Eye on Emmy: Hannibal's Hugh Dancy on Will and Lecter's 'True Love,' the Possible Meaning of the Stag's Death

Hugh Dancy has always been “an adventurous, not to say foolhardy, eater,” and his appetite has stayed strong and steady despite continued exposure to stunningly beautiful, undeniably horrifying cannibalistic dinner scenes on NBC’s Hannibal. “Nothing’s changed!” he says, with a hearty laugh.

The same cannot be said, however, for Dancy’s character — the addled FBI profiler Will Graham — over the course of Hannibal‘s critically lauded second season.

“The first half of the season, Will progressed to the point where he really embraced the part of him that was prepared to do something heinous,” Dancy says of his imprisoned character’s scheme to convince a prison orderly to murder the sociopathic Dr. Lecter. “That was a very good place to get to for me, because while I loved the awful rabbit hole that Will went down in the first season, it was hammering to him. He was terribly victimized. And finally, I got [to play] a bit of aggression and agency and manipulativeness — and that was actually really fun.”

TVLine caught up with Dancy to dish the challenge of acting while in a cage, the show’s homage to classic The Silence of the Lambs imagery and the implications of the season finale bloodbath.

Hannibal - Season 2Your character started Season 2 in a very static setting — either in a cage or in a cell. What was that like as an actor? Did you find it constricting? Or was it a fun challenge?
A bit of both. The character for the first time was armed with a full understanding of what had happened to him, so in a sense I was playing a slightly different guy [than in Season 1]. That was liberating. Obviously it’s not liberating to be in a 10×10 cell. I was excited about it to begin with, because it felt so in keeping with the classic Hannibal Lecter imagery, you know? And after about the third day I realized, “I’m really running out of things to do here.” [Laughs] But I think we did a very good job — because it’s not just me, it’s a lot about the different directors coming in — keeping it as fluid as possible and not letting it get repetitive. The beginning of the season, that was the major challenge.

The cage where people came to visit Will, in particular, looked so small. Did it ever make you feel claustrophobic?
No. They’re called “therapy cages,” and they’re real things. But in the middle of that great big hall, it was kind of nice at the beginning of the scene to realize that I had literally no decisions to make — at least in terms of blocking. But it was a very specific kind of acting. You have to just be very wary of not over-compensating — and at the same time finding something to do so you’re not just a static man in a box.

Hannibal - Season 2You mentioned the classic “Hannibal” imagery of the Baltimore State Hospital for the Criminally Insane. There was also the moment where Will goes to view Beverly Katz’s murder scene and he is donning the classic “Hannibal” mask and straitjacket, getting wheeled off the van. What was that experience like?
I’m pretty sure in The Silence Of the Lambs, the movie, that Hannibal is talking away from inside his mask. That was not really an option in my mask. I was completely immobile and mute. So really the only preparation was to work up a good glower. It’s such a strong image. It calls back to something that people are so familiar with. But also it represents the complete flip that’s occurring with Will.

You touched on it already, but we do see Will exploring his murderous impulses while he’s stuck in the psychiatric hospital with no guarantee that he’l ever get out. Do you think he attempted to have Dr. Lecter killed because it was his only way to stop him at that point? Or was there a part of him that tried it simply because it was exciting?
That’s a good question. It was a sense of having been pushed into a corner. Yes, there’s the somewhat convenient reality that there’s another serial killer working at the hospital. But the way Will goes about making that connection through Freddie Lounds and then talking the guy into doing it for him, [it was] very cold. He didn’t set out to do it for kicks, but to an extent, I think he’s enjoying this new version of himself — maybe unexpectedly so. And this is the way the show progresses for the second half of the season – that the most worrying thing for Will is how much he can enjoy that.

And of course, Will’s first act, pretty much, after being given his freedom back, is to return to therapy with Dr. Lecter! Will is the one person who knows what Hannibal really is — and what he’s capable of — and he is trying to get the snare around his neck. But Will also seems to be exploring stuff about himself at the same time. Those therapy scenes were just so layered and weird and creepy and remarkable all at once. What is it like when it’s just you and Mads Mikkelsen sitting across from one another doing those lengthy exchanges of dialogue?
It’s one of the great pleasures of the show. It’s so unlikely that you’d be able to witness — it multiple scenes in any given episode — two men sitting opposite each other talking in great, elliptical, poetic writing – and the fact that it’s Mads, obviously, makes it even better. I remember thinking first of all, “You can’t lie to Hannibal Lecter.” And secondly, there’s still too strong a connection between the characters for Will to go in with the sole aim of deceiving [Hannibal] and tripping him up. He has too many questions about himself that he still needs to answer relating to Hannibal. I guess it is multilayered and complicated and there’s a sense that when you’re two-thirds of the way through the season, you’ve really crawled deep into the thicket and you just have your fingers crossed. People are going to go wiggy. But Mads and Bryan [Fuller] and I had a fairly clear sense of this teetering tower that we were building. You pretty much described it. The idea is that the closer that Will gets to his one objective, which is, well it’s not clear what it is — apprehending Hannibal, killing him off or maybe running away with him — but the closer he gets to it, the murkier his designs become.

