Bones, blood, and gristle. This is what flashes through the mind upon binging hour-after-hour of Hannibal, staring with Da Vinci-like detail at body parts that yielded a bounty of courses on one of network-television’s most acclaimed cult shows of the decade. While the public at large let out a collective sigh at the announcement of yet another remake of an adaptation, Hugh Dancy dove into a unique reimagining of one of the cornerstones of an entire genre. Hannibal’s three seasons added an indelible layer to Thomas Harris’ most beloved and horrifying body of work, and went down as easily as a nice chianti with – ah, never mind…
The British-born actor has been working steadily for almost 20 years, longer if you count his time on stage at school. While Dancy’s initial higher-profile fare would be the common trail of young British actors: costume dramas, and love interests (not that there’s anything wrong with that), its in the last decade that his range has unearthed itself, acting on stage in New York, springing up in low-profile high-acclaim films like Martha Marcy May Marlene, and most notably and recently, as FBI profiler Will Graham on NBC’s Hannibal which came to a close this past August.
While Hannibal would be Hugh Dancy’s most consistent and prominent spell on a project, that likely won’t be the case for so much longer. Within a week of this interview Dancy starts shooting The Path alongside Aaron Paul (Breaking Bad), Michelle Monaghan (True Detective), and helmed by Mike Cahill (Director and co-writer of Another Earth). As far as we know (and Dancy can tell) The Path depicts a spiritual movement consumed by hierarchy and zealousness in the wake of its leader’s demise. While little is known beyond the cast and the tagline, if anything looks to be a lock for another one of television – rather, Hulu’s – best- or worst-kept secrets, The Path appears to have an abundance of potential to soon make the case.
Sitting down with Article, Dancy sacrifices one of his final days of summer in Berlin to help profile the profiler.
Hi Hugh! How are you doing?
Excellent thanks. I’m in Berlin until the end of the week when I have to go back to New York to start work on The Path. So I’m kind of gearing up for that, the work, and also leaving here and spending a bit of time away from my family. So that’s what’s going on. How about you?
I’m okay. Pardon my cough by the way; I spent some toxic August weeks in Toronto.
That’s great. (Laughs). I’ve spent quite a bit of time in Toronto over the past few years.
That’s right! Hannibal was filmed there.
Actually I’m a little under the weather too.
No judgment either way then.
Turns out alcohol and cigarettes don’t count as a meal – never stop learning.
Yeah I’m still learning that one too. (Laughs).
So, how have you found Berlin as a city?
Berlin is fantastic, really an amazing city. Toronto is also lovely, but the three seasons we shot there were shot only over the winter months, so we’d arrive in – the last season was from mid-October to mid-March or maybe even into April, so it was basically just freezing for the duration, and all the Canadians, even they were complaining about it, saying ‘You know, you should see the summer its so beautiful!’ and I never did. (Laughs). And I think the same is true of Berlin as well, that it’s a bit bipolar here as well. The city is incredible in the summer and gets pretty grim in the winter - but I think once you’ve experienced the Canadian winter everything else is a bit of a breeze.
Sounds like you’ve been on the move for quite some time.
Pretty much. Because of the combination of my schedule and Claire’s schedule its been essentially alternating between one or other of us filming in various cities around the world for the last three or four years, four or five years even. And somewhere in there we managed to have a kid.
Now I know you must do this every interview, but let’s get this out of the way in the event the internet has mislead me. You were born in Stoke, grew up in Newcastle-under-Lyme, and then went on to get your education at Winchester?
Yeah. Newcastle-under-Lyme is different from the Newcastle most people know in England, very small town, quite close to Stoke, basically between Manchester and Birmingham. Grew up there, went away to school initially in Oxford when I was 10, then went to Winchester when I was 13, and then went to university in Oxford.
And you studied under Francis Warner at university?
Yes I did.
What was that like?
Are you familiar with him?
Just that he was a playwright who also taught. Sort of a teacher-writer?
