In real life, Mads Mikkelsen is a lot like Hannibal Lecter… in that he is courteous and refined, not so much that he’s a cannibal. Although as we learned in the following interview, he already had a healthy (?) interest in cannibalism before he was even cast as Thomas Harris’s man-eating psychotherapist in Hannibal, the critically-acclaimed, cult hit television series that concluded its third season earlier this year.
With Hannibal: Season 3 hitting home video this week, and with the future of the series uncertain (creator Bryan Fuller has plans to one day adapt Thomas Harris’s The Silence of the Lambs with this cast, but that may be on another network, or as a movie, or not at all), we wanted to catch up with the actor to talk about what could very well be his last performance as the good doctor.
Talking on the phone, just after Mads Mikkelsen’s 50th birthday, we found out more about the last day of filming, which uncomfortable scene he had to perform naked, the avid Hannibal fan base and what really happened to Hannibal’s sister, Mischa, whose fate the show left somewhat vague. We also find out more about his casting in the upcoming Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, a film which will probably have everyone talking when it’s released in late 2016.
The following interview contains some SPOILERS for the events of Hannibal: Season 3, which is now available on home video.
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Crave: The show finished filming a while ago now. Has Hannibal Lecter slipped away from you, or will there always be a cannibal therapist inside of Mads Mikkelsen?
Mads Mikkelsen: I think I’ve spent too much time with this character. This is the most I’ve ever spent with a single character. He’ll be with me probably forever, somehow. Only as a character though. He’s not going to take over my personality. [Laughs.] But I’ve thoroughly enjoyed… it was such a gift to play that character for three seasons with this brilliant, brilliant writer and his brilliant, brilliant actors around me. So that’s going to linger with me forever, in a good way though.
How did Hannibal evolve for you, over the series? At point were you surprised by the character, as opposed to how he was introduced to you?
I guess the why that Bryan [Fuller] writes in general is quite surprising to all of us. In terms of how he developed, pretty much as I had hoped to. Pretty much as becoming… even though it’s more and more horrendous what he does, he also becomes more and more human in our eyes, I guess. To the degree that he becomes a man who has empathy, who is an empathic person, and does have normality in his life even though it’s flipsided, right?
So this is what I was hoping for, the way we’d go with it. I was just curious when it would happen and what kind of situation it would happen in. But basically we wanted to just humanize him, to a degree, that he didn’t just become a complete outrageous psychopath that we were watching for three years.
“I think that there’s different ways, and different reasons for eating people. Eating the rude is one thing. Eating your loved ones is a different thing.”
Do you remember the moment that it seemed clear that Hannibal was evolving in that way?
To be frank I think we had it from the very beginning, because I do remember vividly a few of the critics were like, “Where’s the evil Hannibal? Where’s the madman?” You know, the first couple of episodes. That was quite deliberate. We did not want him to be the madman from the very beginning, simply because he was surrounded by cops, and good cops, really good cops, and if Hannibal was winking to the audience from the start I’m sure that the cops would spot that as well, right? So we needed him to be normal right from the very beginning and then slowly be comfortable enough to show us, especially in his private moments, who he also is.
I’ve talked to actors from this show who have gained a lot of insight from Thomas Harris’s novels. Were you working from those as well, or were you trying to create your own entity?
Well, I read them obviously, and I’ve read them a couple of times. His novels are super good and very interesting and very inspiring, but they’re also jumping around back and forth in time so they’re a little tricky to figure out exactly. Some of it is work that he has been asked to do, and not necessarily something that he wanted to do from the very beginning. So it does hold that picture as well.
But there are definitely inspiring things in there, and things we could use. I know that Bryan has been very inspired by it but I, in general, my focus is on the script. What Bryan delivers, that is what we do. We do our show, called Hannibal, based on Harris’s books, but it’s also a free interpretation that goes on in Bryan’s head.
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One of the things that Harris rather famously didn’t want to do was tell Hannibal’s origin in Hannibal Rising, and this last season we learned a lot more about that origin in this version, the show. It’s very different from the novel. Can you tell me about the conversations you had with Bryan, or even in your own head, about Hannibal’s sister Mischa and how that backstory played out?
The Mischa story is interesting because it is there, it’s in the books and it’s definitely in our show as well. But at the same time we did not want [give him] an out. We did not want to have an excuse to why Hannibal is what he is. We didn’t want to have one single reason, a traumatic thing that happened to him when he was a kid, or happened to Mischa, and for that reason Hannibal is what he is. We thought that would diminish the character a lot.
We both had this idea that Hannibal was a fallen angel, born like that. He sees beauty like the rest of us, he sees horror, and for that reason we could have one single thing happening in his life that turned him around. So we always tried to avoid [explaining] him, but at the same time thought there were things that make hopefully make the audience curious about what was happening in the past. Who was she? But we tried to make it blurry and not too complete?
I guess you might not want to tell us, but in your head is it clear if he killed Mischa? I’m sure he ate her…
In my world he did not [kill Mischa]. In my world the prisoner that Will ends up killing is the one who killed Mischa, and then for that reason I put him in the cave. And to honor Mischa, to have her close to Hannibal for the rest of his life, he ate her. Probably the first time, maybe the first time he ever ate anyone. But definitely not the first time he’d killed anyone.
I think that there’s different ways, and different reasons for eating people. Eating the rude is one thing. Eating your loved ones is a different thing. But it’s all about consuming people and take their power, take their love and so it becomes part of you as well.
That is horrifyingly beautiful.
