The truth is, we are terrified of Hannibal Lecter.
But last month, we ended up in close proximity to one of the world’s most iconic villains on the set of AXN’s “Hannibal.” The hour-long episodes of this drama thriller explore the budding relationship between popular characters from Thomas Harris’ books—the gifted but conflicted criminal profiler Will Graham and his FBI-appointed therapist Dr. Hannibal Lecter. And because the series is a prequel to “Red Dragon” and “”Silence of the Lambs,” Hannibal’s serial killing ways have yet to be discovered. We know he’s the bad guy, but everyone else on the show—including Will and his boss Jack Crawford—do not.
The show’s biggest roadblock was finding the right actor to play Hannibal. Anthony Hopkins is the Hannibal in every movie fan’s mind. How do they challenge that?
Two words: Mads Mikkelsen. The Danish actor, whom you’ve seen as the villain Le Chiffre in “Casino Royale” and Draco in “Clash of the Titans,” was cast and already, critics are lauding him for his compelling performance on the show.
Show creator and writer Bryan Fuller (“Wonderfalls,” “Pushing Daisies,” “Dead Like Me”) said, “We all really wanted him. I remember telling David (Slade, director and executive producer), ‘What do you think about Mads Mikkelsen?’ And he was like, ‘There’s nobody better. Once you’ve said Mads Mikkelsen as Hannibal Lecter, I don’t want to hear another suggestion.’”
David said, “Mads has a terrifying subtlety and as the episodes go on, you start seeing the way a person can command other people by doing practically nothing and terrifying the sh*t out of you. He is the most astonishingly subtle performer with the most incredibly keen sense of what his face can do and how his words can form. He has a mission. Nothing is by chance. I truly believe as long as we have success in seasons that Mads will become the defining face of Hannibal Lecter.”
After screening the first two episodes the previous night and as we sat across from him in his elegant but foreboding dining room the next day, there was no doubt in our minds that they made the right choice. We were still terrified, yes, but we were also intrigued. Charmed, even.
“He is incredibly charming and sexy,” said Laurence Fishburne who plays Jack Crawford, head of the FBI’s Behavioral Science Unit, on the show. “The audience will be rooting for him.”
But they will be rooting for Will Graham too, the socially awkward criminal profiler with the gift—or curse—of being able to empathize with serial killers. Hugh Dancy plays him brilliantly. David said, “No matter what you’ve seen Hugh Dancy in, (in this show) he’s Will Graham—the nervous tension, the way he speaks.”
Will, Hannibal and Jack form a riveting triangle—a three-way bromance, if you will—that will keep the audience watching. Both a psychological thriller and a crime procedural, the show is dark but there is also an underlying playfulness and humor in it. Sometimes gruesome but always incredibly done, each episode feels more like a feature film than a TV show.
We’ve had our first taste of this thriller and we want more.
“Hannibal” is produced by Gaumont International Television in association with Sony Pictures Television Networks. The show premieres on AXN on April 8, 10 p.m.
The talented Mr. Dancy
‘I would have no interest in making a show that was just extremely violent for the sake of it’
“Your role has been played by other actors,” we told Hugh Dancy. We were about to ask him if their portrayal of Will Graham influenced his own.
“What?!” he exclaimed, feigning shock and laughing. Sitting on a director’s chair in the middle of Hannibal Lecter’s office, a different Hugh is in front of us—relaxed and in a light mood, a far cry from his tortured “Hannibal” character.
The actor, whom audiences have previously seen in the films “Hysteria,” “Martha Marcy May Marlene,” and “Confessions of a Shopaholic” and on the TV shows “Elizabeth I” and “The Big C,” said, “I haven’t seen either ‘Manhunter’ or the ‘Red Dragon’ movie. Or maybe I did see ‘Red Dragon’ but it was so long ago. I suppose I could have watched the films but I chose not to. I always went back to the novel. There was so much information there that I think it would have been very unhelpful if I had then seen another actor trying to portray (the role).”
Why did you say yes to this project?
I was slightly intrigued as to how and why you would take this well known set of characters. What are you going to do with it? The script of the first episode was intriguing but obviously left a lot of questions unanswered. And then Bryan answered all of them and about 50 others. His vision not just for this whole season but the second, third and fourth season was really complete and just fascinating. The only question remaining at that point was the rest of the casting. Now I think back on it and I wonder what I was doing because actually I don’t know how many actors there are that I would have felt could play Hannibal. In fact, there’s just one. Fortunately, he did it. So there we go.
How did you prepare for the role?
