Hannibal the Cannibal finds himself in a quagmire. Entering the second half of its third season Hannibal Lecter (or the Chesapeake Ripper, if you prefer his serial killer name), played by Mads Mikkelsen, has landed himself in prison. Meanwhile, outside the TV show’s universe, Hannibal the NBC show is also in trouble – it’s been cancelled by its American broadcaster, NBC, and has yet to find a new home for its fourth season.
Ironically, just as NBC moved the show to a different, quieter night (originally Thursday night in the US and Friday in Asia; now it’s on Saturday night in the US and Sunday in Asia) and as fans fret over the loss of Dr. Lecter’s sumptuous dinner parties and his next nefarious plan to manipulate Hugh Dancy’s Will Graham from behind bars, the show is unleashing its most epic weapon of destruction ever: Francis Dolarhyde.
The character, same as Hannibal, Will and Jack Crawford (Laurence Fishburne), came from Thomas Harris’ famous novel, Red Dragon. A quick Google search will point out that he’s an iconic one that’s been played twice before. Tom Noonan played him in Manhunter (1986) and Ralph Fiennes in Red Dragon (2002), both of which are feature films. Now Hannibal showrunner Bryan Fuller has recruited yet another actor for the television series, making him the third to play Francis on screen. But despite being the third, this actor is set to make serial killer Dolarhyde, aka The Tooth Fairy, entirely his own. And his might just be the best; after all, the new Francis is played by none other than Richard Armitage.
We have interviewed Armitage twice before, specifically for his role in Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit movies as dwarf king Thorin Oakenshield. We know him from those previous sessions to be courteous, eloquent and incredibly generous with information. There are few other actors All Film loves to interview more than the former Spooks and Strike Back leading man, especially because when we interview Armitage, we can let his own words do the work. Descriptions of experiences on a film set, character development and story arcs are naturally built upon his answers.
Rather than bore you with the details, without further ado, here is what Richard Armitage has to say about the saga of Francis Dolarhyde and the Great Red Dragon. Completely in his own words.
Act I: In the Mind of a Serial Killer
Let’s jump straight into your character in Hannibal, Francis Dolarhyde. This is not the first time you play a cruel character who experiences romance – your character in Robin Hood, Guy of Gisborne, comes to mind. How do you find, as an actor, that balance between cruelty and romance?
It’s interesting that you bring up Guy of Gisborne, because in a way I find Guy of Gisborne more despicable than Francis Dolarhyde. Dolarhyde is somebody who’s experienced such trauma in his childhood and damage at such an early age, not just in his body – from the cleft palate – but in his mind from being abandoned by his mother and abused by his step siblings. I feel like there’s a deformity in him which is causing him to act in this way. For that reason he has my empathy and, to an extent, my sympathy. It’s not that I condone what he does, because what he does is so appalling and, in certain countries, he would receive the death sentence and would be locked up forever in a mental institution. But as a person that became a monster, it’s something I find fascinating to explore. I feel like there are people who walk among us with the same potential damage that need our care, I suppose.
The most difficult thing for me is making it a piece of fictional entertainment. Because initially it was written as a novel, which is – I don’t know – why do people read fiction? It’s an escapism. It’s dark escapism. But the character, he’s just fascinating. If an audience can empathize with him, then it’s kind of a strange achievement.
Going by what you’re saying, it sounds like you believe in the ‘nurture vs nature’ concept. Can you talk a bit about that?
I do in this case. We’re talking about a fictional character, this isn’t based on somebody real as far as I’m concerned, although I think Thomas Harris studied psychopathy when he created this character. But I think in the story of the ‘Red Dragon’, Thomas Harris is pointing the finger in the direction of nurture. I think that is definitely the case. But at the same time I’m pretty sure that there are people out there that have had what one would describe as a perfect childhood and still tread this path. But it’s just in this instance I would say I’d certainly believe it’s about nurture.
At the recent Comic-Con, either you or Bryan Fuller said something about how Francis Dolarhyde was uncomfortable in his own skin. In what ways does that trait manifest in your performance? And it seems like you spend a lot of time without clothing in this series. Is that something also physically uncomfortable for you as an actor or are you used to it?
