John Lithgow Talks About Life As The Trinity Killer

Dexter Trinity Killer

How was Arthur Mitchell described to you when the role came up?

I was offered the part on a Wednesday night, and Thursday morning I heard this long pitch from Clyde Phillips and John Goldwyn (Clyde is “Dexter’s” show runner, executive producer and head writer) to lure me into playing the role. They told me the story to make it as suspenseful and compelling as they possibly could. So, I heard this great round-the-fireside ghost/suspense story. As a result, I knew everything about the season, and nobody else did. The only other person who did was Michael C. Hall, and he doesn’t like to be told too much ahead of time. I had this extraordinary secret for three months, and even the directors didn’t know what was coming next.

What about him was different from other villains you’ve played?

I’ve played a lot, but many of them have been fairly one note and been in a single movie. This is 12 little movies, and it’s extraordinary how carefully they’ve calculated the gradual revelation of his character. He’s far more than one-dimensional. Even in the first episode, you see him commit this horrific murder, and it looks like pure evil, but the next time you see him, he’s in that scalding shower, torturing himself with remorse. Something’s going on: there’s a lot more going on here than just sadism and evil. As all these different episodes came out, you saw all these different colors: There were these huge revelations like he’s got a family, he’s a churchgoer, he’s a volunteer home builder, he’s a horrible family man, he’s NOT the Trinity killer, he kills young boys. All of these things add a new facet to his character. To me, the most fascinating thing is that he’s an evil man who does not want to be evil. In that sense, he’s sort of a mirror image of Dexter, just a much, much more extreme case.

When do you think he’s scariest?

When he’s being so nice. I think by far the scariest scene of the whole 12 episodes is Thanksgiving dinner when he’s being the gentle patriarch: “We always like to say what we’re thankful for,” and you just know this is not going to end well. I even chuckled when I say, “Well, nobody said they were thankful for me.”  That tension between his nice outward demeanor and whatever’s boiling inside him is really disturbing.

Which were your favorite scenes that you were in?

Thanksgiving, for sure. Also, the first 10 minutes of the next episode is a fantastic piece of writing. It follows immediately upon the end of the last: that was the scene that the whole 12 episodes were building up to. This is where Dexter and Arthur finally know who the other one is. First, Dexter was trying to figure out who Trinity was, then you’re waiting for Trinity to figure out who Dexter was.

Sometimes Arthur’s so evil, it’s perversely humorous. Were any of your scenes accidentally funny?

We laughed ourselves silly throughout the Thanksgiving episode. It was so extreme, but we knew it was going to be a classic horror scene, just the velocity of it. We go from saying grace to me on my back with Dexter on top of me about to slit my throat in 2 1/2 minutes. There’s a sort of giddy rush to that. It’s also a very funny show. It follows all the rules of comedy. Dexter is constantly revealing these ironic asides that are just hilarious. It’s one of the things that makes it possible to have a hero who’s a serial killer is that it’s redeemed by comedy. [“Othello’s”] Iago also is a wonderful comic character, and he’s profoundly evil.

Other than Iago, who are some of your favorite evil characters of stage or screen?

The great evil creation of the last 10 years has been Tony Soprano, and I see a lot of similarities between Dexter and Tony. Obviously, there are a lot of huge differences, but he’s a captivating character. You can’t get enough of Tony Soprano: Even when he was slapping a Russian prostitute on the butt or killing people in the most gruesome manner, you’re still with him all the way. I think Michael C. Hall and James Gandolfini are both great, smart actors who really understood that duality, that’s what made it so hypnotic.

What’s more fun to play, funny or bad characters?

They’re all equally fun. It’s just great fun to switch gears and surprise people. This is the first major piece of work I’ve done on TV since “3rd Rock From the Sun,” and I just love the fact that it’s the exact opposite. My character on “3rd Rock” would walk on the set and people would laugh; here people recoil in horror, and I’m really not that different!

Are there any types of roles you haven’t played that you’d like to?