I started with “Red Dragon” where Will is described in detail by Thomas Harris. I read some books by the people whom he had spoken to, profilers that he’d taken his information from which was really intriguing. I’m leery of talking about psychics because I don’t think Will is psychic, but it’s in that territory. I was interested in what exactly happens when somebody makes these intuitive leaps that most of us aren’t capable of. What does that feel like? What is really happening there? Then I took all of that and went back into the script that we had and talked to David Slade about shaping it.
There’s so much going on with Will—it seems so exhausting. Do you actually enjoy this role?
(Laughs) Yes, I do enjoy it. I mean, it’s hard work but hard work is good. I think it would be more exhausting, honestly, doing a TV show where you’re doing the same thing week in, week out. I think that would be tiring in a whole different way. These scripts, they’re very rich. There’s a lot of fun for actors. I have plenty to keep me interested.
How do you form that natural dialogue between you and Mads and Laurence?
TV is TV so you have a different director episode by episode. We’re really the custodians of whatever development there is in the relationship between us. And certainly between Will and Hannibal, that’s enormous. The distance that we travel over the course of the season is huge. We’re always checking in with each other. You hope that you can be friendly with the people that you work with. And in this case I would say that we definitely are. It’s a happy set. I think that friendship or whatever you want to call it between Will and Hannibal is very unusual. I mean, they are engaging as therapist and patient and they’re also oddly engaging almost as detectives. And then there’s just a friendship. I think very simply Will really enjoys Hannibal. And I’m sure it helps that I get on with Mads.
Have you worked with a lot of gore before?
No, I’ve not worked on anything where the prosthetics department is put to such good use. I separate it from reality. It feels more like having a great dressing-up box as a kid except that you’ve got very highly skilled professionals helping you.
Do you get any sense that maybe the show can be a bit too violent?
That’s above my pay grade. If you’re talking about what’s acceptable, what’s been on network TV before, I don’t know. I leave that up to other people who can worry about that. As long as it doesn’t compromise the show that we’re making, then that’s in their hands. But if you’re asking if I think it’s okay to show that on TV? I would say that I would have no interest in making a show that was just extremely violent for the sake of it. The purpose of the violence in the show is that it casts light on who the characters are. I think the horror comes from the area in their minds that we’re pushed into as the audience. Every time we’re approaching one of those sequences in the morgue or a forensic sequence, I try and approach that from (this) point of view: why is (this) in our story? What is this going to teach us about these characters? And, again, what is the cost of it, particularly to Will? I’ve got no interest in violence without cost, I suppose.
‘I try as much as I can to make Hannibal the good guy in my world’
Bryan Fuller calls Mads Mikkelsen “the Danish George Clooney. He’s a rock star.”
But there is so much more to Mads than his magnetism. An accomplished dancer and seasoned actor in his native Denmark, he made his Hollywood debut in 2004, in Disney’s “King Arthur.”
He’s played good guys and bad guys and he says he is trying to see the good in Hannibal. “I don’t think Hannibal sees himself as a hero. He sees himself as a man who’s in love with the refined parts of life. He hates everything that’s banal. For him, the beauty of life is on the threshold to death and that’s what he’s exploring.”
Hannibal is such an iconic role. Do you worry about being compared to Anthony Hopkins?
I can worry as much as I want—it will happen. He made a fantastic job to perfection and obviously we can’t detach totally from that character, because that is the character. Having said that, we’re starting out in a different situation. I’m not captured, I’m a practicing psychiatrist. I’m out there in real life, so I can’t play all my cards. I have to play them differently. So you might see some different kind of scenes with this character than you saw with Anthony. But yes, he did it to perfection, so we’re not trying to copy that.
What’s the thing you took the most delight in eating in the show?
Quite a few things. There was foie gras. That was delicious. Then we had some Serrano ham or Iberico—that was very delicious as well.
Is there anything that you didn’t want to try?
There was something called head cheese and I realized a little late that the smell was not because it was cheese, it was something else. But I had some. It was quite delicious. I liked it.
We see you cooking on the show. Can you actually cook in real life?
I can cook, but I often eat alone when I do it, let’s put it that way. (Laughs) I’m not the biggest chef in the world so that is something I have to act out.
Is it more fun to play the bad guy?
I don’t see him as bad. I try as much as I can to make him the good guy in my world. I always thought that they go hand in hand, the good guys and the bad guys. You have to find the flaws, the little holes, the little mistakes the good guys are doing, and you have to find something you recognize in the bad guy. You have to find something that you can humanize in him. It’s always been our task as actors. It’s two sides of the same coin for me. Obviously this guy has a very black side and he is a bad guy, yes. But I’m trying to raise him as if he’s seeing the world in a different way.
Laurence Fishburne called your portrayal of Hannibal as sexy and you’ve been voted sexiest man how many times?