There’s a lot of dreamscape material in the show — the images of the “Willdigo,” to use just one example. Do you watch the episodes once they air to have a better understanding of the imagery? 
I will watch it. I mean, I’ve seen the first season. I’ve seen some of the second season – mainly because I’ve been to screenings of episodes. So I’ll watch it probably when we get back to do the third season… I’ll get around to it! [Laughs] But I’m very aware of the imagery — because 90 percent of it is written in the script. We know what we’re playing – which is pretty essential, because there is an odd interior logic to the development of those dream images as the season goes on. You wouldn’t want to feel like you’re just pulling an odd introspective face and they slap on a pair of antlers later.

[Laughs] Right.
I’m relatively obsessive about trying to make sure I’m making the right choice. So, I’m fortunate in that respect that Bryan is a very generous and collaborative writer and showrunner and — as best he can — is willing to share the upcoming storylines, etc., etc. And truthfully, I don’t think our show could work any other way, because it is so convoluted at times. It is so extravagantly heightened that you really need [every advantage] to chart your way through it.

Hannibal - Season 2Let’s talk about the second half of the season, the build-up to the finale. We had the Randall Tier “monster man,” the Margo and Mason Verger story arc — these bizarre, horrifying people who are all coming into Will’s sphere. We see that Will kills and possibly mutilates Randall, and he participates in watching Mason eat his own face. As you were exploring the character, did you think he was going down this road solely with the intent of capturing Hannibal? Or was there a part of him sort of dreaming of running away with Dr. Lecter, too?
I think absolutely both. Both can coexist — and part of the quality of Bryan’s writing is that he kept both those plates spinning right up until the bitter end. By the time we get to the penultimate episode and everything is falling into place, and we’re watching Mason eat his own face, we’re also gearing up for some kind of showdown. And there is no conceivable outcome that’s going to be uniquely satisfying for Will. He’s gone past the point that just apprehending Hannibal is going to draw a line under everything for him, because he’s opened up too big a can of worms in his own psyche. Equally, he’s never just going to pull out a gun and shoot Hannibal. They moved past that point. But the idea of running off over the horizon with Hannibal for some kind of glorious Mediterranean serial-killing retreat is also… clearly there’s more to Will than that as well. He’s created a situation for himself that can only be, at best, half fulfilling and obviously it turns out to be far worse than that.

Which brings us to the season-finale bloodbath, and that moment where Will approaches Hannibal. I found myself wanting to shout, “Why are you going up to Hannibal and getting that close to him? Don’t you know he’s going to gut you!” Yes, he’s in shock over seeing Abigail alive — and he’s maybe envisioning this whole alternate life with the teacup being rebuilt that Hannibal’s laid out. What did you think as you were reading that script?
The first season was more clearly laid out from the get-go, probably because there was more time to do that. Yeah, it was still bats–t crazy in its own way, but it was somewhat more traditional in the narrative. Nonetheless, in the first season, Bryan had described to me right from the beginning that, “Okay, at the end of this season you’re going to vomit up an ear. And you’re not going to know how it got there.” And that was very helpful for me actually, as an understanding of where I had to get to. In the second season, the equivalent was the idea of being gutted, being cut open by Hannibal. I talked about this with Mads and Bryan, and I saw it not just as, “Oh God, my guts are spilling out!” but almost as kind of consummation of their relationship – or whatever you want to call it… friendship, mutual obsession, whatever it is.

As I said, at that point, there’s no good outcome for Will and somewhere, even though he can’t know that Hannibal has a knife in his hand — in another part of his brain, he knows exactly what he’s turning into, and he wants it. He wants that ending and he wants to be cut open and he wants whatever he has internalized to be brought out. And actually Bryan did kind of make that literal by having, as I lie there on the floor bleeding out in that last image in the kitchen, you see that stag in the kitchen, bleeding out too. We’ll have to see where that lands us in terms of who Will is next season. But yeah, if you approach that scene on a literal basis, you’ve got to think, “Will, what the hell are you doing?” First of all I had a gun! But the intoxication of their friendship has overcome them both at that point.

Is the stag’s death supposed to represent the death of this scary side of Will’s nature that he’s been exploring? Does that part of him die when he gets stabbed? 
Let’s face it, I don’t think things are ever going to be easy for Will. You could look at it two ways: Yes, it could be that dark thing that he shared with Hannibal has been ripped out of him and he’s free of it. But it could also be that the stag represented the way that that darkness haunted him. And maybe it means going forward, he’ll be just as capable of dark acts, just without the guilt. I honestly don’t know. I do think it would be interesting to see a lighter Will and to learn a bit more about where he’s coming from. But I’m sure Bryan is cooking that all up as we speak.

Hannibal - Season 2So since we’re talking Hannibal and Will and their mutual obsession, Bryan Fuller had addressed with TVLine the somewhat sexual subtext between the characters this season, and he said, “The homoeroticism was absolutely intentional. If you could’ve heard me cackling in the editing room, you would take it with the naughty wink with which it was intended for a certain portion of the audience.” Were you aware of what was going on in his head beforehand — or did that subtext only come out once the episodes aired?
When he wrote them, I think it’s safe to say he didn’t write them with that in mind. It’s just that he ends up stuck in the editing room after everyone’s gone home, and that’s why he’s cackling. Look, I don’t believe, and I don’t think Bryan believes either, that these two guys are attracted to each other in that way. It’s a true love, but it just happens to not be a sexual one. That said, I also think that Bryan is a wicked, wicked man. [Laughs]

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