The first season of NBC’s Hannibal, the adaptation/reimagining of the classic cannibal created by Thomas Harris for Red Dragon, Silence of the Lambs and other novels, is out on DVD and Blu-Ray this week.
As it happens, I did some Hannibal press stuff at San Diego Comic-Con for a website that promptly decided not to employ me any more a week after the show. With the material still handy, I thought I’d share this interview with Hugh Dancy, whose portrayal of Hannibal’s friend/victim/eventual pursuer Will Graham provides the center and emotional arc of the show.
This was part of a group press event with about five other journalists sitting at the table. Stuff I asked specifically is marked with a (Z).
All photos are copyright NBC.
(Z) Have you enjoyed the con, or have you actually had a chance to be on the convention floor?
No, I haven’t yet. I got in this morning and went straight into this stuff, in the peripheral buildings. So I haven’t gone into the beating heart of it yet.
The question I have to ask is: What was it like throwing up an ear?
You know, I knew that was coming. Bryan (Fuller) explained to me that this was where the story was going, so for me, it was kind of an iconic thing – “I want to throw up the ear, I want to throw up the ear.” (laughs) Because that was when we got into the endgame, and it was just so gross and brilliant. So I was very hyped. And it was good!
Are you going vegetarian after the show?
No, I love meat. (laughs)
(Z) I was curious about how you played the role of Will Graham. I saw you in Adam several years ago, and given how you portrayed a character with Asperger syndrome there, I wondered if that carried over into how you portrayed Will.
I think so. And I’ll tell you why: There’s a moment in the first episode when Laurence (Fishburne)’s character and my character first meet on screen, and he goes, “Where are you on the spectrum?” Something like that. And I think there might even be a mention of Asperger’s, I can’t remember.
For me, that was misdirection. I definitely do not think Will has Asperger syndrome. In fact, what I think he is is almost the polar opposite of someone with Asperger syndrome. The way I think about it is, if there is a spectrum with autism on one end, people who can’t read anything of another person, and with most of us somewhere down here (gestures with hand), then there’s a spectrum extending to the other side with people who have no control over the information that they receive, and have no floodgates at all.
That’s where Will is. And the way he protects himself is, he’s deliberately and consciously adopted some of the mannerisms of a person with Asperger’s.
(Z) He’s faking it, in a way.
Kind of. He’s chosen to block eye contact. He’s chosen to become kind of antisocial and not engage.
(Z) Kind of autistic by choice.
Right, but socially. Not in the way his mind works, but in how he carries himself.
What kind of research did you do – did you observe anyone like Will?
Well, I don’t know anybody like Will. I don’t know that there is anybody like Will, really. Just as there’s nobody really like Hannibal Lecter.
They’re fictional creations. But that said – obviously, I read Thomas Harris’ novels, that’s the best place to start. But then after that, I read some of the stuff by people that Harris had spoken to, some people that work in behavioral science, who work in profiling serial killers. And they all have this strange combination of science meeting intuition meeting detective work. So Will is like that character, but pushed a little bit further.
Hannibal is a daring show for network television – are you surprised by the content of it?
Well, I think what you’re saying when you ask that, is about the blood and the bodies and all that, are they daring, and that’s unquestionably the case. But what I found to be more daring about it, certainly more interesting, and also daring for a network, for NBC, was the format.
It’s an hour-long, psychological, pretty complex grown-up series with limited episodes. And the blood and guts of it – other than being intrinsic to the genre – served all that other stuff, served your understanding of who Will was, of his relationship with Hannibal, and why Will is so messed up, because he carries that stuff around with him.
I think that’s why, in part, we got away with it, because it has context. It’s designed to be part of the aesthetic of the show, and not just, “Shit, we ran out of story, let’s kill somebody.”
(question a bit hard to hear; sounds like “do you feel the TV is an artistic compromise vs. doing movies?)
I don’t look at it that way. I mean, there’s no guarantee a movie is going to come your way. And I chose to do it, insofar as you can tell – I talked to Bryan, and he described to me Year One, Year Two, Year Three, Year Four, Year Five, and it was very rich and different and I thought, “Okay, I’m very happy to sign that contract. I think I will be interested and enthusiastic five years from now.” I mean, maybe I won’t be, but I made that guess.
So I’m absolutely positive about it. I can’t wait to go back. I was very invested in the show, I really thought we were doing something good as we were going along, and the audience was teetering, and now they’re starting to grow, and I really care about it. So I’m delighted.
