Interview : Gaspard Ulliel

The On-Set interview for “Hannibal Rising”

Gaspard Ulliel develops a penchant for human flesh in his latest movie, ‘Hannibal Rising’. As he explains, he’s learnt from the best : Anthony Hopkins. What he doesn’t tell us if whether the pink stuff goes down better smothered in tomato sauce or soy sauce.

Talk about the comparisons to Anthony Hopkins in the role of Hannibal
I think it was important for me to pick some moves and some attitudes from Anthony Hopkins’s famous portrayal and use them in my performance, but I was conscious to try and do something different with my character. It was so interesting to observe how Anthony Hopkins works. I spent like a whole month watching the three previous Hannibal Lecter films again and again and watching every move of Anthony Hopkins and the way he was moving and the way he was blinking his eyes- I think it was really important for me to do this- it was really interesting and I learnt many things from watching his performance. It was also interesting to read the novels. You have other details in these that are not in the films- longer character descriptions for example. But I think what’s important to know, what I told myself- and I think Peter Webber, the director, agrees- is that this film is taking place a long time before- so I’m much younger and the character is not in the same state of mind, he hasn’t seen what the ‘old’ Hannibal has seen, he hasn’t been to prison yet and so I think that he can be very different in my portrayal as he’s not in his ‘advanced’ state of mind yet.

Details picked out of Anthony Hopkins’ portrayal of the character and incorporated into yours- which are these?
I looked at the way he moves for a start. I watched the bonus features on the DVDs and how he explains that he observed snakes and cats for his own interpretation of the character. This is obvious even in the first scene where we see him in the prison. His stillness, his breathing, and the way he rarely blinks. Everything he does and every action of his body is justified. Of course, there is also his way of speaking. I think….I tried sometimes, because in this film there is an evolution, a ‘crescendo’ during the movie, whereby he finds killing and eating people addictive. So by the end of the film, I am getting closer to Anthony Hopkin’s way of thinking and speaking as Hannibal and I take more from his performance. I could talk about the small details for hours- the difficult thing for me was to take these details and mix these things to my own recipe. It’s more a question of attitude than of imitation. It’s also a question of dosage- Hannibal is not as advanced a killer when I play him as a young man.

Anthony Hopkins has a very distinct accent, do you think people will pay a lot of attention to yours?
This was the main concern for me and I hesitated in taking the part to begin with. I knew that it would be hard work for me and I didn’t have much time to practice my English- we had to shoot one month later. I worked with a dialogue coach as much as possible. What we can say is that Hannibal is from Lithuania – he grew up there, speaking Lithuanian. Then he came to France to live with Lady Murasaki, so he can have a slight accent by this point. Of course, if you look at Anthony Hopkins, he has the perfect English accent, so it is tricky, but I did my best! I don’t think this is the most important part of the movie- maybe in the opening scenes, an audience will think of this, but I hope that they will soon forget about this and look at the story.

The chemistry between Hannibal and Lady Murasaki- was it important for you to have this chemistry with Gong Li?
This part of the film is the trickiest part. For me it was the hardest part of all. When I studied for this role and worked towards it, and looked at the three previous Hannibal films, if you think about them, you see Hannibal in lots of different situations but rarely in contact with a lady in this way- having those kinds of feelings. So this is quite new for Hannibal and I think the trickiest part for me. In fact, we are just starting to get into these scenes now as we had to wait for Gong Li to join us. So it’s quite good for me as we did all of the killing scenes to start with and now we are beginning to do all of the scenes with Lady Murasaki, all in one go, so it’s a nice way to work.

What kind of a relationship is it that Hannibal shares with Lady Murasaki- is it a romantic relationship or a teacher to pupil relationship?
I can hardly explain it; it is a mixture of different feelings. I think that it obviously appears like a romance but it is much more than this. He learns a great deal from Lady Murasaki and I think there is a real exchange and she helps to build his character- she is the only comfort for him through his childhood, she is there for him in his childhood, she’s the only thing. I didn’t want this to be like a usual romance- I wanted there to be much more to it and different types of feelings involved.

Did you watch or read novels about characters like Hannibal Lecter for your research?
Peter gave me some DVDs of the films – it was the atmosphere he wanted in some certain scenes. He also had me look at some Asian samurai sword movies as this comes into play in this story; there are some scenes in this film which are very Japanese in context. I think I really concentrated on the previous Hannibal films and I read the three books by Thomas Harris too. I also read a number of books about serial killers, that were written by criminal profilers. It was interesting- it helped me, but not so much. The characters described in these books are real killers- the things described were quite contradictory to the way Hannibal behaves- he’s a different type of character to these killers- the way he behaves and his character- he’s a different kind of serial killer altogether. It was really interesting to read these books- they are hard to read. Really shocking. Those killers are really… you can’t believe what you are reading. I remember the first book I bought; it described types of serial killers- I wasn’t sure I wanted to carry on reading it! But it’s really interesting…. Serial killers and their attacks are often linked to sexual meaning and feelings. I don’t think Hannibal Lecter is killing for these reasons at all. It’s maybe not the main goal for most serial killers, but there is usually a sexual relief which is absent from Hannibal’s killings.

You were maybe too young to watch the ‘Silence of the Lambs’ when it was first released- when did you hear about it?
In my mind, it was always a famous movie and a legendary one. I waited a long time to see it! I think this movie is really special. There is something that you can’t really touch on- it’s almost magical. They made it quite hastily but ended up with something very special, it’s really a masterpiece.

