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“I think one of the most fun things you can say about [Hannibal] as a series killer, if you can say ’fun,’ is that he has such a specific aesthetic,” Bryan Fuller tells me when I ask about what makes Hannibal Lecter different from the “Dexters” of the TV landscape. Fuller adds that Lecter–played in NBC’s “Hannibal” by Danish actor Mads Mikkelsen–is a dandy with a sense of joie de vivre.
The character, first made famous in Thomas Harris’ novels before coming to the small screen under actor Brian Cox in “Manhunter” and later “Silence of the Lambs” with Anthony Hopkins, is hard to pin down: a killer of the “free range rude” as he notably says, one who has grabbed our attention for nearly 30 years now in one form or another. Showrunner and writer Bryan Fuller (“Pushing Daisies,” “Wonderfalls,” “Dead Like Me”) has taken a shot at reinventing the character for TV with “Hannibal.”
I spoke with Fuller recently about bringing America’s favorite serial killer to NBC in the recently-concluded first season of “Hannibal,” which is being released to home video this week. We chatted about the appeal of the character, Mikkelsen’s approach to the role, the allure or evil, and just what creator Thomas Harris thinks of the latest incarnation of his most popular character.
In the prequel series, which takes place before Harris’ “Red Dragon,” Lecter works alongside FBI Special Agent Will Graham (Hugh Dancy), a serial killer profiler with what’s described as “pure empathy,” an ability to get inside the heads of his suspects at the cost of his own steadily fraying sanity. Will is the jittery, honest counterpoint to Hannibal’s icy facade, the two characters striking up an unlikely friendship as Graham struggles with the toll his ability is taking on his psyche.
In developing the series, Fuller says that he and Mikkelsen discussed how the actor would approach the role, with Mikkelsen nixing any performance that aped what either Cox or Hopkins had done before. “He wanted to kind of craft this new path for Hannibal Lecter as he saw him,” Fuller says. That entailed looking at the character with what Fuller describes as a “grander sense of mythology,” beyond a simple psychotic driven by a need to kill.
Fuller says Hannibal is an “accessible” character because of his “eat the rude” ethos, one that finds Lecter less prone to the psycho killer compulsions of some of the murderers being hunted on the hour-long drama. It’s an interesting interpretation given how hard Hannibal attempts to make himself to the casual observer: an aesthete with an appreciation for art, music, and obviously, food, he’s all surfaces, allowing very little of what’s going on in his head to escape. With mutli-season arcs covering each of Harris’ novels planned, Fuller hopes to show viewers more and more of Hannibal’s inner world as the series goes on (the commentary on the Blu-ray set details some of the many clues and Easter eggs for future stories starting all the way in the first scene).
There’s a serenity to the way that Mikkelsen plays Lecter, Fuller tells me. He says that the actor is fascinating to watch, a sophisticated Alfred E. Newman who’s at a remove from daily life. Fuller’s greatest compliment is that Mikkelsen maintains perfect control of his face, playing with the character’s subtly by allowing his clothing, mannerism, and the environment to sell the eccentricity of the show. In fact, one of the most interesting details about the series is that Hannibal isn’t allowed to wear black–his love of life precludes it.
For Fuller, Dancy’s is the “showy” role of the series as we watch Will descend into madness. It’s also perhaps the most challenging–crazy is hard to play and can, if the performer isn’t careful, tilt into full-on cartoon. Fuller says that the character is so honest in his reactions and view of the world (I’m hard-pressed to recall more than a single, dangerous instance where Will lies in the series), whereas Hannibal is hiding so much.
But in his current incarnation, there’s something blackly appealing about Dr. Lecter, something that Mikkelsen and Fuller picked up on early in the development of the series. Back to those early discussions with Mikkelsen, Fuller says “Mads sees Hannibal not as a cannibal psychiatrist, but as Satan.” When I note that this version of the character seems to lack outward cruelty towards his victim, Fuller says that Hannibal is Lucifer, a being who has both awe and appreciation for life and humanity. This speaks to the unique appeal of the character–he’s attractive to the viewer (and other characters around him), but he’s also a tempter. “And it’s only when humanity falls short–or when he’s about to get caught–that he takes action against them.”
And it explains why Hannibal is so attracted to Will–Fuller suggests that it’s because of Graham’s pure empathy that the serial killer tracker is “humanity personified.” He feels more strongly than any of us can, and that fascinates Lecter in a way. “He sees in Will not only humanity, but the ability to understand almost anyone because [Will] can project himself into other people and understand how they think and feel. And for Hannibal, as someone who is a lone wolf who has been very isolated from humanity… what he sees in Will Graham an opportunity for an equal and a friend.”
Fuller says that if Lecter is “guilty” of anything this season, it’s being whimsical or playful with Will Graham, putting them both in danger. Lecter’s not really a character that you associate with guilt, but when the killer has to make several choices to protect himself from the notice of the law, we see feelings of guilt play out across Lecter’s face later in the season. These same actions may also push Will towards what Fuller says is a “truer” version of that character after he’s been pushed into a corner and framed for multiple murders. Fuller says he’s looking forward to later seasons where Hannibal’s veils of secrecy will fall away and we can see the character more clearly.
When I ask what kind of feedback Fuller has gotten from Thomas Harris about his creation, Fuller jokes that it’s been indirect: he’s heard the bestselling novelist likes the show and that sometimes he has trouble understanding Mads’ accent.
The first season of “Hannibal” is available today on DVD, Blu-ray, and VOD.