So you knew Will would end the season inside of a cell.
So there was never any concern for you like, “Is my part going to be smaller in Season Two?” Because you know the master plan for the show…
No, I didn’t have that concern. I just, you know…(laughs) I think you could have a show entirely based around Hannibal, but it would be tricky. He needs a foil. And if that balance change a bit in Season Two, I’m good with that as well. I think we’ve set it up for a very interesting and very different trajectory in the second season.
(Z) Without getting too spoilery, what are you most looking forward to playing in Will’s journey in this upcoming season?
Well, I feel that Will, albeit in a pretty unpleasant way, has had the scales completely removed from his eyes, and in a funny sense, is possibly stronger now than he has ever been before, because he’s not only aware of the situation outside of him, with Hannibal and his identity and who he really is. He’s also much clearer about who he himself is.
(Z) Several critics were calling that last scene in the finale “the birth of a hero.”
(laughs) There is something to that. I think that – it’s funny, I hadn’t read that, but I do think that in a very shorthand kind of way, the second season kind of allows Will to take ownership of his powers, right?
He has these strange abilities/challenges with empathy, and in the first season, he’s at the mercy of that. Jack is using him to some extent to get the job done, and Hannibal is certainly leaning on that part of his brain. And now those people are away from him, and he’s stuck in a cell on his own, and he can begin to take control of his environment, and start fighting.
In the first season, Will tries experimenting with relationships – maybe a friendship with Hannibal, a romantic relationship, maybe being a father figure to Abigail – do you think Will is capable of having a true, fulfilled relationship of any sort?
I think that’s an excellent question. In the relationship with Alana, the question was, “How the hell would someone like Will go about instigating, and certainly maintaining, any kind of romantic or intimate relationship?”
And I mean obviously, the most intimate relationship he has with anybody is with Hannibal. It doesn’t help that by the time he kisses Alana, he’s suffering from encephalitis and is losing his mind. (laughs) That’s never a good thing.
If you know the books, you know that in Red Dragon, you know Will is in a relationship when Jack comes to pull him back in, to work in Behavioral Science. And that relationship is tested – again, the question is there even in that book: “Is Will capable of sustaining a relationship in a grown-up, in a normal way?”
And the honest answer is, I don’t know. He has his dogs – had his dogs. It seems to me like the best situation Will could possibly be in was the situation he was in in Episode One – he was teaching, going home, doing some good, pursuing his interest in fishing, looking after dogs. Anything other than that is going to be very difficult for him.
It’s pretty amazing how in less than 13 weeks, Hannibal has built this incredible fan base online.
Yeah. You always hope for the best, and I thought (laughs) if there was any upside to the fact that we were struggling to get an audience in terms of numbers of TV viewers, it was that we had this entire other audience that came out of it who were not only watching the show but actively supporting it and spreading the word.
That’s a great feeling. It’s a really, really nice feeling to be supported, because for me, this really felt like we were doing something different. It’s very fresh. And I’d be delighted to hear someone say, “Oh, X million people watch your show on Thursday!” It’s a guarantee that we get to go on for a while.
But when I see these people invest so much time and energy in their fandom of the show, it’s just great. It’s really great.
(Another question I couldn’t hear well – basically, it seems to ask about how there are other procedural shows on TV, and how Hannibal is different)
Well, I think that the procedural element to our show – which I suspect will change a just a little bit in Season Two because I’m in jail – was mostly there in Season One in support of the overarching story. You know, the individual crimes are thematically relevant (to that arc) and are designed to help push it forward.
That’s why I like it – and it allows you to invest those situations with some emotional. As an actor, I don’t have to go, “Oh, we’re in the morgue again. Oh look, he had his foot cut off.” To find a way that, for the character, that means something, and resonates beyond that one scene, is good.
(we’re told it’s the last question): I wanted to ask about Homeland – do you watch Homeland? (Dancy’s wife Claire Danes stars on the series)
Yes, I do. Yes.
So are you ready for the next season?
Well, I’m reading it. (laughs) They’re filming it right now, so I’m reading the episodes as they come in. So I know everything.
Do you and Clare compare notes for the Hannibal scripts too?
Well, we both ended our first seasons institutionalized, so…(laughs)
Hannibal: Season One is now available on DVD and Blu-Ray.