“It’s my favorite show ever. It’s my favorite character.”
I sat down with Katharine Isabelle recently to talk to her about her role as Margot Verger on the TV show, HANNIBAL.
The character of Margot Verger, despite playing a significant role in Thomas Harris’s book, HANNIBAL, does not appear in the movie version. So this is the first time we’re seeing this character on screen. And based on her performance in Season 2, I think Katharine Isabelle has created the defining version of Margot, and I hope we get to see more of the Vergers in Season 3.
While I would have loved to have asked her about other roles like Ginger from GINGER SNAPS or Mary from AMERICAN MARY, I focused our conversation on the joys and challenges of portraying such an interesting and complex character on HANNIBAL.
Question: I’m a huge fan of the show, and I’ve read that you’re also a fan. Is that right?
Katharine Isabelle: I am a big fan of the show. I’m a huge fan of [Hannibal star] Mads Mikkelsen, who I originally saw at the Ritz in a Danish film called GREEN BUTCHERS. He played my favorite character ever, named Svend “Sweat,” and I totally fan-girled all over him when I saw him for the first time, while in the back of my head telling myself to shut up because I sound like a raging dork and psycho [laughs]. But, yeah, I binged-watched the whole first season [of HANNIBAL] they gave me when I arrived in my hotel the night before. It psychologically affected me enough to the point where at 3 AM when the fire alarm went off, I looked out the window and saw a cop car, and I thought I saw in the reflection of an open window an eviscerated body in my lobby. And I started thinking, “Oh my God, if someone has been murdered in the lobby, why would the cops turn on the fire alarm? Unless it was the killer who turned on fire alarm to get all of us running down the stairs so he could fucking murder us.” And I looked around and thought maybe I’d watched too much Hannibal. It’s an amazing show. Something that could psychologically affect me, it’s pretty good.
We were invited by Bryan Fuller [the creator and showrunner] to go watch the first two episodes of the second season in a theater he had rented, and it’s probably one of the only TV shows you can watch on a feature-sized screen and just be absolutely captivated. It’s beautifully shot, beautifully written, it’s smart, it’s dark, it’s scary. It has everything I love.
Question: Margot’s backstory is that she’s been abused by her brother for years. I can imagine it would have been an easy choice to play her as a victim, but instead you brought a complexity to her — a toughness that she’s presumably developed just to survive; plus a vulnerability that arouses the sympathy of both Will and Hannibal. How difficult was it to strike the right balance?
Katharine: Fortunately, it’s so well written that I didn’t have to fill in a lot of the blanks myself. I had a couple conversations with Bryan Fuller before my very first day where he talked about what his feelings and his thoughts about the character were. And not necessarily any direct commandments, but the overall gist of it. When something is so well written and someone takes the time to tell you themselves how they feel about it, there’s just an amalgamation that happens along the way. I’m not the kind of actor who sits and overanalyzes because I find that if I do that I just second-guess everything, I second-guess any natural instincts. So to have it be well-written and to be given an overall feeling from Bryan Fuller, they did the work for me and I just have to show up. And working across from Mads, he’ll get things out of you that you didn’t see coming.
We definitely wanted Margot to not be victim-y. She has a strength and a patience, like a sociopathic sort of patience, biding her time until she can really get even with her brother, which is what I think is so exciting about the end of the second season. It leaves this window of opportunity in the third season for her to have the upper hand, to be a power player in that relationship. And I’m glad for that. I play a lot of characters that could be viewed as victims but had strength and ended up not being too much a victim.
Question: How did you approach that final scene between Margot and Mason?
Katharine: They have such an interesting relationship. And I think they really do have some kind of deep fucked-up connection because otherwise I don’t think Margot would stick around so much. I don’t know if she tried to flee and he just finds her every time or whatever, but I couldn’t see her finding him in that physical predicament and then just be like, “Okay, awesome I’m free and I’m going to live my life now.” She’s not. She’s going to stick around and make sure that she either gets her revenge or has the power or the control. I don’t see her just running away from this situation. I think it was thrilling and scary and challenging for Margot all at once to find herself in that position. I don’t think in that scene that she’s really even decided how she’s going to approach this new phase in their life together. I think she was just sort of tickled at the idea that there would be a switch in power. Or maybe there won’t be, who knows? Maybe he’s got such a psychological line on her, who knows? I have no idea what they have planned for the third season or what’s happened to their relationship.
Question: You mentioned acting with Mads, and you also got to work closely with Hugh Dancy. Are you guys given the room to experiment from take to take or does the shooting schedule move too quickly for that?
Katharine: They’re very, very generous with the time that they allow actors to have, which they have to be because it’s so intense, such deep subtle shit. It’s so well shot that there are five or six or seven set-ups for every scene, even if it’s just two people. And by the time you get around to it, you do a few takes the way that you see it in the morning, and you do a few the way the director has seen it when he was thinking about it the night before, and then something that you do or something that he says inspires a new thought and you do it again a couple of other different ways. It’s always interesting to see what [takes they use] when they edit it. Like on the first and second episode I was in, I was really trying to suss out Margot for myself. It’s not like I’m there and in the clothes on the day and I’m like, “I got this, I got her locked now.” It takes a little while. And hopefully people don’t find out what scenes I’m still trying to figure her out in [laughs]. But I definitely threw down a lot of different ways to go with her the first couple days, and when I got to see finally which ones [the editor] had used, that informed my decisions going forward with the character. Once you see what they’re all putting together and how it comes across, you go, “Oh, okay, okay, I get it.” Seeing it objectively after the fact and looking at it, you get the gist and the feeling of what they’re going for, and that informs me going ahead.