I’m sorry, I spend time without what?
Without clothes. Because you have to show your tattoo and all that stuff…
Oh yeah! The being uncomfortable in his skin was something which I just… I found it through… it was mainly how Bryan was writing his script. He wanted the tattoo to move, as if the tattoo was coming alive. There’s also the fact that halfway through the book the character sort of separates into two. The schizophrenia really separates his mind, and he starts to hear voices in the attic… although he’s trying to become the dragon, the dragon separates from him. So I felt like that was a man [whose] movement of the tattoo was [something] riding around inside his body. And also Thomas Harris describes him observing his own hands and the crunching of his joints as a sense of him being frightened of age and at the same time to reinforce his body, so all of those things were helping me with that.
As for the no clothing aspect of it… it’s, again, something which Thomas Harris wrote. Francis Dolarhyde spends much of his time in his attic without clothing, and I think it was something to do with him detaching from the human experience, that he didn’t want to feel like a man. He wanted to become an animal. He wanted to become the dragon. A dragon is without clothes, a dragon has a kind of physical armor which is not human clothing. I feel that that was something to do with it. But, yeah, in a way, wearing that tattoo had that effect on me. It didn’t always really feel like being naked.
You once said violence must be portrayed truthfully, and not glamorized or sexualized. In playing the Tooth Fairy, you have to show your bare torso and such. Did you discuss with Bryan Fuller your thoughts on how violence is portrayed? Have your views on violence changed in playing these roles?
That’s why taking on the role is important to me. The conversation is what happens as you film something, so… you know, when you’re asked to portray violence, it has to be faithful to what it really is depicting. If it’s trivalized, then we undersell it. If it’s glamorized, we’re in dangerous territory. You know, I never saw Francis Dolarhyde as a sexualized being. In fact, I find him asexual. He’s never had a sexual encounter with a living woman before – that, to me, was fascinating. So he’s falling in love for the first time [with Rutina Wesley’s character in the show, Reba McClane]. There was a real innocence to him. Yet at the same time he’s committing terrible, terrible crimes against families, and particularly the female of the family.
We never really depicted that on screen; it was something that I was very frightened [to happen]. And if it had been, I wouldn’t have been able to do it. I don’t think I would’ve been very comfortable taking on the role knowing we were going to see that. Thomas Harris built that into the writing – the writer describes what the character has done, you don’t see the character doing it, and you understand the character and what the character has done – through his own vision of it, which is slightly distorted.
In the past, you said that you tend to stay with your characters during the filming period. In portraying a serial killer, how does that play out for you did you have to make adjustments?
Staying in character is not really possible when you’re… to be honest, I stay with the character. Staying in character on set is easy because you can go into a corner… A lot of the time on set I was working in Francis Dolarhyde’s house or in his attic, so I would stay on set and go into a corner and stay in character. Coming away from it at the end of the day, I saw myself as a kind of student of Dolarhyde. So I would read about psychopathy, I would read the scripts and I would go back to Thomas Harris’ novel, just to remind myself about who he was, his history and his past, and listen to certain music… so in that respect, one steps outside the character and just continues to study during the process.
But it is quite a frightening thing when you accept the things that he does. Especially a character that you are empathizing with… it’s difficult. I remember that there was one day where they were showing the film footage of what he’d done. And I remember being horrified by it… as him, actually. It was very, very difficult to watch.
Continued in Act II.
* Francis Dolarhyde’s story starts on Hannibal episode 8, “The Great Red Dragon, on Sunday, 26 July 2015 and will last until the end of season 3. In Asia, Hannibal is on every Sunday, 9 PM (JKT/BKK) on AXN Asia.
I posted the English version of this unabridged interview with Richard Armitage for the sake of international readers who don’t read Indonesian. You may post this interview and its subsequent parts in your website, but it is necessary to credit me as “Amanda Aayusya/All Film Magazine” and link to All Film’s version (Act 1 in Indonesian) when you post the interview. Otherwise, you can simply link back here.