NEW YORK -- It's fair to say that Mads Mikkelsen dines out on his new starring role.
He plays the title character in NBC's new grisly gourmet drama, "Hannibal," which focuses on Dr. Hannibal Lecter -- scholar, connoisseur, cannibal -- during an earlier, more nuanced time than was covered in the hit film "The Silence of the Lambs" and its sequel.
No surprise: When Mikkelsen was offered the role, he hesitated to bite.
"It's been done to perfection," he says, citing the indelible performance of Anthony Hopkins. "What could we add?"
Turns out, quite a lot.
Unlike Hopkins' Hannibal, Mikkelsen's version isn't "a madman in a (jail) cell. He's out in the world, where he can make friends and help people feel comfortable." In short, he's fully able to pass in polite society, as he must -- especially if the series (9 p.m. Thursdays) hopes to last.
"He's not a classic psychopath or a classic serial killer," adds Mikkelsen. "I believe that he's as close to Satan as can be -- the fallen angel. He sees the beauty in death. And every day is a new day, full of opportunities."
Dr. Lecter is just one member of the series' motley trio. This brilliant psychiatrist is recruited to counsel a gifted but tormented criminal profiler, Will Graham (played by Hugh Dancy), who can see into the minds of serial killers and is haunted by what he sees. Special Agent Jack Crawford (played by Laurence Fishburne) is head of the FBI's Behavioral Science Unit, and he's counting on Lecter to keep Will on course.
Together they unite (or appear to) on a mission to track down ghastly serial killers -- with neither Jack nor Will dreaming that the most depraved offender is part of their team.
This knotty alliance is what captured Mikkelsen's interest. When he first met with series creator Bryan Fuller ("Pushing Daisies"), he heard much talk "about this whole bro-mance thing between Hannibal and Will, and it sounded really cool," he says. "The relationship between all these characters is what's actually fundamental to the story, not the individual cases."
There are scenes of startling grisliness. There are also scenes of gruesome humor, as when Lecter -- a gourmet cook -- serves elegant dinners to appreciative guests (including Will and Jack) whose key ingredients are human body parts, prepared with such culinary camouflage they look mouthwatering even to the well-aware audience.
Mikkelsen has come up with a robust back story for Hannibal: born in Lithuania. Educated in Paris and England. Refined and intellectual and even a bit of a snob, but a good host and excellent company.
"He's a man who loves talking, who loves words," says Mikkelsen. "Every tenth word I had, my dialogue coach had to look it up: He had no idea what it was, either."
Born in Copenhagen, Denmark, 47 years ago, Mikkelsen (whose first name is pronounced "mass," not "mads") is a matinee idol in his native land, where he has starred in acclaimed films such as "Valhalla Rising," in which he played a half-blind Viking gladiator, and "The Hunt," which won him the best actor prize at the 2012 Cannes Film Festival for his role as a teacher falsely accused of a sex crime.
Though not a household name in the U.S. -- yet -- his face is increasingly familiar from his role as the sadistic villain Le Chiffre in the 2006 James Bond film, "Casino Royale," and performances alongside Clive Owen in "King Arthur" and Liam Neeson in "Clash of the Titans."
It was through a circuitous path that he found his way to acting.
From childhood he was a serious gymnast and then, as a young man, joined a contemporary dance troupe.
"But I was interested in the drama of the dance more than the technique," he says. "I felt that if that was what I was loving, why don't I do that full-on?"
Meanwhile, he was vexed by what he saw as actors' hollow conventions: "We do this because that's how they have always done it, but it doesn't have anything to do with life. It becomes a convention they only BELIEVE is reality."
An inspiring alternative for him was the film "Taxi Driver," which he saw as an antidote to stiffness and artifice in drama.
"It made me want to be true to what I believed was right," he says.
One thing he clearly believes in: not putting on airs. Striking a contrast to the three-piece-suit polish of Hannibal, Mikkelsen has arrived for his interview bundled up and in transit. He had wrapped the first season of "Hannibal" in Toronto only hours earlier, and in a few more hours would be taking off from New York. He looks the part: Toting a duffel bag, he's dressed in jeans, running shoes, peacoat and knit cap. He looks like he might be shipping out on the next freighter.
Sleep-deprived, he sips a can of soda for a burst of caffeine and continues making his case for authenticity.
He points to a dining scene where Hannibal tells Jack, "Next time, bring your wife. I'd love to have you BOTH for dinner."
Viewers all too familiar with Hannibal's dietary fetish may be tickled by that line and its secondary meaning. But Mikkelsen delivers it as if nothing more than a gracious invitation.
"I can never wink at the audience," he says, noting that Jack and Will aren't dummies: "Will is the best profiler in the world." So his performance must always accommodate their brilliance. "I can't be having fun with a line like this, without them seeing it!"
"If you're doing it for the audience," Mikkelsen sums up, "you're killing the reality."
That's one thing even a killer like Hannibal Lecter won't do.