TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. When you're buying olive oil, you may get confused by all the different varieties and grades on the shelf, like virgin, extra-virgin or even first cold pressed. My guest Tom Mueller says some labels are authentic distinctions. Some are deceptive. Some are just fraudulent.
According to Mueller, there's actually quite a bit of deception in the way olive oil is labeled in the U.S. In his new book, "Extra Virginity: The Sublime and Scandalous World of Olive Oil," he writes about fraud in the industry, but he also writes about how olive oil is made and what makes good olive oil so delicious. He's lived in Italy for the past 20 years. Mueller is a staff writer for the New Yorker.
Tom Mueller, welcome to FRESH AIR. What are some of the things that make olive oil different from vegetable oils? Like why is olive oil worthy of tastings and categorizations of - you know, status gradings of its finement? You don't see that for corn oil or canola oil or soybean oil.
TOM MUELLER: Well, olive oil is really the only commercially important vegetable oil to be made from a fresh fruit. Everything else is made from seeds or nuts. And what that means, essentially, is that on the one hand, olive oil, you're getting fresh-squeezed fruit juice. And on the other hand, you're getting what has to be highly refined to make it edible. So soybean and sunflower and so on are always run through a refinery, whereas extra virgin olive oil should never be run through a refinery. And in...
GROSS: Well, with the vegetable oils, too, they have to use solvents, you say, in order to extract the oil.
MUELLER: That's right. It's a kind of a heavy industrial process, where the hexane or another industrial solvent is dumped on the crushed seeds or nuts, and then once the oil is out, it has to be de-solvent-ized and de-acidified and deodorized and de-gummed and all the other D's that you can imagine, which pretty heavily impacts the chemical structure of the oil.
And olive oil, you know, being fresh-squeezed fruit juice, has a remarkable range of highly beneficial ingredients that is very perishable and would disappear if you refined it.
What that gets you from a health perspective is a cocktail of 200-plus highly beneficial ingredients that explain why olive oil has been the heart of the Mediterranean diet. And at the same time, you have a huge range, since olive oil is - comes from 700 different kinds of olives, you have a huge range of cooking options that great chefs are only just beginning to understand and use.
GROSS: So explain what virgin olive oil is. Apparently, it's a relatively new distinction. What is it compared to regular olive oil?
MUELLER: It's actually pretty simple. Virgin means made with physical processes, not with chemistry. So it's essentially, you crush an olive, and out drops the oil in extreme synthesis. Extra virgin is a quality distinction among virgin oils. There are three different grades, quality grades of virgin oil.
So it's made by physical means, not by chemistry, not by high heat, and extra simply means the best. The irony is that it's actually a pretty low bar for quality because the legal definition of extra virgin simply says it has to pass certain chemical tests. And in a sensory way, it has to taste and smell vaguely of fresh olives - because it's a fruit - and have no faults.
It's not bad, so it's extra virgin. But even though that's a pretty low bar, many, many of the olive oils - extra-virgin olive oils on our shelves today in America don't clear it.
GROSS: Yes, and we'll get to that in a minute. So are there olive oils that are neither virgin nor extra virgin?
MUELLER: There are, indeed, and they are called lampante, which is Italian for lamp oil. And by law, they can't actually be sold as food. They can only be sold for fuel.
GROSS: Okay. So I won't be putting that on my salad.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
MUELLER: You may be, but you just don't know it.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
GROSS: Oh, gosh. Okay, well, we'll get to that in a second. So the whole category of extra virgin wasn't created until 1960. Why was it created then?
MUELLER: Well, that was at a time when new technological developments allowed people to make much better oil. In the past, the technologies that had been used had been used, really, by the Romans: You ground the oil with stone mills, and you crushed them in presses. And in Roman times, they used huge rocks and lever arms made of trees, and later they used hydraulic presses. But it was the same basic concept.
And in the '60s and early '70s, they started to introduce stainless steel milling instead of the old stone; introduced centrifuges to get the oil out of the paste. And all of a sudden, it was possible to make radically better oil than had been the case in the past.
Of course, when you have a brand new type of oil that's significantly better, you ought to have a new name for it. And that's kind of how the extra virgin grade was born.
