Q & A: Hugh Dancy Talks ‘Hannibal’, What Led Him to the Role and the Challenges of Making the Character His Own

Hugh on 'Hannibal': "As an actor at least there's a lot to, if you'll forgive the phrase, get your teeth into"

Hugh-Dancy-HannibalIn case you were wondering, NBC’s Hannibal is really good.

The show, from Bryan Fuller (Pushing Daisies), is based on characters from Thomas Harris’s novels (Silence of the Lambs, Red Dragon) and gives it the prequel treatment. It tells the story of Will Graham (Hugh Dancy), a gifted criminal profiler who is on the hunt for a serial killer with the FBI. Graham’s got a… unique way of thinking. That thinking gives him the ability to empathize with anyone – even psychopaths. But when the killer he’s hunting is too twisted for even him, he enlists the help of Dr. Hannibal Lecter (Mads Mikkelsen), and the two form an unlikely partnership.

I saw Hugh Dancy when he was starring in Venus in Fur on Broadway and holy crap he was fantastic. He and Nina Arianda were on-stage for 90 minutes and they could have gone on for 90 more, that’s how much I loved it. He’s equally as good here as Will Graham. He’s sedate and almost House-like in his portrayal and his version of the character absolutely works in this new world of Hannibal.

Dancy and Bryan Fuller held a conference call recently where they talked about the challenges of bringing Hannibal to TV, how Hugh deals with the dark subject matter, what led him to the role and the challenges of making the character his own.

Hannibal airs on Thursdays at 10pm on NBC

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

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 I certainly went to the first place 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.

Bryan, can you talk a little bit about finding the perfect cast why you felt that Hugh was perfect Will and especially why Mads was perfect for Hannibal?

Bryan Fuller: Well the – 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 car 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 transcend 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 and 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.


Bryan, there’s a real surge of popularity of the kind of character who has a brilliant mind and no social skills. Like the lead character of House, Elementary and Big Bank Theory and now on this show. Why do you think we so fascinated by that kind of character?

Bryan Fuller: I think the – 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 that 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 but are just better groomed socially.

Bryan, are there any points of occasional social backwardness or anything that you think Hugh would happen to have in common with Will?

Bryan Fuller: I don’t really see the social – what I love with Hugh as a human being is that he’s – A, he’s one of the most intelligent actors that I’ve ever worked with in my entire life and someone I consider to be a creative partner and in this show and the crafting of this character.

So I’ve – so it’s hard for me to sort of think how his Hugh socially dysfunctional because I see him as somebody who is so insightful, has the philosopher’s soul and a wonderful vocabulary and incredible wit. So but he is very much an observer and a very thoughtful human being.

So you can hear the cogs turn and the observations and the insights that he makes about the world around him and those around him are as insightful as some of the things that Will Graham would say. So it actually I think is very fitting that he is playing this character because he clearly has that approach to life and that he is an observer and he is an appreciator of the human condition.

Hugh Dancy: Wow. Well thanks. Than you Bryan. I would say that Bryan has – what Bryan has in common actually also with Will and what renders him a fully social human being is enormous empathy. And you find that in working with him in his openness to collaboration. I’m sorry. This question just became an opportunity for us to praise each other…

Bryan Fuller: Take it – take it…

Hugh Dancy: …but it’s thoroughly sincere. As a collaborator, Bryan is I think he’s remarkably open given the responsibility on his shoulders to other people’s thoughts and requests. And also in his writing you feel his involvement and engagement with every line. There’s something person in every scene.

And I think that’s because he has great powers of projection A and B because he cares, which is what we – which is what we want in anybody really that, you know, when we’re interacting socially. So no, Bryan I’m afraid and nor I are socially incapable.

Hugh, you’re the good guy quote unquote. But, you recreate the murders in your mind as your character. So it’s very dark throughout the episodes. Do you have a hard time kind of getting into that mindset and is it hard to shake when you’re done?

Hugh Dancy: You mean do I want to go home and kill someone? No, I don’t have a hard time. Again, I think that comes down to well to two things; the quality of the writing in that these cases – I think what would get me down would be if I felt that we were, you know, we settled into routine okay, this is what we, you know, here we go again this week. We’re going to solve this case. And, oh and by the way it’s hideously violent. I think that would – I’d have trouble with that.

