Mads Mikkelsen, star of NBC’s Hannibal, isn’t known for his comic roles. In his memorable appearances as icy human calculator Le Chiffre in Casino Royale, or resistance fighter Jorgen in Flame & Citron, he’s more likely to provoke fear or admiration than laughter. But in Dr Hannibal Lecter the Danish heart-throb has found a way of letting out his playful side.
Mikkelsen’s deadpan killer may not have the camp gusto of Anthony Hopkins’ Chianti-glugging cannibal, but he’s not without a quiet sense of humour. In one episode, Hannibal quips; “Next time, bring your wife. I’d love to have you both for dinner.” Hopkins might have earned a chuckle by treating this as the cue for a brief leer, but Mikkelsen plays it entirely straight, all calm politeness and reserve, and renders it even funnier as a result. I ask if he thinks the show’s horror is accentuated by these moments of black comedy.
“I believe it is. It’s quite subtle, the humour of the show. And maybe it’s not the most American sense of humour. Maybe it’s more a British sense. It’s in the details, it’s not obvious. The tone, the grotesque ‘lifting’ of the whole thing once in a while… We have to save it up for small, subtle moments. Private moments. Comments here and there. It’s definitely there somewhere… but it’s not like we were trying to wink at the audience.
“Obviously, in [Silence of the Lambs] he had the liberty of being in prison, and enjoying the whole show the way he wanted it. We don’t have the luxury to do that, not yet. I have to be as ‘honest’ as I can while I’m with the police… Even if we wanted to enjoy it – his way of enjoying life and enjoying the moment, we could not do that because it would get in the way. And we can’t afford to make the cops seem stupider than they are. It’s a fragile balance – where to put it in, a little here and there, and how much we could get away with.”
Show creator Bryan Fuller has described the first season as a love story, built around the affinity between Hannibal and Hugh Dancy’s troubled FBI agent Will Graham. I ask Mikkelsen if this is how he sees it. He thinks a moment before replying, “It’s a bromance... There is definitely some sort of love – what kind of love, I’m not sure – between the characters of Will Graham and Hannibal. They have a mutual respect, a mutual interest, and within those two things love is being created as well. Not in a homoerotic way, but – I think they’re fascinated by each other.”
Mikkelsen speaks at a leisurely pace, his measured diction only breaking in sudden moments of enthusiasm. I wonder aloud whether Lector’s killing is an extension of his aesthete personality, and he leaps on the suggestion: “Exactly! For him it’s all the same. He’s constantly searching for the beauty in life. Every day is beautiful. Life is too short for him to drink or eat anything banal, or to listen to anything that is banal, or speak to anyone banal. If he speaks to someone boring or rude, they have a good chance of ending up on his dining table.”
The sumptuous vintage aesthetic of Hannibal has drawn lavish praise, but divided the critics. One baffled broadsheet reviewer wrote: “[His] giant Windsor knots in his ties and Seventies-style three-piece suits… fit the chronology of the character, born in 1933, but this show refers to camera phones and is clearly contemporary, so God knows what’s happening there, frankly.” I ask Mads if he can help clear up any confusion, and he reveals a surprising impatience with the modern world.
“The aesthetic of the series has a different feel, a different timeframe. Especially when you’re dealing with my place, my office, the way I dress. I like that and find it interesting.” Like Hannibal, Mikkelsen seems to view the modern world as a distraction: ”If we could avoid the cell-phones we would rather do it, so we can focus even more on the interaction between the characters. We cannot detach totally from all the modern equipment we have today, but we will do our very best that they don’t take over… If you want to put that into your computer, feel free.”
Despite his stage background (four years at drama school, followed by ten years as a professional dancer) Mikkelsen is no luvvie. When asked if he ever felt it was necessary to really “immerse” himself in Hannibal’s character, he sounds amused. “Method acting? I have the luxury of saying I have no idea what it is, and I don’t care. If there is such a thing as ‘method acting’ that will bring you somewhere interesting, go for it. If not, I’m sure there are other things that will bring you to equally interesting places… I believe in trying to let the moment catch you in some situations, but also in being the one who has control of the moment, and knowing what you want from it, so it becomes more than just screaming and shouting. “
It’s certainly a good time to be a Mikkelsen. Mads' brother Lars Mikkelsen’s acting career is following a similar upward trajectory, after a stunning turn in Nordic noir-hit The Killing, and with an appearance in BBC1’s Sherlock just around the corner. I ask Mads about their relationship, and he explains the perks of having a brother who’s also a thespian.
“If we’re struggling with some work, and can’t put our finger on why it’s not working we call each other, so the other one can say ‘pitch it to me.’ And we start discussing it and saying maybe we should approach it differently, and take it back and forth in a conversation which often drags out for a couple of hours. In that sense, we can play ball together, because we will be facing the same problems as actors, over and over. And because we respect each other so much, we will use each other for that, of course. “
Both men regularly feature in ‘Denmark’s Sexiest Man’ lists, and internet forums frequently buzz with fans comparing the Mikkelsens’ relative merits. I ask him if there’s a competitive aspect to his relationship with his older brother, and he bridles slightly. “No. Brothers are brothers, right? Luckily, we’ve never been up for the same part at all. So people are seeing us as very different. We are very different, as people and as actors. We’re very lucky that we don’t have to compete directly with each other for the job.”
Series 1 of Hannibal is released on DVD and Blu-ray on 2 September.