Jennifer Carpenter knows what it's like to be put through the wringer. Her ordeals in the past few years include being possessed by the devil and battling virus-infected zombies. Much of her present schedule involves playing a driven but hypersensitive homicide detective on the hit Showtime drama "Dexter," who has no clue that her beloved half-brother moonlights as a serial killer.
But the actress is hoping for some daylight. Inside Carpenter's gallery of intense, troubled characters is a clown just busting to break loose.
"I do feel like I've been denied the pleasure of making people laugh," proclaimed Carpenter with a chuckle. She currently plays foul-mouthed investigator Debra Morgan, half-sister to police blood splatter expert/killer Dexter Morgan (Michael C. Hall). "I just really want to do a comedy, even a dark comedy. My dream would be a Woody Allen comedy where I could sing."
While hitting some high notes might not fit her current job description, the tall, reed-thin Carpenter does manage to inject some humor in her role.
And while most of the attention surrounds Hall and high-caliber guest villains such as John Lithgow and Jimmy Smits, Carpenter is putting her own distinctive stamp on the series. "Dexter" producers and Hall have praised Carpenter as one of the show's lynchpins, and she has attracted the notice of notable off-Broadway producers and film producers who have cast her in upcoming projects.
While the role has been a career-changer, it's also transformed her life in another way: She and Hall fell in love while working on the series and married a few years ago. Though the couple, who kept their romance under wraps for more than a year, have appeared together at Golden Globes, Emmy galas and a few other events, they remain largely under the radar. Though their off-screen relationship initially raised eyebrows among fans who felt it would alter the dynamic of their sibling characters, it's now a non-issue.
Resting at the Hollywood Hills home she shares with Hall, Carpenter, who has an off-beat beauty that bounces between girl-next-door and glamorous, exuded an infectious charm and warmth as she welcomed a visitor on a recent rainy day. The house has a spacious living room, but she preferred to discuss "Dexter" at a small table in her kitchen.
She is thrilled with the success of the series, which she called "a guilty pleasure" for the audience: "It takes you out of your life for a minute and you have to relocate your moral center." Carpenter attributed the show's water cooler status to the writers, making clear how much she cherishes her character.
"Deb has a resilience unmatched by any superhero," Carpenter said. "She just keeps coming back again and again. There's so much to be admired with her; she walks into every scene with Dexter with her heart fully exposed. I am fascinated by her. I love her, I need her and I'm not finished with her yet."
It's also allowed the Juilliard-trained actress, who caught the acting bug when she was a young girl growing up in Kentucky, to display more of her range than she could in the horror films that distinguished her "pre-Dexter" days. She is proud of "The Exorcism of Emily Rose," in which she plays a college student overtaken by demons, but declines to even discuss " Quarantine," in which she plays a reporter caught in a zombie attack.
"Dexter" has given her more opportunity to display her range, and it's the frequently tense, fiery chemistry between the repressed Dexter and his half-sister — who almost seems to jump out of her skin with her unfiltered thoughts and strong feelings — that has grown into one of the keynotes of the series. Their interactions are fueled with a laser-like intensity that provides a personal balance to the more bloody story lines, particularly since the audience knows that Dexter is hiding a secret from his half-sister that would change — and perhaps destroy — their relationship.
Producers of the show say Carpenter's ability to display raw emotion has significantly heightened the appeal of "Dexter." "The fans know how important Jennifer is to the show," said executive producer Sara Colleton. "Dexter said in the first season that if he could love anyone in the world, it would be Deb. And seeing how much Debra loves Dexter has led people into the show. Jennifer is a brilliant actress in every sense of the word."
Added Hall: "Jennifer has this astonishing ability to convey undeniable ferocity and heartbreaking vulnerability in the space of a second. I am amazed by her. She has a fierce guardianship over her characters' truth."
Playing siblings when they are actually married does not pose a problem for the couple. "Looking in Michael's eyes when we're doing a scene together is different when he's relaxed. I'm relating to Dexter."
Hall said, "We really do respect the sacredness we have on screen. We keep that aspect separate and quiet."
Next up for Carpenter are two projects she's extremely excited about: She will appear with Pablo Schreiber early next year off-Broadway in a two-person play, "Gruesome Playground Injuries," described as a "dark romantic saga that explores the cost of wounded friendships." She will then move into filming an independent comedy, "Ex-Friends."
"I can't wait," she said exuberantly. "I'll get to be funny!"