Interview : Gaspard Ulliel, Hannibal Rising

Sheila

We had a chance to sit down and chat with young Hannibal from Hannibal Rising, Gaspard Ulliel. Casting the central role of young Hannibal was critical to the film. Producer Dino De Laurentiis describes how they searched for a long time to find the right person: "We couldn't find a face with the right kind of mystery. We needed a young guy who looked like he could kill, but also someone who could be charming. Gaspard Ulliel had already completed A VERY LONG ENGAGMENT when he came to Dino De Laurentiis' attention. "I saw the face of this young star and I thought this is it! We met with Gaspard in Paris, Peter did a screen test with him at my house and it was all up there on the screen, his intensity, his look. I remember I said, 'Gaspard, you were born to be Hannibal Lecter!'"

Peter Webber was just as certain: "It comes down to a gut feeling. I watched Gaspard's screen test and I thought, this is the only person that I am compelled to watch for two hours. There's something very special about him. He's got something dark." This instinct was confirmed as they began preparing the character together. "We sent him to a morticians because I wanted him to really understand how it feels to work with dead bodies," explains Webber. "He enjoyed it so much that he wanted to go back for a second day! It was at that moment I realised I'd made the right decision. There is just something that little bit damaged about him, which is just fantastic!" lliel was aware from the first that he would be judged against previous incarnations of the role. "To walk in Anthony Hopkins' footsteps is a very daunting prospect," he admits. "I watched the other films a lot and looked at how he moves and performs- how he blinks his eyes. I learnt many things from watching his performance, but I soon realized that the job was not to imitate him exactly, even if it was right to take some of the small details from his performance and add them to this character."

"I had to try and find the character within me and make it different," he continues. "We are dealing with a different person. He's much younger, he hasn't experienced the same things, he hasn't been hardened by his time in prison at this stage. I was also interested in the real evolution of the character. We see him discover his dark side through his medical training as well as through his first murders. There is a crescendo during the movie as he finds killing and eating people addictive. So, by the end of the film, I am getting closer to Anthony Hopkins' way of thinking and speaking as Hannibal and I take more from his performance."

For Ulliel, the biggest challenge was the relationship between Hannibal and Lady Murasaki. "In the three previous Hannibal films, you see Hannibal in lots of different situations, but rarely in contact with a woman in this way, having those kinds of feelings. It appears like a romance, but it is much more. He learns a great deal from Lady Murasaki and there is a real exchange. She helps to build his character and is the only comfort to him through his childhood. I wanted to bring over this complexity of feelings. I was prepared for the killing scenes, as I'd thought hard about them. It was the first thing I worked on. The more simple scenes are somehow harder for me - to come back and use simple dialogue and actions for the everyday Hannibal."

Ulliel prepared for the role with his own research into the character's motivation and found that Hannibal had an unusual psychology for a serial killer. "I read the three books by Thomas Harris and I also read a number of books about serial killers that were written by criminal profilers. They were hard to read, really shocking, but interesting too. Hannibal behaves in a different way than most serial killers, whose attacks are often linked to sexual meaning and feelings. There is usually some element of sexual relief, which is absent from Hannibal's killings." Webber also helped with the research, Ulliel continues, "Peter gave me some DVDs of films which illustrated the atmosphere he wanted. He also had me look at some Asian samurai sword movies as there are some scenes in this film which are very Japanese in context."

Ulliel was guided through the challenging murder scenes by the careful preparation and choreography of stunt coordinator Lee Sherwood. "I start putting the fights together on day one," Sherwood explains. "I also get the actors involved, because every one of them will have their way of doing something, they'll want to do it left-handed or right-handed or they'll want to move in a way that they feel fits with their character. We get them involved in the action at the very early stages and I must say that the actors on this film have all been very, very good to work with." Here is what Gaspard had to say about his work on Hannibal Rising.

HorrorMovies: I imagine that the casting call for this was pretty intense. Was it a really rigorous audition process?