GROSS: So the good news about olive oil is that it's, like, way more complex and interesting and tasty and subtle than people like me ever imagined. The bad news is that a lot of oil - a lot of olive oil is adulterated. It isn't what it says it is. What are some of the ways that olive oil is adulterated?
MUELLER: Well, essentially, people are taking lower-priced products and putting them into and blending them with or putting them neat into bottles that are labeled extra virgin. The worst or the most flagrant kinds of cases are blending with other vegetable oils.
This remains a problem particularly in the food service sector, although it does happen in retail, as well - in other words, in supermarkets. Someone's taking a soybean oil or a sunflower seed oil and coloring it with chlorophyll and flavoring it with beta-carotene or something similar and selling the result as extra virgin olive oil.
Another - a bigger problem in retail, in supermarket oils, is deodorized oil, which is essentially olive oil - oil made from olives - but the olives quite often have fallen from the trees and sat on the ground for a long time before they've been harvested and - well, before they've been swept up with street sweepers, not harvested - taken to the mill.
The resulting oil, not surprisingly, is smelly and bad-tasting. So they do a low-temperature deodorization, which essentially removes the flavors and the odors, good and bad, and you have an inert substance at the end. They goose it with a little bit of real extra virgin and sell the result as extra virgin olive oil.
Now, the problem here is that the cost to make that oil is far, far lower than the cost to make real extra virgin olive oil, which involves taking good care of your trees, having fresh, fine fruit, harvesting it quickly at the right moment, milling it and storing it properly. That's a much more expensive undertaking.
So if you can have the deodorized cheap stuff, which gravity harvests, and the really, really good stuff, which people have to work on and spend a lot of money making, under the same label, naturally, the honest people are getting terribly undercut.
And growers around the world, from the Mediterranean Basin to California to Australia to South Africa, are being - there's a huge unfair advantage in favor of the bad stuff. At the same time, of course, consumers are being defrauded of the health and culinary benefits of great olive oil.
GROSS: The health benefits, they're being defrauded of?
MUELLER: Well, yes, because if you - first of all, if you start with bad olives, you've - you know, you might well be eating something that's rancid. Rancidity is synonymous with free radicals, with peroxides, with impurities. And at the same time, you've lost that wonderful cocktail of anti-inflammatories and antioxidants and so on that you have only from the very fresh fruit, from the real extra virgin olive oil.
GROSS: What kind of - wait, let me stop you. What kind of anti-inflammatories are in extra virgin olive oil?
MUELLER: Well, there's - one of the most well-known - the fact is that scientists around the world are really only beginning to unpack the scientific underpinnings of the Mediterranean diet. We've known for hundreds of years, thousands of years, that the Mediterranean diet is a very healthy diet, but only now in places like Monell Labs and Harvard School of Public Health and so on are they beginning to unpack that.
One very good example of anti-inflammatory is oleocanthal, which is a sort of a natural ibuprofen. It's a natural COX-1 and COX-2 inhibitor. So - and there's an interesting story, actually, about how that was discovered. Gary Beauchamp, who's the head of the Monell Labs, was testing...
GROSS: And this is a laboratory in Philadelphia that studies smell and fragrance, right?
MUELLER: Right, right, right. Exactly. He was actually doing some testing of ibuprofen for a pharmaceuticals company. He was tasting it. And there's a certain characteristic, peppery bite at the back of the throat that you get from ibuprofen. In fact, the pharmaceutical company was looking for a replacement for that, because they didn't like the bite.
In any event, Mr. Beauchamp, after that, happened to go over to Sicily and taste some really, really first-rate Sicilian freshly squeezed olive juice - in other words, extra virgin olive oil - and had exactly that same bite at the back of his throat.
And he explained to me that quite often, sensory characteristics are - directly reflect the chemical underpinnings of a substance, of a food. And the light bulb went on for him. He said: I wonder, you know, what's - I wonder if there's some sort of ibuprofen-like substance in olive oil.
Sure enough, he took three or four Coke - plastic Coke bottles of oil back to his labs in Philadelphia and unpacked them until he got oleocanthal, he called it, which is a molecule that, in fact, does have very similar COX-1 and COX-2 inhibiting properties to ibuprofen.
