Our Lunch With Hannibal Lecter: Mads Mikkelsen Dishes the Details on NBC’s New Horror Series
NBC’s ‘Hannibal’ will make its bloody debut tonight on NBC at 10:00 P.M., re-imagining the relationship between iconic serial killer Hannibal Lecter (‘Casino Royale’s Mads Mikkelsen) and tortured FBI profiler Will Graham (Hugh Dancy), in a new vision of the classic mythology designed by ‘Pushing Daisies’ creator Bryan Fuller. Early buzz of the series has been overwhelmingly positive, but any ‘Hannibal’ fan well knows that the series has a lot riding on the shoulders of Mads Mikkelsen, savoring a new interpretation of the character so famously brought to life by Sir Anthony Hopkins.
Gracious hosts that they are, NBC recently afforded the opportunity of a sitdown lunch with Mikkelsen to discuss the series, wherein we had the chance to discuss with Hannibal himself a wide variety of topics from culinary design, to Mikkelsen’s Lucifer-like take on the character, and what ‘Silence of the Lambs’ fans should keep an eye out for. So before you dine on ‘Hannibal’ tonight, allow us to serve up an appetizer from Hannibal Lecter himself, Mads Mikkelsen!
Much of the series focuses on the central relationship between Will Graham and Hannibal Lecter, which begins a bit adversary, given Will’s dislike of interaction with others, and forced psych evalutaion. Mikkelsen’s Hannibal on the other hand finds Will full of possibility, and not quite so “banal” as he tends to judge others.
"Lecter is a man of opportunity, and he sees opportunities everywhere. Every day is a new day, and every day is a chance for something beautiful to happen. When he sees Will, he recognizes himself to a degree. [Hannibal] has empathy, but [he] uses it as a tool; Will has empathy, but he doesn’t know what to do with it. Lecter sees an opportunity to open this man’s eyes and see his full potential realized. And he also sees the opportunity for a friend, which is probably not what he’s had too many of. Even though Hannibal is the puppeteer, he really loves Will."
Naturally, food plays a large part in the series, even when Hannibal’s diet consists of less murderous meals. Chef Jose Andres acts as a culinary advisor behind the scenes, and helps prepare the meals Hannibal is seen to enjoy throughout the series, of a non-human variety even if they’re made to look as such. Mikkelsen himself has a background as a gymnast and a “great metabolism,” so multiple takes perfecting his eating habits and style don’t tend to bother him.
Much as Will Graham self-identifies as somewhere along the spectrum of Asperger’s disease, Mikkelsen’s approach to Hannibal Lecter doesn’t fall into any of the typical definitions of a serial killer. Mikkelsen had previously read a number of books containing to the psychology of killers, but saw Hannibal as more of a Satan figure that embraced the beauty of darkness, rather than be defined by it.
"Hannibal is very difficult to describe because he’s not the classic psychopath. He’s not doing it for the reasons that other serial killers do. It’s not the childhood, it’s not the mother who was a junkie. That’s way too banal for him. It’s something else. He thinks the threshold between life and death is extremely beautiful. I think the closest thing we can compare him with is Satan, the fallen angel who sees beauty when the rest of us see evil. It’s the same when he’s poking at Will and playing with Will; he can’t help it. It’s not necessarily that he has a master plan, but it’s because he can do it. And he likes to see Will in that fragile area."
Given his selective nature and unique triggers, it can be difficult to discern what makes one a candidate for Hannibal’s dinner table. Hannibal certainly operates much more covertly than the average serial killer, though we may see a few characters that test his patience, or bring out a more menacingly gaming side.
"It can be small things that trigger him. We’ll see that later on the show. But yes, people who are rude definitely have a big chance of ending up on his table. He doesn’t like rudeness. Anything that’s banal he can either just avoid, or they also have a good chance ending up on his dinner table, but anything that’s beautiful or refined or strange in a fascinating way, he finds interesting. So he’s divided the world up into banal and not banal, and people who are rude are standing a very bad chance."
While ‘Hannibal’ puts the relationship between its tital character and Will Graham in the spotlight, fans of the character well-know that Dr. Lecter has always had a unique relationship with women, Clarice Starling in particular. Earlier on in NBC’s version however, we’ll see plenty of unique relationships that Hannibal forms with fellow therapist Dr. Alana Bloom (Caroline Dhavernas) as well as his own therapist, to be played by ‘The X-Files’ star Gillian Anderson
Describing the relationship as “very kinky,” Mikkelsen explained, “There is a strange chemistry going on there. And there is definitely something that has happened between those two that we will know later. We’re just scratching the surface, we’re not really dealing with it yet, but you know it’s there.”
