Jennifer Carpenter: "Playing Someone Like Deb Lets Me Exorcise A Lot of Things"

Via: When I sat down to talk with Jennifer Carpenter, I found myself feeling a fair bit of trepidation. Not because she’s got a reputation for being difficult, far from it.

But the 31-year-old actress has become famous for playing Debra Morgan, the foul-mouthed sister of Michael C. Hall’s serial killer, Dexter, on the hit series (now in its sixth season, Sunday nights at 10 p.m. on The Movie Network) with such total believability, consistency and depth, that I wondered just what toxic cluster of f-bombs she might unleash on me.

For example, the most recently aired episode found her berating her ex-lover Quinn for having compromised a major case by sleeping with one of the witnesses.

“I could give a f—k who you f—k!” she railed. “Just don’t f—k with my investigation, you f—k!” See what I mean? With a sigh of relief I rapidly discovered Carpenter is not at all like the character she portrays, even though she admits, “the more time I spend on the series, there’s definitely been an exchange between Debra and me.”

She laughingly concedes that, in the first season, when it came to her blue vocabulary, “I took that part of the work home with me. My father snapped me out of that when he made me realize just how unattractive it was around the dining room table.” Read the full interview after the jump below...

Home was Louisville, Kentucky, where she was born in 1979 and educated in Catholic schools before choosing a life in the theatre, but it was all her own decision.

“I’ve never had stage parents and they didn’t push me into anything, but they love me very much and they’ve always watched for what I wanted and needed in my life.

“I committed at a very young age to live an extraordinary life. To be aware of my choices, and my trajectory. And the folks in my home town all hoped and believed in me.”

It certainly helped matters that she lived in the same city as one of the finest of all American regional theatres, the Actors’ Theatre of Louisville and that she can name its iconic founder, Jon Jory as “a friend and one of the very first directors I ever worked with.”

She journeys back into her childhood memories to recall the moment when she first understood what acting really meant.

“I was doing a play and I remember that an actress playing my mother was onstage crying, when I entered and pushed a box of Kleenex at her. That’s all I thought I was doing.

“But Jon sat me down and explained what was behind that gesture, that at that moment, I was growing up, maturing on the spot, learning how to take care of my mother. And my head exploded and I went ‘Yes, this is something I want to do for the rest of my life.’”

When the time came to leave home, she was accepted as one of the 20 select students taken each year into the theatre division of The Juilliard School in Manhattan and ventured into the big, bad world outside of Louisville.

“I cried for about an hour missing my parents. And then I entered into the sweetest time you could imagine.

“It was the best campus in the world. Everything was electric. Everyone was exactly where they wanted to be, doing what they wanted to be doing.”

For Carpenter, that meant the theatre. She found herself getting cast in shows while still in the program and she even made her Broadway debut before graduating.

And not just any Broadway debut. She played Mary Warren in the 2002 revival of Arthur Miller’s The Crucible, directed by Richard Eyre, starring Liam Neeson and Laura Linney.

“I loved working on that show so much I would show up every day for rehearsals, whether I was called or not.

“And on opening night, I stood there during the bows, holding Laura’s hand on one side and Arthur’s on the other. I really didn’t think it could get any better than that.”

But it did, very soon. Within 3 years she was playing the title role in the film The Exorcism of Emily Rose and a year later landed her role on Dexter.

“I think my first year on the show, I was very green, doing a lot of heavy emotional scenes, shooting 12-13 pages a day, learning how to act in front of a crew who were always there, having new pages flung at you at all the time. Wow, it’s a wonder I survived!

“All I could do was play what was there in front of me and I really didn’t have any time to think about it. By the second year, I had the tools and I could start to figure out who Debra really was.”

She’s a very complicated character. She works in the Miami Police Dept. as a street-wise detective who was just promoted to Lieutenant this season.

Her adopted brother Dexter is a blood-spatter expert who, unknown to her, is a serial killer who tries to justify his “dark passenger” by only slaying other multiple murderers.

I ask her about the “exchange” that she says has taken place between her and Debra over the years of the show and she thinks about it for a moment.

“Playing someone like her lets me exorcise a lot of things, because I’m the kind of person who always puts a tap on her emotions because she wants to be good, while Debra lets herself explode and then makes adjustments after the fact.

“I’m teaching her about slowing down a bit, because I know her secrets the way no one else ever could.”

We discuss a scene earlier this season, where a new detective on the force treats Lieut. Morgan with a cheeky dose of chauvinistic disrespect, but instead of shouting him down, she hisses her displeasure with an even deadlier whisper.

“That’s just what I mean,” Carpenter says happily. “In rehearsal, I exploded, like Debra would have done in the past, but then I started thinking about her new position and a bit of me got into her by the time we did the final take.”

This kind of careful modulation has also been necessary in other areas, since Carpenter and her co-star, Hall, found themselves married and divorced, all in the course of the past two years, while shooting the show.

The deeply personal Carpenter won’t discuss any of the tabloid rumours as to why the marriage ended, but simply says, “Michael and I are friends and we work together like we always did.”

Watching Dexter at home can be a deeply disturbing experience, especially in those scenes where Hall dispatches his victims, so I ask Carpenter if it’s as difficult to live in that world as a performer.

“I don’t feel like I work on a dark show because I don’t see all that Dexter does. I never see the kill room, I never see the preparations for his murders.

“I just visit a lot of crime scenes and sure, some of them are upsetting, but no more so than on any other cop series. For most of us, this is a show about a police team, not a serial killer.”

Of course, one of the most fascinating elements is wondering whether Debra is ever going to discover just what her brother is really up to and Carpenter admits that “I’d like to find out.”

But when it’s pointed out to her that that kind of discovery would probably have to result in the demise of either her or Dexter, she has the perfect answer.

“Well, life is all about change and death is the biggest change of all.”


Jon Jory — He was my first professional director and I owe him a lot. Even though I was a kid, he made me see how important every choice you make as an actor is.

Richard Eyre — Another great director. When we worked together on The Crucible. Everybody got the attention they needed from him, not just the big stars like Liam (Neeson) and Laura (Linney).

Laura Linney — She’s a great woman and a great actress and I’ve been fortunate enough to be in projects with her on stage and screen.

Rajiv Joseph — I was in his play, Gruesome Playground Injuries, this past winter off-Broadway. He has the same Catholic upbringing I did, but, also like me, a lot of his work enjoys going to the dark side.

Michael C. Hall — He’s still one of my best friends, no matter what’s gone down between us and the concentrated intensity he brings to his work still amazes me.


Post a Comment

  1. Like maybe exercising the ability to be vulgar, slutty and whitetrash?

  2. That's a great interview. Jennifer Carpenter seems like a very nice and down to earth kind of person. I had no idea she was only 31 years old, though. I thought she was at least in her late 30s.

  3. Wow Neicey816, just like you're exorcising you're right to be judgmental and pretentious? She's an actress, doing her job. Chillax!

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