[Laughs.] Yes, it is very beautiful. But it is… honestly, if you read about cannibals, throughout history it’s always been the case. Even the Indians were doing it to take power from their enemies. If you see contemporary people that talk about it, it’s something to do with love. It’s the way you can possess people most intensely of course. [Laughs.] It’s crazy but it’s real for them.
Was that part of your process, to research real life cannibalism, or was that an interest before this role?
I didn’t do a lot of research. I read some books but now it’s going to be really scary… I read some of those books before I got that job, as well. I’ve always been fascinated with extreme people and extreme situations, so it’s terrible to say but I’ve actually read some books about cannibals before. [Laughs.]
You’re not alone on that but I want to get down to brass tacks: did you get to keep your suits?
I’ve got one of the suits. I’ve actually been wearing it, three days at my big 50-years-old birthday. I was wearing it because it’s such a beautiful suit and I thought it would be an appropriate time to wear it. It’s the red-striped one, it’s absolutely crazy.
That’s fantastic. Happy birthday, by the way.
Thank you, thank you so much.
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The last season is interesting, because Hannibal is in so much power in the first couple of seasons, and then in the third you’re on the run and you wind up in various forms of bondage. A lot.
Can you talk about filming those scenes, when you’re hogtied for example?
Hogtied at Mason’s farm, right?
Yeah, it probably cannot get more humiliating than that. To make it look really uncomfortable, it became really uncomfortable. Not only am I stark naked, because we couldn’t do it any other way, it was also freezing cold and I was kind of off-balance to make it look crazy. For that reason the ropes were tightened pretty hard under the arms and the neck, and it became a dreadful scene to shoot! But hopefully it serves its purpose.
It’s a fantastic scene. Once you’re actually in Hannibal’s cell, in the second half of the season, there’s a lot of iconography we’re familiar with from the films, for example. Did you try on a bunch of different versions of the mask, for example?
There were different versions of the mask. They were all having their own personal casting, so it all comes down to what direction Bryan finds is the right look for it, right? So yeah, there was a couple of… Let’s put it this way: they took a lot of photos of me and passed them on, and eventually we got a yes for this one.
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What was the last scene that you filmed for the series?
Well, as far as I remember it’s actually the last scene in the show. It’s on the cliff with the fight itself, as far as I remember. I might be wrong but that’s how I remember it.
What was that like? Did you have an idea that this would be the last scene of the show, at least for a while, or did it not have that kind of gravitas?
At that point – unlike the other two seasons where we kind of anticipated that this might be it, there’s no more – at this point we had better numbers, even better reviews. It just felt as if the fourth season was an absolute go. So at that point we thought we were going to see each other again next year.
Where would you like Hannibal to go if you end up being able to put together a movie, or another season? In your eyes, what’s next?
If you ask me as a human being I’d definitely want Hannibal to be dead, like everybody else wants him dead, because he’s not a nice guy. [Let’s not] have him on the streets, alright? But if you ask me as an actor where we should find him, it’s tough to see where Will and Hannibal can go together from here. But at the same time it’s also very, very tough to imagine the show without Will if Hannibal survives, right?
So whatever that is, some kind of peace of they make, some kind of friendship that is different, could be interesting. How that would play out I’m not sure but I don’t see any of them surviving without the other one, I must say.
“If you ask me as a human being I’d definitely want Hannibal to be dead, like everybody else wants him dead, because he’s not a nice guy.”
The fan reaction to Hannibal has been overwhelming and extremely passionate. Can you talk a little bit about that? Was that surprising to you? What was your reaction?
It’s extremely surprising to me. You know, I’ve done a lot of films and I’ve done a TV show years ago, but nothing like a fan base like this. This is absolutely new to me, that people are meeting in groups and they fly from all over the world to meet each other and go to conventions and dress up like us and know everything and do fan art. Completely new world for me. I’m sure you will find that on other shows, I don’t know, Game of Thrones maybe, the Star Wars universe as well, but to me it was completely new and surprising in a very positive way.
Was there a particular interesting moment, or a piece of fan art that made you cock your eyebrow? There have been so many weird things out there.
So many weird things, but also so many beautiful things. First of all you’ll get surprised at the amount of talent out there when it comes to drawing or painting, whatever. That is like, this is crazy. You should be a millionaire doing this. But they’re not. They’re just in school doing something else, right?
But it’s the passion of the fan art that is really impressive, I think. That so many people are doing it but also that they find each other and it becomes an identity for some of these people, who may not… some of them may not have a big social life, and now they have an enormous social life with all the other people. That’s a fantastic situation, I think.
You talked a bit about different fan communities, and I can only imagine the amount of reaction you’re going to get from the fans once Rogue One: A Star Wars Story comes out. I know you can’t tell me anything about that…
But I am curious, when you were auditioning, was it just like, “We loved you in Hannibal? Here’s the script, take whoever you want? Do you want to play Vader?’
[Laughs.] No, it doesn’t work like that. It works like always, like a director or producers or both of them have an actor in mind for a certain character, and that was the case here. The director sees me as several things, and so had the producers, so they thought that I was fit for that part. I’m not in a situation where they say, “What do you want to be?” [Laughs.] That was another weird situation.
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William Bibbiani (everyone calls him ‘Bibbs’) is Crave’s film content editor and critic. You can hear him every week on The B-Movies Podcast and watch him on the weekly YouTube series Most Craved and What the Flick. Follow his rantings on Twitter at @WilliamBibbiani.