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Exclusive interview: Lucca De Oliveira on the chills and thrills of bringing Thomas Harris’ Clarice to CBS

Lucca De Oliveira Pic credit: Brooke Palmer/CBS

If you’ve ever wondered what happened to Thomas Harris’ heroine Clarice Starling between the events of The Silence of the Lambs and Hannibal, CBS’ new series Clarice is taking a deep dive into the life of the FBI agent, starting in 1993, one year after she tracked down serial killer Buffalo Bill.

Several familiar faces are returning from the book and movie, like Paul Krendler (Michael Cudlitz), who is antagonistic to the young FBI Agent, and Ruth Martin (Jayne Atkinson), whose daughter, Clarice (Rebecca Breeds) rescued from Buffalo Bill.

Ruth is now the most powerful woman in American politics as the Attorney General, and she forces Clarice to get out from behind a desk at the FBI and back out into the field as a member of the ViCap team [Violent Criminal Apprehension Program] team, headed by Krendler.

But there are also several new characters being introduced who comprise the ViCap team, including Kal Penn as Shaan Tripathi, Nick Sandow as Agent Clarke, and Lucca De Oliveira as Tomas Esquivel.

“Perfectly and ironically, Esquivel’s in the Bureau at a time where Clarice is coming back, and he’s able to learn from her, and he’s sharing with her,” De Oliveira tells Monsters & Critics in this exclusive interview. “He’s a man of few words, heavy thought; he’s extremely considerate, extremely aware of his surroundings, and of who he is as a Latin man in the FBI in the ‘90s.”

Clarice began the season with a couple of one-off episodes in which the crime was solved in an hour, but now it is telling a longer story in which two women are killed, and a third is rescued just in time. Krendler thinks it is a serial killer, but Clarice is sure that it is part of a conspiracy, which puts them at odds.

“I’m so happy that we’re diving into a big, big story, and it’s not just crime solved,” Esquivel says. “That’s something people are comfortable with, but our show isn’t necessarily about making people feel comfortable, right? That’s not what Thomas Harris does. We want people to feel uncomfortable. We want their hearts to be racing. We want them to be sitting at the edge of their seat. We want them to not know what’s going to happen next and be caught off guard by the thing that happens next.”

Of course, De Oliveira isn’t revealing what that “next” is, but read more of what he has to say about his character and his relationship to Clarice, what he would like to see happen, his feelings about profilers, and more.

Monsters & Critics: What do you see as the fascination of Thomas Harris stories? Were you aware of him at all before the movies?

Lucca De Oliveira: I was very familiar with The Silence of the Lambs and also Red Dragon, not so much the books, more so the movies. I always found Ed Norton an incredible performer and actor. So, I really loved that story. But then, when I found out about Clarice, I delved much deeper into Harris’ world. I read all of his books, and I watched all of the movies. What I always loved so much about his books, specifically, was the attention to detail and the level of gore. There’s a way that he describes what is happening in the books that really would always crawl under my skin. Specifically, in Red Dragon. That one is very eerie to read.

There’s so much in The Silence of the Lambs book that thickens the narrative; comparing it to the movie and watching the movie and then reading the book, you see that there’s just so much more to be done. I think it’s what makes Clarice so special because it shows the range that we can take the story, how much deeper we can tell these stories, and what mediums we can use to convey the chills that we get from reading the book. That first heart-pounding feeling we get when we watched The Silence of the Lambs. We’re bringing all that back, and we’re infusing it with a new take on these characters while staying under the umbrella of Thomas Harris.

M&C: Tell me a little bit about Tomas Esquivel? Why did he become an FBI agent?

Lucca De Oliveira: I think Tomas started to see that his job was taking him out a little bit too much. He’s a sniper, so most of the time, he’s working alone at a distance, you know? That’s a certain perspective and, I think, he’s a man of curiosity and also a man of bettering himself. I think that finding the complete opposite of the perspective he’s most accustomed to is just going to improve his skillset. So, he’s going from being really far back to getting really up close and personal.

He knows what he’s good at and what he’s not good at. He knows when to speak and when not to speak. He’s, honestly, really, really fun to play. And he’s similar to me, minus the part about being a sharpshooter. We’re going to continue to see him throughout the season and see that he’s really a man of integrity and respect. I think that’s why he leans towards Clarice. He shows her the respect that she’s due, and he’s immediately in her corner.

M&C: You don’t write the show, but what would you like to see happen for Tomas if the writers would call you in and say, “Hey, Lucca, what’s your dream storyline?”

Lucca De Oliveira: Honestly, I’m a huge fan of what’s been happening with Esquivel. I’ll start by saying that this season is really, really great, and we’re going to continue to learn more about him, who he is outside of the Bureau and outside of this mask that he puts on as the sniper in ViCAP. I would really love to see more of his past probably, or more of the things that haunt him.

