INTERVIEW BY PAUL RISKER
Ginger from Ginger Snaps and Mary from American Mary – two characters that stand as strong representations of onscreen femininity that actress Katharine Isabelle was afforded an opportunity to play and bring to life on the screen. Her latest role of the previously untouched Margo Verger is a powerful accompaniment to Ginger and Mary for Isabelle’s repertoire. And speaking of these three characters Isabelle jokes: “In some twisted, weird dimension Ginger probably grew up to be Mary, and Mary probably grew up to be Margo [laughs].”
The contrasts between her depiction of Margo and novelist Thomas Harris’s vision for the character are stark, and discussing with Box Office Buz her rendezvous with Margo, contradictions arise of an actress who perceives herself as not being particularly sought after versus an actress whose previous work has earned her both an acknowledgement and the opportunity to be the first onscreen incarnation of Margo Verger. As she explained: “Like everything mostly, I just auditioned for it because [laughs] I am not particularly famous or sought after. But it turned out that I had worked with the creator Brian Fuller ten years prior on something that I had a small part in. The fact that he remembered me or was enthusiastic at all was amazing, and I think he had recently watched a film I did called American Mary, and he used that film to convince the studio and the network that I would be right for Margo... Thank God!”
During the course of our conversation Isabelle reflected on the fun of playing a previously untouched character, the contrast of TV and film and the benefit of a little mystery in the former. She also offered her thoughts on the flexibility of the Hannibal character, the place of Margo in her repertoire and the warming up of the industry towards multi-dimensional female characters.
BUZ: How familiar were you with both the world of Hannibal and the Margo character before beginning work on the series? And what was your initial reaction to the realisation when you began reading her lines and scenes that you were going to finally lift this previously untouched character from the page?
KI: I had been a big fan of The Silence of the Lambs with Jodie Foster and Anthony Hopkins, but I had never read the book and I didn't know there was a character named Margo floating around out there. When I got the part I approached Sylvia Soska, a good friend of mine. Sylvia and Jen directed American Mary, and having read the books were quite obsessed with them as well as the character of Margo. So I immediately went to them and said: “Okay I don't have time to read all the books before I'm playing Margo… fill me in.” And they told me everything she was in the book and sort of informed me that way. But of course we didn't follow the book for Margo because in the book she was a giant bodybuilder, and I don't know if you are familiar with me, but I'm not.
I was sort of in the position of having an untouched character in the Hannibal world, which was really exciting for me. And to sort of get to know her as we went along was always something that could be challenging, but it could also be really exciting. If you read a feature you see the whole thing from beginning to end - the arc and where she ends up, whereas in a series you only get the episodes as you go along. So there is always something evolving and changing, especially with Margo. There is always someone trying to fuck her up or something, and it was just exciting every week to get to grips with the character’s rhythm and to see what was happening.
BUZ: Are you able to feed that mysterious element the television process affords you into your performance, and is it beneficial to you?
KI: Absolutely, and there are pros and cons to it right? There are times when you get the next episode and you say: okay, well if I had known that was going to happen I would have maybe... But who knows. At the same time it is also grand to provide an audience with something not even you yourself could have foreshadowed in your mind. And you do think if I'd have known that then I would have done that differently in the scene two episodes ago. But I think that if everyone is unaware of what is coming up, then it can be a bit exciting.
It is the one time that the audience, the actors and the characters are in synch...
We are all discovering it together.
BUZ: From Brian Cox to Anthony Hopkins and now Mads Mikkelsen, how do you compare and contrast the different incarnations of Hannibal?
KI: Comparing any of these amazing actors that have played Hannibal is sort of impossible because they are all different Hannibals. I was hugely obsessed with Anthony Hopkins and The Silence of the Lambs, but I am also hugely obsessed with Mads and Hannibal. Of course they are the same character, but they are very unique in their portrayals.
It taps into the idea of how flexible characters are and how if the same stories are being retold over and over again, and certain characters are enduring then it must be attributed to the distinctions that come from the creativity of the individual.
It is the filter that we are seeing it through and every time it is different. I think that is something that makes a familiar story like Hannibal still intensely exciting and watchable because it is seen through different filters. It is seen through different filters of the hundreds of people that are actually making the show: the filter of the creator, the filter of the actor, the filter of the costume designer and the filter of the cinematographer. All of it is so different and it provides a whole other dimension that you would never have... There are lots of characters out there that we have seen once portrayed by one actor and in our heads it's impossible that anyone else could ever portray them, but then we see something like what Mads has done with Hannibal and it’s like: oh my God that's exciting [laughs]. I would never have thought: Oh yeah, someone else could play Hannibal… No. But when you see it, then the filters that it is put through are enormously different and amazing.
BUZ: How do you look at the place Margo occupies within your own body of work?
KI: Well oddly enough, the three favourite characters I have ever played are Ginger from Ginger Snaps, Mary from American Mary and Margo from Hannibal. And in some twisted, weird dimension Ginger probably grew up to be Mary, and Mary probably grew up to be Margo [laughs]. Those three women were intensely unique and strong, and each were dealing with some serious shit in their own way. But yeah, they are amazing representations to me as far as females in film and television go because you don't often see women who are so intelligent or dark and funny, that are not just the typical female role, and that don't necessarily have a lot of redeeming qualities, but are absolutely relatable and understandable.
If you look to the Scandinavian and European crime dramas, those shows are being put on the shoulders of their female leads, and in the U.S there are shows such as House of Cards that feature strong female characters. Over a short spell there seems to have been a flourishing of strong female characters within television drama.
I think the film and television industry has sort of awakened to the fact that not all women are basically one dimensional - I am either smiling or I am a total... I think they are more comfortable with embracing the multi-dimensions of women in today's society - they are coming to terms with it [laughs]... Finally.
BUZ: Does this make it an exciting time to be an actress in film and television?
KI: Well especially the kind of actress that I apparently am, where if I audition for the sweet girl next door they are like: that's great, can you come in for the psycho? For someone like me to have more than once every ten years been able to come across a character that is a bit darker, able or not, then I think that is a huge step in evolutionary process of film, television and female characters. It only does good for me, which is that type of character I am usually thought of as.
BUZ: Christoph Behl remarked to me: “You are evolving, and after the film you are not the same person as you were before.” As an actress how do you view the way in which this role, but broadly the different characters you have encountered throughout your career have impacted or changed you personally and professionally?
KI: I think that's very accurate because as a human being any time you go through an experience it changes you. You evolve and you learn. I have experienced delivering a baby out of a pig and that changed me. I think when you start to think like your character, you are then exposed and opened up to new ways of thinking. Anytime you learn anything you grow and anytime you think outside of how you usually think you grow. So when you are learning and experiencing things as an actor through the perspective of the character, you can't help but evolve and grow.