that something you’ll be able to attend or is your schedule crazy?
Yeah, I am. I’m doing this play on Broadway but we don’t have Sunday night performances and we have Mondays off. They managed to arrange for the screening to happen on Monday so I’m basically leaving the show on Sunday afternoon, flying all night, getting to Cannes in the morning, and then spending that Monday and some of Tuesday morning there, attending the screening, doing press for the movie, and then flying back and going straight to the show Tuesday night. It’ll be a quick-strike operation. But it’s going to happen so fast that I really don’t think I’ll even have time to have my internal clock get messed up.
So, doing Broadway now, did you do any Broadway while you were doing Dexter or was that a new opportunity?
I did what I guess what was technically an off-Broadway show right before we started shooting the first season proper and right after the pilot of Dexter. And that was the last time I was on stage and I think that was the longest I’ve gone without being on stage in my life. But, yeah, I did a reading of this play, The Realistic Joneses, right before heading to upstate New York where we pretended we were in Texas and shot Cold in July. The reading was great and they decided to move forward and it just seemed like such a great chance to once again make things up and, I don’t know, being on stage just keeps you honest in life. And it’s been too long and it felt really good and it’s a great cast and we’re all really there because we love the play.
Getting back to the film, as soon as the first still arrived I noticed the mullet you wear. It’s beautiful. I saw you actually had that designed yourself. What was Jim Mickle’s reaction to your entire get-up?
He was all for it, you know? I was finishing up Dexter and I was thinking about the guy and I wanted some sort of version of the haircut that half the guys I went to high school with had. Knowing that I didn’t have time to grow it out in the back, I had a guy make me a little thing that I clipped in there. [laughs] I actually named it Richard Dane because without it, I felt like I had no character. You know, putting that thing on, it was just like, “Oh, yeah. I know so much more than I did when this put on the back of my head.” And I started growing a mustache right after Dexter ended and we started shooting probably two weeks and change after that. So I actually would joke with Jim on set that this is a movie about a guy who decided to grow a mustache a couple of weeks ago. And it kind of is. Maybe the movie is the story of him earning his mustache. [laughs] But, no. I texted Jim and said, “What did you think about the idea of him having a mild mullet?” Jim was like, “I love it! Mild at least.” The rest was hair-story. History, sorry.
I feel like Don Johnson might have cracked a joke or two about that. How was the demeanor on set with him? The movie definitely shifts when he enters.
Oh, yeah. I mean, Don and Sam definitely made fun of my mullet, made fun of my clothes, which was totally appropriate. I wanted to have the mullet because here’s a guy who wants to be, but really is not, cool. He may be surrounded by some much cooler, more fully-realized male role models in the movie. And that’s a part of his journey and what he learns. But it was awesome. We laughed all the time. We really did. We really had a good time, the three of us. Because it’s such an unlikely trio of actors, an unlikely trio of characters to be populating the same landscape. We had a lot of fun.
There’s almost a John Carpenter-vibe, especially with the score that’s being used.
Oh, for sure.
Did Jim Mickle give you any touchstones for films to catch up or while you read the script?
Yeah, we talked more about the sort-of southern thrillers. Blood Simple, Red Rock West, all the way through No Country [For Old Men]. That kind of thing. I think this film has a more sort-of wide open field and incorporates certainly that, but also more elements given Jim’s previous work and some of the strict…I don’t know, there was moments I felt like I was in a domestic drama, there was moments I felt like I was in a borderline slapstick comedy, there was moments I felt like I was in a horror movie, there was moments where I thought I was in an action thriller. It was a pretty delicious thing to be in the hands of a director who was able to keep all of those things in play.
Finishing up, you’re doing the play and you’re going to Cannes. Is there anything coming up within the next year that we should look forward to?
I hope so. I have some things that I’m talking about doing, but nothing I definitively signed on for so I’m reluctant to announce it here. Hopefully I’ll keep the ball rolling.
You recently did Kill Your Darlings and now this — are you more interested in that kind of film?
I’m open to anything. I’d love to be in all kinds of movies and play all kinds of parts in them. A big one, a tiny one, a medium-sized one — as long as the story and character are compelling in some way, I’m interested.