After the breakout popularity of the character, author Thomas Harris penned a good deal of history around the character, chronicling his origins in the 2006 novel ‘Hannibal Rising,’ the 2007 film adaptation of which was widely panned by fans of the franchise. NBC’s ‘Hannibal’ presents a more youthful interpretation of the character in a modern context, which naturally alters some of Harris’ established backstory of Hannibal Lecter, particularly his cannibalistic origins having root in World War II.
Mikkelsen admitted to some trepidation with the multiple seasons of a TV series perhaps revealing too much about the character, but asserted that his version of Hannibal Lecter was much more defined by the idea of Satan as a fallen angel, than any historical context. Still, some history may yet come to light.
"We do mention [Hannibal’s] uncle at one point. We do deal with the fact that he’s from Lithuania, hence the exotic accent. He’s definitely not a Brit, he studied in Paris and then probably went to England, but that doesn’t make him a Brit. So far, he is from Lithuania, but we are not dealing with the background story from the Second World War, because it doesn’t fit the time obviously. Also, maybe it was a little too banal. As I said before, he’s Satan. There is no reason here. It wasn’t his mother, he wasn’t hit as a child. We didn’t want that to play a part."
Despite the disturbing imagery of the series, and its deep psychological overtones, Mikkelsen assured that the unique visual style and occasional humor of show-runner Bryan Fuller’s other work would find its way into the series, as “the other side of the coin” to Will Graham’s difficult daily life. It was around this time that one of the NBC representatives present at the lunch joked about the possibility of creating a “Hannibal Diet” for additional web content, contributing to the occasional dark humor of the series itself.
Though NBC’s ‘Hannibal’ deals with a period set before the Thomas Harris novels from which they draw their main inspiration, ‘Silence of the Lambs’ fans will no doubt be on the lookout for references, even appearances of characters from the more well-recognized mythology. Early on fans may catch several allusions, or familiar faces, something Mikkelsen actively encourages.
"I think Bryan [Fuller] is doing that constantly, you will see that down the line. If you’re a big fan, you will notice something in the set, something in the decoration…a little picture. Absolutely, a host of characters will pop up that is, 'oh, couldn’t that have been…?' He’s definitely been playing with that idea, and I think it’s clever because at the same time it’s embracing that, it’s also detaching from it. It’s becoming a game of his own. It’s very smart."
Asked if NBC ever had any particular objections to some of the dark, violent and gory scenes presented throughout the series, Mikkelsen was quick to point out that his own experiences growing up and working in Danish TV made him initially unfamiliar with the boundaries between American network and cable TV, but that NBC had been very accommodating of the series’ macabre tone.
In particular, Mikkelsen recalled an early scene in which Hannibal prepares a set of human lungs for consumption, which could certainly curb viewer appetites (fine lunch conversation, he points out), but what felt right for the character felt right for the series, the most important preparation tip of all.
Initial reactions to ‘Hannibal’ will likely fall on the judgment of Mikkelsen in the title role, once etched in pop culture eternity by Sir Anthony Hopkins. A naturally Danish actor, Mikkelsen understandably makes no attempt to ape the classic performance of Hopkins, crafting a civilized, cultured (and thickly-accented) beast all his own, much the way every actor would approach ‘Hamlet’ differently. The size of the role nearly scared Mikkelsen off, but it was Bryan Fuller himself who ultimately convinced him to go through with the role.
"I was extremely reluctant doing it. I read it, I liked it. But these are huge shoes to step into, and it’s been done before at least once to perfection. What convinced me was Bryan [Fuller]. He was pitching the story to me for ten minutes, but then after two hours he was still hacking away. And also the fact this is taking place before the films, and [Hannibal]’s not captured, so we will have a chance to show something else. This is a man who needs to make friends, so he cannot play all his cards. Anthony Hopkins could do that. So [Hannibal]’s an actor. He’s quite emotional, but he can control his emotions as opposed to Will. If I want to be sad, I will be sad, but it won’t surprise me. The emotions will never surprise me. Of course, he’s still Hannibal. As you can see, he’s still elaborate, a three-piece suit man. So that’s all there; it’s just a different setting."