Actor Hugh Dancy

Originally aired on May 8, 2014

The British actor previews the second season of his series, Hannibal, and his role as an FBI criminal profiler.

In toplining NBC's psychological thriller, Hannibal, as Special Agent Will Graham, Hugh Dancy continues to show his comfort with the choices he makes. The U.K.-born actor has taken the lead, as well as supporting roles in comedies, costume dramas and dramatic fare, in features and on television, on both sides of the Atlantic. He got his start performing in theater productions and has also starred on Broadway. Dancy studied English language and literature at Oxford and landed his first starring role in the Hallmark Hall of Fame production of David Copperfield. He next lends his voice to the animated 3D musical, Dorothy of Oz, an update of the classic, The Wizard of Oz.

TRANSCRIPT

Tavis: There’s something about serial killers that seems to intrigue us, at least as fictional characters. One of the most compelling is Hannibal Lecter, created by Thomas Harris, of course, and seen in movies like “Red Dragon” and “Silence of the Lambs -” Clarice.

But any good villain needs a hero, and in the NBC series “Hannibal,” he’s British-born actor Hugh Dancy, who plays the FBI profiler Will Graham. Let’s take a look at a clip from the series.

[Clip]

Tavis: So we had to look to try to find something that we could show (laughter) that wouldn’t scare folk to death this time of the night. It wasn’t easy; because NBC is letting you guys push the envelope on this a little bit.

Hugh Dancy: They are, I think so, yeah. We’re trying not to do things that are graphic for the sake of it, but it’s “Hannibal,” the theme is pretty dark.

Tavis: As I said a moment ago, we seem to be intrigued by these serial killers, at least as fictional characters. What do you make of why that is the case?

Dancy: Well I think that it’s something about there’s this fear, and actually a fascination, with what real evil is, and whether it exists and whether it can exist in a person.

Because put it this way – real serial killers are just broken, sad human beings when it comes down to it. But in fiction, you can create a character like Hannibal, who is sophisticated, who’s even kind of appealing, and I think that we all wonder if that’s possible.

Tavis: What did you find appealing about the show “Hannibal” that made you want to be a part of the cast?

Dancy: Initially, it was the writing. I got the first script, my question was why would you do this, why do you re-approach this material. We’ve all seen the movies; the books have been out there for a long time.

Straight off the bat in that first script there was something going on that was different to me from a character point of view. Then after that, Mads, who plays Hannibal, Laurence Fishburne, who plays the other lead character in the show, got attached, and it just got a stronger and stronger package, really.

Tavis: What do you think the challenge is to a writing team, since you work with these writers every day, what’s the challenge to a writing team to turn a series like “Hannibal” into something that we want to watch, when to your earlier point we’ve seen the movie already? Because this is a prequel to -

Dancy: It is a prequel, so they’re not strictly tied in to the material exactly. I think it’s a very fine line. They want to do justice to the books. That’s why – it already has a huge following, big audience, people that know the characters very well, so you’ve got to tread a fairly fine line there.

But by the same token, nobody just wants to see an entirely faithful rendering of something they’re already familiar with, so they’ve got to find their own take on it, their own approach.

We don’t worry about that. I wouldn’t say that that’s a conversation that comes up on set all the time, because that’s not a kind of positive way to approach it, if you know what I mean. You can’t worry about the shadow of the people that have been there before you, but for sure, it’s got to be fresh.

Tavis: You can’t worry about it, and yet you look just a little bit different than Jodi Foster. (Laughter) Not quite the FBI -

Dancy: Yeah, I really tried to gear my costume away from -

Tavis: Yeah. (Laughter)

Dancy: – the Clarice Starling look, yes.

Tavis: So tell me about the character that you play.

Dancy: Well Will Graham, he’s the, in a sense, the equivalent of a Clarice Starling in the first of the books, which is “Red Dragon.” What we learn in that book, at which point Hannibal’s already behind bars, that classic image of Hannibal Lecter in his cell at the end of the corridor, is that it was Will Graham who put him there.

So that’s the kind of first piece of information that we have. In our telling of their back story, Will is a pretty tortured guy. He has a great gift, which is essentially as much of a curse, which is that he can easily place himself in the shoes, or walk in the shoes of people that do very unpleasant things.

That’s a form of extreme empathy. There’s a line from I think one of the first episodes in the first season when one of the characters says that empathy is a tool that’s pointed on both ends.

So I’m brought in to work on a case by Jack Crawford, who’s Laurence Fishburne’s character, and once that starts, I immediately, he immediately starts to get concerned about me and my state of mind, so he brings in an outside expert to assess me, and of course that outside expert, unfortunately for everybody, is Hannibal Lecter.

