Emmys

Eye on Emmy: How Jennifer Carpenter Used Her Dexter Past to Deal with Deb's Greatest Drama

The fact that Jennifer Carpenter has yet to garner any Emmy attention for her turn as dirty-mouthed, heart-of-gold, unlucky-in-love detective Debra Morgan on Showtime’s accolade-adorned Dexter is a crime far worse than any committed by the series’ titular character. Will this be the year that the actress’ often arresting performance cops some recognition? One can hope, though Carpenter calls the role itself the best award she could possibly ask for.

TVLINE | Season 5 of Dexter seemed to lift the veil from Deb’s eyes a bit, almost enlightening her about what’s been going on around her for years. On your end, was that a purposeful approach?
It wasn’t a conscious decision. I feel like I’ve requested to know less and less about what’s going to happen during the season so that I don’t start prematurely playing into something instead of letting it unfold naturally. John Lithgow’s year was the season of grieving, and it was really heavy to play and to come home with, so I felt a little release because [Season 5] was a new chapter in a new book. The audience might have gotten a sense of that lightness about Deb. Deb is incredibly insecure — as am I — about her work, but she happens to be very good at it and people are giving her more responsibility. And she’s really adapting well to it.

TVLINE | What did you think about the direction Deb chose to go in the finale? Letting a killer go free, even if it might be her brother, is such a far cry from the cop we’ve gotten to know.
The writers and producers were kind enough to come to me before I’d actually seen the script to discuss it, and I was grateful for it because my initial reaction was, “Absolutely not!” It went against everything I believed to be true about Debra and how she functions in her life and her work, where things are either right or wrong. The way I was able to get behind it was by going back and revisiting the first season. I really tried to draw out the feelings Deb had about being engaged to a serial killer. It was about redemption, taking things into her own hands, finding closure finally for what happened there. I actually got to do that [season finale confrontation] scene multiple times, so there were times when I knew who I was releasing and there were times when I didn’t, and don’t know how they cut and pasted it all together [in the end], but it must all be there because every take was different. In a strange way, it’s like a gateway to when she actually does find out [Dexter’s secret.] That moment, that scene, will become a piece of how she digests it.

TVLINE | What did the producers say to convince you that Deb’s actions were in fact true to her character?
I was able to express all of my fears about it and discuss everything that made me resistant to playing it. And then the writers and executive producer Sara Colleton did everything they could to reassure me about it. At the end of the day I was told it was going to play [effectively], and that’s all I needed to know. That’s my job, to find a way to make it work. It had been so long since I’d lived Season 1, so to go back to that by watching those women being raped in Season 5, connecting with what it felt like to be taken…. I bent my thinking to allow justice to be served. It may haunt Deb later, but it was selfish and selfless in the same moment. That’s really the best thing you can ask for as an actor, something complex and contradictory.

TVLINE | Did you guys shoot the final scene of the season, Harrison’s birthday party, in sequence? And if so, did that inform your performance at all, having known what Deb just did behind that plastic curtain?
Yeah, we did, and that was a really interesting and incredibly emotional day, actually. I guess the aftermath of [the curtain scene] was cooking there. I really didn’t say much except  when I ask Dexter if he’s glad that it’s over, and he says that he is — so much echoes in that line. So, I guess [the confrontation] was present in that scene, even though I didn’t consciously pack it up and bring it there.

TVLINE | Do you ever think about what it would be like for Deb to finally learn Dexter’s secret? Or how as an actress you might approach playing that discovery?
I don’t even consider it, because Deb doesn’t know, so what kind of real estate is there in trying to figure out what that would look like? Whatever decisions I’ve already made about it would ultimately be wrong, so it won’t fire. And I don’t have an opinion [on Deb finding out], believe it or not. I don’t champion her supporting Dexter, and I don’t champion her taking him to prison. I can see reasons for both. I agree [with Showtime president David Nevins] that it doesn’t have to be the end of the show if Deb finds out — though it might be the end of Deb. [Laughs] The show has a thousand other ways that it remains fascinating, and it will be just as fascinating when this happens. It’s going to happen, I think, and I’ll just be patient. Hopefully the audiences will be, too.

TVLINE | Another interesting arc for Deb last season was finding some joy with Quinn. Were you relieved to play her as, you know, happy?
Absolutely! [Laughs] It was great. Her love came in a totally unexpected package. I don’t think Deb ever saw herself dating Quinn, but he’s solid. He is exactly who he says he is and never deviates wildly outside of his character. I feel like Deb deserves that.

TVLINE | Do you have one standout moment from the past season?
It’s probably pretty obvious, but it is that curtain scene. I felt like a mathematician trying to do bad math, putting that thing together. To finally find a formula that made it connect to something real for me, as Debra, felt like a winning moment.

TVLINE | Let’s talk a little about the Emmys. Is garnering that form of much-deserved recognition something you think about?
To be honest, I don’t even think about it. I feel like the structure of Dexter highlights Michael [C. Hall], obviously, and whatever guest stars we attract. It would be incredibly exciting [to get personal recognition], but it doesn’t hurt when I don’t get a nomination. As long as the show is nominated and we all get to celebrate the year’s work, that’s fun. It would be nice to see Michael get [an Emmy], finally. But I feel like we’ve shared in a lot of accolades and been celebrated, and that’s a real luxury for any show.

TVLINE | It’s true that Dexter has been shown a lot of love over the years, but the fact that you haven’t, for playing Deb, is a “crime” in and of itself.
I’m winning every day that I’m at work — and learning. What better award could you ask for, really? This has been such an education. My first year of Dexter was really like going to school. And everyone that I need to thank, I do thank them constantly.