GROSS: Okay, so when you deodorize olive oil that's come from olives that have fallen off the tree, as opposed to have been picked, when you deodorize it, you lose some of the fragrance and the taste and also some of the anti-inflammatory properties that olive oil can have. There are other ways that olive oil can be misleading. For example, you say that four out of 10 bottles that say they're Italian olive oil aren't really.
MUELLER: That's right. A lot - if you read the fine print, a lot of those oils have been packed in Italy, or they have transited through Italy just long enough to get the Italian flag on them. That's not - strictly speaking - illegal, but I find it sort of a legal fraud, if you will. And unfortunately, olive oil is full of legal frauds.
An example is extra light olive oil. Well, extra light is just as caloric as any other oil, 120 calories per tablespoon. But if you - you know, the average person looking at it would think oh, good. I'll have some of - I've heard olive oil is a fat, so I'll have some extra light olive oil.
Pure is another one. Pure, to me...
GROSS: So what is extra light, if it's not low in fat?
MUELLER: It's highly, highly refined. It has almost no flavor and no color. And it is, in fact, extra-light in the technical sense of being clear. But that's not necessarily a good thing.
GROSS: Hmm. Okay.
MUELLER: Pure, the same sort of thing. The term pure, in my mind, denotes purity, almost a virginal purity. And, in fact, it means highly refined, as well. These terms have been outlawed in Europe. I mean, they require that the producer really spells it out and says a blend of refined olive oil, blend - mixed with extra virgin to give it flavor.
But they're pushing to keep the labels in America opaque, in my view. That's not illegal, but it's, in my view, unethical.
GROSS: So if you buy olive oil that says it's from Italy, that might mean that the olives are from Italy. It might mean that the olives are from someplace else, but they were exported to Italy, where they were - where the oil was bottled, or where the olives were pressed and the oil was bottled. So as long as, like, part of the process is in Italy, it can have an Italian label. Do I have that right?
MUELLER: Right. Olives are almost never exported, because that's just going to compound your - the deterioration of your food. It's almost always made into oil at the point - near the point that it was harvested. But, yes. There's a great deal of - Italy is the number one importer, exporter and consumer of olive oil, and yet it actually doesn't produce all that much oil. It produces something like a third of what Spain produces. So there's, just on the face of it, something wrong with this picture.
GROSS: My guest is Tom Mueller. He's the author of the new book "Extra Virginity: The Sublime and Scandalous World of Olive Oil." Let's take a short break here, and then we'll talk some more. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GROSS: My guest is Tom Mueller, and he's the author of the new book "Extra Virginity: The Sublime and Scandalous World of Olive Oil." You say that the United States is the best place to sell adulterated olive oil. What makes the U.S. so hospitable to adulterated olive oil?
MUELLER: Well, I think it's a combination of a growing fascination with olive oil - I mean it - long term, but growing fascination. Our market consumption has gone up, year on year, 10 percent a year, and we're now the third-largest consumer of olive oil in the world. We just passed Greece, which has more than 100 times more per capita consumption - at least in Crete.
So there's an enormous demand for it. There's also, in many places, an enormous ignorance of what great olive oil is through no fault of anyone's, but until you have your first taste, you won't know what it's like. And because of the regulatory environment, there's no one checking.
So you have a very fast-growing and very large market, where the police are asleep, and it's an invitation, in some cases, for people to take advantage of that.
GROSS: You ask the question at the end of your book: Are we witnessing a renaissance in olive oil or the death of an industry? What's the evidence on each side?
MUELLER: Well, the evidence is that the best olive oils in the world in history are being made right now, all around the world, in California, New Zealand, Australia, South Africa, but also around the Mediterranean. Because of great new technology, this oil is far better than any other oil that's ever been made.
The bad news is that right now, labeling is so opaque that it's possible to sell two completely different products under the same extra virgin label. Now, as demand is rising around the world for great oil, the taps are beginning to turn off.
I mean, two weeks ago, the number-two producer in Australia, an extraordinarily good company, efficiently run company making fabulous oil, Kailis Organic, went into receivership. A number of other producers in Australia that I've talked with are on the ropes. And the situation goes - obtains also in the Old World.