Gaspard Ulliel: Well yes, but you know the first meeting was with one of the producers, the French producer, Mr. Tarak Ben Ammar, and he came to me in a dinner in Paris and he just talked about this project and I was very excited and also very surprised that he came to me for this role. Then I met Dino De Laurentiis and they insisted on the fact that I should meet Peter because I was hesitating to accept the project after reading the script.because I was very scared I think. I knew that it was very risky for me to go into this project because it’s so popular and I knew that there would be a lot of expectations on this film. So I met Peter in Paris and he asked for some proper auditions so we worked on three different scenes of the film and we worked for two full hours.

HorrorMovies: When you got the part, did you want to emulate Anthony Hopkins?

Gaspard:  Before the test, before the auditions, yeah. Obviously, I watched Silence of the Lambs the day before and I observed Anthony Hopkins but when I prepared the role before shooting the film, the idea was not to imitate or copy Anthony Hopkins. This was not very interesting for me. I don’t think I’m able to imitate him. He’s so amazing in those films. He’s a very big actor. So I was kind of free to create my own Hannibal Lecter and I tried to work on my own with some readings and other films. Obviously, I knew that the audience would want or expect some similarities with Anthony Hopkins so one part of my preparation for the role was just to observe him and try to pick a few details from his performance and mix it with my own recipe to build my own character. 

HorrorMovies: What were those details that you picked out?

Gaspard Ulliel: 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, comfortable position. 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 with 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.

HorrorMovies: Did you have to study to get the speech pattern right because Hannibal has a very specific way of talking?

Gaspard Ulliel: Yes, but then you know I’m French so for me it was very difficult to get those subtle ways of speaking. Of course I tried to work on a special way of speaking.  

HorrorMovies: Did you have a chance to talk with Anthony Hopkins at all or did you want to keep that separate in terms of how you made your character?

Gaspard Ulliel: 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 is working on his character. I don’t know if he wants to reveal that kind of stuff.

HorrorMovies: Have you heard if he’s seen your work at all? Has he seen your performance? Have you gotten any feedback?

Gaspard Ulliel: I don’t think he saw the film yet.

HorrorMovies: What’s your own take on the character of Hannibal Lecter? Did you feel that he was a villain or a hero in this movie?

Gaspard Ulliel: 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. So then, yeah, you can maybe think he is a hero but it’s maybe a bit too much to say this.

HorrorMovies: Why do you think this character is so well-liked?

Gaspard:  That’s an interesting thing about this character.  Obviously, in this film, we tried to make this character a bit sympathetic and more human so we tried to keep the audience on his side but, in the other films before, it was not the same thing.  The character was presented as a real monster.  The audience was still admiring him and this is a weird thing because he is a serial killer doing horrible things but we still like him.  I think maybe this is due to the fact that he is so intelligent, well-educated and he is always very polite, very charming and he manages to seduce the audience I think.

HorrorMovies: Hannibal is an iconic villain in America.  Is he the same in France?

Gaspard:  Yeah. It’s the same.  He’s very popular.

HorrorMovies: I think it was Alfred Jarry who said that to kill one man, you’ll be a murderer, but to kill one thousand men, you’ll be a hero. How would you elaborate on that regarding your character?

Gaspard Ulliel: (laughs) Well it depends who you kill. You can see in this story that he kills for really precise reasons, well at least at the beginning, and then slowly he is going to really enjoy this and he’s 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.

HorrorMovies: Do you think your character in the film is justified in the killings that he does?

Gaspard Ulliel: 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 to take revenge. 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, just to show that you can very easily jump on the wrong side in the wrong way and just kill yourself through those killings.

HorrorMovies: The press notes say that the everyday scenes when Hannibal isn’t murdering anyone were harder for you than the intense murder scenes, why?