Yeah that’s right. He was a very quirky and interesting man. The system at Oxford would be that you applied to a particular college for a particular subject, so they’re only really looking for an intake of…I dunno, fifteen young men and women who he wanted to teach but also who had some extracurricular activity, like musicians or writers or actors. So I was with a very interesting group of people, but it turned out his agenda there was that every two years he would take a sabbatical, and like clockwork would produce a new play written in verse, which he had been doing since the 60’s. And it was quite subversive, because to be so conventional as to write a play in verse in the 60’s was practically anarchic, while everyone else was rolling around naked and so on. And he kept taking sabbaticals and when he would return all of his undergraduates would be expected to take parts in the play and so every 2-3 years one would happen at the college and I performed in one of them. He was a lot of fun.
And was acting something that you always strived for as a career, or was it an idea you grew into over time and experience?
I think to some extent I didn’t really think about it in depth, partially because I knew it was a daunting prospect. I made a subconscious decision without subjecting it to much cross-examination, but I do remember having a feeling like that when I was 17, realizing not only was it something I was doing at school and enjoying but if I stopped I would be missing something. So I had strong feelings about it even at that age and when I left university the decisions that I had taken, I was going to go to university, I wasn’t going to go to drama school, I was going to read English I was going to take a year off before I did that which I think for me were good decisions. But that kind of under the surface assumption that I would go and try and become an actor never really wavered during my time at university except for the fact that as I got closer and closer to the point where I was actually going to do this thing it became pretty obvious that I needed to figure out how. There are so many different routes you can take but the primary route in England then and now in many ways, was drama school and I didn’t feel the urge to do that. But to cut a long story short: left university, was sort of going through that thing that a lot of people do, the first time in your life where you leave the shelter of an institution and I was having a mini ‘Come to Jesus’ moment. I was in London, in a relationship that was breaking up, pretty standard. So as I was kind of contemplating ‘Okay, how am I going to put this into practice?’ I got lucky, met someone and was able to translate that into another meeting with some agents, and one of them I really hit it off with and he’s still my agent now.
My research framed it as ‘a chance encounter in a café’.
It wasn’t quite so chance because I was working in the café.
That’s a lot less chance than it makes it seem isn’t it? I mean you’d be there almost every day.
Yeah, I sort of inserted myself into someone else’s conversation, slightly aggressively. And it seemed like it was going quite well, the two of them were both quite interested and both in the business, but then I had to go and do something, and in the meantime one of them had left, so before the other person left, as he was leaving I grabbed him and said ‘Listen here’s the deal, this is what I want to do, could you give me any advice?’ Which was actually a little disingenuous, because I didn’t want any advice, I wanted help. (Laughs). And he ended up providing it.
So you get an agent you like, you’re in London, how soon thereafter did jobs start?
I spent a few months working at that bar – café – going to meetings, general meetings, meeting casting directors, and then the odd audition, frankly not really believing that anything would come of it because it all seemed so unlikely. But then eventually I got a job. And I mean someone always has to take the plunge and be the first person to hire you, which when you’ve literally got nothing to show for yourself is a bit of a gamble, but they did, and as soon as they did I horrified my mother by quitting my job at the café and that was that.
And no looking back!
Well yeah, that probably makes it seem like more of a sensible decision than it probably was.
Reading about you, you had worked quite regularly prior to Hannibal, work which people in the States may not have been as aware of. Whereas you had quite a bit of work in London…-
Actually I don’t know if that’s really the case. I think maybe to a certain extent, I had been around in England longer so you kind of feel in general that people are more aware of you, but in the last few years it was a bit of both. I love England and London and think of myself as a British actor, but I have spent quite a lot of time the past few years living in New York and working more in theatre in New York than I ever did in London but part of me also thinks that England is where I started and where I built up my career and when I did eventually go out to LA a couple years in, I went with a sense that it wasn’t the be-all and end-all, I had something going back in England, and when you find yourself sitting in an LA casting office with fifteen other actors who look just like you that can be quite a reassuring thought, and I think that little escape cord is still built into me to a certain extent.