Where I live in Liguria, many, many groves are abandoned because the people simply can't afford to pick the fruit anymore. If they could get honest labeling and they could get consumers in America and elsewhere to start appreciating the differences and the vast richness and complexity of the fine oil and distinguish it from, you know, perfectly okay but flat, refined oil - which has its uses, but isn't the same thing - they would start getting properly paid for that oil, and they would be able to stay in business and the olive oil industry would thrive.
If they aren't able, very soon, to get fair labeling and a fair price for their crop, they're going to start shutting their doors. I mean, the taps may be turning off just at the time when people are really beginning to appreciate olive oil in America.
GROSS: Let's talk about some cooking advice for olive oil. When you want to saute something or fry it, should you use olive oil, or should you use a vegetable oil?
MUELLER: Frying, even at high temperatures, from a health point of view, olive oil is wonderful. There is nothing better than olive oil. From a taste point of view, there are times when, at really, really high temperatures, an excellent extra-virgin with a great bitterness and pungency can become a little unbalanced and the bitterness can become overbearing. So - and obviously, from an economic point of view, if you're spending a lot of money for a really good extra-virgin, maybe high-heat cooking in certain circumstances isn't the best thing. But for lower heat, sauteing, every extra virgin olive oil is good. It really depends on the target, the dish you're putting together.
If you're going to be cooking sole or something delicate, you don't want to put a big, muscular, gnarly Tuscan blend or Koroneiki on there. It will make your fish taste like olives - which isn't necessarily a bad thing, but it may not be what you had in mind.
On the other hand, if you have a pepper steak or roast lamb or something with a lot of character to begin with, the stronger the oil the better.
GROSS: What do you consider to be some of the best uses of olive oil?
MUELLER: Well, I mean, taking a page from the Greeks, I experimented with various skin lotions and perfume bases and...
GROSS: I was expecting, like, salad or something, drizzle it over bread.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
MUELLER: You have to remember, I've been immersing myself in this for five years. So I may have gone over the top. But - and, in fact, pharmaceutical companies and skin care companies have been looking at the health properties of olive oil for a long time. But I have to say that one of the nicest things is to try to recreate American comfort foods with an olive oil, with a Mediterranean olive oil twist.
One of my very favorites is to take a really, really good potato and bake it, and then break it open with a fork and squash it around a little bit, and then dump a really big dose of first-rate, peppery, bitter olive oil on top. And the heat of the potato brings the aromas of the olive oil plus the good potato smell up into your nostrils.
And digging into that, it's just such - so much more enriching an experience than a baked potato with butter, in my view. And it could be a new American comfort food.
GROSS: And do you tend to drizzle olive oil on bread instead of using butter?
MUELLER: Yes. One of the classic - I haven't used butter in 10 years, I think. And again, I have nothing against butter, but I just really like olive oil better. And it does more for the food in many, many different ways. One of the great classic Italian foods, particularly Tuscan foods, fettunta is a peasant bread, nice, fat chunk of peasant bread that's been cooked on - grilled on a fire.
And then you pour copious quantities of good oil on it and maybe rub it with a little garlic. It doesn't get a whole lot better than that as a vehicle for great oil.
GROSS: Okay, well, Tom Mueller, thank you so much for talking with us.
MUELLER: Thank you, Terry. It's been a pleasure.
GROSS: Tom Mueller is the author of the new book "Extra Virginity: The Sublime and Scandalous World of Olive Oil." You can read an excerpt on our website, freshair.npr.org. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. This Sunday, the Showtime drama series "Dexter" presents its sixth-season finale. The show stars Michael C. Hall - who played the mortician David Fisher on HBO's "Six Feet Under" - as Dexter Morgan, a serial killer who kills other serial killers, and who also works for the Miami Police Department as a blood-spatter expert.
"Dexter," the series, has just been renewed for two more seasons, and Hall, one of its executive producers, talked with our TV critic David Bianculli about the show's eventual plans for an ending - and also about matters both professional and personal, from how you play an emotionless killer to Hall himself - how Hall himself, while filming Dexter, has dealt with both cancer and a divorce.