I think it’s only once but it’s still chasing me. (Laughs)
Do you think Hannibal is a sexy character?
I haven’t thought about it until you mentioned it. But looking back, and if I’m allowed to say it as a man, yes, Anthony Hopkins was sexy or whatever he was. He’s enigmatic, right? It’s fascinating. It’s the devil. We’ve been fascinated with what on earth is going on inside the head of Hitler and Stalin, Genghis Khan. We want to understand it. We don’t want to be like them, but we want to understand what is that. It’s always been fascinating.
Jack and Will, they’re smart guys, they’re investigators. How do you keep fooling them for the length of a TV series?
It’s a fragile balance and I’m sure that we will go, “Come on guys, pull yourself together, he’s right there. Three-piece suit. He’s got the funny accent as well.” But this is a universe. The focus is not there. Even though he’s kind of strange and odd, hopefully there’s something lovable or interesting about him. And the focus, the guns are not pointing his way but somewhere else. Will is the center of attention. And I guess, if you’re in love, even as a detective, you don’t see the [other men] around you. Hopefully that’s what we’re doing. So we’re trying to fall in love with the Will character in all senses and then I can get away with a lot of things.
Did you read the books when you joined the show?
I never read them before. I’d seen the films and I saw them again after we were working on this a couple of months. I read the books just to get some inspiration and we’re inspired by it, it’s based on it, but we are doing something else, of course. We found some things we could use and some things we couldn’t.
Did you say yes to the role immediately?
I read it, I heard about it. Doing TV is obviously something that will make your calendar look different than normal. So that was an issue and moving away and how to do that. But I had a meeting that was supposed to be 10 minutes, with Bryan Fuller, where he was going to pitch the whole thing, and after two hours he was still waving his arms and very energetic and basically I think he was in season 28 at that time. There was no doubt in my mind that, if that is the base of what we’re doing, if he’s bringing that, this is going to be interesting.
What did you find attractive in such a twisted role?
It’s dramatic. If we were all just drinking water and eating apples and hugging each other, there would be no films. There’s drama in there where we all have a little slice of it in ourselves. Our civilization is, thank God, keeping it down. We’re not trying to inspire anyone to do anything. That would be a disaster. But we are fascinated with understanding it, not embracing it.
Will we see Hannibal develop a romantic relationship?
As romantic as it can get. We’ll see. There are definitely things that in his world are romantic that you probably wouldn’t put on that list.
What TV shows do you like watching?
I don’t watch a lot of TV shows. If I do watch TV, I tend to watch sports. But I have jumped into the big pot of “Walking Dead” over here with my son and I’ve found it so interesting that if you get a little fed up with some of the characters, you’re cheering for the zombies. But I think that’s an achievement for the show. Their characters are well done. It’s cool.
Bryan Fuller calls Will’s relationship with Hannibal a bromance. Do you agree?
Yes, I think so. Not only with me and Will, but also with Jack and there is a triangle drama there that is quite heartbreaking for some of the characters.
‘I have no reason to suspect Hannibal Lecter at this point. That’s my story and I’m sticking to it’
We are in Jack Crawford’s office at the FBI headquarters and Laurence Fishburne is leaning back on his chair, his feet propped up on his character’s desk, a drink in his hand. It’s a strange-looking drink in an even stranger-looking container—it almost appears to be a specimen jar. “Laurence, what are you drinking?” one of the journalists asked.
“Tea. It’s something that Dr. Lecter whipped up that consists of my own urine,” he said, laughing.
We did an interview with you before, right around the time you started “CSI” and you said you weren’t good with the blood and guts.
Are you better now?
No. That has not changed, that has not improved. Still not very good with blood and guts, yeah.
So how do you get past it?
I try not to look too much. I just don’t take it all in too much. In “CSI” they were always trying to find interesting, quirky, weird and unexpected ways in which people had died. In this show, they’re taking a little more license. There’s a more creative flair that’s going on because we’re dealing with not people who are just randomly killed … or accidents. These are serial killers that we’re chasing in this show.
Were you a fan of the “Hannibal” books and the movies?
I’ve never read the books. I’m a fan of the films, but Chris (Brancato, executive producer) and I worked together many years ago. We did a film together called “Hoodlum” and he was the first person to approach me with the project. We haven’t worked together since that time, and he assured me that it was really first-rate material. And it turns out he was right and we’re making something that I think is really, really wonderful.
Your character has been played by other actors. Did you watch their performances?
I know all those guys. I mean, Scott Glenn and Harvey (Keitel), I’ve known those two guys since I was a kid, and Dennis Farina I have admired a great deal. So, for me, it’s just an honor to be playing a part that these guys have played.