Gaspard Ulliel: Yes, because when you have less physical action, you have to express more things through your eyes, etc.  So it’s harder I think, for an actor when you have less dialogue and less physical language.  I enjoy both.

HorrorMovies: Did you research serial killers?

Gaspard Ulliel: I read a lot of different books on real serial killers and that was very interesting and very helpful because I could read a lot of things on their childhood and how they started to kill. It’s pretty much the same things every time.  It’s a slow evolution and they start very early.  They start with animals, torturing animals and setting fires and stuff like this. It was very helpful I think.  Also, I worked on the script because I had a nice background for the character in the script so I could help myself in the script and also, I read the three Tom Harris novels.  I could find some really relevant information sometimes.  Then there was all the work with Peter and we discussed a lot about the character and exchanged our points of views and slowly built our character.  He also organized a meeting with a movement coach that was very interesting.  We worked on a different way of breathing and walking and standing. 

Also, he [Peter] sent me to an autopsy class in Prague.  He wanted me to see the dead bodies.  It was very nice; a very strong experience.  I was a bit frightened at the beginning.  When you enter the room, it’s a bit frightening to have all those dead corpses and the smell is very strong -- a mixture of formaldehyde and rotten meat.  Then you just forget all those bad aspects because you are watching something fascinating.  It’s great to see how everything works inside your body.  It’s kind of pretty in a way -- like a piece of art because you have all those textures, different colors.  It’s a nice experience.

HorrorMovies: You said you wanted to go back a second day?

Gaspard:  Yeah, because when I went there it’s a lesson that is during a whole month and I came in during the last week. The bodies were already completely destroyed and opened.  So I think that’s one of the reasons why it was not that scary.  It didn’t feel real.  The bodies looked fake.  They were so destroyed that I couldn’t imagine that I was just looking at a real human body so I asked if I could go on the first day of the next session to see the fresh bodies coming in and start opening them.  I think this is more scary.

HorrorMovies: What about the smell? Did that overcome you?

Gaspard Ulliel: No, well, during the first minutes it’s hard, but then you get used to it.

HorrorMovies: Was the blood scary?

Gaspard:  Well, for the autopsy you don’t have any blood because the bodies are very old and you don’t have any blood in the bodies anymore.  The only liquids you have are the grease.  In the scenes in the film, during the shooting it was strawberry-flavored fake blood.  You know, on the set, it’s not that frightening because you cut the scene and the dead man just wakes up.  It’s different.  It’s more fun than scary. 

HorrorMovies: Did you like scary movies when you were young?

Gaspard:  Not really. I’m not a big fan of horror films or gory films but I can understand why we like those films.  It’s a nice feeling to be scared sometimes.

HorrorMovies: The scar on your cheek gives a hint of a constant smile and in a movie that’s very intense, it gives another message. Was that a factor in your being chosen for this role?

Gaspard Ulliel: Well many people talk about this scar and a few directors before were seduced, if I can say so, by this scar. Well I’m going to phone the surgeon and thank him for it. (laughs) I was six years old and a dog was sleeping in the 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. Yeah, it’s nice. 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.

HorrorMovies: You said you hesitated briefly when they offered you the role. Was any of that because of the fact that this could be a career changing role that could really put you on the map internationally as well as in your native country? Was there any hesitation about that part of it?

Gaspard Ulliel: Yeah, true, but no, 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 like they own the character and it’s part of their lives 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.

HorrorMovies: What did it feel like to put the mask on for the first time?

Gaspard Ulliel: It’s a nice, fun moment. It’s kind of magic to have this mask but that’s it. You know it’s not a very big scene in the film but yeah, it was fun to do.

HorrorMovies: Were there any funny moments on such an intense set?

Gaspard:  Actually I have a fun story. Well, I don’t know if it’s very funny but the scene with the mask, we had only one mask.  This mask was made of resin or something like this and it was supposed to cover my face with elastic behind to stay on my face and the director wanted it to just fit like this [indicates close on his face] without any elastic.  I tried to make it a bit smaller pushing on the sides so it would fit on my cheeks and I broke the mask so this was kind of funny but not for the producers because they had to build another one and reshoot the scene. It was horrible. (laughs)

HorrorMovies: Was the director upset with you at all?

