It’s not an overstatement to say that Hannibal, Bryan Fuller’s nouveau gothic drama take on the Hannibal Lecter mythos, made Mads Mikkelsen’s career in Hollywood. But casting a nearly unknown Danish actor for a lead role in a prime-time network drama is not easy, as Fuller will tell you. And it took NBC some time to come around to the idea.
In a new interview with Collider, Fuller detailed the pains he went to get Mikkelsen cast in the role and everything NBC did to try to get someone more, well, traditional for a Hollywood leading man. “There was some resistance to Mads Mikkelsen because he was European, because he was somebody who you could look at and go, ‘Yeah I buy that he eats people,’” Fuller said.
And while, “Yeah I buy that he eats people” seems like precisely what you’d want in a villain who eats people, NBC pushed back. “We were dealing with a very American network that wanted a very American actor to sell to American audiences, and all the creatives on the show wanted somebody who was the best person for the role.” The network, of course, had its own suggestions for the role. They were… inspired.
“It was an interesting dance because I’d say, ‘Mads Mikkelsen!’ and they’d say, ‘No, how about Hugh Grant?’ and I’d say, ‘Great, make an offer, he’s gonna say no,’ then they’d make an offer and he’d say no, and I’d be like, ‘What about Mads Mikkelsen?’ and they’d be like, ‘Well what about John Cusack?’ and I’d say, ‘Great, make an offer, he’s gonna say no’ and they’d make an offer and he’d say no, I’d say, ‘What about Mads Mikkelsen?’ That carousel went around for three or four months after we had cast Hugh [Dancy], it was going on for a while,” Fuller said.
John Cusack and Hugh Grant, while both great actors, are not anyone’s first choice for Hannibal Lecter. But they had what Mikkelsen, in NBC’s eyes, lacked, which was marketability for a majority American audience. They’re both traditional leading men, while Mikkelsen, brilliant as he is, isn’t. Fuller continued, “Finally I just said, ‘Mads is the guy, that’s the guy I see in the role and I have to write it and I have to champion it and I have to understand it,’ and Jennifer Salke at NBC, bless her heart, was like, ‘OK, that’s your guy. I believe you and trust you and I’m excited about your vision for the show.’”
While that choice had consequences they ended up working in favour of the show, from a creative perspective, at least. According to Fuller, rejecting the traditional leading man meant that the marketing arm of the company essentially lost faith in the show, leading to a decreased interest in trying to shape it according to marketability. That allowed it to become the eccentric, over-the-top, homoerotic, delightfully macabre thing it was.
“So Mads was the gift that allowed us to tell the story the way that we wanted to tell it, because the network was like, ‘Well it’s not the person that we wanted and we don’t really see him in this role,’ and we were like, ‘Fine, just let us make the show,’” Fuller concluded.
Hannibal ran for three wild seasons on NBC, which are currently viewable on Netflix. And maybe, someday, we’ll get a fourth.