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TV Goodness Q&A: Hugh Dancy and Bryan Fuller Discuss NBC’s Hannibal [+ An “Aperitif” Recap] 

Photo Credit: NBC
Photo Credit: NBC

It’s a familiar story to most of us: Mads Mikkelsen‘s Hannibal Lecter is a brilliant psychiatrist working for the FBI. He is tasked with helping Hugh Dancy‘s criminal profiler Will Graham, whose “gift” is the ability to see into the minds of psychopaths. A gift like that takes a heavy toll so Lawrence Fishburne‘s Jack Crawford, the head of the FBI’s Behavioral Science Unit, brings Lecter in to keep an eye on Will. But Will doesn’t like it when the attention is on him and he’s the one being profiled.

The Minnesota Shrike

There have been eight girls abducted from eight Minnesota campuses in the last eight months. The FBI is classifying these as abductions because they haven’t been able to find body parts or bodies. Will is familiar with the disappearances and knows that they need to talk to the parents of the most recent victim immediately. Elise Nichols was abducted from her home after she returned from school. Will wants to enter Elise’s room alone to examine the evidence – he does his best work with minimal distractions – but her father is anxious and refuses to let that happen. When they enter, they find Elise in her bed, dead.

Elise is different from the previous victims in one obvious way: they find her body. But why did the killer change his pattern? Will sees the return of her body as an apology. Will tells the team the person they’re looking for kills the young women quickly and with what he considers to be mercy. Crawford is upset that Will can’t seem to crack this case fast enough, but the problem is that Will can’t figure out what type of psychopath they’re dealing with and if they’re dealing with the psychopath at all. They are definitely dealing with a cannibal and he’s going to strike again soon.

When another body shows up in Hibbing, it’s all wrong. Will says this crime is the result of a copycat. The killer wanted this victim to be found in this way. This killer is being petulant, mocking his victim as well as law enforcement. She’s missing her lungs and it looks like the killer cut them out while she was still alive.

The piece of metal they find on Elise’s nightgown leads the FBI to believe the killer could a plumber or a steamfitter or tool worker. When they find him, Lecter calls to warn him. So when he and Will show up, Hobbs is finishing what he started. He kills his wife and almost manages to kill his daughter before Will shoots him. All this because Hobbs was terrified of the thought of losing his daughter. It’s Lecter, not Will, who is able to staunch the bleeding enough to save her life.

TV Goodness participated in a press call with Executive Producer and writer Bryan Fuller and star Hugh Dancy. Part 1 of our Q&A focuses on the genesis of this project and Hugh and Bryan’s thoughts on Will Graham.

Q: Can you talk about the genesis of this project? 

Bryan Fuller: “I had just finished writing a script and wanted to cleanse my palate by going to New York and taking in some Broadway shows. I just happened to be on the plane with an old friend of mine who just became the CEO of Gaumont TV USA. And she said [they’d] just acquired the rights to Hannibal Lecter. Do you think that there’s a TV show there? Not necessarily inquiring about would I want to be involved but just what was my professional opinion as a writer if there was something left to be explored. And I said absolutely yes. And my first question was do you have the rights to the Will Graham character? [T]hey did. And for me that was the way into the show that we hadn’t seen before…a chapter that doesn’t exist in any of the literature and it takes place during the time that Hannibal was a practicing psychiatrist and a practicing cannibal. [T]here’s a line in Red Dragon where Hannibal says to Will Graham, [I’m] paraphrasing here, ‘You caught me essentially because you’re crazy too.’ And I just thought…there is a great untold bromance that I would love to see as an audience member. So that’s what excited me. And then we took it to NBC and they were very excited about the project. And so that’s the long and short of the genesis of the involvement. So it kind of was nothing that I was planning to do but was something as somebody who read Red Dragon in high school and was a student of Thomas Harris’ work. I was aware of how much there was that hadn’t been explored so I was very excited to tuck in.”

Q: In going deeper into Hannibal Lecter, how much new territory did you feel there was to explore?

Bryan: “[G]iven what’s already been written, I thought there was a lot 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. [W]e’re doing a television series that gets you 13 hours a season, [so] 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 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.”

Q: When you’re doing a prequel, how much of a challenge is it that the audience has a fixed idea of the characters from later periods in their lives?

