What’s it like to be friends with a serial killer when you don’t know he’s a serial killer? Hannibal Lecter took a bite out of the small screen with the premiere of Hannibal last night at 10 p.m. on NBC. Viewers met the infamous serial killer before Silence of the Lambs, when he was a successful psychiatrist employed by the FBI.
Hugh Dancy (The Big C, Adam, Hysteria) stars as Will Graham, a brilliant criminal profiler who is burdened with the ability to see events from a criminal’s perspective. In last night’s premiere, Will met Dr. Hannibal Lecter for the first time and the two struck up an unlikely bond. Paste talked to the British actor about his new series, what viewers can expect in the show’s first season and if Will will realize who Hannibal truly is.
Paste: This is your first regular series role. Why Hannibal?
Hugh Dancy: I was just intrigued by the script really and then by meeting with [executive producer] Bryan Fuller. Like the first installment of anything should, [the pilot script] raised a lot of questions and I wanted to know where he thought it was heading. I expected a vague answer perhaps. He gave me a fascinating and very full breakdown of not just how he saw the first season but literally the first four seasons of the show. It was intriguing. The way he saw the characters developing, particularly the interaction between me and Hannibal, the cat-and-mouse game between these two very unusual people. And I thought, “well if this were successful and we’re able to keep doing it, that’s going to keep me interested and excited for years to come.”
Paste: Will is rather tortured. He doesn’t take his responsibility lightly. Was that difficult to play over such a sustained amount of time?
Dancy: Hannibal is the one person Will is kind of playful with, almost light-hearted. That’s this odd relationship they strike up. Obviously I haven’t really grasped who I’m dealing with, but they instantly like each other because they operate on the same level. And, obviously, I’m working with great actors. So all of those things combine to mean I’m having a much better time than Will is.
Paste: How familiar were you with Hannibal Lecter before you began filming?
Dancy: I certainly seen Silence of the Lambs when it first came out, although it had been quite a while. What I hadn’t ever really done was read the [Thomas Harris] books—the original blueprint. That makes you feel more confident in having another stab at it like, in a way, a great play that people come back to again and again. You think, “Alright, we can do this with a sense of fealty to the original book and to Harris without trying to deliberately change anything just to make our own mark.” But also you can be free and creative with it, and hopefully people will go with that.
Paste: The characters on the show don’t know Hannibal is a killer, but the audience does. How will that play out over the course of the first season?
Dancy: 99.9 percent of people who sit down to watch this know more about Hannibal than the people on the show do. If we spend the entire season teasing out the idea, “Oh my God, Hannibal’s a killer,” well everybody watching the show is going to be ahead of you. What will be more surprising is the interest that Hannibal takes in my character and the light that shines on his warped version of humanity. He’s not the kind of killer who’s basically plotting to kill everyone that he meets. He’s not that kind of psychopath. He’s capable of taking interest in people. He can find people’s minds elegant, and when that happens, as is the case with me, he gets involved. That’s really what drives the series.
Paste: Can you say if, by the end of the season, Will and his colleagues will know who they are dealing with?
Dancy: By the time we come into season two the whole game changes. What you’re seeing in this season is mainly Will’s state of mind changing and, in some ways, deteriorating rapidly and Hannibal getting involved in that and to some extent kind of helping it along.
Paste: The series is very graphic, and there is quite a bit of violence. What are your thoughts on the level of violence in the show?
Dancy: There are definitely moments that you hope will shock people, but we don’t try to do that by racking up an enormous body count. If anything, I suppose, I think the show is set in this slightly alternative universe. Hannibal, as a character, is the monster that lurks in the back of all of our minds. That’s how I think about the violence on this show as well. It’s usually pretty heightened, and also there’s a cost to it for Will. He’s a guy who is dragged into this world because he’s very adept at walking in the shoes of very violent people. He has a kind of duty to do that because he can catch them, but it’s not something he enjoys and it weighs on him very heavily. And I think in the sense what violence there is drives the understanding of the characters rather than just being there for titillation. Like a lot of people, I have mixed feelings about some of the violence in popular culture, and when it’s just thrown in because it’s a cheap way to tell the story then I just tune off. I think you have to know what Hannibal is capable of to know what kind of world Will is living in and to understand who they are. But the ultimate goal of the show is to freak you out more because of these people’s minds than any particular crime scene that you’re going to see.
Paste: Why do you think we, as a viewing audience, are so fascinated by serial killers and their crimes?
Dancy: We’ve always been a bit fascinated by the idea of a motiveless killer, somebody who is doing awful things but bottom line can’t really quite say why they’re doing them, and they seem to be having more fun than everybody else.
Paste: Your wife Claire Danes stars in Showtime’s Homeland. Any chance we will see you guest star on each other’s shows?
Dancy: I don’t know that we’d be able to really. I think each of us on our own shows is plenty to be dealing with.
Paste: Your baby [son Cyrus] was born in December. Are you getting any sleep these days with a newborn in the house?
Dancy: We get like the kind of funny interrupted bouts of sleep at weird hours, but that’s kind of like making a TV show, so we’ve had a bit of practice.