From Bryan Fuller (Pushing Daisies) and based on the characters from Thomas Harris’ classic novels, the NBC drama series Hannibal tells the story of Will Graham (Hugh Dancy), a gifted criminal profiler who is on the hunt for a serial killer with the FBI. With the help of Dr. Jack Crawford (Laurence Fishburne) and premier psychiatrist Dr. Hannibal Lecter (Mads Mikkelsen), Will attempts to use his ability to empathize with psychopaths to get inside the mind of the twisted killer that he’s pursuing. For more on the show, here’s our review of the first two episodes.
During this recent interview to promote the premiere of the series, actor Hugh Dancy talked about what ultimately led him to want to be a part of Hannibal, the biggest challenges in making the character his own, what’s most grossed him out on set, being part of a prequel about such an iconic character, and the popularity of violent shows on television. Check out what he had to say after the jump, and be aware that there are some spoilers.
HUGH DANCY: I’d seen most of the movies and was familiar with Hannibal, but I didn’t really know about Will Graham until I was prompted. Perhaps if I had known, I might have been more cautious. But, I read the script of the first episode and I wondered to myself, as I think most people would, “Why do this?,” and a lot of fascinating questions seemed to be raised in that script. I wanted to know where they were going to go, so I sat down with Bryan [Fuller], and also Martha De Laurentiis, our Producer, and he potentially answered all those questions for me and painted a picture of, not just this season, that we just finished developing, but potential future seasons. And I realized that he had an enormous and expansive imagining of this world and the characters. From that conversation on, I was hooked.
Since Will Graham was already established in the books, what were the biggest challenges, in making him unique to you?
DANCY: Well, I think the challenge is just in the fact that Thomas Harris created, and then Bryan [Fuller] interpreted, such a complicated character. I wasn’t worried about the fact that he already existed on the page. If anything, I think it’s helpful to have a blueprint for your performance written by a great writer. You have something to turn to. After I met with Bryan, the first place I went to was the novel, and I really tried to use that as a launch pad.
Hannibal is really playing with everybody. Is there any point at which they’re going to start to suspect him?
DANCY: Well, yeah. There clearly has to be some movement in that area because I’m playing the world’s greatest detector of serial killers and, at a certain point, you’d start to wonder how the hell I got the job. But at the same time, Hannibal is not just the most intelligent, but in a sense the most quick-witted man in the show. He’s always that one step ahead. So, there may be moments when a little alarm seems to go off. I don’t want to give too much away about how the whole season progresses and this enormous distance that we travel. I think it’s more fun to feed that out in morsels, if you like.
DANCY: What renders Will as a fully social human being is enormous empathy. And in working with him, you find his openness to collaboration. As a collaborator, Bryan [Fuller] is remarkably open to other people’s thoughts and requests, given the responsibility on his shoulders. Also, in his writing, you feel his involvement and engagement with every line. He has great powers of projection, and he cares, which is what anybody wants, when you’re interacting socially.
Do you have a hard time getting into such a dark mind-set for this role, and is it hard to shake that when you’re done?
DANCY: No, I don’t have a hard time. That comes down to the quality of the writing. I think what would get me down would be if I felt settled into routine. I’d have trouble with that. But as an actor, at least there’s a lot to get your teeth into. And it’s just the quality of the cast. I’m going to work, every day, with Laurence [Fishburne] and Mads [Mikkelsen], and that really gives me so much pleasure, at the end of the day. The violence weighs very heavily on Will, and I have to respect that and try to treat it honestly and make it real. At the same time, the type of violence is operatic, so there’s a little escape in there.
Has there been anything that you’ve shot that’s actually grossed you out?
DANCY: There was one prosthetic, which I don’t think I can really describe to you because it would be such a big spoiler, but it came as a surprise to me. It’s near the end of the season, so it was a few months in, after working opposite the various creations of the prosthetic team and being complete unmoved by it. It’s a very technical process. But, I walked onto the set one day, and I actually had to walk off the set and take a moment and come back. It was nice to realize that I could still be affected by that kind of thing.
How do you feel about this being a prequel of sorts?
DANCY: Well, we know that the stories and characters become iconic. The world of Red Dragon has expanded into an entire genre. It was really all born out of that book and the subsequent book. When something is iconic, if you’re very careful and delicate, you can add onto that iconography. It can expand. People have attached so much to it themselves, and connected to it, so the risks are big, but the potential is enormous, at the same time.
What’s it been like to do an American TV show?
DANCY: Well, I can’t think of anything better than to be able to invest yourself in something. I wouldn’t have done it if it had just been a matter of workload. I don’t how many people might see this, but I did feel invested. I felt that it was going to be more than enough to keep me interested and test me and challenge me, so that was the end of that. I just jumped in. It’s tested and challenged me in good ways. I don’t like to be challenged in the way that often happens, where somebody writes something and then you, as an actor, are expected to really make it up in your imagination. That’s not really an ideal way of working. What I found was that Bryan’s understanding of the character, and his writing of the character was very, very rich and very reflective of the novel, but really goes beyond that. So, I had to live up to that. I had to try to be as inventive as he was. I also had to perform at a level where I felt I wasn’t letting myself down, with the great cast that we have. But, those are the problems you want in life.
DANCY: Well, I think that is a potential challenge. Will is certainly not easygoing. He’s probably not great company. He’s fairly shut off. And the challenge is not to just present those things to an audience, but to also find that middle ground. If you just have the shutdown, difficult human being, you really have nothing to go on. But, we see him reliving those violent moments, and then, just as importantly on the other hand, you see the safe haven that he’s created for himself. You see the moment of lightness when he goes back to his home with the dog that he’s rescued, and his efforts just to create a place of lightness. For me, that was enough both to pity him and to care about him. I thought, “Okay, that will explain everything in the middle.” So, that was a big part of the way I approached it.
With shows like The Walking Dead, American Horror Story and The Following, serial killers and violence on TV are really starting to be big business. What can you say about the appeal of that, right now, especially amid a society where we’re looking at changing laws about gun ownership and trying to pull back the acceptability?
DANCY: I think it is about a genre distinction, as much as anything else. There’s a particular type of violence in the shows that you’re describing, which can be done well or badly. I think violence, in a broad way, has been on television for quite a long time, perhaps in a more desensitized way. I’m not going to start naming shows, but there are plenty of them where you casually learn about how this person was cut up, that person was raped and so on. I don’t think it’s new. There’s a new conversation, perhaps, but I think even that is not as new as we’d like to think.
Hannibal airs on Thursday nights on NBC.