But as an actor at least there’s a lot to if you’ll forgive the phrase to get your teeth into. And secondly just the quality of the cast. I’m going to work every day with Laurence and Mads and I mean all the way down the cast; really gives me so much pleasure that that tends to be the feeling I come away with at the end of the day.

Bryan Fuller: One of the things that’s really gratifying in watching the dailies is that you’ll see this cast in very sober scenes of darkness. And then there’ll be cracking each other up and making each other laugh. So there’s a levity and joy on set despite the very dark subject matter.

Hugh Dancy: True. And I think that as Bryan said, I mean that’s all – yeah, the violence ways very heavily on Will, the character. And you have to – I have to respect that and try and, you know, treat it honestly and make it real. But at the same time the type of violence is operatic kind of Grand Guignol, you know. So it doesn’t feel just like – I don’t know. There’s a little escape in there.

Is there anything that NBC has told you that you can’t do? I mean there’s some very graphic scenes in the first couple episodes.

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 but they have been, 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 have, you know, honor that audience. But we’re not necessarily – I would love to be going a lot further. But NBC keeps on reminding me where the line is. And that’s the responsibility as 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.

What are some of the things that they said no to?

Bryan Fuller: Certain things where it becomes like almost a question of a tonnage where, you know, we have – there’s some episodes where going back through because I was like ooh, you know, I hope we get to release the DVD version of the unsuitable for broadcast television collection of the show.

And there are some episodes where I was like oh, we went as far as – of all the material that we had. So that one wouldn’t necessarily be as special. And then there were other ones where it’s like oh, we had a lot further to go.

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 as more than anyone 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.

Bryan, can you talk about the genesis of this project? Did NBC come to you and say hey, we’d like to do a show based on Hannibal Lecter? Did you decide that this was a good idea for a show and go to NBC?

Bryan Fuller: It was a thankful plane ride. I had just finished writing a script and wanted to cleanse my pallet by going to New York and taking in some Broadway shows. And I just happened to be on the plane with an old friend of mine who just became the CEO of (Galmon) TV USA.

And she said, you know, we’re developing – we 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, you know, professional opinion as a writer if there was something left to be explored. And I was absolutely yes. And my first question was do you have the rights to the Will Graham character?

So and they did. And for me that was the way into the show that we hadn’t seen before was 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.

And there’s a line in Red Dragon where Hannibal says to Will Graham, you know, you’re paraphrasing here but you caught me essentially because you’re crazy too. And I just thought oh, 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.

Has there been anything that you’ve shot whether or not it’s been shown that’s actually grossed you out to look at on set?

Hugh Dancy: There was one – there was one prosthetic which I don’t think I can really describe to you because it would be a big – such a big spoiler. But it came as a surprise to me having, you know, this is near the end of the season.

So it’s a few months in of, you know, work acting opposite the various creations of the prosthetic team and being complete unmoved by it because, you know, it’s a very technical process usually and then walking onto the set one day and I actually had to walk off the set and take a moment and come back. And I guess it was nice to realize that I could still be affected by that kind of thing.

Since this is basically a prequel… Hugh, how do you feel about prequels in general?

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.


Hugh, can you talk about what intrigued you about playing Will Graham? What is it that made you want to commit to carrying an hour-long TV drama?

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, you know, is familiar with Hannibal and so on.

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 with those I was hooked.

And the hours of doing an hour long show… it’s an investment.

Hugh Dancy: Well I mean I can’t think of anything better than to be able to invest (a load) of yourself in something. And I wouldn’t have done it if I – if it had just been a matter of workload and I don’t know, oh, you know, how many people might see this. It was – I did feel invested. I felt it was going to be more than enough to keep me interested and test me and, you know, challenge me. And really that was the end of that. You know, then I just jumped in.

How has the show challenged you so far?

Hugh Dancy: Well I mean think. How’s it tested me, challenged me? In the good ways. What I mean by that is I don’t – what I don’t like to be – I don’t like to be challenged in the way that, you know, often happens that somebody writes something and then you as an actor are expected to really make up the (gulf) in their imagination, you know.

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.