Bryan: “[T]here was a distance that we had in terms of..starting something afresh. That was to our benefit. But I think people will have Anthony Hopkins or Brian Cox in their minds in terms of an iconic Lecter and 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 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. So…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. And even watching several of the episodes in a line as I often had to do… in preparing for the finale and making sure all of our Ts were crossed and our Is were dotted looking at his performance and his manipulations of his character and it’s very easy to sort of see Lucifer at work and a devil.”

Q: Why do you think prequels seem to be popular on TV right now?

Bryan: “For me it’s sentimentality. I think we’re very sentimental. And…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 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. [F]ortunately 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 stories and characters become iconic. And I mean in this case Thomas Harris, reading backwards you can see that the creation of the world of Red Dragon initially has expanded out into an entire genre. This was born out of 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…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.”

Q: Since Will Graham was already established in the books, what was the biggest challenge for you to make him unique to you?

Hugh: “[T]he challenge 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.” After meeting and speaking with Bryan “the first place I went to is back to the novel and really tried to use that as a launch pad.”

Q: What intrigued you about playing Will Graham? Were you a fan of Harris’ character before? What is it that made you want to commit to carrying an hour-long TV drama?

Hugh: “I’d seen most of the movies [and was] familiar with Hannibal and so on. I didn’t really know about Will Graham until I was prompted. So…perhaps if I had known, I might have been more cautious. But as it was, I read the script of the first episode. 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. I wanted to know where they were going to go and sat down with Bryan and also Martha De Laurentiis, our producer. [Bryan] answered all those questions for me and painted a picture of not just this season that we just finished developing but potential future seasons. I realized that he had an enormous and expansive imagining of this world and his characters. And from the point of that conversation on with those I was hooked.”

Q: How has this role tested and challenged you so far?

Hugh: “In the good ways. I don’t like to be challenged in the way that often happens that somebody writes something and then you as an actor are expected to really make up the (gulf) in their imagination. Well yeah but we just need the character to be charming and interesting and damaged. And you can provide that. Well that’s not really an ideal way of working. What I found was that Bryan’s understanding of the character, his writing of the character was very, very rich and very reflective of the novel very much so but really going beyond that I think. So I had to live up to that. I had to try and be as inventive as he was. And…perform at a level that I felt I wasn’t letting myself down with this great cast that we had. But those are the problems you want in life.”

Q: Is one of the most interesting things about playing Will to see which way he’ll tilt – to the light or the dark side – in any given episode?

Hugh: “I think it’s not so much which way he goes in any given episode. [A]n actor said to me every time I hear the word arc I think of animals going in two by two. But there is sort of an arc over the course of this season, which is what we’re (aiming) for. I think it is interesting that [Will’s] got these two mentors of a sort, the two angels or angel and devil on his shoulder. But it’s actually a little bit more complicated and interesting than that because I think certainly Hannibal perhaps even more than Jack feels that he has Will’s best interest at heart whether Will would agree with what Hannibal thinks are in his best interest is a different matter. And Jack…has noble ends in mind, [but] he is willing and capable to some extent of risking Will. I enjoyed the ambiguity of all that.”

Q: What are the challenges of playing a character who never really seems pleased with who he is or what he can do?

Hugh: “I think that is a potential challenge is there in the question. And Bryan touched on it earlier that Will is certainly not easy-going, he’s…probably not great company. And he’s fairly shut off. And the challenge is not to just present those things to an audience because if that’s all they’ve got they would be quite justified in not being very interested in him. I always felt that the two ends of the compass for Will and the way we present him is that if you just have that middle ground, if you just have the shutdown kind of difficult human being that he is, you really have nothing to go on. But when you see both the kind of visceral, that violence…that he inhabits away in his brain that we see him reliving on the one hand. And then just as importantly on the other hand you see the safe haven that he’s created for himself. You see the moment of lightness when he goes back to his home with the dogs, the dog that he’s rescued and his efforts just to create a place of lightness, that for me was enough both to pity him and to care about him. And I thought okay, well that will explain everything in the middle. So that was a big part of the way I approached it.”

Q: Can you talk a little bit about finding the perfect cast? Why did you feel Hugh was perfect for Will?

Bryan: “Will Graham is kind of burdened by his own neuroses and personality disorders. [He] 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 transcended 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. When we all sat down and…talked about who was our Will Graham it was very easy for all of us to say like oh yeah, [Hugh’s] the one. Let’s meet with him and see if we can hook him.”

Hannibal airs Thursdays at 10/9c on NBC. Part 2 of the Q&A can be found here.

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