Hannibal: Mads Makkelsen on playing Hannibal Lecter
“I don’t find you that interesting,” Hugh Dancy’s disturbed FBI profiler tells Hannibal Lecter in NBC’s new serial-killer thriller, Hannibal.
Maybe, but we certainly do. Since coming to life in Thomas Harris’s 1981 novel, Red Dragon, Lecter has tantalized and terrorized readers and moviegoers alike, most notably in The Silence of the Lambs, the 1991 movie that won Anthony Hopkins his Best Actor Oscar.
Tonight, Lecter is reborn — younger and more stylish than ever — with Danish actor Mads Mikkelsen playing the brilliant psychiatrist long before he’s captured or even suspected of his gruesome crimes. Counseling Dancy’s Will Graham, whose ability to envision the most evil of deeds comes at a psychological cost, Mikkelsen’s Lecter is still safe behind a mask of respectability.
Mikkelsen, no stranger himself to playing a memorable villain (Casino Royale), initially hesitated at the opportunity to step into the role, but creator Bryan Fuller (Heroes) sold him on the relationship between Lecter and Graham. “It’s all about Will,” says Mikkelsen. “Everything circles around his character, and he’s a troubled man. I believe I can help him, either to get out of that trouble or to embrace that trouble.”
The actor sat down with EW at a Manhattan coffee shop to talk about the show, which premieres tonight at 10 p.m. For the record, there were no fava beans or chianti on the menu.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Why are we so fascinated by Hannibal the Cannibal?
MADS MIKKELSEN: Obviously in the films, we like him because there’s another monster we hate more — and also because Anthony Hopkins is super charming and funny. But I believe that Hannibal Lecter is as close as you can come to the devil, to Satan. He’s the fallen angel. His motives are not banal reasons, like childhood abuse or junkie parents. It’s in his genes. He finds life is most beautiful on the threshold to death, and that is something that is much closer to the fallen angel than it is to a psychopath. He’s much more than a psychopath, and there is a fascination for us. We can’t understand it, but we want to understand it.
Where do we meet your Hannibal? How old is he and where is he in the world?
Well, he’s my age.
He’s been Hannibal always. Since he was 1 years old. And he’s been doing his things for years. He’s been a practicing psychiatrist, and all of a sudden, I have this phone call from Jack Crawford (Laurence Fishburne), who asks if I can help out this young profiler. So Hannibal finds himself as a little kid in a candy store.
Hannibal’s relationship with Will Graham (Hugh Dancy) reminded me of something like Sherlock Holmes and Moriarty…
[Nods with sly grin] Who’s who?
That’s what makes it so interesting. There’s a connection there, isn’t there?
I think that Hannibal is spot-on from the very beginning about certain things he sees in Will. I believe Lecter can talk on everybody’s level, and he sees what Will is struggling with. I think that’s the first time for Will that somebody’s actually understood him and what he’s struggling with. Will is full of empathy but he has no idea what to do with it. The empathy is killing him. He can’t control it. It’s controlling him. And Hannibal has the exact opposite power. That empathy is something that he uses as a tool. There’s a potential in Will that Will is not aware of yet: he might be one of the few members of my selective club. So, yes, Hannibal loves him, and he will go far to help him. But if it’s the help Will needs, I’m not sure.
We already know a bit about Lecter from the books and films – or at least we think we do. Did you go back and start there for your character, or did you throw that all away?
It was a combination. The basis of what we were doing was the script. We’re dealing with him in a different situation; he’s not captured, he’s out there in real life with real people, meaning that he has to behave like a person. We have to humanize him. Will and Jack haven’t seen the films. So for them, I’m just an interesting character who apparently knows a lot about psychiatry. But once we began, I started reading the books as well, just for fun and to see if there was any inspiration we could add. I didn’t find something specific, but it was nice to see what it was.
Did you have any reservations about playing a character so iconic, especially because of Hopkins’ version?
Lot of reservations. I read the script and I liked it, but I really had to hear the pitch, which took Bryan [Fuller] a couple of hours — he was pitching through season 28 or something! Bryan is a fantastic, energetic man, and brilliant brilliant brain, and I realized, “Yeah, we might be able to do something different because Hannibal can’t play all his cards as he can in the prison.” He can do whatever he wants [there] because they know who he is. But that’s not the case here. This is a man who has to make friends. He has to make people feel comfortable around him, and so that was a different angle to attack the character. So my reluctance kind of slowly went away, and I said to myself, “Hey, Hamlet has been played so many times — to perfection — but that shouldn’t stop anyone else from doing something else with Hamlet.”
Did you incorporate traces of Hopkins’ Lecter or did you intentionally stay away?
I would say neither. We cannot do what Hopkins was doing. I can’t stand and do the tongue thing. I can’t do that. I have to be as honest as possible when I’m with Jack and with Will. In the private moments, on the other hand, that’s a different thing. Then I can be who I am. And we will see that… but there will be no winking at the audience. They know who I am, but the other characters don’t.
In your career, you’ve played a lot of… not-good guys —
I’ve played a lot of good guys as well. Just watch The Hunt. That’s as good as it gets.
But you’ve played a Bond villain and…
Yeah, I have. Over here [in America], I have done that. I’ve actually had quite a few invitations to play something else, but the stories have not been that interesting. They’ve just been boring films. So, I’ve done that a lot back home, playing the Good Guy or the normal man, and then I’ve been — [because of] the accent, I guess — I get to play the baddie.
Some actors actually prefer to play the Bad Guy because those characters are often much more complicated than the hero.
They are often, but I think every good script should be aware that there are Good Guys who have their flaws. And the Bad Guy should have his human side as well. So in a good script, the Bad Guy and the Good Guy are equally good parts.
Had you worked with Hugh before?
Yes, the very first thing I did abroad was a film called King Arthur. We were sitting on horses and killing blue people.
With Clive Owen and Keira Knightley!
Right. Me and Hugh were two of the knights. So we were sitting for half a year on horseback and we became friends way back then. It’s just been a gift. We’re doing a show like this where you’re working so close together. It’s nice to be comfortable with each other, and that was just a gift that it turned out to be me and Hugh.
I couldn’t help but draw parallels between Will and Hannibal’s relationship and that of Carrie and Brody on Homeland. The idea of having a relationship with someone who might be the devil in disguise.
Yup. It’s funny that that’s Hugh’s wife.
Yes, they both play… unsettled characters.
You bet! That is always interesting, right, when two different poles meet and have something in common without really being able to put their finger on what it is — but there’s something that rings a bell. It’s always interesting. That’s drama.
Nothing is guaranteed in TV, but are you prepared for this type of character to be part of your life for a long time?
Yeah. Absolutely. I knew that that was part of the package. I find Hannibal interesting. I don’t have to like what he does. I don’t have to agree with it. But I have to a certain degree understand his way of thinking. There has to be logic in there. I have to understand it. I would like to explore it more, and if we get the chance, it would be great. But like him? I don’t have to… But I kind of like him.