Hannibal Rising: Mads Mikkelsen Interviewed

Danish actor discusses character and cannibalism...

Brian Fuller's erudite take on the Hannibal canon has been an unequivocal success. Many doubted that such familiar material could be made fresh or that such darkness and high-mindedness would work as a network TV show (it airs on NBC), but they've been proved spectacularly wrong. The first season, re-introducing viewers to the characters of Will Graham, Jack Crawford and Hannibal Lecter, has been some of the most succulently successful small-screen storytelling of recent years.

The show's high renaissance palate of dark blues and clarets, its razor-sharp editing, masterful scriptwriting and byzantine twists and turns have made for genuinely thrilling television which feels in no way derivative of the film franchise. Incorporating closely the characters from the novels with a judicious sprinkling of seasoning has created an entirely new monster.

Season One was strong and netted a huge cache of fans, but it's in Season Two that the show truly comes into its own. The casting has been exceptional. Mads Mikkelsen is an inspired choice to play the geographically ambiguous Lecter, intellectual European epicurean and gourmand. Deciding that the Hannibal's early backstory was no justification for his monstrousness, Mikkelsen has chosen to play him differently. He spoke with Clash about the cast, characters and motivations of the world's most famous fictional cannibal.

"I have always charactersied him as a fallen angel. An angel, but reversed. He has the same empathy as other people, or even more so, but he's in charge of them, he can control them completely, so we want him to be honest with everything he does. If he's happy, he's honestly happy, if he's sad, he's honestly sad. It is a choice. For that reason I thought to go back and say that he is what he is because of what was happening to him in his childhood was too banal. We could put him in a box and call him a psychopath, but I don't think we can, as we have no idea who this person is or if he is a person."

In a similar vein to Silence Of The Lambs, Hannibal is ostensibly a love story, this time between Lecter and FBI Special Investigator Will Graham, his nemesis. We see glimpses of Lecter's loneliness, his yearning for intelligent company and to be surrounded by others who share his (misguided) integrity. Mads is quick to acknowledge that Will is a kindred spirit, a genuine friend, despite his battle to defeat him.

"Not only a friend. He's the first person for many, many years that he has genuinely loved. He saw a mirror image of himself in Will; a younger version, not necessarily going down the right path yet, but potentially going down the right path with himself and with Abigail Hobbs (another central character). So I think it is genuine what he saw, and for one weak moment he became vulnerable and was fooled but he's back on the horse really fast."

These sentiments seem believable and it's this central relationship which bestows the show its guts, its romance and intimacy. Hannibal no doubt cares deeply for Will but does some truly heinous things to him. He seems to be trying to inextricably link Will to himself, making it increasingly difficult to separate the psychologies of the two characters.

"There's many reasons, definitely that, but if you look at cannibalism throughout history there is something extreme about consuming somebody else. If you love someone fully the most extreme you can go with that is to digest them and make them be part of you. It's a super selfish thing, but it's a big part of cannibalism. For that reason he wants to possess Will. Not necessarily by eating [him], but just the step before eating would be interesting and they could be one, in tune. It's a very complex relationship they have. Will is a very complex person as well. He's not only doing all this to trick me. He's also in extreme doubt about who he is himself. So for that reason he's going down my path for a long time."

The moral ambiguity of Will and of their relationship is what keeps the show's spark alive. There's also a dramatic denouement glimpsed in the very first episode of Season Two which is then played out in full in the final episode, which keeps the viewer hooked: a visceral and bloody fight between Hannibal and Jack Crawford (played by Lawrence Fishburne). The characters Mikkelsen plays are usually cerebral, yet he has the background of a trained dancer. The increasingly physical aspects of the second season are something he clearly relished.

"Throughout the show you've seen him do things very fast. Snap someone's neck. So you know he's capable of being vicious and physical even though you never see it in his real life, we never see him work out or do a push up. We see him swimming but you only see moments of it throughout the first couple of seasons, so coming to the big fight with Jack Crawford was fantastic. It was a long day. I think we were there doing it for 15 hours, doing it again and again, but I was fighting the legendary hero from The Matrix and I think I pulled it off (laughs). He was bigger and stronger, but I was smarter."

He's acutely aware that he keeps saying 'me', 'I', instead of 'Hannibal', which he admits is a little scary, so extensively has he fully inhabited the character. It helps the all-important ring of truth, adding further plausibility to his relationship with Will. He's worked with the actor Hugh Dancy previously and agrees that such a genuine friendship lends something special to their on screen relationship.

"It was a great gift for both of us, that we were able to spend some much time together on the show. We were kind of in a boat of insecurity from the beginning, but it was nice to have a friend there, if you go down or you stay up. To be able to be comfortable with someone in a room, day in, day out of filming, 12 hours a day, was an extreme gift for both of us. We found a way of working together really fast. Hopefully I'll get to spend time with him during the third season as well, but if not I'll just have to go drink some beers with him!"

Throughout Season Two you see Will come to the realisation that Hannibal is who he really is. You see the horror dawning upon him, at first incredulous, then furious, then vengeful. Is Hannibal aware that he's aware and is trying to manipulate him?

"From the very beginning I think I know he knows what I'm doing but then he starts playing confused but I'm pretty sure then that Hannibal knows that's the game. There is a vanity to Hannibal which catches him off guard, and because of that it makes him vulnerable and that's a terrible situation for Hannibal to be in, to not be in charge, right? It surprises him. He's majorly disappointed with Will when he finds out."

Bryan Fuller, series developer, has confirmed that the network has picked up Season Three and it'll be coming out relatively soon. Mads talks about the upcoming project with evident relish, and it's obviously something he's still very much inspired to be part of. They're almost at the full script reading stage, but as always with Fuller he likes to work organically to forge a reciprocal relationship with his actors.

"I've talked to him for a couple of hours and he's pitched me what's going to happen. Just general ideas, but they are bound to change if I know him. He will get inspired by something or someone else. A new actor maybe. I'm not allowed to say anything else!" 

"Things can definitely change and that the way a creative process should be. It's nice if it can change the week before and not the night before, especially if you have a long monologue." He acknowledges Fuller's creativity and talent and greatly admires his way of working, the input it affords. "We also come up with ideas. We read the scripts and I can say, 'Wait a second, we should be careful with this.' So it's obviously him (Fuller), but he's always ready to be inspired by the feedback from us, so it will change. Not necessarily drastically, but I enjoy working like that."

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Words: Anna Wilson

Season Two of Hannibal was released on Blu-ray & DVD on September 22nd.

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