If Kill Your Darlings is the superhero origin movie of the Beat Generation, Michael C. Hall’s character, David Kammerer, is both its tragic villain and sacrificial lamb.
John Krokidas’ beautifully dark drama centers on a young Allen Ginsberg (Daniel Radcliffe) and his blossoming relationships with Jack Kerouac (Jack Huston), William S. Burroughs (Ben Foster) and, most importantly, Lucien Carr (Dane DeHaan)—who would go on to fatally stab Kammerer and dump his body in the Hudson River.
Hall’s portrayal of Kammerer is subtle and heart-wrenching, and he sat down with Paste to talk about Kill Your Darlings, his future projects, and perhaps a little about a recently retired-from-television serial killer.
Paste: David Kammerer didn’t strike me as an easy character to play.
Paste: He’s not a villain. You made him sympathetic.
Hall: Thank you. Part of the appeal was to humanize or even create sympathy for the guy. I think he’s been characterized, at least as much as he’s been discussed, as a sort of a shadowy stalker, one-dimensional if anything—and I was turned on by the movie’s aspiration to do something other than that.
And yes, it’s tough to live in a place that is that desperate. He certainly isn’t cool, and he’s surrounded by a lot of younger, more vivacious people, and he is desperately hanging onto the one thing that allowed him to once feel that way about himself.
Paste: How much of that was on the page, how much of that was direction and how much do you bring to it?
Hall: I certainly thought it was on the page. And in talking to John (Krokidas) about the part and the film, I appreciated that he was interested in painting a three-dimensional picture of David Kammerer because that was my goal, too.
Paste: Do you feel like Kammerer was the sacrificial lamb for the Beat Generation?
Hall: Maybe. I mean, I think he was making the scene with these guys and was on the periphery at this point. And as much as he wasn’t a student—he had to make a living, he had a job, he was older, he was unhealthily obsessed—he also was contributing things. Lucien claims that David got his ideas from him, but I think that’s bullshit. If anything, I think the opposite is true.
Hall: Aside from the book that was under lock and key at Columbia that Burroughs and Kerouac co-wrote about the murder (And the Hippos Were Boiled in Their Tanks), there was never anything explicit. Though Howl was dedicated to Lucien Carr, and there were sort of eerily evocative lines in the opening of that poem that could possibly have something to do with the murder.
But it was a creative catalyst, and a life catalyst for them all. It scattered them all over the place. Kerouac went back to sea, Burroughs wound up in Mexico and probably got more into drugs, and Ginsberg had his own trajectory affected. So, yeah (laughs) some people say Kammerer is the father of the Beats. And even if he wasn’t in life, I think his murder inspired them all.
Paste: Lucien is this sort of this Montgomery Clift character—totally magnetic, but also in such pain and denial. It’s sad that he later completely removed himself from history.
Hall: Yeah, to ask not to be included in subsequent editions (of Howl)—I think he was a frustrated artist. I think he was someone who desperately wanted to create something but couldn’t generate anything on his own, so he worked to create some sort of critical mass of inspiration amongst his peers.
Paste: Was there something that drew you to the material in particular?
Hall: I was aware of this story. I was really drawn to the fact that this story was being told and was always amazed it had never been more widely disseminated—and also that it was so well rendered by John and Austin (Bunn).
I specifically liked that it aimed to flesh out a guy who is surrounded by these future icons and has never been given his due as an actual living, breathing human being. But it really came down initially to the strength of the script.
Paste: The performances were amazing. What was it like working with this cast?
Hall: It was incredible. I never once considered whatever preconceptions I had regarding who these others characters were while I was on set, because everyone brought so much more vitality than any sort of two dimensional imagining I might have had.
Everybody was there because they were compelled by the story and interested in telling whatever truth it was pointing toward. It was nice to be reminded of how little you need when the most essential things are in place. We didn’t have a lot of time; we didn’t have a lot of money; we didn’t have any trailers—we didn’t have any of that.
I think it actually facilitated a sense of camaraderie that we might not have otherwise had, which was good for this film in particular. Everybody brought something so unique and vital to the table. It was a dream; it was a really quick dream (laughs), but it was a dream.
Paste: Daniel Radcliffe, in particular, blew my mind.
Hall: (agreeing) He’s really talented, thoughtful and remarkably self-possessed—and considering that he’s been famous since he was nine…
Paste: What’s next for you?
Hall: I shot a film in upstate New York called Cold in July that Jim Mickle directed. He most recently directed We Are What We Are that just came out. And that was a really great experience.
I just got back from Bangladesh, where I took part in a global warming documentary (Years of Living Dangerously).
And I’m doing a play in New York on Broadway and am starting rehearsals in January. It’s a new play called The Realistic Jones by Will Eno with Marisa Tomei, Toni Collette and Tracy Letts—that’ll take me through the spring into early summer.
And then I’ve got some irons in fire, but I’m not sure exactly what will happen after that. But it’s nice to be freed from the assignment of either doing or waiting to again do the show, and to be a little more wide open.
Paste: Speaking of the show—forgive me, but before we go I have to ask a Dexter question.
Hall: (laughs) Okay, what’s the Dexter question?
Paste: What did you think of the finale? I mean, finales will always be galvanizing for fans, but how do you feel about it?
Hall: I feel proud about the story as a whole, and I feel good about the way it ended. I think there’s this general trend with television finales, and it seems to have reached this sort of critical mass, that they are more and more galvanizing or criticized or just sort of an invitation for people to take issue. And yeah that’s cool, but today’s newspapers wrap tomorrow’s fishes. (laughs)
Paste: So without Harry, without the code, does Dexter finally go full-blown serial killer or is he a tortured lumberjack now?
Hall: I think we are left to wonder… But I don’t get the impression at the end of the show that he has in any way been cleansed or cured.
Paste: Thank you for indulging me, and for your time today!