'Clarice' Doesn't Need Hannibal Lecter To Survive

The new CBS series asks and answers the question: Who is Clarice Starling without Hannibal Lecter?
Rebecca Breeds stars as FBI agent Clarice Starling in CBS's new drama "Clarice."
Rebecca Breeds stars as FBI agent Clarice Starling in CBS's new drama "Clarice."

Chewing scenery (among other things) in Jonathan Demme’s Oscar-winning “The Silence of the Lambs,” Hannibal Lecter chides Clarice Starling during their game of psychological cat-and-mouse with the line “all good things to those who wait.” 

While the coldblooded, chianti-sipping villain, played by Anthony Hopkins in the film, is speaking about the hunt for fellow serial killer Buffalo Bill, he might as well have been toying with fans who’ve longed to see the next chapter of Starling’s story play out on screen.

Even though Jodie Foster’s performance as the tenacious FBI trainee has become a pop culture blueprint for strong female protagonists in the 30 years since “The Silence of the Lambs” hit theaters, much of the film’s legacy has fixated on Lecter’s evil. The cannibal genius has since been at the center of two prequel films, “Red Dragon” and “Hannibal Rising,” the sequel “Hannibal” ― which Foster herself said “betrayed” the character she’d held so dear ― and most recently Bryan Fuller’s television series of the same name. 

So, after bidding Clarice hello, we quickly said goodbye. Meanwhile, echoes of the character reverberated through popular media by way of her successors like Dana Scully and Olivia Benson, who also dared to be forthright and female in the workplace. 

Given the comparative ubiquity of her counterpart, the new CBS drama “Clarice” is long overdue. Picking up with the character ― now played by Australian star Rebecca Breeds, nailing the Appalachian twang ― a year after the events of the film, the series takes an entirely different, Lecter-less approach. Due to licensing rights over the characters, the infamous cannibal cannot be mentioned on screen, which begs the question: Who is Clarice Starling when not in contrast to Lecter’s villainy? 

Rebecca Breeds stars as FBI agent Clarice Starling in CBS's new drama "Clarice."
Rebecca Breeds stars as FBI agent Clarice Starling in CBS's new drama "Clarice."

“This is a story about a woman living in trauma and we’re getting to finally tell it. The silence is over,” Breeds told HuffPost in a recent interview. “This is a new narrative from that world that we haven’t heard before. It’s about the post-traumatic stress and yes, it was meeting Hannibal and Buffalo Bill, but for me they were just the catalyst.”

“Lecter is the first one who gets her to start looking at herself. He’s the first one that gets her to start unpacking her trauma and begins that momentum, but she carries that on without him.”

And with all due, Breeds believes at this moment Clarice is “such a more interesting character” than the “black hole” of Lecter’s evil. “She’s more relevant and relatable because we all have the light and dark inside of us.”

The series instead gives Clarice new monsters to hunt down. She’s tasked with investigating a string of murders by U.S. Attorney General Ruth Martin (Jayne Atkinson), the mother of Catherine Martin (Marnee Carpenter), who Clarice saved from Buffalo Bill’s basement. All the while, she battles familiar foes in the workplace as the only female member of a team of men who routinely try to silence her and dismiss her skill.

But the demons of her own psyche are the most formidable foes, stirring the horrors of past crimes and her troubled upbringing. These internal struggles are what distinguish “Clarice” from being just another IP rebooted as a network procedural in disguise. When it pushes the confines of the crime-of-the-week plotting, the series surfaces dimensions of a beloved character we haven’t been privy to before. 

“She is in the trenches of the battle of her life, fighting the good fight for her soul,” Breeds said. “Just even admitting that she has trauma is massive for her because she never wants to wallow. She never wants to be seen as a victim.” 

“We see this very real woman having to deal with what she has to in the workplace, but also within herself,” she continued. “Clarice isn’t any different than you or me, but she’s willing to try and I think that’s beautiful.”

While the series is keen on borrowing themes and imagery from Demme’s film ― many scenes are framed with the same extreme closeup, shot-countershot techniques the late director used as ways to comment on the male gaze ― there is still much to uncover about the character, especially through a fresh lens. Nearly all of the first season episodes are directed by women, with “Rachel Getting Married” screenwriter Jenny Lumet serving as co-creator alongside Alex Kurtzman, who’s been behind some of television’s most fully realized heroines like Sydney Bristow and Olivia Dunham.

“Clarice’s story has only ever been told through the male gaze from a male-centric narrative by men,” Breeds explained. “That’s why in our culture we associate her with the men, because that’s the way the story has been told. It’s amazing that it’s taken this long for her to have her moment to tell her story for her story’s sake. It is time and it is worthy of its own show because she’s incredibly complex.”

The show’s creative team is also committed to correcting some harmful aspects from the original film, notably the not-so-hidden transphobia behind the character of Buffalo Bill. Earlier this month, actor and activist Jen Richards was cast in the show as a character whose “identity as a trans woman prompts her to discuss with Clarice the complicated legacy of Buffalo Bill.”

Could this new take on “The Silence of the Lambs” lure Jodie Foster back to a franchise that once so easily replaced her? Breeds was quick to say there is “no expectation” for Foster to return, but the door is more than open. 

“I don’t think she’s seen it. In terms of being involved in the show, I know that she’s said, ‘Never say never.’ More than anything, I would love for her to come and direct and have her special insight brought into this world,” Breeds said, while acknowledging it might be “a bit weird” for Foster to see someone else step into the Starling’s shoes, cheap or otherwise.

“I just want to do the character justice in playing her as truthfully and as humanly as possible and hopefully that honors these wonderful women who have gone before me.”

“Clarice” premieres on Feb. 11 on CBS.