Mads Mikkelsen is eating a lot. He’s eating lungs and hearts. The 47-year-old Danish actor, best known for his role in Casino Royale, has recently been chowing down on humans. Thankfully, he has the constitution for it.
“I have an enormous metabolism, so I’m lucky,” he tells The Daily Beast.
He may not be pairing the unusual culinary creations with fava beans and a nice chianti (yet, at least), but Mikkelsen is bravely putting his own spin on one of pop culture’s most enduring, iconic villains: Hannibal Lecter. In Hannibal, which premieres Thursday night on NBC, Mikkelsen takes on the diabolical shrink immortalized by Anthony Hopkins in Silence of the Lambs.
The series is a reimagining of that story’s prequel, the Thomas Harris novel Red Dragon. Set before Hannibal is imprisoned, it chronicles the intimate mentorship-relationship between Lecter and the tortured criminal profiler Will Graham, a man who, to his own emotional detriment, embodies the oldest of crime clichés: he can enter the mind of the serial killer. (Graham is played here by British heartthrob Hugh Dancy.)
Taking on Harris’s characters, their legacies, and their passionate fanbase, as NBC is doing with Pushing Daisies creator and Star Trek reboot writer Bryan Fuller at the helm, is brave enough. Taking on Hopkins’s legendary portrayal of erudite cannibal Hannibal Lecter, as Mikkelsen is doing, may be downright insane. Yet with a measured, menacing performance all his own, he pulls off the unlikely feat of making Hannibal Lecter new again.
Not that Mikkelsen didn’t have the only sane reaction when he was first pitched the role: absolutely not. “I was like, ‘Why should we go back to something is so perfect?’” he says. But after an enthusiastic Fuller talked up the idea of playing pre-incarcerated Hannibal as a real person in a real universe with real human interactions, Mikkelsen warmed up to the idea.
“Bryan pitched the whole story for me,” he remembers. “He was supposed to have 10 minutes, but after two hours he was still babbling around and waving his arms talking about episodes in season 25 or something. I realized that we had one of the most energetic men in show business at the base of this series.”
Signing on was one hurdle. The bigger one was preparing a unique version of a character that has already been seared into the memories of the culture at large. Where does one even start? “Yes, it is very difficult,” Mikkelsen says. “But you could ask the same question about everybody who plays Hamlet.” The creation that Mikkelsen comes up with is perfectly Hannibal Lecter—and totally unlike Hopkins’s Hannibal Lecter, with no disrespect to that brilliant performance.
To begin with, there’s the accent. Hannibal is no longer vaguely Southern. “With Anthony Hopkins, his accent was very hard to pin down or pinpoint his origin, but for me, casting a foreign actor was the way to go because Hannibal is foreign,” Fuller told Indiewire. “He is other. He’s an exotic. That was something that Mads brought to the character, with this erudite quality of experience and worldliness.”
But then there’s an understated humanity Mikkelsen gets to explore that’s been largely ignored in the film depictions of the character. The relationship in Hannibal may even be jarring to those who know Will Graham and Dr. Hannibal Lecter only from Thomas Harris’s books or through film references. These are not adversaries, or captor and his incarcerated captive. This is a man and his mentor, people who could almost pass as friends—perhaps even as two parties in a bromance.
In one scene, Hannibal is consoling Will, who is shaken after shooting and killing a suspect.
“I liked killing Hobbs,” Will says, distraught.
“Killing must feel good to God, too. He does it all the time,” Lecter reassures. “And are we not created in his image?”
“There’s a real affection there,” Mikkelsen says. “I don’t think Hannibal just likes Will. I think he almost loves him.” They are, in essence, each other’s character foils, completing what is missing in the other person. “Hannibal has empathy and he uses empathy, opposed to Will Graham, who has a lot of empathy but has no control of it.”
There’s a winking cleverness in the very existence of Hannibal the series. The extent of Hannibal’s darkness, his killer nature, is unknown to everyone—except for the audience, that is. When Hannibal tells Jack Crawford (played by Laurence Fishburne) over dinner, “Next time, bring your wife. I’d love to have you both for dinner,” Mikkelsen delivers the line without campiness. Yet it’s hard for audiences not to be amused by the innuendo, adding a layer of dark humor to the series.
In the U.S. Mikkelsen is remembered best for playing the dastardly Le Chiffre in the James Bond film Casino Royale, and his notoriety for playing bad guys will only deepen following the premiere of Hannibal. Mikkelsen doesn’t mind it, really: “What would the alternative be? Not playing anything?” But when he began acting in Danish films in the late ’90s—and especially after the Danish police drama Unit One—he was more suitably labeled a matinee idol, not the villain. His wide-ranging career since has included playing famed hero Tristan in 2004’s King Arthur, the lead in 2006’s Oscar-nominated drama After the Wedding, and a teacher falsely accused of pedophilia in The Hunt, which won Mikkelsen the 2012 Best Actor prize at the Cannes Film Festival.
As a child, Mikkelsen was a talented gymnast, and eventually he joined a contemporary dance troupe. His acting career grew out of a desire to explore the drama of dance more than the serious technique. Unsurprisingly, then, Mikkelsen in person hardly resembles these iconic bad guys he’s being recognized for playing.
“It’s funny because when I go to set, I’m always ogling his suits and lifting the jacket to see who makes it and he just has no interest. He doesn’t care,” says Fuller. “Outside of the character, Mads is in tracksuits and stocking caps. He has no pretense about finer quality clothes. He’s so not Hannibal in any way, shape or form. He’s easy to smile or crack a joke or tease. He’s like a really rambunctious brother as opposed to this very sober guy.”
He’s also not one to lose himself in darkness, as so many actors do when playing characters obsessed with killing and death. In addition to finding such intense commitment to character “very pretentious,” Mikkelsen doesn’t consider Hannibal a man of such evil—because Hannibal wouldn’t consider himself that way, either.
“We might see him as a dark character, but he doesn’t see himself as one,” he says. “He’s a happy man. He enjoys life more than other people. He wakes up every day and thinks it’s a beautiful day, and if nothing interesting is happening, he’ll make something interesting happen.”
That’s not to say Hannibal, the series, isn’t dark. Indeed, it’s brutally gruesome, featuring some of the most disturbingly gory and violent imagery that may ever have been shown on network television. The series opens with blood spatter and incessantly taps into Fuller’s whimsically morbid mind to unleash a crimson fountain of hard-to-watch scenes, all beautifully staged as if part of some sanguine ballet—horrific as it is to view.
While he leaves it to others to debate the merits or responsibility of depicting such things, Mikkelsen himself is hardly bothered by it. “I come from a culture where you don’t divide it up to what you can do on TV and what you can do on film,” he says. “If you’re following a hairdresser, you’re bound to see this person cut somebody’s hair at a certain point. We are dealing with somebody who is killing people, so you’re bound to see that.”
While it remains to be seen whether viewers will be able to stomach the more graphic scenes, one thing is clear—there is an insatiable appetite for all things Hannibal Lecter. Between Harris’s novels, the hit films, and the quotable soundbites Hopkins’s portrayal spawned, the character has endured as few others do. As we gear up for another rebirth with the launch of Hannibal, what explains the obsession with the villain?
“We can ask the same questions about real people,” Mikkelsen says. “Why are people constantly buying books about Hitler and Stalin? There’s a fascination. We don’t want to embrace it; we want to understand it, right? I guess that’s why he’s survived so much.”
Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated Mikkelsen's age. He is 47.