DAVID BIANCULLI, BYLINE: Michael C. Hall, welcome back to FRESH AIR.
MICHAEL C. HALL: Thank you.
BIANCULLI: This sixth season of "Dexter" has thrown so many twists and you've been able to do so many things. And the sixth season finale is going to be coming up on Sunday, so we're very close to the end of this season, which has had a great surprise in it, and also has enabled your character to go dark and then go towards the light again and shift. And what can you say without making people want to change the channel right now?
HALL: Well, there's a thematic element in each "Dexter" season and I think the theme of season six has to do with his coming into a sense of a relationship to a spiritual life, a relationship to God, a relationship to the idea of religious belief. And that's initially happening because he feels an obligation to his son. He's enrolling him in a school that has a religious affiliation. It makes Dexter uncomfortable initially, but he realizes that the boy might have an appetite that Dexter at least consciously isn't aware of in himself, and so he moves forward and enrolls the boy in the school.
He also encounters a potential victim, who actually becomes a friend and confidant, and a Brother Sam character played by Mos...
HALL: ...known by many as Mos Def. He just goes by Mos now.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
HALL: I think he's changing his name again. But an amazing actor...
BIANCULLI: Yeah. He can't shorten it much more. He'll just be M.
HALL: He'll be Mo. M, yes.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
HALL: But he's someone who seems to have rehabilitated himself and managed his darkness by letting in the light of God, as he describes it. So that's something that's foreign and intriguing to Dexter. On the other side of the spectrum, in terms of what people can do with religious belief, are these killers, the Doomsday Killer, or killers, who are basing their heinous crimes on Scripture, specifically reenacting scenes from the Book of Revelation.
BIANCULLI: And played by Edward James Olmos and Tom Hanks.
BIANCULLI: Well, it's difficult to talk about where the story is right now, but I think that I've found a clip that I can use without anyone yelling at me.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
BIANCULLI: This is from a very recent episode and it features you, as Dexter Morgan, and Josh Cooke, who plays Louis Greene, your babysitter's boyfriend. And he also happens to be a computer geeky intern at the Miami Police Department where Dexter works. And in this scene he's showing Dexter a new video game he's been designing. And as he describes the game, first we'll hear Dexter's thoughts in voiceover, and then when Dexter is asked for his opinion, you get to speak out loud.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SERIES, "DEXTER")
JOSH COOKE: (as Louis) In my game, you can be the serial killer.
HALL: (as Dexter) What?
COOKE: (as Louis) See, you have these character choices. You can be Dahmer, Jack the Ripper, the Bay Harbor Butcher.
HALL: (as Dexter) I am the Bay Harbor Butcher.
COOKE: (as Louis) So what do you think?
HALL: (as Dexter) I think this is offensive. Who would choose to be a serial killer?
COOKE: (as Louis) Well, I mean it's like a - like a vicarious thrill.
HALL: (as Dexter) Vicarious thrill? How could you possibly know what it's like to take a life? Why would you even want to? It's a bad idea. Do something else.
BIANCULLI: That's Josh Cooke as Louis Greene and our guest, Michael C. Hall, as Dexter Morgan, the sometimes moralistic serial killer.
As you prepared for that scene, did you interpret it as fake outrage on Dexter's part or real outrage?
HALL: Certainly not. No. I think, I think it's an outrage that - I love moments on the show where Dexter surprises himself, where he doesn't have the time to calibrate whatever his response to something might be. I think that was actually a very genuine response on Dexter's part. And it's articulating a sense that he is - in spite of his emerging humanity, if you will - is still very much primarily engaged in the management of his darker impulses and is beyond the hope that he could wish them away or rehabilitate himself, but at the same time alive in him is some sort of wish that he didn't have to. And he's disgusted by this guy suggesting that you could just have a vicarious thrill pretending to be a serial killer.
I enjoy that scene. It's always nice when Dexter is able to covertly reveal some sort of truth to someone without telling them exactly why he's saying what he's saying or where he's coming from specifically.
BIANCULLI: And if this isn't too inside baseball, how different do you think Dexter's reaction in that scene is in season six compared to what it would have been in season one?