I always said I would never play anyone short, and then came [“Shrek’s”] Lord Farquaad. There’s always something new that I hadn’t thought of. I’m usually the subject of someone’s brainstorm. I get very surprised by the things people offer me, and I just get excited about the next thing I do. The next thing I’m doing is a two-character play called “Mr. and Mrs. Fitch” with Jennifer Ehle. It’s not like any character I’ve ever played before: It’s like American Noël Coward, a wonderful comedy about contemporary journalism.

Who’s a tougher audience: adults or children?

That’s a great question! Children are a tougher audience, but they’re so fantastically open and spontaneous and responsive to a berserk excess; you have to control them. They’re a thrilling audience, and that’s why I continue to entertain them: I don’t have to, but it’s so much fun, and it’s an enormous challenge. They’re not better, but they’re more entertaining — they’re so easy to fool. I’ll do something for little children in concert and walk out to sing my first song with a little derby hat on and finish and introduce the next song and somebody in the band will pull on my sleeve and remind me to take off my hat. I’ll say to my kids, “Oh, I do this all the time! I forget to take my hat off. Please make sure you tell me if I do it again.” Of course, I make sure to wear sillier and sillier hats and I forget to take them off. The kids absolutely scream at me “Take off your hat!” I say, “What? I’m not that fat.” They think this is so hilarious and great, they have no idea I’m doing a number on them. They’re the most trusting and stupid audience. It’s just fantastic. With kids, it’s total suspension of disbelief. There’s a real science to it, how to keep their attention. You lose them for one moment — a simple thing, like make sure they can’t reach your shoelaces. If they untie your shoe, that becomes the big event. It’s kind of like a lion tamer. The slightest thing can lose that huge monster, the audience. In fact, there’s a real correlation to performing with adults. I think it’s good for an actor to entertain children.

Is that in fact you on Twitter? What do you like about it? Whose do you enjoy reading?

I was actually told to start Twittering. I’m writing an autobiography and my publisher said this is a good way to begin building interest, even a couple of years before you get done. I don’t really interact an awful lot, but I follow a couple of friends of mine. I enjoy Jim Gaffigan and Michael McKean. They’re so fun and funny: I know it’s them. I don’t answer anybody back, though. There is an overwhelming response to “Dexter” stuff, and so I love to feed people little bits of that. It’s just a curious way of communicating with people: It’s one-way, but it’s good for letting people know what I do. I went and did my one-man show in England in October and people came from all over England to see it. I have a sort of cockeyed life, but it’s sort of interesting to put it out there.

Do you have time to watch TV? What do you watch?

I don’t watch much television. I’ve gotten seriously into some of the best cables series: “The Sopranos,” “Mad Men.” I’m a sports junkie, but I have to be judicious, or it will swallow all my time. That’s about it. I don’t watch a lot of television, but I have spasmodic periods where I’ll get completely into “The Office” or “30 Rock” or something, but I’m not very loyal. I always used to love watching “3rd Rock”: That was the only show where I loved watching myself — I used to think I was hilarious!

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Michael C. Hall On The Return Of ‘Dexter’

Michael C. Hall Dexter

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.

Michael C. Hall DexterIs there any mental toll that comes from pretending to kill people for a living? Do you go home and watch”E.T.” or something to cleanse your emotional palate?

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.

Michael C. Hall: “The Prospect Of Anybody Close To Dexter Finding Out Chills Me To The Bone”

Dexter Morgan

The end of last season really traumatized most of us. What reactions did you hear from fans?

The reactions are various. Some people were traumatized, horrified, exhilarated, perplexed, in a tailspin or shot out of a cannon. It’s been a lot of different things to different people I think.

So that’s where you begin this year.

Well, we have to pick up and take responsibility for the real dismantling of the structure of Dexter’s world that’s happened.

Did you miss the possibility of having a scene where Rita finds out what Dexter does and confronts him?

Oh, God, no. That’s a horrifying prospect. The prospect of anybody close to Dexter finding out chills me to the bone.

Don’t you think there are one or two characters who’d be okay with it and cover for him?

Not enough to risk letting them know actively. It never works out for the people who find out.

How do you like playing Dexter as a single father now?

You know, everything that has gone beyond the first season has been uncharted waters. The fact that he is now a father is a big part of that for sure. The father he was in the fourth season is different from the father he’ll struggle to be in the fifth given that he’s now a single dad. I don’t know, think the show works because it’s imminently relatable and yet it’s a really extreme character in the midst of relatable situations.

