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Contributed by Michael J. Lee, Executive Editor
for Radio Free Entertainment

January 26, 2007

The origin of one of cinema's most recognized villains is explored in Hannibal Rising, a prequel to The Silence of the Lambs. In this particular piece of the Hannibal Lecter story, the menacing mastermind so famously portrayed by Anthony Hopkins is a young man (played by Gaspard Ulliel) seeking revenge against soldiers who brutally murdered his little sister under gruesome circumstances. Elements that have come to define Lecter--emotional mindgames, sociopathic behavior, cannibalism--are touched upon in this installment of the series.

While the film is obviously missing Lambs' brilliant dynamic between Hopkins and Jodie Foster (and even the chemistry between Hopkins and Edward Norton that the subsequent Red Dragon enjoyed), there are bright spots. In particular, Gaspard Ulliel in the lead role is impressive, suggesting the mannerisms of Hopkins' Lecter while clearly avoiding an outright impersonation. His Lecter is still young and inexperienced, but demonstrates the seed of something sinister--it is easy to see how the character's role as a misguided avenging angel will eventually lead to his fall from grace.

In this interview, Gaspard talks about following in some big footsteps and playing such an iconic character.

The Interview

MEDIA: Was there a lot of work involved in nailing down Hannibal Lecter's very specific way of speaking?

GASPARD: Yeah. I'm French, so for me, it was very difficult to get those subtle ways of speaking. For the audition, I have to admit that I watched Silence of the Lambs and I observed Anthony Hopkins the day before. When I prepared the role, I didn't want to try to copy or imitate Anthony Hopkins, so I tried to work on my own with some readings and other films. And obviously, I knew that the audience would look for some similarities with Anthony Hopkins, so one part of the preparation was to observe Anthony Hopkins. But the idea was more to just pick a few details in his performance and then add it to my own character.

What were some of those details you were able to pick out?

Well, it's very subtle. There are a few things that you can clearly see in Silence of the Lambs--for example, all the eye movement and the blinking, and also his stillness can be very scary sometimes. If you watch precisely every scene, the character is always in a very relaxed position, very comfortable. So it's just a few things like this. It's nice to have this to create your character. But, you know, this character is very different. He's much younger and he hasn't experienced all the prison and the killings. So I was just trying to keep these ideas in mind, and those images from the other films of Anthony Hopkins. But I was not trying to give this back to the audience in my performance because this would have been too much, because my character is just a young kid, and he's not as crazy as the older Hannibal Lecter.

You have said that you were a little apprehensive about taking this role. Why is that?

The major thing for me that was very scary was to just take on this role that is so popular. And for so many people, it's part of their life, so I knew that they would be very picky on this new film and expecting a lot. And also, coming after Anthony Hopkins is not very easy, and it was a bit scary for me.

Did you ever get the chance to meet with Hopkins to discuss the character?

Well, I discussed this with the producers, and they said that they would organize a meeting with Anthony Hopkins and me, but he was not available at this time, and we couldn't manage to do it. Anyway, I don't think it would have been helpful for me because I think every actor has his own way of working, and I don't know if Mr. Hopkins would have told me how he [worked] on his character--I don't know if he wants to reveal that kind of stuff.

Do you think the scar on your cheek was a factor in your casting?

Many people talk about this scar, and a few directors before were seduced, if I can say so, by this scar. I'm going to phone the surgeon and thank him for it. [laughs] I was six years old and a dog was sleeping in a garden, and I just jumped on his back like I would have done on a horse. And so he just hit me with his claws, and that made a nice little scar. But it looks like a dimple. It's nice, and it might help, sometimes, to express feelings in my acting. I'm not really conscious about this because I can't really see my face when I'm acting.

In this particular installment of the Hannibal saga, do you feel that he is a villain or a hero?

You can't say he's a hero, I think. The idea was to try to give him a more human aspect and to try to show to the audience that at the beginning, he was just a regular young boy, and that slowly he became what he is and what everybody knows he is. I don't think that the goal of telling his past is to try to justify his killings or to give reasons. It's just to show how he became like this, and not why he became like this...You can see in this story that he kills for really precise reasons, at least at the beginning. And then slowly, he is going to really enjoy this and he is kind of addicted to this. So it started with revenge with real human feelings, and then it slowly drifted towards sociopath and psychopath feelings. So I don't know if we can say that he is a hero. I don't think so.

Do you think he is justified in murder?

Well, I didn't ask myself this question because as I said, I don't think we're trying to justify anything. For some people, it might be justified because he experienced very heavy things during his childhood, and so he is just seeking revenge. But I don't think it's the right way to take your revenge. When someone kills one of your parents, I don't think you should kill him. You can see in the film that as the character is seeking revenge, he is going to destroy himself little by little, and at the end, he is just a monster. So I think the message is not for violence, it's against violence--to show that you can very easily jump on the wrong side in the wrong way.

Are there specific elements of the character that you simply cannot fathom?

The only thing that I had difficulties to understand precisely is how you can go and try to bite someone and taste human flesh. How do you go and do this the first time? Because I can understand [doing it again because you might] like the taste and it can be addictive, maybe. But the first time, I don't know how you can just try this. And this was the only point in the character that I couldn't really explain.

What was involved in the scenes where Hannibal is devouring his victims' faces?

Well, the fake blood was strawberry flavored. About the only moment where I clearly take a bite is at the end. And it's fun because when I arrived on the set in the morning, the prosthetic was already on the actor, and I could barely see the fake cheek. And then we rehearsed the scene many, many times, and when we shot the first take, they asked me to bite in his cheek. And this was very odd, and so I had a precise point where I had to put my teeth. And I tried it, and it felt so real. It was made of silicone or something like this, and the texture was so real. It felt like a real cheek. And I had to pull very hard to take it away. It was very, very odd.

What was your experience of working opposite Gong Li like?

Very nice. She's a very pretty lady, and very cheerful and very nice in real life. And on set, she has this kind of Asian way of working--you know, very concentrated all the time, very serious. And this was very helpful for me. And also, she's very generous. She gives a lot to her partners during the scene, and this is nice for a young actor like me.

How did you feel during the very dramatic moment when Hannibal puts on the Japanese mask?

It's a nice, fun moment. It's kind of [magical]. You know, it's not a very big scene in the film, but it was fun to do. And actually...This mask was made of resin or something like this, and they wanted it to just fit on my face and stay on my face without [any straps]. So I was trying to push on both sides to make it fit on my cheeks, and I just broke the mask. And we had only one, so they had to build another one. [laughs] It was horrible.

How do you think your friends will react when they see you playing Hannibal Lecter?

I heard that Anthony Hopkins likes to play with his character a lot in his personal life and just make jokes about it. But, you know, it's just a role, and I don't think my friends are going to...Well, of course, they're going to joke a little about it, but that's it. I'm not scary in real life.

In a previous interview, Anthony Hopkins told us he did the Lecter voice to a cop giving him a traffic ticket. Would you consider doing something like that?

[laughs] Well, if this can avoid a fine, yes.

Thanks for your time.


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