As grisly hit Hannibal returns for seconds, Emily Phillips risks life and limb (and other tasty body parts) on set
You can never be quite sure of what you’re eating on Hannibal’s Toronto set. Is this a perfectly seared fillet of flounder, or wafer-thin slices of human finger flesh? As I pile my plate high at craft services next to an anatomically-correct rack of ‘human’ ribs (complete with artistically spilled innards), I wonder whether my meaty lunch plate is all a ribald ruse by everyone’s favourite charismatic cannibal.
You can’t blame me. The show is so committed to the gory details, it employs top chef José Andrés to ensure its human entrées are prepared convincingly. And it’s the public’s appetite for its realistically gruesome displays (from both Hannibal Lecter and each week’s featured killer) that has propelled this small-screen reimagining of Thomas Harris’s iconic thrillers to cult status alongside a new spate of TV chillers including American Horror Story and Bates Motel. The first series teed up the off-kilter relationship between FBI profiler Will Graham (Hugh Dancy) and his psychologist partner Dr Lecter (Mads Mikkelsen), with Laurence Fishburne weighing in as the man who paired them up, agent-in-charge of the Behavioural Science Unit, Jack Crawford.
“Before this, Hannibal was alone, but when Graham steps into his life, all of a sudden, he’s aware of what he’s missed out on for a long time,” explains Mikkelsen. “It is a bromance.” Yet while critics were serving up tasty reviews for the show’s chemistry, creativity and ability to restore weight to the genre, it was very nearly a one-season wonder.
Beyond the ‘Lecter on TV’ headlines, Hannibal is an odd cocktail of a modern TV show. Weekly murders offer a procedural framework (see CSI et al), its tonal darkness is direct from Nordic noirs such as The Killing, and the gloriously rendered, off-the-wall horror set-pieces are drawn straight from your wildest cinematic nightmares. So, despite cable-worthy gore and Mikkelsen’s seductive reworking of the titular lead in an unfamiliar buddy cop situation, the complex web of influences had NBC’s network chiefs (and some viewers) scratching their heads on how to categorise the grisliest, boldest thriller on television. Plus, skinnier-than-anticipated viewing figures meant it only just scraped a second series.
Now, to make sure the crowd don’t miss the action second time around, audiences are being given a slap round the chops from the very first episode, kicking off with an ultraviolent unveiling of Hannibal’s ‘real’ self – teasing a very bloody endgame from the opening sequence.
“I was excited about the fact that we were going to get to have a f*cking knock-down drag-out,” says Fishburne. “We shot it in 21 hours. If we were doing a feature film, we would have had two weeks, so we were sore.” Mikkelsen agrees. “We felt very young again, me and Laurence. But the next day we felt very old.”
Following a dramatic stitch-up by Hannibal in the Season 1 finale, the blinkers are off for Will in Season 2. “We start off with Will in prison for the stuff I’ve done,” Mikkelsen explains. Of course, the relationship won’t end there. “It’s an uphill battle to regain his friendship, while Will is trying his very best to make sense of what happened.” The two investigators have a unique bond (to put it mildly), as they simultaneously get into people’s heads (and sometimes bowels) to solve crimes. Hannibal, naturally, takes the grim crime scenes in his calm, controlled stride, all the while watching the chaos whittle down the mental wellbeing of his partner Will.
“Mads and I are trying to chart out whatever the connection is between these two guys,” says Dancy when I speak to him in the grey confines of Crawford’s office, having watched him and Mikkelsen have a moody stare-off down in the dark (and even more confined) prison cells. “They both have the same bizarre understanding of the world.”
So what’s the key to the Dane’s fresh new take on Lecter? “Hannibal is a very appealing character; he’s such a happy guy,” explains Dancy. “And, played by Mads, he’s also quite funny.” The pair acted together in King Arthur, and it was only a matter of time before they would be reunited. As I face Mikkelsen, impeccably attired in a chocolate-coloured suit, across the cannibalistic psychologist’s sprawling office, he ponders his Gothic, book-lined habitat.
“I would get stressed out by all the space, and all the books I hadn’t read, but Hannibal has read them all, and written some, too.” If it weren’t for his impish sense of humour and purported love of tracksuits off set, this really would be the angular face of a man to seduce you (no matter your persuasion) into letting him fry you up with a splash of chianti.
And that’s important. Mikkelsen’s Hannibal is in his prime – more suave in his liberty, but just as seductive as Hopkins’ Oscar-winning turn. In placing the story before Lecter’s incarceration, at the height of his ‘powers’, the slate is clean for Mikkelsen’s interpretation. “There’s nothing I can steal. Hopkins made something absolutely unique and fantastic and I will just let that stay where it is.” Mikkelsen has even created his own back-story for the character, casting off the Holocaust origins for Hannibal’s flesh-eating fancy. “I started calling him the fallen angel. He’s the devil. He sees beauty where the rest of us are seeing horror.”
Good Will Hunted
Will, meanwhile, is fully focused on the horror. His talent for getting into the minds of killers, and solving crimes by reliving them step by step in putrid Technicolor, is based on his deep facility for empathy, and is a very draining one. Dancy is every inch the jaw-clenching investigator with a great line in pained-pensiveness and night-terror shock faces (Edward Norton’s rendering in Red Dragon was much more well-adjusted). Now he’s in an even tighter spot. “He’s in a 10ft by 10ft jail cell and everybody that he normally relies on thinks that he is a psychopath.” That is, apart from Hannibal, who of course knows the full truth of the situation…
So, does Dancy suffer similar night terrors after scenes on set? “Last year, [Will’s] neurologist, Dr Sutcliffe, got his head chopped in half by Hannibal to give him a huge gaping jaw,” he explains with glee. “I walked on set and there was the prosthetic dripping on to the carpet. That’s the only time I had to turn around and leave the set for a few minutes and remind myself of what I was doing. But the sicker it gets, the happier I am.”
And this season is set to be even gorier and more daring than before. One of the most exciting new additions to the cast is former Boardwalk Empire star Michael Pitt, playing a fresh-faced and outlandishly-garbed Mason Verger, the brutally disfigured paraplegic sadist played by Gary Oldman in 2001’s big-screen Hannibal.
According to sources on set, show runner Bryan Fuller’s story arc extends seven seasons and will certainly mess with the Lecter timeline. The second series looks to preface characters and storylines from Red Dragon (as with Season 1) as well as pulling in Verger as a precursor to the Hannibal film, and stands years before Agent Clarice Starling pins on her visitor pass in The Silence Of The Lambs. “We will come up with whatever happens when I’m in jail, there is a ton of material – it’s a crazy river of craziness,” says Mikkelsen.
Fishburne supports this judgement of Fuller’s writing. “Every time you read the script, you go, ‘What the f*ck?!’ There’s always that moment when you go, ‘Oh God, Jesus!’”
Sounds like even more reason to settle down with a succulent, unidentifiable kebab, and watch. Fishburne, meanwhile, won’t be joining us. “I’m not a fan of the horror genre, although there’s no doubt this is compelling. I prefer Downton Abbey…”
Hannibal Season 2 is on Sky Living HD, 6 May at 10pm. If you missed Season 1, catch up On Demand