Can you walk me through when Hannibal became something you were aware of? How you felt about it initially and consequent to the role becoming yours, and ultimately a role you could really sink into? - Sorry, I think I just asked nine questions in a row.
That’s okay, I think that’s a really good way of looking at it because most people assume that going into it one would know exactly what it was one was getting into, and I really didn’t. For me it came about because in their conversations I had come up, but I was doing a play in New York at the time, a two-hander with Nina Arianda,, and we were on stage so Bryan Fuller (show-runner) and Martha De Laurentis (executive-Producer) came to see the show and we sat down and had tea the next day and that was it. And my feeling was, first of all, upon re-reading the script my feeling was ‘Okay there’s something to this’, that to some extent somewhat quelled my… I think the natural reaction from almost everybody was when they heard the announcement ‘They’re making a Hannibal show!’ was ‘Why?’
And why revisit these characters? But then I re-read the script and the characters are so well-written and I knew there was something going on there but it wasn’t like I had a lot of time to really get into it, so talking to Bryan, he was so compelling in his suggestion of how he saw the character and then to an even greater extent how he saw the show unfolding in terms of – I mean he was describing potential seasons of television that were not even going to get to make at this point. (Laughs). It really made sense of why it worked with this particular medium. So I signed on, and you know there are a lot of external reasons like life and so on that made it seem like a good decision.
How much do you find your own impressions are brought to a meeting and maybe you’re not so intrigued, but then find yourself meeting people like Bryan and you just go ‘Okay. I just like this guy and the ideas.’
I think that enthusiasm counts for an enormous amount. Its pretty rare that someone is going to completely turn you around because I didn’t really have a solid reason to be questioning Hannibal it was also the part of me that was suspicious simply because they were interested in me. (Laughs).
Didn’t want to be a part of any club that would have you?
That whole Groucho Marx thing, yeah. (Laughs). But certainly what can and did is I got a sense of Bryan’s personality and his creativity. I had worked in TV before, but never so far as having a relationship with a show-runner and knowing how that would work and how much of it is their universe. And I don’t think I had that particular thought at the time but it was clear at that meeting, Bryan described the world he wanted to create.
What are your thoughts on the status of Hannibal now? Does it feel like its come to a close? I was under the impression that it had concluded, but there are some contrary articles online.
I feel like its closed for the moment. I mean the ending of the third season is pretty final if that’s what you want it to be. But that said, I know from Bryan what he envisioned doing in a fourth season and I think it would be brilliant and I would be up for doing it, and I think Mads would too. And if it doesn’t happen for three years and it’s a movie or whatever, that’s actually fine. It would even make sense in a strange way, and if it doesn’t happen we don’t leave it in the lurch. Bryan would end every season with half a mind that we might not come back, and create these bloody and dramatic final scenes and collectively we would all work to make them not just a bloodbath to go out on but to tie into whatever the psychological story of that season was, what was going on with Will and Hannibal. And also I know that Bryan, I think he worked to an incredible degree in editing to build up the final episode to really make it a worthwhile final episode, so if that is our swansong so be it.
Did it feel easier to look for other projects post-Hannibal?
You mean did I just – did I find that I got work more easily?
That and/or did it alter the types of projects or characters you sought?
I didn’t think about it too much. From my perspective you can only have so much of a plan as an actor, I hear some people talk about it but it’s only so realistic to. I did when the show ended, I thought I would try and muster myself and come up with a list of a general sense of what I wanted to do and surprisingly quite rapidly that thing arrived.
Speaking of that next thing… The Path begins principle photography mid-September. Can you explain what appealed to you about the project? The story alone? The people involved? Both coming together in the pitch?
