Hannibal Lecter is one of fiction’s most iconic figures, and NBC is hoping audiences’ innate interest in the character will lead to big numbers for tonight’s premiere of Hannibal, starring Mads Mikkelsen as the eponymous cannibal, and co-starring Hugh Dancy as FBI profiler Will Graham. Based on the extensive backstories contained within author Thomas Harris’ Hannibal Lecter novels, and including original flourishes from the mind of writer/creator Bryan Fuller, Hannibal looks to be NBC’s most audacious thriller in ages. Critics are already over-the-moon for it, though whether that will translate to ratings success is anyone’s guess, given the tricky Thursday night 10:00 PM time slot.
However, these concerns haven’t slowed down Fuller and Dancy, who participated in a conference call late last week to discuss the genesis of the series, ahead of tonight’s premiere:
On how much new territory there was to explore with the material, given what’s already out there, regarding Hannibal Lecter:
Bryan Fuller: Well given what’s already been written, I thought there was a lot that existed that hadn’t been explored yet. So I was really excited at the opportunity to really explore things that didn’t make it to any of the movies.
And, you know, they’ve made a handful of films, and because of the limited real estate that you have in doing a movie … we’re doing a television series that gets you 13 hours a season, we were able to get into much more specifics with the character, particularly Will Graham’s character who Hugh Dancy plays so magnificently and wonderfully neurotically.
He was traditionally played as, you know, a stoic leading man. And what we get because of the really complex psychology of the character that’s in the literature, we get to explore that in a way that nobody has before. So that was very exciting.
On Hugh’s challenges on making the character of Will Graham, already well-established in the Thomas Harris books, unique to him:
Hugh Dancy: Well I think the challenge laid is just in the fact that Thomas Harris created, and then Bryan interpreted, I suppose, such a complicated character. I wasn’t worried about the fact that he already existed on the page. If anything, I think that’s helpful to have a blueprint for your performance written by a great writer. You have something to turn to.
And … after I met with Bryan and we spoke, the first place I went to is back to the novel, and really tried to use that as a launch pad.
On finding the perfect cast:
Bryan Fuller: Well … one of the reasons that Hugh was so ideal for the role is that Will Graham, who is kind of burdened by his own neuroses and personality disorders, could come off as unlikable unless you have an actor who kind of invites you into his vulnerability with those neuroses and with those personality disorders that actually gives you permission to care for them as opposed to being pushed away.
And Will Graham is a character who pushes people away and has barriers that he throws up as social defenses. So we need somebody who had a vulnerability that kind of transcends any sort of barriers that he throws up, and takes you into the world and allows you to care for him even though he is so buttoned up and damaged.
That was the main reason. And Hugh was unanimous. When we all sat down and we talked about who was our Will Graham and Hugh Dancy’s name came up … it was very easy for all of us to say, like, “Oh yeah, he’s the one. Let’s meet with him and see if we can hook him.”
On the recent appeal in TV of characters with a brilliant mind and no social skills, such as Dr. Gregory House on House, or Sherlock Holmes in Elementary:
Bryan Fuller: I think we’re all closet tizzy people and would love to be more abrupt than we are allowed, with social niceties. So I think what we identify with those characters is that we would all love to be a little bit more honest and direct with how we’re feeling about people. But because we’re in society and we’re civil … we control those urges.
And so it’s – I think there’s a pleasure principle in seeing people behave in ways that we would sometimes like to behave.
On the rising appeal of dark violence on TV in the wake of The Walking Dead, The Following and American Horror Story:
Bryan Fuller: I think one of the reasons that horror is finding an audience on television now is that it really wasn’t represented before. I, you know, in the last 15 years that I’ve been working in television, I pitched many a horror series and had been told horror does not work on television. And what that basically means is that it doesn’t work until somebody proves that it does work.
And I think AMC proved beyond a shadow of a doubt that there is an appetite for horror. It’s a very, you know, it’s a popular genre. And it’s certainly a genre of love for me. I’ve been reading Fangoria Magazine since I was 10-years-old and I now read it on my iPad.
So I think it was just a matter of it hadn’t been represented before. And now it has. And it was successful. So that success changes perception of a genre. And I think, you know, with the subject matter being dark, it may be as with anything a reflection of where we are in that place talking about gun laws and violence and reality.
There – entertainment has a very strange cloudy mirror that it holds up to society. So I think we’re reflecting where people’s heads are in a certain way. And that – I think that’s part of art’s responsibility in its role in society. Hugh?
Hugh Dancy: Yes. I would agree with that. I mean 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 I guess being open, as with all genres, can be done well or badly and the bad version will be, you know, unthinking and a little numbing.
But I think violence, in a broad way, has been on television for quite a long time actually and … 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. And I don’t think it’s a new. I think there’s a new conversation perhaps. But – well even that, I think, is … not as new as we’d like to think.
On whether or not there’s anything NBC has prohibited, regarding the onscreen depiction of violence:
Bryan Fuller: Oh yeah, there’s lots. There, you know, what’s been really great about working with NBC on this project is that they recognize that they are doing a horror show and the show is called Hannibal Lecter. And they have, you know, put us on at 10 o’clock for a reason, so we can maximize what we can show, to honor the genre and also provide fans of the genre certain ingredients that they are expecting to see.