The same way that Clarice deals with things that haunt her, I would also love to see the things that haunt him, which we do talk about and we do reference. We see that he’s carrying a burden, he’s carrying a tremendous amount of weight from his past life with him throughout the season, but it’s in a more covert way. It’s in a way that really appeals more to the narrative of Clarice and how he is really quite similar to her.

It’s always good to know more about where you’re coming from, because it just makes where you’re going all the more interesting.

M&C: Are you of the school that profilers are born, or do you think that they can be created? You said that Tomas wants to learn from Clarice. Do you think that what she does is instinctual?

Lucca De Oliveira: I think it’s a mixture of both. I don’t think anyone’s always born with it. There are things we can be born with that can help us, whether we’re raised with empathy or compassion, but behavioral science is a science, and there’s a skill to it. There’s a way to go about getting answers out of people without them knowing that you’re getting those answers. Right? You’re tricking people to get out of their own way to give you the answers you want, so I think it’s definitely something that can be learned.

I think we’re going to see that with Esquivel. He’s a man of observation and a man of memory. He can pick up on the things she does, how she does it, and how she speaks to people and bring it back into his own life so that he can better understand the rest of the world.

This is really a skill set that helps us understand people, where they’re coming from, why they’re doing what they’re doing, and who they are. So, I definitely think it’s something that can be learned. The perfect balance between it being an inherent thing and being something learned is where we get the best of behavioral science.

M&C: Things are different now working under COVID-19 protocols, and you can’t necessarily hang out on set to watch people work, but what have you learned from working with Michael Cudlitz and Kal Penn, who are talented actors.

Lucca De Oliveira: I can’t, honestly, even believe sometimes that I’m here doing this and working with Kal, Michael, and Nick [Sandow]. I look up to them so much, they’ve taught me such great lessons, and it’s so fun to work with them. We all have so, so much fun. This team of people are very similar. We all really get along, and it’s been really special. It’s something I hold very close to my heart. I don’t take it lightly.

Kal Pen, Lucca De Oliveira, Nick Sandow Pic credit: Brooke Palmer/CBS

M&C: How do you personally deal with the gore? Are you good with it if you’re going into an autopsy, or do you think you would be one of the people who vomits?

Lucca De Oliveira: I don’t think I would throw up, but I think I’d have trouble sleeping. Definitely. It’s hard to see. We deal with bodies on the show, and our art department is insane because these bodies look so real, so they’re so hard to sit with and be there with. I get emotional sometimes looking at them too much because Esquivel relates all these characters to his family background, his mother and his sisters. So, when he sees these dead bodies, he can’t help but see, “What if that was my sister? What if that was my mom?” He connects so deeply to them.

He’s also a man of efficiency, so a waste of life is something that he doesn’t take lightly. Honestly, I try my best to remind myself that we’re playing for 10 then, and I have so much fun working. We have to inject love in our workdays so that we can counter the heavy material we’re working with.

Normally, when I work with material that is heavy like this, it affects the rest of my life. There’s a certain level that I kind of rest and maintain to protect myself and to try to make sure I bring the truth of Esquivel into this world. I want it to feel real for me. I want it to feel real for the audience. I’ve always been of the school of thought that I’ll do anything and everything I can to make it feel real, to make it look real, to get the shot, you know? Most of the time, that just involves doing a lot of research and looking at some pretty gruesome stuff.

M&C: You said you’d love to discover some of Esquivel’s backstory. Would that include going to sniper school? What would you have to learn how to shoot?

Lucca De Oliveira: I had to do some training for the show, and I’ve done some training in the past. Ironically, I’m the furthest thing from a violent man. It’s really hysterical that I’m always cast as these gun-carrying guys. Action drama is really my favorite genre. I love seeing people being put in extraordinary circumstances, and I love high-paced things. I love making my characters physical.

When I first came on, I wanted to be able to take the rifle apart, put it back together, clean it, know how to use it, and know how they really do it in the real world. You never really see that in the show, but for me, it just makes me more comfortable with the character because these tools that we’re using, these weapons, they’re no joke, and they have to be taken seriously.

You have to respect them because of their potential and their capability. It’s a hard thing to balance because it’s not something that, in my personal life, I’m overly fond of. But I’m grateful to be in a position where I can learn about this side of life, understand it a little better and, and know how to handle myself in the case that I would ever be found in a position where I’d need to use these skills.

Clarice airs Thursday nights at 10 p.m. ET/7c on CBS.

Paulette Cohn watches way too much TV, but it's turned out to be more

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