HALL: I think it's quite different. I think he would've had an easier, breezier response to it. Or may have kept his cool in a way that he wasn't able to. There have been ramifications. Dexter's lost his wife. He's indulged in relationships with killers that have nearly done him in and have done other people in. There are consequences that go beyond the sphere of his own world and his own life, but extend into the sphere of those around him and those he has grown to acknowledge he cares about and loves.
And what's interesting about the show, we're always walking a bit of a tightrope from the beginning, but now that tightrope feels like a piece of dental floss sometimes, you know.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
HALL: It's - as he becomes more human - arguably, at least - or as he has experiences that are pushing him into realms that he never anticipated going - he moves toward a sense of humanity, towards a sense of light in a way. But that throws into relief what he does when he's indulging in his darkness. And the spectrum gets ever broad between the light and the dark, I think.
BIANCULLI: I think that's exactly the point that was made in a recent PBS documentary series, "America in Primetime." I don't know if you saw it, but in it - this surprises me: Two producers whose work I really love, Tom Fontana of "Homicide: Life on the Street" and David Simon of "The Wire," both said in this documentary that they think that "Dexter" goes too far by putting a serial killer as the protagonist.
BIANCULLI: And - but I love "Dexter" too. So you're an executive producer. Defend your series.
HALL: Well, I think as, you know, the cards are not all on the table. As we spoke about earlier, the show has yet to end. I think when we reach the conclusion and it can be appreciated in its total, maybe then I could both weigh in on or defend "Dexter" in terms of what it's saying. But I'm honestly thrilled to be a part of something that...
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
HALL: ...that people like that feel goes too far.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
BIANCULLI: It is an odd compliment, isn't it?
HALL: Yeah. I suppose. I mean there's a definite subversiveness to the show. It's inviting people to relish in the identification with someone who on paper is doing reprehensible things. I mean the whole anti-hero notion has been talked about a lot and I do think the show operates in a grey area morally. I like that about it. I like that it encourages people to - hopefully, at least - ask themselves a question about who they're rooting for and why they're rooting for him. I think the show is there to be appreciated on many different levels.
Some people do probably just have a thrill taking a ride and watching Dexter get the bad guys, but that really isn't what the show is about - at least not at this point.
BIANCULLI: Was it easy for you in reading scripts and shaping the role that first season to find the empathy in Dexter when he was very, very slowly finding any sorts of emotions in himself?
HALL: Yeah. It was something that I found ultimately I had to stop asking questions or stop thinking too hard about the fact that an actor - me - who is preoccupied with cultivating a sense of authenticity, and inasmuch as I am able, actually having an authentic experience, playing someone who claims to be without the capacity for authenticity, emotionally or otherwise, who's always pretended, in a way - pretending, rather - in a way it was liberating to let go of that preoccupation: Does this feel right?
HALL: Does this feel authentic? Am I telling the truth here? Playing someone who, as far as he was concerned when we first met him, was always simulating his behavior. But - so Dexter is an actor of sorts. But you want to honor the fact that at least, you know, back then he is completely clueless and completely without any sense of the reality of the moment he's simulating. But also he's got to be a good enough actor for us to believe that he's pulling this off. Even now as I talk about it, I find myself sort of just, you know, flushing myself down some sort of conceptual toilet. It's better just not to think too hard about it.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
BIANCULLI: My guest is Michael C. Hall, star of the Showtime series "Dexter," which presents its sixth season finale this Sunday.
More after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
BIANCULLI: We're talking with Michael C. Hall, the star of Showtime's "Dexter," which is presenting its sixth season finale this Sunday.
In "Six Feet Under," which is I guess the first time I became aware of you as an actor, you played David Fisher, the pent-up mortician whose father, also a mortician, dies in the opening scene of the pilot of the premiere episode.
BIANCULLI: And so in the premiere, in this clip that I'd like to play, you're working on your own father's body, filling his facial wounds with putty when suddenly the spirit of your father peers over your shoulder and watches you work, very vocally and very disapprovingly. Your dad is played by an actor who would become much better known in subsequent years, the wonderful Richard Jenkins.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SERIES, "SIX FEET UNDER")
RICHARD JENKINS: (as Nathaniel Fisher) Couldn't this wait? I don't want you ruining my face.
