On the irresistibly creepy Showtime hit Dexter (Sundays at 9 pm/ET), David Zayas plays nice-guy Detective Angel Batista, and the role is hardly a stretch: Zayas, a Bronx native, was an NYPD officer until less than a decade ago. Currently appearing in George Clooney's Michael Clayton, as — what else? — a detective, Zayas has also played his share of guys on the other side of the law, most notably as the Latino-gang boss Enrique Morales on HBO's prison-drama Oz. Zayas shares his softer side with us and explains how he came to change his life so drastically.
TVGuide.com: Let's talk about Angel Batista — he seems like kind of a softy. I love that he's been spouting Oprah-esque "create your own reality" philosophy this season.
David Zayas: He's not a tough guy — he's just an honest, average Joe, trying to do a good job in a crazy circumstance. He does his job well, but he's also a little too trusting. He's a normal guy, a cop who just happens to really like this friend of his who's a mass serial killer.
TVGuide.com: Will we see the old Dexter we know and love again? Is he going to get his groove back?
Zayas: [Laughs] The thing about this show is that it's never black and white — it's always complicated. You're going to learn and discover new things about Dexter. There are going to be times when he returns to the old ways, and there are going to be new emotions and new discoveries.
TVGuide.com: It's so odd to be rooting for a serial killer. Were you drawn to the show's off-beat premise?
Zayas: Isn't that how we all live our lives, if you think about it? Especially in this business. [Laughs] Life is kind of odd and offbeat. I think people relate to the fact that they're in Dexter's mind, they hear his thoughts. They might not condone what he does, but they understand it more than just watching it because they're going through his thought process. Even though you don't agree or you wouldn't do what he does, you kind of understand some of the logic, where you wouldn't if you just saw his actions play out. Dexter lives his life within a code — [Chuckles] it just happens to be a code that involves killing other people. But it's still a code. If someone lives their life by a certain code, there is a form of respect that you have to give that person, even though you don't agree with what they're doing.
TVGuide.com: Are things over for good between Angel and his wife?
Zayas: Things are pretty much over — though, of course, they have a daughter together. But he's single and ready to mingle.
TVGuide.com: So Angel's going to get some action this season?
Zayas: [Laughs] There are going to be some interesting twists that involve all of that.
TVGuide.com: What else is new in the Miami Metro Police Department?
Zayas: We have Keith Carradine as a federal investigator, and Dexter's sponsor, Lila [Jaime Murray], who will play an intricate part of the storyline. She'll be involved in a lot of the discoveries. There are going to be a lot of surprises coming up; it's going to be a fun year. You're going to be on the edge of your seat.
TVGuide.com: I was a big fan of Oz. Enrique Morales was one scary dude.
Zayas: This is a really nice change of pace; I like the fact that I'm playing someone opposite. Enrique Morales probably would have joined Dexter, who knows? [Laughs]
TVGuide.com: I know you used to be an NYPD officer. How long did you do that?
Zayas: I was a cop in New York for 15 years, and I retired seven years ago.
TVGuide.com: It's kind of a leap from that into acting....
Zayas: Around 1990, I got a divorce, I went through a rough patch in my personal life, and I was like, "Well, this is a good opportunity to dive into something you've always wanted to do." So I started taking acting classes and got involved with the LAByrinth theater company, with John Ortiz, Philip Seymour Hoffman and Liza Colón-Zayas, my wife. One thing led to another, and I started getting a lot of work with shows in New York, like Law & Order, NYPD Blue, New York Undercover. Then I got involved in a show called The Beat, which led to me getting the role of Enrique Morales on Oz.
TVGuide.com: You were doing all this while you were still working as a police officer?
Zayas: Yeah, I wasn't getting much sleep. [Laughs] The second year of Oz was when I said, "I've got to make a choice." They gave me the option to retire early, and I took it.
TVGuide.com: Was it a tough choice?
Zayas: It was, because I didn't know what was going to happen after Oz. I had two kids to support; I knew that in the years to come, they were going to go to college. So I took a little risk, but it paid off — I got really lucky, as well as working hard. Sometimes you've got to take a risk. I was a movie buff as a kid; I studied movies. I grew up in the '70s, when the best films came out — my dad used to take the family every Friday night to the drive-in movie, 52 times a year. I remember seeing The Godfather, The Exorcist, Taxi Driver, all these great films. I realized, "That would be an awesome thing to do, to create something that another person you have no contact with is feeling." I became a cop because I didn't want to do a 9-to-5 job, and because I needed to support my family. I like camaraderie in the place where I work; I found that in the police department, and I find that with the show; we're like a big family. I don't know if you can get that in a cubicle. You find it in a vocation like a police officer, when you actually depend on each other in life-or-death situations, and in acting, you depend on each other to live the life that you're set to do on stage or film or television.
TVGuide.com: Did your real-life experience help in your roles as both cops and criminals?
Zayas: It helped me understand the cop side of it; for the criminal side, I have to use my imagination. When I get an acting job as a detective, there are a lot of technical aspects of it that come naturally to me, so I don't have to think about it too much; I can just concentrate on the human aspect of that character. As for the criminal side, you know, I was raised in the Bronx, so I learned a lot of that growing up. [Laughs] You're surrounded a lot by that kind of element; maybe not to the extent of Enrique Morales, but you see little bits and pieces of different people that you can accumulate into a character. That's where I drew most of my imagination from.
Want to get to know the most likable serial killer around? Check out Dexter clips in our Online Video Guide.
Go behind the scenes with our exclusive look at Dancing with the Stars in the Oct. 15 issue of TV Guide. Plus: Dr. Phil offers Britney some tough-love advice. Try four risk-free issues now!
Send your comments on this Q&A to email@example.com.