I mean, he’s kind of having emotions finally. He can’t be too happy to confront those.

I don’t know if it’s so much of a confrontation as it is an emergence of something. But, I think we can expect that he still is fundamentally stone cold crazy and is probably going to keep killing people. That’s the tightrope you have to walk. I think Dexter, when we learn what happened to him toward the end of the first season, we know that he was this innocent baby in a pool of his mother’s blood having watched her die. Now Dexter is coming home finding his flesh and blood son in a pool of his wife’s, his son’s mother’s blood but Dexter is no longer innocent. The blood is, at least in part maybe because he didn’t kill Trinity sooner, on his hands. So it’s that very thing. How do you get this malicious glee when Dexter has this gentleman sense of responsibility, guilt and potentially remorse?

He was already spread so thin with a wife. How can he balance his murderous activities as a single dad?

Well, he hires a nanny. There’s a lot of stuff that we don’t see. Maybe he has a special, sleep triple coffin he gets in. He sleeps two hours but it feels like six.

Dexter interviewing nannies sounds hilarious.

Actually, Deb takes the lead on that.

That seems like her territory.

She’s good with interrogating people.

Are you looking forward to the prospect of Dexter dating again this season or at least further down the line?

I don’t think that word is sort of in his vocabulary at this point. I don’t think he aspires to it. I’m sure Dexter will be thrust into unique relationships but I don’t think he’s seeking out a significant other.

Okay, how are you feeling now that your treatment is over and you’re back to work?

I feel good. The Hodgkin’s went in complete remission over the course of the treatment. I finished the treatment and I’m four months done with it so I feel really good.

What perspective does living through that give you on your life and work?

Just gratitude. It’s really an invitation to that.

Now that you’re on season five, how well do you understand Dexter now?

He’s elusive. That’s the great thing about this job. It’s never boring. He continues to evolve and change. It’s beyond anything I ever anticipated in the beginning, where we are now, the story we’re telling now, where the character is, what’s happened in his life and I’m happy with that. I felt like it had to be some sort of movement forward towards some percolating sense of his own humanity, but how that went down, I had no idea.

Real serial killers have groupies, women sending them letters. Do you get Dexter groupies?

No, not at all. Everything that finds its way to me is sane. People talk about loving the show and they recognize that I’m an actor. I really don’t get anything from people who seem to think that I’m him, thankfully.

Michael C. Hall Talks About Season 4 Killer Finale

Dexter Michael C. Hall                     What was your first reaction when you learned that Rita  would be killed in the finale?

I knew what was going to happen probably three or four weeks before it happened. As far as the how, that was much closer to the day of. I thought it was brilliant. I was really proud of the writers, and the network, for not backing away from so bold a step. It really propels us forward in a way that we wouldn’t have enjoyed otherwise. And what it could mean for the character is really wide open.

This twist does open all sorts of possibilities. Will Dexter raise his son as a single dad? And just as he was showing signs of real humanity, does he now turn even darker?

Does he shut the door on that? Is he like, “Well, it bit me in the a–. My father was right”? And if that’s the conclusion, what does that mean? I don’t necessarily mean to say that that will be the conclusion. It remains to be seen. It’s a difficult thing to wrap your imagination and mind around a trauma that severe. I don’t know what it’s going to do to the guy.

What was it like to film the bathroom scene in which Dexter discovers Rita in the tub with Harrison nearby?

It was tough. The fact is when you watch it, it’s sort of lyrical slo-mo, but the actual shooting of it was much more frantic and to the point. Coming in, seeing this baby in the blood, turning my head, seeing Rita there, realizing what’s happened, picking up the baby, leaving the room — it happened much more quickly than [how] the scene plays. But it was horrifying. It’s the kind of thing that only in its aftermath can you begin to deal with. In one way or another, Dexter will be reeling from it for a long time to come. But Julie in that tub was just heartbreaking — and the baby on the floor. It was very somber. And also very secretive. Some of the people on set had just gotten pages. So I think everyone was quietly in a private way processing what we were shooting, what this meant for the show, what this meant for Julie.