Gaspard Ulliel: Well he was laughing but the producers were a bit… (chuckles)

HorrorMovies: They didn’t say they’d kill you?

Gaspard Ulliel: No. (laughs)

HorrorMovies: There are several scenes where you have to convey a sinister feeling just by a look without saying anything. Have you gotten any reaction from maybe friends who have seen the film? Are you freaking them out now?

Gaspard Ulliel: Well not yet because I don’t have any friends who have seen it yet.

HorrorMovies: What do you think their reaction would be?

Gaspard Ulliel: It’s fiction you know, but 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. (laughs)

HorrorMovies: Well I remember in a previous interview that Anthony Hopkins had said he did the Hannibal Lecter voice to a traffic cop who gave him a ticket so maybe if this movie takes off, do you plan on doing anything like that?

Gaspard Ulliel: Well yeah, if this can avoid a fine, yes. (laughs)

HorrorMovies: Was this your first English language film?

Gaspard Ulliel: Yes, well I worked just one time before, just once with an English director, Peter Greenaway, but I think the film was never released. My role was much smaller. I had 10 days of shooting.

HorrorMovies: So how was acting for you in a foreign language?

Gaspard Ulliel: It’s very tough. It’s very tiring because you need to be concentrating the whole day long and it’s different from acting in French because you have to just try to take some distance with all the English lessons you take and the accent coaching. You have this music in your head and you have to really take some distance with it so that your lines come out naturally and this is something that I don’t have when I’m working in my own language. And also sometimes it’s a bit hard because I think English people have different intonations to express feelings. It’s different from one language to another and so you have to be aware of this.

HorrorMovies: Do you think there are certain things about the character of Lecter that you just can’t understand?

Gaspard Ulliel: The only thing that I had difficulty understanding precisely was 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 that you keep doing this and that you really like it and you 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.

HorrorMovies: Hannibal is a frightening character.  So, what frightens you?

Gaspard.  Nothing.  Well, blood.  I don’t like to see blood. 

HorrorMovies: So real blood kind of creeps you out?

Gaspard:  Well, not when I eat it.  No, really, I can eat steak tartar and meat.  I really like meat. But when I hurt myself and see a lot of blood, this can be a bit [disturbing].

HorrorMovies: What did some of that blood and flesh taste like when you were shooting those scenes? Was it pretty gross?

Gaspard Ulliel: Well the fake blood was strawberry flavored. About the only moment where I clearly take a bite is at the end in this scene with Grutas (Rhys Ifans) 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 on and I tried it and it felt so real. It was made of silicon 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. Yeah, it was very, very odd.

HorrorMovies: Did you spit it out right afterwards?

Gaspard Ulliel: Yeah.

HorrorMovies: How many takes did that scene require?

Gaspard Ulliel: How many takes? Just two, I think.

HorrorMovies: What was it like working opposite Gong Li?

Gaspard Ulliel: 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 she is not that talkative. But 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 also for a young actor like me. It was a very nice experience.

HorrorMovies: Were the language barriers an easy thing to overcome?

Gaspard:  Yeah.  It was not that tough.  She understand pretty much everything we say in English but sometimes she needed her interpreter to express herself but that was okay.    

HorrorMovies: This is an intense role.  Gong Li was saying that you didn’t say much between shots.  Did you keep in character after work?

Gaspard Ulliel: This happens sometimes.  It happened to me in other experiences with other roles.  At the end of the day you are still the character and don’t want to separate yourself from the character but when you’re working on such an extreme character that is so far from reality, you can’t stick to your character at night and remain in your role.  Otherwise, it would just drive you mad.  At night, I was myself.

