His role in the beat generation drama Kill Your Darlings is the least known figure in a largely forgotten murder scandal that engulfed the proto-beats, and perhaps even fashioned them into the movement we now recognise. In New York City in 1944, Allen Ginsberg (Daniel Radcliffe), William S Burroughs (Ben Foster) and Jack Kerouac (Jack Huston) were all inspired by an epicene beauty from the midwest, Lucien Carr (Dane DeHaan), who liked to stand on the university library tables and read out the raunchiest bits of Henry Miller's still-taboo Tropic of Cancer to scandalised squares.
Carr had arrived at Princeton University pursued by a mysterious, infatuated mentor and possible ex-lover, David Kammerer, played by Hall. Carr later murdered Kammerer in Central Park and was sentenced to two years in prison after claiming homosexual harassment. Carr was the dedicatee of Ginsberg's Howl, but asked for his name to be removed from subsequent editions, and lived the rest of his life as a respected editor at news agency UPI. Burroughs and Kerouac collaborated on a novel about the killing, And the Hippos Were Boiled in Their Tanks, a year later, which remained unpublished until 2008, three years after Carr's death. And now, Kill Your Darlings may stand as one of the best and most persuasive of all the movies about the beats.
So we know about the survivors; what about the corpse?
"I knew the story beforehand quite well myself," says Hall, who is just back from Bangladesh and suffering a dose of jet lag that occasionally manifests itself in the form of long, spacey pauses, for which he apologises. "I was surprised no one had ever made a movie of it beforehand. There was remarkably little known about David Kammerer, considering what happened to him, but there was enough there for me to build upon when it came to filling in the blanks, of which there were quite a few. I did what I could with research and information about the times. There were real-time entries in Ginsberg's diaries – meeting Kammerer for the first time." Read the rest of the article below!
It is a tribute to Hall's gifts that this character, who might in lesser hands have registered as a looming paedophile creep, should instead seem tender, lost and broken. Hall takes compliments agreeably enough, but he's knocked out by his cast. He calls Daniel Radcliffe "a major talent – just not what you'd expect from his pedigree. I really want to see what happens to him." And we agree that Ben Foster's incarnation of Burroughs is the second best after Burroughs himself in Drugstore Cowboy. "We didn't have the budget to go back in time to fetch the real William Burroughs, but we got the next best."
We're meeting not long after Hall has come out from under the shadow of nearly a decade as Dexter Morgan, the serial killer yearning to be human. In fact, he has ended a 13-year run of cable dramas, having spent the five years before Dexter as the repressed gay funeral director David Fisher in Six Feet Under. Both were exceptionally inward characters.
"It's sad in a way to lose Dexter. It was a real family on that show, and it employed a lot of really nice people. But that said, I feel released, relieved. I'm sad it's over, but I didn't want to keep doing it any more."
I remind him of the constant intimations of incest between Dexter and his sister, played by Jennifer Carpenter. And then headline: Dexter marries own sister! (Carpenter and Hall wed in 2008.)
He lets out a gratifying guffaw. "Me and Jennifer being really married allowed the show to take on this really meta quality! Yeah, over the course of that show I married and divorced one of my co-stars – and we're still friends – and I was diagnosed with and got successfully treated for cancer … a lot happened."
The cancer came disguised as a debilitating cough he couldn't shake. Small nodes appeared on his neck. "I called them my alien eggs. Then my doctor did a biopsy and said: 'The good news is you don't have alien eggs in your neck. Congratulations. The bad news is it's cancer!'"
Six months of chemo followed, remission arrived, but there were side effects: "My hair fell out – everywhere! I had no eyebrows, I had no … [another jet-lag pause] my balls were just balder than a baby's bottom."
Surprise, surprise, Hall isn't like Dexter or David. He is a measured, careful and funny speaker, reeling off pleasingly long sentences in an even-toned voice that occasionally breaks into deep laughter.
In the late 90s, he appeared on Broadway in Sam Mendes's revival of Cabaret. Friends tell me that his Weimar-era master of ceremonies was an incendiary evocation of the part, all sulphur and brimstone and Mack the Knife, but fatally charming with it.
"My wildest dreams were already fulfilled when I got to play the MC. It was a really important assignment for me: in my career for sure, but also in my development as an actor, in that it required me to develop what had until then been a somewhat self-conscious relationship with the audience into something much more adversarial. It cracked me open. He's a pansexual party boy, up for anything, everything wide open, potentially quite monstrous and frightening – a joy to play. When David Fisher came along, I just had to slam all those doors shut again, which had only recently been opened.
"David's got an internal fist that's always clenched. The best thing that ever happened to him was being kidnapped! It really opened him up. He came out at the end of the first season to everyone else, but he never really comes out to himself. He was inherently dramatic because he was in a complete state of conflict."
Hall is a southern boy of sorts, from the anomalously liberal part of North Carolina known as the "Research Triangle" around Raleigh-Durham. "That part of North Carolina is a bit of a melting pot," he says. "But, that said, it is still the south, maybe even the buckle of the bible belt. I still grew up in a place where I imagined that the actors on TV were, I dunno, farmed on an actor planet or something like that. I didn't really see it as a legitimate pursuit for myself until much later."
He kept his interest in acting under his hat until college. "It was the thing that turned me on the most and for which I had the most aptitude. I guess I kept it under wraps, even with myself, because it was such a precious aspiration. I didn't want it to get shit on by relatives or friends, or any other sceptics, until it was a real thing."
A real thing is exactly what it became – possibly too much of a real thing. "My Dexter fans were surprisingly loyal and … sane, mostly. Some people will say: 'Oh Dexter, please kill me!' or 'Would you please sign my big knife?' but I don't get too many people confusing me with my roles. Maybe some people let me go in front of them in the grocery line, possibly because they didn't want to have me standing behind them. Which is a kind of perk, I guess …"