Executive producer Clyde Phillips said that Julie  was “greatly disappointed” to learn the fate of her character.  Did you and Julie talk about that?

We talked about her sadness at leaving, but when it came to the scenes, we knew we had a story to tell and we also didn’t want to do anything to telegraph it — not that you possibly could. I think it was beyond Dexter’s imagination that such a thing could happen. The last scene we shot together was the scene where Dexter tells Rita that he wants to believe that he can be his own master and be a master of his compulsion, so it felt like an appropriate way to say goodbye to that relationship…. [Julie] was really sacrificing her job for the story telling vitality of the show. I must say, my first reaction [to the big twist] was about Julie: “What is our family going to be like without her?” From a story telling standpoint it was a really bold idea, but as far as losing her as a member of ensemble, it was a blow for all of us.

In that last conversation between Dexter and Rita, Dexter seemed as human as we’ve seen him.

Had this season not ended the way it ended, there’s almost a sense that Dexter is entertaining the thought that maybe he’s going to get this out of his system. That if he kills Trinity, who’s left to kill? I think he’s entertaining the notion that maybe he’s done. [But] with this season ending the way it ends — and Dexter experiencing this appetite for vengeance that he can’t satiate — all bets are off on that front.

Dexter Michael C. HallWhat sticks out to you about the scene in which Dexter finally kills Trinity?

It’s a scene that John [Lithgow] and I pretty much knew was coming. We definitely didn’t want the scene in any way to telegraph what Dexter would ultimately discover. We certainly wanted it to be unique among the kills. On the one hand Dexter is killing the most formidable target he’s ever come against, and there’s a sense of victory and pride that goes along with that. And yet while there’s a real repulsion to the Trinity Killer, there’s a simultaneous attraction and appetite for connection that goes throughout their relationship and maybe comes to a head when Dexter tries to get some counsel from him that he can’t receive from anyone else about how to move forward with his life. And just the twisted, everything-turned-on-its-head nature of that kind of plea in the midst of a scene where he’s going to take a hammer claw to the guy’s head was delicious. We tried to navigate all those twists and turns, and have the malice definitely there but not give short shrift to the real appetite for connection and counsel that was alive in Dexter. And of course for John it was the way he played what is revealed to be a double meaning through a lot of what he’s saying to Dexter was really fun for him, and obviously tremendously effective in his hands.

What did you like most about the Trinity-Dexter relationship?

Certainly the Trinity killer storyline went a long way in creating a sense of intrigue. He was without question the most formidable foe or target that Dexter had ever encountered, so that vitalized Dexter’s fundamental need to kill… I loved the levels of it — the subtextual levels, the fact that Dexter was presenting himself as something other than who he actually is, with the full knowledge that the Trinity Killer was doing the same, and yet there were still so many secrets for Dexter to uncover about Trinity. There were always things to be learned and these layers of intrigue beneath the surface. John and I had such a great time playing those scenes. He’s just so incredibly talented, nuanced in his work, intelligent, and he brings such a genuine sense of play to the table. I think he had a blast doing the show and really infected all of us with a sense of play and enthusiasm.

Looking back at the season, what was your favorite scene?

That’s a tough one… but that Thanksgiving episode was like the worst Thanksgiving ever captured on film. And it went horribly wrong [so] quickly. Obviously the son’s finger was broken and the daughter had hit on Dexter and the mother had been okay with it. A lot of seeds were planted. When we sat at that table and he said, “Shut up, c—,” to his wife — I mean, within thirty seconds I’ve got him on the floor with a knife saying, “I should have f—ing killed you when I had the chance!” That was a lot of fun. As far as the giddy laughter goes, it was probably higher that day than ever. We were just like, “This is so insane!” We had a really good time that day.

How many more seasons of Dexter can there be?

We’re definitely going to do one more — beyond that, I don’t know. This show is as popular as it’s ever been and I’m sure there’s a desire on the network’s part to keep that ball rolling, but I take these things one episode at a time…. This thing can’t go on indefinitely, and yet it’s gone on in ways that I never could have imagined, so I would like to believe that it can continue.