You came from one crime procedural show to this one. Is there a big difference with the way things are on set?
This is a new show. This is not a show that has been on the air for more than seven seasons. I came to “CSI” in season nine and they really had done all the heavy lifting and worked out all the kinks, and so it was a well-oiled machine by the time I got there. This is something that we’re starting from the ground up. And even though we have the foundation of the books and the films to rely on, it is still its own entity and we have to figure out how we do this and how we do it well. That’s the difference.
It’s a pretty dark show at its core. Do you have any reservations about being part of a drama that goes in pretty dark places?
Not after coming off of “CSI,” no. I mean, the thing I liked about “CSI” is I felt like I was a good fit for it because I have done a lot of dark stuff.
Are you concerned sometimes about the overt violence that is on television?
No. I’ve never really thought about that, one way or the other. The violence on television is a staple of television. Violence is an essential element to any kind of drama. I mean, in order for us to tell the kind of stories that we tell, somebody has got to die in order for it to matter, in order for us to learn anything. I mean, as writers, as actors, what’s a story without a good death scene, right?
Do you think it’s up to the parents then to make that choice?
Of course, it’s up to us as individuals to really instruct our young people about how to watch these things and how to make distinctions between what’s fantasy and what’s reality.
Do you have a preference, making TV or making movies?
I love to act and it doesn’t matter to me whether I’m doing it on film or TV or on stage.
What about the idea of committing to something for years and years?
You know, it’s funny, because I think of “The Matrix” as being my first television series because I wound up working on that show from 1998 until 2003. I was committed to just pretty much “The Matrix” mostly. So, no, I don’t have a problem committing to anything, as long as it’s good.
When you’re on screen with Mads, there’s some real fireworks because your character is his intellectual equal. In a way, maybe your character has an instinct as to who this man really is.
Well, that’s the thing we have to be most careful with because I’m not supposed to know. Nobody’s supposed to know. And what is great for the audience is that they know and so it allows the audience that little piece of knowledge. They know who Hannibal is and what he’s going to do at some point. It’s fantastic for the audience, I think, waiting for me and Dancy to catch up.
But your character has seen it all. Do you think maybe deep down he knows but he’s burying it inside?
I have no reason to suspect Hannibal Lecter at this point. I hired him. (Laughter) I have no reason to suspect him. That’s my story and I’m sticking to it.
Talk about the relationship a little bit between you and Mads and Hugh.
It’s been really cool. The triangle is really, really strong. Hugh is doing an incredible job. He is crushing his character and he’s really bringing all of his powers to it. It’s really been great working with him and watching him work. I’ve been a fan of Mads since the “Casino Royale” movie. I really sat up and paid attention to him. I was like, “Who is this motherf**ker?” Even his work in something as sort of popcorn as “Clash of the Titans,” he brings a kind of danger and reality and he grounds it in such a way that you think, yes, I’m good to work with this guy. I should come back, just stay behind him. (Laughs) Our working relationship has been fantastic.
Do you have a favorite moment from the stuff you’ve filmed so far?
Well, I love Mads’ entrance. The first time we actually get to meet Dr. Lecter, I think is pretty special.
The show is pretty dark. What do you do for fun? How do you relax?
We’ve got Scott Thompson (playing Jimmy Price) here with us a lot, so it never gets that dark really. It’s a lot of fun. I mean, I’ve been doing whatever I can do, enjoying the city and spending time with my family.
Do you watch a lot of television? What are you watching?
I watch a lot of cable television now. I watch “Nurse Jackie” and “Dexter,” “Game of Thrones,” “Breaking Bad” and “Mad Men.”
What about “Homeland”?
I’ve just got season one of “Homeland” on DVD. I like to wait. I’m trying to hold off because, really, what I don’t want to happen is I don’t want to start watching it and get completely obsessed and then be knocking on Claire Danes’ door. “Well, Claire, I love you. What’s going on?” I don’t want to be a pain in her ass, so I’m waiting for us to be done, so I’m not wildly inappropriate with them when I see them. I just finished season five of “Mad Men”—or season four of “Mad Men” and season five of “Breaking Bad”—oh, so good. And I’m waiting for “Game of Thrones.” I can’t wait, and “Boardwalk.” It’s so good, so good.
How does it feel, having dinner with Hannibal Lecter?
Well, see, I have no reason to suspect that Hannibal Lecter wouldn’t want me to leave his dining room table alive. What’s great about this show is that we’ve established these relationships between these three guys where they’re actually friends. They’re working together and they become friends, so it makes it much harder to see their flaws.
You’re going to freak out when you find out what’s going on.
I suppose I will.