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Michael C. Hall Says Hiding This Scary Diagnosis Helped Him Play Dexter

It let him access the serial killer's darkness, he says.

Michael C. Hall will forever be remembered for his eight-season run as the serial-killing titular character on the Showtime series Dexter. But before he landed that career-making role, he played funeral director David Fisher in the HBO drama Six Feet Under, meaning that in both of his most celebrated performances—which have earned him a Golden Globe Award and several Screen Actors Guild Awards—Hall has delved into his dark side. Now, the star is sharing the scary health secret and tragic childhood event that helped him tap into that darkness. Read on to learn what drove his most memorable moments on screen, and why he's always felt "drawn" to complicated characters.

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Hall was drawn to Dexter's double life.

Michael C. Hall
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As a character, Dexter is defined by his contradictions. Though he outwardly appears to be a loving family man and principled professional, he's also a dangerous psychopath driven by an irresistible urge to kill.

For Hall, this has always been the lure of the role. "Maybe I'm drawn to characters who have some sort of stormy interiority that they don't feel free to let out," he told The New York Times in 2021. "Maybe that's how I experience my own life. Maybe I experience it less in my life for having the chance to take it into my work," he added.

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He says being diagnosed with cancer while shooting Dexter helped his performance.

Michael C. Hall
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Hall had no trouble reaching the dark depths of Dexter's character during the show's first three seasons. But in season four, he privately endured a secret that further informed his acting. After noticing persistent "flu-like symptoms," the actor was diagnosed with Hodgkin's lymphoma, a form of blood cancer that affects the lymphatic system. He told the Times that dealing with his cancer diagnosis behind the scenes actually helped him play his most infamous role.

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This was not the star's first brush with cancer.

Michael C. Hall
D Dipasupil/Getty Images

The Dexter star's cancer diagnosis was not the first time the disease shaped his life. His father died of prostate cancer at the tragically young age of 39, Hall told The New York Times in a separate 2010 article.

"I think I've been preoccupied since I was 11, and my father died, with the idea of the age 39: Would I live that long? What would that be like?" he told Times reporters. "To discover that I had the Hodgkin's was alarming, but at the same time I felt kind of bemused, like: Wow. Huh. How interesting." Hall's own diagnosis came at the age of 38.

Long before then, he says his father's death gave him emotional access to some of Dexter's darker impulses. "Hall intuited, rightly or wrongly, that showing the full range of his feelings wouldn't be appropriate. So he learned how to cover up those feelings, and then later how to channel them into acting," the Times wrote.

He's been in remission for over a decade.

Michael C. Hall
Tim P. Whitby/Getty Images

The actor continued shooting the show's fourth season, enduring his diagnosis largely in private. The day after the season wrapped, he began a course of chemotherapy, then returned to film the fifth season of Dexter.

Hall has now been in remission for over a decade, but says he has no trouble revisiting the darkness that defines his character. Asked by the Times whether he could still access that side of himself after recovery, Hall insisted ominously, "Oh, it's there… It's there."

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Lauren Gray
Lauren Gray is a New York-based writer, editor, and consultant. Read more