It was all of those things. I think with anything potentially good that’s trying to strike an interesting balance, there’s a kind of better version and a not-so-good version, that’s true of most things, certainly most interesting things, and so then you think okay well there’s definitely enough for me potentially to do something and then in speaking with Jessica who’s a showrunner and Jason and others, you quickly realize that they’re all on board to make the better version. The show takes place inside this ‘spiritual movement’ as they call it. Put it this way, there’s a lot of little strange movements that spring up and some of them survive into a second generation most of them don’t, most of them die and fall away because the leader or whoever generated the kind of precepts or enthusiasm, dies basically, and then it filters out and a couple survive. And this is not to judge them it’s just a fact, so without calling them anything, Mormonism is a good example, there were other such movements at the time but Joseph Smith died and then Brigham Young was able to keep those ideas and that following alive and it grew and grew and grew until it became what it is today which is a major religion, scientology would be similar. There are thousands of other examples that didn’t make that transition, so this story is set at the moment of that transition, that moment of vulnerability but also potential. And I thought that sounded very interesting, and in speaking to Jessica in particular it became clear that they thought in a pretty detailed and interesting way what sort of movement would this actually be? What are the underpinnings of it? And you’re not going to see all of that necessarily but you want to feel that all the people portraying it have done their homework and if asked could give an answer. So it’s just been really fun to dip into.
Reminds me slightly of Martha Marcy May Marlene.
Yeah the difference there is that that was a small murderous, abusive cult. I mean it wasn’t exactly Manson, but certainly more that territory, I mean Charles Manson may have been convinced of what he was saying, but he was just a psychopath there are no two ways about it. These other people, you can call them what you want but they’re inspired in some way, and there may be abuses but its not necessarily a cynical thing. I guess the point is that…what point do you stop being able to call something a cult? Or, if somebody says ‘you know I believe this, and therefore I am going to give up these personal freedoms and so on.’ Do you have the right to tell them that they’re deluded?
And The Path will be shown on Hulu?
Yes, that’s correct.
And you will shoot just the first episode or an entire season?
We’ll be shooting the whole season. It will be 10 episodes, so we’ll be filming into January or February of 2016.
Is there a possibility of a second season or will it be a one-off?
Oh no, I think it is definitely written with more seasons in mind. I don’t know how they will tie it up the first season exactly but for sure its open-ended to last longer.
And you play a member of the congregation of The Path alongside Aaron Paul and Michele Monaghan?
Yes. All three of us are fairly senior members. I am the most senior, our leader who created the thing back in the 70’s is elsewhere. There’s a potential down the line for power struggle etc but I am someone who’s inside this kind of very open but hierarchical organization. And my character sees or believes that the organization won’t survive if someone doesn’t step up to the plate, even if stepping up to the plate go up against the tenants of the religion, I still have to do it.
Have you had any time off?
Well I did a project called Deadline Gallipoli in Australia that was between Hannibal’s final seasons, and Claire was filming Homeland in Cape Town at the time so I was away from the family for a while. But this year I haven’t worked since Hannibal, so I’ve been mostly in the bosom of my family in Berlin because Homeland has been shooting here since May.
Nice, summer in Berlin. So staying on the R&R train of thought, is there anything else you’d like to do in the next year you’d like to do? Non-acting wise?
The only thing I’d really like to do a bit more of is cycling. I’m not crazy enough to want to cycle through the streets of New York all the time but I’d like to do a bit more of it. I have a bike that I cycle outside of New York in NY State, since you ask I would like to get a decent road bike and get into that a bit more, but whether that’s realistic I don’t know (laughs).
Bit of a silly question, but I can’t resist asking you about your presence in an Internet subgroup of carpet reviewers?
It’s not so much a subgroup that I’m a part of, it’s a friend of mine who just started this website that he would eventually publish as a coffee table book which is carpets for airports. So he just photographed a carpet every time he went through an airport and would put it up on a globe of the world and invite others to do the same and over a few years assembled a very healthy collection of airport carpet photographs and attached his own somewhat specious blurb, and there it is.
That’s wonderful. I read your review of an Isle of Man airport carpet that was quite immersive - I’m really going for the controversial heart of your persona in case you couldn’t tell.