'Dexter': The secret to Jennifer Carpenter's intense performance

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“I hate this!” howls Jennifer Carpenter as she gets hosed down. “It’s so cold!”

The actress is standing beside a Southern California lake as Dexter assistants gently soak her. She’s preparing for a scene where she has to drag a body out of a water. Though it’s nearly 70 degrees and sunny, you get the impression she’s being stung by every drop.

Several watery minutes later, Carpenter exits the water. “I need a belt!” she says as her pants slip down her narrow hips. Then she touches her forehead, where the makeup team applied red goop to simulate a head wound. “I’m bleeding!” she cries, alarmed. Then realizes: “Oh, that’s fake…”

Watching this during a Dexter set visit a couple months ago, you initially think Carpenter is quite a handful. Star Michael C. Hall seems cool and capable on the set, while Carpenter is more like a exposed nerve.

But as you spend more time around the actress and talk to her colleagues, your first impression is replaced by a more evolved one: Carpenter feels everything. That’s the way she works. Some actors are able to switch a character on and off. But Carpenter’s portrayal of the volatile Debra Morgan is more akin to a possession. “I work with this character from a very emotional place,” she says. “I don’t know how to do anything without going full out.”

When she had to agonizingly shoot her police captain Maria LaGuerta in the shipping container in the seventh season finale, for instance. “It really ripped me apart,” she says, and haunted her for months afterward. Mouthing “I hate you” to Dexter in that scene was actually ad-libbed during a take and she didn’t realize she said it until somebody pointed it out later.

“All I prayed for was that no alarm bells would go off and it would feel real and true and right,” she says of the pivotal scene. “In every take when I would say ‘Dex..,’ and in that struggle I was saying ‘I’m sorry,’ because [in my mind] I was going to shoot him instead.”

Ask Carpenter how her character feels toward Dexter this season, and she pauses and seems almost overwhelmed: “In order to explain that I would have to collect all these secrets from the bottom of an abyss and bring them up and show them to you and they wouldn’t make any sense.”

Opening herself up to feel every ounce of her character’s pain is a tough way to work. But when you see the result of Carpenter’s performance in episodes like tonight’s eighth season premiere — where she’s strung-out and brimming with self-destructive self loathing — it’s all worth it. Though¬†Carpenter has yet to be nominated for an Emmy, one could easily imagine that snub steak coming to an end.

On the set after her lake scene, Carpenter shivers under a blanket, covered in, as she puts it, “pond scum.” She remembers the moment she realized Debra was the right role for her.

“I thought the [Dexter pilot] script read like a Mack truck,” she says. “It had such energy and was so exciting. But I didn’t actually think anyone would put it on television. [At the audition] I had 13 pages of sides and I dropped them and I said, ‘Shit!'” That moment of Debra-like flustered profanity, she says, “was the first time I connected with her, and thought, ‘This might be mine.’ That’s the moment I got really excited and started to really want it.”

Fast forward seven years later. Now she’s one of many who are ready for the Showtime series to come to conclusion this season. “I wanted it to be the final season and I want it to be great,” she says. “I want us to protect the legacy of this show. I think we’re all very proud. I don’t want to not see my friends, but I think it’s been an education and I think we’re all ready to graduate and see what’s next.”

One of the most oft-discussed components of her performance last season was Debra’s secret sexual attraction to her brother. Carpenter objected to the revelation — but not because it was, as some fans believed, out of character. Quite the opposite.¬†Carpenter reveals it was very much part of her character and has been “from day one,” she says. She just wanted that information to remain off-screen.

“I found it’s important to come up with a secret for a character that you don’t tell anybody about,” she says. “And that was mine — that she was confused by her fascination for him. She was crushing on his mind and his mystique.”

One thing she does occasionally tweak in the script is Deb’s swearing. Sometimes she will add or subtract a word. “I do a lot of editing of the cusswords,” she says. “I think it’s a character trait, but it’s not a character trick.”

While Hall knows his character’s fate this season, Carpenter says she doesn’t know Debra’s final moments on the show. But given the way she’s inhabited the character, she feels that Debra being killed off might be the easiest way to move on. “I’ve said it before and I will repeat it: I want the character to die,” she says. “Every actor has to shed their character, shake the ghost off. It’s a real process. I really do love this character. [But] for my own well being, I need this story to have an ending.”

So it may be surprising, or perhaps not, that what Carpenter hopes to do next is precisely the opposite of a role like Debra Morgan. Carpenter would like to try a comedy series.

“I have a funny bone I haven’t gotten to exercise,” she says. “After I’ve been through, I’m primed and ready for it.”

Dexter fans! Tonight EW revives its Dexter recaps, so be sure to check our (recently redesigned) EW.com homepage for the recap link after the show. Recap is now live!

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