But there’s absolutely places where they won’t allow us to go. And that’s too far and you need to come back from that. And … you know, it’s always a push-pull because it’s like “ooh, can we do this” and we show it to them and they’re like “ooh, not that one.”
So it’s definitely a collaboration and they’re taking it very seriously, that they are presenting a horror show and they have to … honor that audience. But … I would love to be going a lot further. But NBC keeps on reminding me where the line is. And that’s their responsibility as a broadcast network, but they have been very, very supportive in terms of what we can do and going as far as we can without being X rated.
So eye gouging, seeing people’s intestines being removed from their bodies in great, you know, noodly clumps. Those types of things they tend to say, like, “no.” And which they should because I think, you know, as an artist in the role of executive producing the show, I want to please the core audience … and it’s NBC’s responsibility that we don’t go so far that we alienate members of the audience who are willing to stick through some of the horror elements. But we can’t, you know, drop a bucket of blood on them and expect them to have a good time.
On the challenges of crafting a prequel when so much of the audience has a fixed idea of the characters from later periods in their life:
Bryan Fuller: … I do believe that Mads Mikkelsen provides an iconography in and of himself and his approach to this role. One of the very first meetings that I had with Mads, he was talking less about portraying Hannibal Lecter in terms of how he’s been played before and more about playing Lucifer and … this, you know, very dark fallen angel who had an admiration for the beauty and art of the human spirit so much so that if you were not respectful of that beauty, he could be quite punitive and send you to Hell in his own very distinct way.
Bryan Fuller: So it – right off the bat I knew that Mads was going to bring something totally new to this character that was approaching it from an angle that it hadn’t been approached from before.
On the popularity of prequels on TV, with The Carrie Diaries and Bates Motel:
Bryan Fuller: For me it’s sentimentality. I think we’re very sentimental. And they’re – that’s why familiar stories told in a new way are very exciting. And origin stories are intriguing but very, very dangerous because as we’ve seen before, you know, Darth Vader isn’t as interesting when you just find out he’s a little kid who saw a bunch of Tusken Raiders kill his mom.
Bryan Fuller: And so … we’ve seen, fortunately, other stories step on certain mines, and the minefield of prequels, to try to avoid them as much as we can. But I think the audience is going to be the one that tells us if we stepped on any mines or not. How do you feel about the prequels Hugh?
Hugh Dancy: Well I think that then stories and characters become iconic. And I mean in this case Thomas Harris, you know, reading backwards, you can see that the creation of this one – the world of Red Dragon initially has expanded out into an entire genre. … This all – it was born out of that – really that book and his subsequent book. And what happens when something is iconic is that if you’re very careful, as Bryan was saying, and delicate, you can kind of add onto that iconography. It can expand and expand because I guess it – people have attached so much to it themselves and sort of connected to it. … So yeah, the risks are big but the potential is enormous at the same time.
On what drew Hugh to the role of Will Graham, and whether he was a fan with familiarity of the Hannibal Lecter mythos:
Hugh Dancy: No. I wasn’t particularly. I was, you know, I was probably fairly average in the sense that I’d seen most of the movies. … But not – but I didn’t really know about Will Graham until I was prompted. So – and, you know, perhaps if I hadn’t known, I don’t know, I might have been more cautious.But as it was, I read the first script – the script of the first episode, that is. I wondered to myself, again, as I think most people would, “Well, why do this?” And a lot of fascinating questions seemed to be raised in that script.
And I wanted to know where they were going to go and sat down with Bryan 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 his characters. And really from that – from the point of that conversation on … I was hooked.
On the current state of network TV:
Bryan Fuller: I think that network television has to evolve or die at this point because we’ve experienced so much audience erosion. And really the only consistent network that has nailed its demographic and knows its audience through and through it’s CBS. And everybody else experiences varying degrees of success and failures based on what shows they’re providing.
So CBS seems to be the only, like, bedrock network at this point. And they’ve remained very consistent. They have had an unfaltering audience. They’re consistently number one. And everybody else’s identity even though those identities shift from programming executives going in and out of the revolving door as often happens.
The identity of ABC and FOX and NBC has changed so much over the course of the last decade, but CBS has relatively stayed the same. So I think that, particularly for those networks who aren’t in that consistent spot where their audience is incredibly loyal, they have to try new things.
And it’s not necessarily just pressing the envelope or pushing the envelope with gore and violence. I think it has – that envelope has to be pushed with storytelling and venturing into unsafe places that aren’t haunted by doctors and lawyers and cops.
And we have to start looking under different stones for stories to be told. And I think it will keep everybody on their toes because we are in a point of dramatic change for network TV. And I think everybody should take advantage of it and try new things because safe maneuvers fail more consistently than unexpected chances.
So I think … there’s so many television shows on the airways, and not just now but … since the dawn of network television, that we have to – we have to do things differently or try to do things differently or try to bring a point of view that is valid to whatever we do. And we can’t just sort of … for lack of a better expression … squat over a conveyor belt.
You know, we have to – we have to really try to do our jobs as storytellers and broadcasters to provide truly original content whether that be a prequel, which, you know, is … based on … a preexisting franchise.
But I do think our approach to this show, and certainly the cast’s approach to each of their characters, I have felt inspired by. And I feel like … we are – we’re all trying to tell a fresh version of the story. And I think it would behoove everyone to continue to try to do that themselves. I sort of like blathered on there a bit but I hope you got your answer.
Hannibal premieres tonight at 10/9c on NBC.