HALL: (as David Fisher) It's a little late for that.
JENKINS: (as Nathaniel Fisher) Not funny.
HALL: (as David Fisher) I need to stay busy right now.
JENKINS: (as Nathaniel Fisher) So go reorganize some files or develop a new bookkeeping system, that's what you're good at. You never really had any aptitude for this stuff.
HALL: (as David Fisher) I know. What did I do with my life? I went to school to learn exactly how to do this stuff. Other kids my age were going to frat parties. I was draining corpses and refashioning severed ears out of wax.
JENKINS: (as Nathaniel Fisher) Thank you God I didn't lose an ear. I can only imagine what you'd do with that.
HALL: (as Dexter) I did it all for you. I did it to make you happy, you ungrateful son of a bitch.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
BIANCULLI: You're laughing. What are your memories or your reactions?
HALL: I just love Richard. I mean he has such a sense of play, always, and can couple that with such a grounded sense of, you know, true emotional life. And I don't know, those are good memories. You know, that was the first time I did anything of any significance onscreen. And I just remember being so thankful that I was playing a character who was fraught with tension, and I didn't have to pretend I wasn't. And I don't know, it's just - I haven't heard that in a long time.
BIANCULLI: So I know that everybody's worried about spoilers, but it's been enough years. I feel like it's okay for me to ask you about the ending of "Six Feet Under," which I consider one of the, you know, five best endings of a TV series ever. And I'm a TV critic, so I'm geeky enough to keep track of these things.
The very end of "Six Feet Under" you think that it's ending with one person's death, and then it keeps going and you sort of go into the future and get the deaths of every major character. And the second that it happens and you start to realize what that pattern is, you go, oh. So when you found out about it the first time, was your first reaction oh, or was it oh with a different intonation?
HALL: I remember the story was that Alan went up to some cabin up north, northern California, and holed himself up and wrote that final script and he came back. And I remember reading it and being very taken with the script as a whole, but that final sequence, I loved it because it felt simultaneously surprising and obvious to - after having watched this show that has each episode start with a death, and you see that card, you see these people living a life in the midst of that - that they're implicated as well. That they die as well, that we all do. I think it provided the audience, certainly, with a sense of catharsis, a way to say goodbye to these characters that they spent this time with.
And as actors it was actually a gift to simulate the death of these characters that we'd been playing for so long. It might've helped us to put them to bed, as it were.
BIANCULLI: In "Six Feet" you played David, who was a gay character from the very first episode, and it wasn't so much that there were gay issues; there were just relationship issues.
BIANCULLI: With that character.
BIANCULLI: That's obviously a conscious choice from Alan Ball, the creator, but how did that make that different to act?
HALL: It made it a pleasure to act. David was relatable for many reasons but ultimately he was just a fundamentally human character. He was inherently contradictory. He was like a real person. He wasn't incidentally gay. He wasn't the, you know, wacky neighbor upstairs with the little dog or the comic relief. He was an integral part of the fabric of that world. And, you know, people used to ask me, did you - so, in spite of the fact that the character was gay, you decided to do this. And I said, well, no. I decided to do this in part because the character was gay.
That had so much to do with why he was such a rich character, why he was inherently conflicted and inherently dramatic. And I was doubly charged with a sense of wanting to get it right. I knew that David was unique at that point in the evolution of gay characters in television. And I was - I felt charged with something and honored to bring it to life.
BIANCULLI: My guest is Michael C. Hall, star of the Showtime series "Dexter," which presented its sixth season finale this Sunday. More after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
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BIANCULLI: We're talking with Michael C. Hall, the star of Showtime's "Dexter," which is presenting its sixth season finale this Sunday. One similarity between "Six Feet Under" and "Dexter" that I find really odd is that here you go from one TV series where you work for several years to another series where you've worked now successfully for six years and you're going for two more, where your character gets to interact with your late father.
HALL: I know.
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BIANCULLI: There aren't too many series - I mean, there's "Due South" and maybe a couple of others, but the idea of being able to get two in a row is odd enough and to have them be two terrific shows is upping the odds even more.
