Imagine, if you will, Hugh Dancy’s Will Graham in all his compelling glory having his half-terrifying, half-sensual tête-à-tête with Hannibal Lecter in the NBC series Hannibal, except instead of the dashing Mads Mikkelsen on the other end of the table, you have John Cusack. In an alternate timeline, that’s the show that viewers got – and it’s a very different Hannibal for a number of reasons.
Collider’s own Steve Weintraub recently spoke with Dancy and Hannibal creator Bryan Fuller for an extended, exclusive interview, and in discussing the inspired casting of Mikkelsen as Lecter, Fuller revealed the months-long fight he had with NBC over who would tackle the titular role. Indeed, the network originally envisioned someone more “American” in the part:
“There was a casting kerfuffle on who to cast for Hannibal Lecter, and there was a difference of opinion on what a traditional television network would want as a leading man and what we would want as an actor playing Hannibal Lecter to personify playing that character. I think the network wanted somebody that was much more poppy, much more mainstream, much more American I think in some ways. That was just them thinking about, ‘Okay how do we get the biggest audience for our television show? We have to cast John Cusack as Hannibal Lecter and everybody will tune in because won’t that be surprising?’ I was like, ‘Well go ahead, make an offer.’”
Fuller wanted Mikkelsen from the get-go, but the network was less sure:
“There was some resistance to Mads Mikkelsen because he was European, because he was somebody who you could look at and go, ‘Yeah I buy that he eats people’. We were dealing with a very American network that wanted a very American actor to sell to American audiences, and all the creatives on the show wanted somebody who was the best person for the role.”
NBC kept throwing out names like Cusack and even Hugh Grant as possibilities, going so far as to offer the Hannibal role to these performers, and Fuller kept persistent in pushing Mikkelsen instead:
“It was an interesting dance because I’d say, ‘Mads Mikkelsen!’ and they’d say, ‘No, how about Hugh Grant?’ and I’d say, ‘Great, make an offer, he’s gonna say no,’ then they’d make an offer and he’d say no, and I’d be like, ‘What about Mads Mikkelsen?’ and they’d be like, ‘Well what about John Cusack?’ and I’d say, ‘Great, make an offer, he’s gonna say no’ and they’d make an offer and he’d say no, I’d say, ‘What about Mads Mikkelsen?’ That carousel went around for three or four months after we had cast Hugh [Dancy], it was going on for a while. Finally I just said, ‘Mads is the guy, that’s the guy I see in the role and I have to write it and I have to champion it and I have to understand it,’ and Jennifer Salke at NBC bless her heart was like, ‘Okay, that’s your guy. I believe you and trust you and I’m excited about your vision for the show’.”
Fuller added that there was a windfall that came with casting Mikkelsen over some of the bigger names for the role of Hannibal Lecter. Namely that Hannibal immediately became less of a priority for NBC’s marketing department:
“But for the other sort of marketing folks, they were like, ‘Oh this show isn’t going to break through for us’. They sort of gave up on it a little bit because we were casting a European guy as the face of [a show] they wanted to be more accessible. I felt that they were right for their reasons but wrong for my reasons. And so the gift of that, the gift of casting Mads Mikkelsen, is that their investment in the show became dramatically decreased, and so that allowed us to do a lot of things that we wouldn’t have been able to do if they were saying, ‘No this show needs to get 10 million people watching it every week’. Because then we would have to really be tied down to certain parameters of storytelling that were going to mesh with a mainstream audience. So Mads was the gift that allowed us to tell the story the way that we wanted to tell it, because the network was like, ‘Well it’s not the person that we wanted and we don’t really see him in this role,’ and we were like, ‘Fine, just let us make the show’.”
Hannibal ran for three seasons but always struggled in the ratings, and yet NBC kept the show going because an international rights deal with Gaumont actually made Hannibal quite cheap for the network. But even without the massive marketing support, Fuller was happy:
“We didn’t get great ratings and we didn’t get great numbers, and the network was behind us but they weren’t as behind us as they would’ve been if we had cast who they wanted. But I think in the grand universal scheme it was the best thing for the show A. Because we got to have Mads and Hugh in scenes together and they were electric and B. We got to do things that were questionable with the content. We were no longer expected to achieve a certain goal.”
Fuller pointed to NBC’s casting of James Spader in The Blacklist as an example of what they wanted to do with Hannibal, and noted that after Spader was cast in that new series, the network really turned its attention away from Hannibal. Funny enough, Spader was cast in The Blacklist right around the same time that Hannibal’s first season premiered, hence why the show never seemed to have much promotional support from NBC.
Check out what Fuller had to say below. For more on Hannibal, click here to see what Fuller had to say about who owns the rights now and a potential movie continuation.
Look for Steve’s full conversation with Fuller and Hugh Dancy early next week.