HorrorMovies: Did she teach you anything?

Gaspard Ulliel: I observed her during the first week and I could see how precise she was.  She is very, very precise.  I was thinking that she knew exactly which profile she should give to the camera and which look she should give at this precise moment.  We can see that she has a lot of experience and she knows how to work precisely with the camera.

HorrorMovies: What was the experience like working with the rest of the cast?

Gaspard Ulliel: It was nice to have such a wonderful cast.  I really like Kevin McKidd and Rhys Ifans too was very fun to work with.  It’s very nice.  I think for a young actor like me to work with big actors and actresses can be helpful and it can push you up in some scenes.

HorrorMovies: What was it like to learn the sword action?

Gaspard:  It’s the only scene for which we had physical preparation and so we worked for a whole week with a Kendo teacher.

HorrorMovies: In which scene do you feel your character becomes the Hannibal we all know?  Was there a moment when you were shooting that you realized you were Hannibal Lecter?

Gaspard Ulliel: I think there are two main moments for me.  The first time he kills the butcher.  At the end we can see that it’s very pleasant for him and he really enjoys it.  There is the sun and all this nature around him.  It’s a very comfortable and pleasant moment so there he gets a glimpse of this attractive thing.  Then, I think, at the end when Lady Murasaki asks him to stop and leave with her and he says ‘no’.  Definitely no and that is the moment where he chooses to just keep on going as a monster and not going back to the human side.

HorrorMovies: Were there any scenes cut out of the film that you would have liked to see left in?

Gaspard Ulliel: Not scenes but moments.  Especially the very last scene in Canada.  This was much longer when we shot it and much more detailed.  The character was taking more time to choose the eyes.  It was a bit more Hannibal Lecter like.

HorrorMovies: Do you see how he kills him?

Gaspard Ulliel: No, you don’t see but it’s more.  We were taking our time to joke about it and that was cut.  That’s it.  Also, we shot a moment where you clearly see the piece of cheek in his mouth and he just spat it out which, to me, was important to show the real evolution of the character and it was a very strong moment but maybe it was too violent.

HorrorMovies: What is going through you head as an actor during these violent things? Do you think ‘oh, my god, why am I doing this’?

Gaspard Ulliel: I don’t think you say that because you prepared for this role.  Then I think you are ready to experience all the scenes and this is just normal for you. You’re trying to feel as natural as you can.  But, many, many times, it was very fun to do all those killings -- like a game.

HorrorMovies: Would you play Hannibal again?

Gaspard Ulliel: Yeah, it’s a very pleasant character to work on; very fun and interesting. It’s a very complex character.  Yeah, I think the idea of working again on this character is kind of appealing to me but, again, you have to see if the script is good and if the director is interesting so I can’t really tell but yeah, the idea of working again on this character appeals to me.

HorrorMovies: Are you signed for more?

Gaspard Ulliel: Not yet. I didn’t hear anything about doing one more for the moment so I think they just want to see how this film goes on and we should just watch this film as one film and not a new series.

HorrorMovies: Where could it go at this point?

Gaspard:  I don’t know.  You have to ask Tom Harris.

HorrorMovies: What about other feature roles? Is there anything else that you’re working on right now? What’s next for you?

Gaspard Ulliel: Yeah, well my next project is very different. It’s a film that I’m going to start shooting in April. It’s a very small art house film and the role is kind of the opposite of this one. I’m playing a guardian angel and it’s a director from New Zealand, Niki Caro, she did North Country and Whale Rider. It’s a nice, small story about a vintner, a winemaker that is going to meet his guardian angel, and it’s going to be shot in France and in New Zealand and it’s with another French actor, Jérémie Renier, and the actress that was in the last Scorsese [film], The Departed, Vera Farmiga.

HorrorMovies: Where is home base?

Gaspard:  I live in Paris.

HorrorMovies: Thank you.

Gaspard Ulliel: Thanks. Bye.

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