HALL: Yeah. My father passed away when I was 11 so I suppose I know in my own experience what it's like to have an internalized parental energy that really, as time goes on, has less and less to do with that person and more and more to do with some conversation I'm having with myself. So I can - I could and still can relate to that dynamic being very alive in someone's life, the fact that both characters have that relationship.
I guess Dexter initially, in the first couple of seasons we saw Harry and Dexter in flashback. We saw Dexter as a young boy, as an adolescent, as a young man or a younger man. But as we moved on, we wanted Harry's presence to remain, and so I started talking to him and there I was again.
BIANCULLI: Your dad died when he was 39.
BIANCULLI: And then if I have the timetable right on this, you were diagnosed with Hodgkin's lymphoma and underwent treatment like between seasons four and five for "Dexter" and somewhere while getting those treatments you turned 39. Is that right?
HALL: That's all exactly right. Yeah. My father died of prostate cancer at age 39, very young to die of that particular kind of cancer. So that age was always a marker for me.
HALL: And as I approached age 39 towards the end of the fourth season I had what I was jokingly referring to as alien eggs growing out of my neck. Had them biopsied to discover that they actually weren't alien eggs but were Hodgkin's lymphoma, they were infected lymph nodes. And I - in that little window between the biopsy and getting the news, which was probably 36 hours, I had a sense of what it might be. And when I discovered that I did in fact have Hodgkin's lymphoma, that I did in fact have cancer, I think I met it with a sense of bemusement as much as anything. It had been an age and a threshold in my life, given my dad's death from cancer...
HALL: ...that I'd always been preoccupied with and to have that present itself as part of the movement through that threshold made some kind of strange sense. I think I was able to meet it with some bemusement in part because I was assured from the beginning that, if you're going to get something, this was a good thing to get and that they knew how to treat it. I just needed to decide on a course of treatment.
BIANCULLI: Well, let me not waste any more time without asking how is your health now?
HALL: I'm good. I had a checkup about a week ago and, yeah, my blood work is all good. I go and see my oncologist periodically. But, yeah, all good. Thank you.
BIANCULLI: As we're speaking, I think very recently your divorce from your co-star Jennifer Carpenter was finalized.
BIANCULLI: And yet while you've gone through a marriage and then a divorce in real life, on the show she plays Dexter's - your sister, Debra - she's been promoted on the show. She's done astounding work this season and having even more written for her. You're both delivering great performances. What are you comfortable about saying in terms of how you've managed to get through serious real-life stuff while still being true to the characters and being there for each other as actors? That can't be easy.
HALL: It's a challenge. It's a unique challenge, one unprecedented, I think, in my experience certainly, and I haven't been able to really compare notes with anyone about it. But I think Jennifer is an astonishing actress. I love working with her. She remains a dear friend, along with a dear colleague, and I think we take some pride in the fact that we've maintained not just our professionalism but our sense of enthusiasm about the story that we continue to get to tell.
And the story continues for us. We're still in the other's life, in a different capacity, I suppose. But it's an amicable situation, to say the least.
BIANCULLI: As you see it, whenever "Dexter" does end, in a general sense do you think that he should be apprehended or somehow punished? Or in the final episode should he get away with murders?
HALL: I sometimes feel like Dexter's press secretary, finding a way to answer this without saying anything.
BIANCULLI: It's OK.
HALL: In part because I truly don't know with any sense of certainty how things will end. I will say that I don't think we want to watch Dexter on trial or watch Dexter go through the food line in prison. But I could be wrong. Maybe I don't want to watch that.
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HALL: It is hard to imagine him getting away with it and I imagine wherever we are in the story, at the end, if he gets away with it on paper I don't know that we'll see him getting away with it internally. But I really - I don't know.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
BIANCULLI: That's fair enough. Well, Michael C. Hall, thanks for being here on FRESH AIR.
HALL: Yeah. It's my pleasure.
GROSS: Michael C. Hall spoke with our TV critic David Bianculli. Hall's Showtime series "Dexter" will present its sixth season finale this Sunday. David is the founder and editor of tvworthwatching.com and teaches at Rowan University. You can download podcasts of our show on our website, freshair.npr.org. And you can find us on Facebook and join us on Twitter at nprfreshair. I'm Terry Gross.
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