Question: It’s like this really interesting unspoken creative collaboration with the editors.
Katharine: Yeah, the editor and I never talk but something happens along the line that definitely solidifies choices that I’ve made.
Question: HANNIBAL has such a great sense of humor. How important do you think it is to bring humor to such a dark show?
Katharine: I think you have to otherwise this dark material is just so over-the-top. I mean, every single person in the city of Baltimore is a serial killer [laughs]. You have to have a little bit of dark humor when you’re dealing with eating people. I think the character of Hannibal played by Mads Mikkelsen is fucking funny. I think that sort of intense sociopathic nature also involves a little bit of a sense of absurdity with the world, and I think that comes across. Like when Michael Pitt is cutting his face off and eating it and he goes, “I’m full of myself,” I literally fell on the floor laughing. It’s this sick, twisted, fucked-up scene, and I’m laughing because it’s hilarious. I think you need these moments once in a while otherwise your stomach is in such a knot and you won’t be able to eat. And Bryan Fuller who created it is such a genius. Like WONDERFALLS and DEAD LIKE ME and all these other shows he’s done that have dark material but have this levity and this absurdity and a sort of magic to them. That’s the same reason why WILLY WONKA, the original movie, is one of my favorite movies of all time. It’s dark and fucked up that he’s murdering bad children, but it’s hilarious and fun. I think when you’re going to make people see the world and how terrible everything is, if you can add a little bit of levity and the absurdity of the human experience, people are going to connect with that.
Question: You worked with Bryan Fuller on the TV movie, CARRIE. Had you guys stayed in touch, and how did you come to get involved with HANNIBAL?
Katharine: After CARRIE I did go and screen test for [Bryan’s show] WONDERFALLS. There were three girls that went in, and Caroline Dhavernas [who plays Alana Bloom on HANNIBAL] ended up getting it. And Bryan Fuller is known to be very loyal to people he likes. I was astonished. I got the audition [for HANNIBAL] and I thought, “Oh Bryan Fuller, oh I know him and I worked with him and I love him and he’s great.” And the network looked at my tape and went, “I don’t know if she’s strong enough.” So Bryan Fuller, who had somehow seen AMERICAN MARY, sent them a copy of it and they went, “Yup, she’s strong enough. Book her.” And I was so incredibly grateful to Bryan for remembering me.
And also, one of the directors of the first couple episodes, Vincenzo [Natali], he worked on GINGER SNAPS, and I think [he and Bryan] had a conversation or my name came up or something, and he was like “Oh yeah, she’d be great for this.” And they sent me a request for an audition and it just came to me like anything else does. And I realized a little bit later that Bryan thought about me and remembered me and pushed me for it, and I was so grateful and very honored to have been thought about for this. I was incredibly tickled. When you work with somebody who’s so amazing and they actually remember you and call you up like ten years later, that’s like, “I feel pretty good about myself today!” [She laughs.]
Question: You can sense that loyalty even from Bryan’s tweets as he’s talking about all these actors he wants to bring back for Season 3. Do you know for sure that Margot will be back next season?
Katharine: I only know from conversations I’ve had with Bryan and other people that Margot would definitely be coming back at some point. I don’t know how much or how little, I have no idea where the character’s going. He did do an interview with AfterEllen — that was tweeted at me and I read it and was like, “Oh my God that was awesome” — and he said something about a BOUND-inspired storyline and a love interest for Margot, and I think there’s going to be some really cool stuff for her, which makes me just so happy because it’s my favorite show ever. It’s my favorite character and I’m super-excited to see what they come up with. But basically I’m the last one to know. And I only get the scripts of the actual episodes I’m in so I don’t even know what’s going on at all. I’m totally in the dark until I show up on set.
Question: Since you’re a fan of the show, is there anything you think other fans would find especially interesting about your experience working on HANNIBAL?
Katharine: As an actor, I’m not privy to all the ins and outs of stuff. My experience is like I’ve won some kind of contest and I got to do a walk-on part [laughs]. I’m so thrilled to have anything to do with it at all. Walking into Hannibal Lecter’s office is quite something. And sitting down across from him is… it takes you a while to get over. You leave and you’re like all jittery and “I can’t believe that happened,” and you run it through your head like a million times. But I think everyone there, the whole crew, they know they’re making something different. They know they’re making something unique and special, and everyone really cares. No one wants to let down their peers and their co-workers and Bryan Fuller. I think everyone feels pretty special to be a part of it, I know I do.
As far as anecdotes, there was one day I got to wear a $25,000 Alexander McQueen and wear 6-inch stilettos and drive a Tesla. And there was a day we called “Orgy Monday” where the very first thing up was the sex scene between Hugh and I, which turns into being about Hannibal and Alana and then the Stag-man, and we were like, “Okay, let’s have a good orgy, guys. Who’s going to tag in? You, go.” That’s the absurdity, like, “What are we doing? Oh, we’re having an orgy? Okay cool.” I think most of us know we’re making something special and are happy to be a part of it.
Question: Hopefully it will continue for a very long run. I know as a fan I would love to see HANNIBAL continue for many more seasons, and I hope that Margot comes back.
Katharine: Yeah, me too!
The HANNIBAL Season 2 Blu-ray and DVD comes out Tuesday, September 16. Season 3 will air on NBC early next year.