Who at this point is just a practicing psychiatrist and a chef and a kind of bon viveur, and that’s how we kick off.

Tavis: What are the character traits that pull us into him as a character initially?

Dancy: Well he’s superficially a very appealing person. He’s kind of debonair, he’s a great chef, he’s a host, he’s witty. He’s even caring. He’s in this very bleak, dark world that the show takes place in, and he’s this kind of extraordinary peacock of a character.

He hosts dinner parties and so on. But I think beyond that is that well first of all he’s played by Mads, who’s a great actor.

Tavis: He’s a great – talk about – I don’t know who’s in charge of casting for this show. Whoever is, I mean, he’s the perfect – I loved him in the James Bond flick that he was in.

Dancy: Right, right.

Tavis: But he is a perfect villainous character. He plays that so well.

Dancy: Well talk about a difficult role to step into, and what we were discussing earlier. I always thought, and this was before Mads stepped into it, that the primary characteristic of any actor that they hired was going to have to be basically cojones, because you need to put aside all that.

The fact that it’s been done so well before. That’s the first thing that he did. Second thing is he has this incredible nuance in his performance, such that Hannibal is by far the most enjoyable character or the most likeable character, I think. The reason for that is he’s having so much fun.

Tavis: That’s scary.

Dancy: It’s scary.

Tavis: When Hannibal is the most likeable character.

Dancy: That’s right, and because he’s looking at all these other people, primarily me but not only, and just thinking, “Oh, this is interesting. Let’s see what happens here.”

He’s not a guy with a grand, villainous plan. He’s more of an improviser, like an improvisational musician, except that he’s playing with dead bodies and so on and so forth. I think that that is why he’s so likeable.

Tavis: What do you make of whatever it is about this medium of television right now that’s pulling in major stars to play in these series? Of course you’re on this show, but Mads is on this show, as you just mentioned.

Laurence Fishburne’s on the show. All these guys have had their turn at major film, and for whatever reason, at the moment, there are a lot of major stars that are coming back to this medium of television. I’m not even talking about pay cable, even just regular television.

Dancy: Absolutely.

Tavis: Is it the writing? Is it that – what am I missing here?

Dancy: I don’t know which comes first. It’s a kind of chicken or egg thing. I think it takes one person who makes “The Sopranos,” whatever show it was, people in 20 years’ time, somebody will write their thesis on this. I’m sure it’s already happened.

But what people come to realize is there’s an audience out there for really sustained, intelligent drama that can break out over 10 episodes, over four years, and there doesn’t have to be a cliffhanger at the end of every episode.

There doesn’t have to be a contained story. People have more patience than that. I guess if there’s an audience, the people who sign the checks are going to eventually follow that lead. That’s what’s happening.

Speaking from my point of view, the pleasure of it is exactly that. You get to work on a much longer kind of an arc. You can really tell a richer story. Essentially it’s the difference between a short story and a novel.

Tavis: But you have to be a really good show, though, to let that arc play out.

Dancy: Yeah.

Tavis: Because you know how TV works these days. The good news is stars are coming to television. The bad news is if you don’t hit it early on, more often than not you get the boot pretty quickly. So being able to tell that story arc isn’t easy to do.

Dancy: Yeah, there’s a lot of shows out there. It’s very competitive. Good shows fall by the wayside all the time, and we work in a very, on “Hannibal,” in a very positive environment.

I have to say that the writers, Bryan Fuller, who’s the show runner, it filters down from the top. But nonetheless, yeah, there’s that sense of we did our first season, we had an amazing audience of people, the Fannibals, as they term themselves.

Tavis: Yeah. (Laughter)

Dancy: We were just incredibly enthused about the show. Despite that it was touch-and-go. We’re going to come back for a second year. It almost bears no relation to the quality of the show.

I suppose that’s testament to how many good shows there are out there. Doesn’t matter that you’re getting great reviews or whatever it may be.

Tavis: Yeah, well, you’re on one of the good ones, and we’re glad to have you here.

Dancy: Oh, thank you, sir.

Tavis: Hugh Dancy, one of the stars of “Hannibal” on NBC. Good to have you on the program, Hugh.

Dancy: Good to be here.

Tavis: That’s our show for tonight. Thanks for watching, and as always, keep the faith.

“Announcer:” For more information on today’s show, visit Tavis Smiley at PBS.org.

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Last modified: May 9, 2014 at 3:39 pm