So what did you do to impress the producers and director in order to get this part?
Well, I bought them all very expensive watches… no, I’m joking! In fact, they called me- I was very surprised of course as for one thing, I am French and this is an English speaking role. I did some tests with Peter and he was happy from the first occasion- he was so excited and really enthusiastic about working with me- I never asked him why! I don’t think I need to know, I was just very flattered and excited to be working with him. I doubted myself in taking the role at first- it’s a really tough thing for me as I had to practice my English so much and had so little time to practice and this is such a big role to take on. To go down the same path as Anthony Hopkins, to walk in his footsteps is very daunting a prospect to take on. He obviously did such a really great job. It’s the first thing that people are going to think about when they come to see the film. But I told myself that if you look at the script, we are dealing with a different character in many ways. He’s much younger, he hasn’t experienced the same things yet, he hasn’t been hardened by his time in prison at this stage. It’s quite different. What I was also interested in is that I like the real evolution that the character goes through. We see him discover his dark side through his medical practices and the lessons he takes as a student, as well as through his first murders, which we witness. The job was not to imitate Anthony Hopkins exactly, even if it was right to take some of the small details from his performance and add them to my character. The audience will think about the previous Hannibal, there’s no doubt, so I had to work in this way. So I watched the other Hannibal films a lot and looked at how he moves and performs. Then I had to try and find the character within me and make if different.

Did you meet Anthony Hopkins?
It was supposed to happen but didn’t- but I don’t think it’s necessary for the role- we have our own ways of working, you know? I would have loved to have met him though as I have such respect for him as an actor. Maybe after the movie!

Which Hannibal film is your favourite?
I really like Jonathan Demme’s direction in Silence of the Lambs- it’s a great film and is directed in such a classical way I think- lots of close ups and there is a great intensity. Most of the film concentrates on the two leads. I love their performances. The film has become legendary!

How do Hannibal’s feelings about murder and motivation come in to play in this film?
In this story, it concentrates more on the fact that Hannibal starts to kill to take revenge for his sister’s death. He then begins to really enjoy killing. It’s never a simply ‘free’ killing- he kills those who are rude and do not behave in what he believes to be the correct way. You can see that when he kills there is no sexual relief. It’s always about people who have done wrong.

Is he born evil or does he become this way because of what happened to him?
Due to what he experiences in his childhood.I don’t think you can be born this way. You must have something happen to you that made you this way and made you hold this hate for others.

Are you attached to do another Hannibal movie after this one?
For the moment, this has not been confirmed. The producers haven’t said much to me, anyway! For the moment, it has not been said whether another film will be shot and probably depends on how this film is received but I know that Thomas has a whole lot of ideas in his head about this character.

Is it difficult to portray this character compared to others that you have played and can you leave it behind at the end of the day?
Well, I have had previous experiences whereby I got really attached to the character I am playing- where you’re still in character when you get back to the hotel. Hannibal is obviously the most difficult to understand and to work with. Sometimes I have scenes where it’s difficult to work out the way this character would behave from inside his head- he’s not an easy guy to understand. But the whole job is quite tough for me-I also have to concentrate on my English too, as this is my first role where I speak English in a main part. It’s different to my previous experiences for this reason too.

How are you enjoying working with Peter Webber?
Great, great- from the first time I met him I really liked him. I watched Girl with a Pearl Earring- I loved it. It was quite a good idea to choose someone like him to direct a film like this- it’s not what you would expect. He is certainly adding something special to this script in the way he directs. I think he’s done a great job.

Which scenes were you asked to perform in your screen test for this part?
Let me think- there were two scenes. The first was the scene in the museum where Hannibal and Lady Murasaki look at the tapestries. The second was in Kolnas’ kitchen- when I bring him his daughter’s bracelet and we fight.

What was the most dangerous scene for you to film?
I don’t know- there are a few fights in the film and I had to do some Kendo lessons in preparation. This was great- but it was quite simple fighting moves. I’m not sure there has been anything particularly dangerous.

As a French actor, do you think France is the only country that can give Hollywood a run for its money, with production in France at 51% of all European cinema?
For me it’s hard as I only know what happens in France- I haven’t worked in Hollywood. We have quite a protective system there. The situation is getting better for us- there is more money coming through to make more films. There seems to be the big budget films and the very small independent films and nothing in between. It’s hard to make something somewhere in between.

Hannibal plots elaborate revenge schemes- can you talk to us about these?
His idea is not simply to kill- it’s a bit more sadistic. He enjoys making up the plots around the murders. For example, when he has the bracelet of Kolna’s daughter, he wants to play with this in front of Kolnas. During the film, each murder gets more and more sadistic. I think we really tried to bring this to a crescendo in the film. The act of killing gets more violent and wild. We get to see this new side of the character by the end of the film-like a wild animal.
It’s the most difficult aspect of the character for me to portray- but also the most important thing for the audience to see in him- the evolution in the way he murders and the evolution of the dark side of his character. I was prepared for these scenes as I’d really thought hard about the killing scenes- it was the first thing I worked on. The more simple and usual scenes that we are shooting now are somehow harder for me- to come back to this and use simple dialogue and actions of the ‘everyday’ characteristics of Hannibal.

HANNIBAL RISING is now screening

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