And so I had to live up to that. I had to try and be as inventive as he was. And, you know, also perform at a level that I felt I wasn’t letting myself down with this – with the great cast that we had. But that’s the kind of – those are the problems you want in life, you know.

Hugh, I think one of the most interesting parts of the show is that Will is such a kind of socially phobic character and through this process is going to be forced to, you know, change that attitude and also look at himself and how he wants to interact with the world as he’s kind of forced to. Is that one of the most interesting things about playing him and which side in any given episode Will is going to tilt towards?

Hugh Dancy: Yeah. I think – I mean I think it’s not so much which way he goes in any given episode. There’s an overall, you know, an actor said to me every time I hear the word ark I think of animals going in two by two. But there is a sort of an ark over the course of this season, which is what we’re (raining) for.

The – I think it is interesting that he’s got these two mentors of a sort, the two angel 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.

Bryan, can you talk a little bit about your cannibal consultant?

Bryan Fuller: Yes. We were – one of the – as a bit of a (fudi) and someone who loves adventurous eating, the idea of working with Jose Andres as our culinary consultant on the show was one that I had very early on in the process almost – before I had even written the script.

I called my agent and once they – once I got the job and sort of pitched my take to Martha De Laurentiis and got her stamp of approval to proceed, one of the first calls I made to my agent was how do I get in contact with Jose Andres because I want the food world of Hannibal Lecter to be very specific and distinct and respectful for – to someone as a chef.

And so how do I get in contact with Jose Andres. And they’re like well we actually represent him and he just got the James Beard award and he’s having a reception next Wednesday. Why don’t you come as my date and so I did. And I was introduced to Jose and said so I’m working on this Hannibal Lecter project. And he was like, “Oh. Hannibal.”

And he started doing, you know, Anthony Hopkins impressions and was very excited. He’s like, “Please, can I be your consultant?” And I was like, “Well I was actually just about to ask you or beg or whatever I needed to do to get you to do the job.”

He was so enthusiastic and, you know, like the lungs in the pilot, those were his ideas. And one of the things that I though was really interesting about his approach to cannibalism was, you know, one of my first questions is like, you know, what are – what can you eat on the human body and he’s – he said, “Everything. You can eat everything.”

“You can grind the bones into gelatin to use in Jell-O molds” and had very specific suggestions on what body parts to use and how to prepare them in a way that had no judgment whatsoever in terms of this is a human being we’re talking about as opposed to a pig or a cow or a duck, which I have great respect for because as an animal lover and as somebody who mainly eats fish and rice, I appreciated that he was treating human beings as equally as animals in that – and without any kind of preciousness of oh, it’s a human being so we have to, you know, be, you know, acknowledge that cannibalism is bad.

He was just talking about preparing a fantastic dish with meat products and there was no kind of concern about where the meat came from, which I thought was sort of a wonderful thing about him because he was an equal opportunity eater. Not necessarily an equal opportunity eater but an – in terms of planning a menu he was equal opportunity.

Hugh, my question for you is what are the challenges of playing a character who never really seems pleased with who they are or what they can do?

Hugh Dancy: Well I think – yeah, 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 not – probably not great company. And he’s fairly shut off. And, you know, the danger is that you – well, the challenge is not to just present those things to an audience because if that’s all they’ve got, that’s – 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 has to – 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, you know, care about him. And I thought okay, well that will explain everything in the middle. So, you know, that was a big part of the way I approached it.

Hugh, was there anything that you added to the role that wasn’t completely scripted for you? Is there something that you felt maybe would add to the character – the portrayal of your character?

Hugh Dancy: I wouldn’t say that specifically no, I mean in the sense that for Bryan’s script. You know, we weren’t improvising and knocking them about. But as I said before, Bryan is – invites collaboration and we certainly talked before. And then perhaps more so as the season when on, you know, as the script came out progressively and we all became custodians of the story that we were telling and, you know, this quite extravagant trajectory I suppose of the story.

And so, yeah, I was often in conversation with Bryan and sometimes asked him for clarification of something for myself and sometimes I’m putting my two cents in. But I – but really the credit there lies I mean with Thomas Harris initially and then in our world I think with Bryan. He had a very, very full understanding of who he was portraying and I was just the lucky kind of beneficiary of that.

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