'Hannibal's' Richard Armitage on Balancing the Red Dragon's Lust for Love — and Murder

Hannibal S03E08 Still - H 2015
Brooke Palmer/NBC

Hannibal S03E08 Still - H 2015

Fannibals are officially entering a new chapter. With just six episodes to go before Hannibal ends its run (possibly for good), the series wrapped its European storyline in last week's "Digestivo," when Hannibal (Mads Mikkelsen) turned himself into Jack (Laurence Fishburne) in a bid to save Will (Hugh Dancy).

When the action picks up with Saturday's "The Great Red Dragon," the timeline has jumped noticeably forward. Will is now married, Hannibal has worked out a sweet deal for himself and there's a new big bad in town — Francis Dolarhyde, aka The Tooth Fairy and The Red Dragon (played by Richard Armitage).

The character, who is perhaps the most recognizable villain from the Thomas Harris books (other than Hannibal himself) has been hyped since creator Bryan Fuller first announced his season three appearance to fans.

To get the lowdown on what Dolarhyde brings to the table, what it's like to step into those scaly shoes and how he'll change things up with the Hannibal-Will Graham dynamic, The Hollywood Reporter caught up with Armitage ahead of his debut Saturday. 

This is a really physical role, how did you get ready?

Thomas Harris described him as a body builder, which I feel was useful to an extent, but I didn’t feel the character had any kind of vanity toward himself. In fact the way that he’s trying to change his body because he’s so unhappy with his own physical power, it was about strength rather than appearance. So it started with as much gym training as I could use, but I also found a passage in the book that described his movement as being stylized like a Balinese dancer, which didn’t quite work for me. I went to a Japanese art form called Butoh, which is a biological exploration of the body. Francis is somebody who is so uncomfortable in his skin; he’s trying to shed his skin and writhing around inside his own body really, trying to escape.

You have zero dialogue in your debut episode. Was that a struggle to prepare for?

When we were working on that I would listen to Mich Levi, who wrote the score to Under the Skin. It was ironically useful and very topical at the time because he’d just been nominated for an Oscar. I was also listening to a young girl who was in speech therapy for a cleft palate. I studied a lot of online of speech therapy for speech disabilities. It’s interesting that there’s no dialogue in episode eight because Dolarhyde has such a self-conscious approach to his own voice and his own speech that it takes him a long time before he can actually speak. And when he does speak he chooses his words very carefully and speaks very slowly and specifically. As an audience we are introduced to him physically first and then we’re going to hear his voice in episode nine, so it was really nice to be able to play that in real time.

We learn about his crimes first and then backtrack, did that affect the way you played it too?

Yes. I studied Bryan’s script for 308, but I also looked at the novel that Harris created and I was specific about whether we would see Frances committing those crimes. If we were, it would be something that I probably wouldn’t have been able to take on. I found it too disturbing and it was something that I wouldn’t want to depict on screen. But and in a way that was quite helpful to the character because he has separated himself from his own crimes. When he watches them back on film, he is so abhorred by what he’s done, it takes him to a place of anguish whereby he tries to destroy himself. We really meet the man first before we find out what he’s done and we see him struggling with himself; we see him falling in love. I think it’s an attempt on Harris’ part to make us really look at the paths that are taken by human beings to drive them to such dark places.

What do you make of a character who has this great compassion for love and sensitivity, yet is able to murder an entire family?

It’s a fictional character, but at the same time, as human beings it's easy to make a judgment on somebody. Yes, we must judge their crimes, but it’s also important to understand what it is that brings people to that place. We are all born equal and children are nurtured in a certain way. It’s a little bit of a lottery as to what luck you’re born into and what kind of life is offered to you. In this rare instance, this man has turned into a monster. There’s a real self-awareness in this character, an understanding of what he is and what he’s done. There’s a thrill, but there’s also an abhorrence at himself, which is fascinating to study.

Bryan seems particularly excited about a scene from the book, when Dolarhyde brings Reba (Rutina Wesley) to the zoo. What was that like to film?

It’s one of the marvelous moments in the book where you just can’t quite imagine a man who has such a lack of empathy and can commit a crime but is also so romantic that he takes a blind girl to the zoo to experience a tiger. To sort of have a central experience and to touch the sleeping tiger is—  it’s quite a marvelous moment in the book and to film it was the same, really. He didn't self-consciously know he was doing a heroic thing, he just understood that it would mean something to her and he wanted to rock her world. But it’s actually not for personal gain, it’s to move her.

How does Dolarhyde affect this version of Hannibal and Will Graham?

Hannibal is probably Dolarhyde’s idol; he’s studied him in the newspapers, he’s somebody that he aspires to be, and there’s a kind of mentor factor to it and a competitiveness. But I see when they meet in the imaginary world that Fuller creates, there is a sense of a boy in therapy with Hannibal, and he really is looking to him for salvation. I see it become a sort of tug of war between Will and Hannibal. Will is trying to save Dolarhyde from a terrible fate, while Hannibal is really pushing him toward the edge to get him to kill again and really using Dolarhyde as a tool against Will. He sort of becomes a pawn in between these two players.

Hannibal airs Saturdays at 10 p.m. on NBC. Are you excited for Dolarhyde to make his debut? Sound off in the comments below. 

Twitter: @amber_dowling