Are there some key themes or narrative arcs threading through “Dexter” this season?
We’re primarily dealing with the blowback from Rita’s death and the fact that Dexter is culpable. In a way, discovering his infant son in that pool of blood is a new origin story. We’re familiar with the original origin story, where Dexter is an innocent baby, but now his son is that baby and Dexter is not so innocent. So he’s carrying around a heavy dose of guilt and is motivated to atone for the responsibility he feels for his wife’s death.
Is part of what’s driving him a fear that the son will grow up to turn out like him?
That’s been alive in him ever since the son was born and certainly is now that he, like Dexter, has witnessed his own mother’s murder. Dexter is all the more concerned about that, and those are questions that we explore over the course of the season.
When you initially were presented with the role of a sympathetic serial killer, what was the first thing that went through your head?
I suppose the first thing I thought was, “That’ll never work,” which was ultimately a big part of the appeal. Because I thought if we were able to strike the right tone we might create a show that gave the audience permission to identify with, and even root for, someone like Dexter.
Did you have any reservations about taking the job?
I was just coming off of five years on” Six Feet Under”and to make another open-ended commitment to a television series was kind of a daunting proposition. But I had never seen a character quite like him, and the challenge of breathing some sort of authentic life into him was too tempting to pass up.
Did you use any models when you created the character?
I found that things that set Dexter apart from the rest of humanity were the very things that made him the most relatable. I think we can all relate to a sense of feeling less than authentic, feeling we wear different masks in different situations. Feeling that we have a shadow that we carry around with us, that we keep secrets that are ours and ours alone. Of course most of us don’t have secrets quite as formidable as Dexter’s.
In most cases, the goal of acting is to appear natural. But you’re trying to portray someone who himself is trying to act natural. Does that complicate the process?
You’re playing someone who thinks of himself as an actor. In a way it’s freeing. If you finish a take where normally an actor would say, “That didn’t really feel real,” well, in Dexter’s case, that’s fine.
The series includes moments of extreme violence. Is there some sort of personal moral center you keep in mind while you’re acting them out?
If there’s a moral center I try to keep in mind, its Dexter’s, and that moral center has shifted over the life of the show. Or expanded and become more flexible. I certainly have no moral qualms with what we simulate on the show.
Sometimes just taking off the clothes and getting off the lot goes a long way toward shaking it off. Some days breaking a sweat is good, or just watching some TV, reading a book. It’s an occupational hazard. I did have a dream once where I, as myself, was surrounded by my family at this party, and Little Chino — this giant guy in the show who Dexter unsuccessfully tries to kill and then finally does kill — kept showing up at my door. And I kept apologizing to everybody at the dinner party, because I had to go kill him. And he kept showing up and I’d have to kill him again.
The series incorporates narration as a means of giving insight into a closed-off character. Do you consciously act to the narration?
It varies — the voice-over serves different purposes at different points. But I think the most valuable purpose it serves is to let the audience in on the fundamental secret that no one else in Dexter’s world is in on. It implicates them, in a way. If you’re watching and you’re not turning the channel, you’re sort of a silent accomplice to his behavior. Because you can’t say you didn’t know what was going on.
In the season premiere there’s a scene in a funeral home — did you have any “Six Feet Under” flashbacks?
Oh yeah, absolutely. It was a lot of fun — I don’t know if that was something they thought about in the writers’ room when they came up with the scene. But to stand on the other side of an intake meeting was fun.
Did you offer any notes to the actor playing the funeral director?
Yeah, he was doing some things that were totally not by the book, so I let him know. [Laughs] No, not at all. He was very convincingly mortician-like.