Mads for it
Back home, he’s been a movie star for years; he made a wider impact in Casino Royale and Clash of the Titans, then won best actor at Cannes. Now, the rest of the world is waking up to Mads Mikkelsen. DONALD CLARKEmeets the great Dane
MADS MIKKELSEN has been creeping up on us for a few years. Now 47, the Danish actor – possessor of the thinnest, most slyly penetrating eyes in European cinema – threatened to go global with his very first film. Nicolas Winding Rein’s Pusher was a hit in 1996, but Mikkelsen didn’t quite burst through onto the international stage. He did manage to travel to Ireland for Antoine Fuqua’s ill-starred King Arthur. That film did not, however, create any major stars.
“I was there for half a year,” he chuckles. “That was my first shoot outside of Denmark. I was sitting on a horse and enjoying all this beautiful country and your beautiful beer. I really had a very good time.”
Mikkelsen went on to play a key Bond villain in Casino Royale. He did his best in the loud Clash of the Titans. His breakout moment seems to have come, however, with a film made in his homeland. Returning from a spell in the near wilderness, Thomas Vinterberg, director of Festen, exploits every ounce of Mikkelsen’s talent in the thrilling The Hunt. The actor plays a teacher who, wrongly accused of child molestation, becomes a hated outcast in his hitherto cosy community. Mikkelsen won best actor at Cannes for the role. In further recognition of his ascent, he was then cast as Hannibal Lecter in an upcoming TV version of the Thomas Harris saga.
He looks utterly fagged out at the end of The Hunt. Bags form beneath his eyes. The entire body sags. It looks to have been a draining experience.
“It’s an interesting thing,” he tells me. “The situations where you find yourself most drained are when the film is just not working. If you don’t have the right communication, if something is constantly wrong, then you really feel drained. If the character is working out, you go home and you are energised. It is draining, yes. But on the other hand, you feel strong because the script is working.”
Mikkelsen turns out to be a very amusing bloke. He enjoys teasing aspects of his work down to their raw threads. But there is nothing austere or forbidding about his manner. The Dane proves to be very much at home with selfdeprecation. He even enjoys having his forename mispronounced.
“The ‘d’ is actually silent,” he says. “Or it’s like a second ‘s’. So it should be like ‘Mass’. You know what? I don’t mind the other version, though.”
Both he and his older brother, Lars, are now established actors. The senior Mikkelsen recently appeared to acclaim as the title character’s dad in What Richard Did. But there doesn’t seem to have been any tradition of acting in the family. Lars and Mads’s father, a taxi driver, was, however, a great enthusiast for radio drama and greatly appreciated his boys’ creative journeys.
“I was a gymnast and a dancer. But I always was more interested in the dramatic side of dancing rather than the technical side. So, it was a natural jump. My brother was in love with this girl, so he started juggling in the street to impress her. We both had different routes into acting. If I hadn’t become an actor, I would have been a dancer or a stuntman. I enjoy doing the stunts.”
Oh, really. Do they still let him do stunts now that he is famous?
“Yeah, I do all the stuff I can. Let’s be frank, if you are in an action film, you are not in it for the characters, you are in it for the action – the stunts. If they take that away from you, it’s a sad story. Ha ha! I have damaged everything: knees, elbows, ribs. But I’m an old gymnast. I know how to survive.”
He was suspended from drama school for appearing in Pusher – many such institutions forbid students from taking work while training – but eventually returned to take his degree and went on to appear in such prominent Danish films as Open Hearts and After the Wedding. The Danish film industry remains a puzzle to cinema observers from outside that country. How has such a small country delivered such talents as Winding Refn, Lars von Trier, Susanne Bier and the rest of the Dogme mob?
“At one stage, we all thought it was impossible,” he says. “A lot of what was being made was shit. A lot of us observed that we seemed unable to make anything that looked like what, say, Scorsese was doing. Nicolas [Winding Refn] saw that too and tried to change it. There was just a generation that wanted to change things.”
Mikkelsen goes on to explain that he has never had any sort of plan in life. He’ll flick through whatever script thumps on the doormat and run the relevant character round in his head. Playing Le Chiffre, sadistic card shark, in Casino Royale seemed like a nice idea, so he gave it a bash. Still, it must rankle a little that, even now, so many Anglophone filmmakers expect European actors to play the villain. We have surely got past the stereotype of the untrustworthy, slippery continental.
“I think there is something exotic about the accent,” he says with good humour. “Even the British accent is exotic to many Americans. But those parts are often more interesting. I am now playing Hannibal and I hope that you will also like him a bit.”
Co-starring Hugh Dancy, the NBC series, currently shooting in Toronto, focuses on the developing relationship between the well-bred cannibal and FBI agent Will Graham. It must be difficult to set aside the earlier performance by Anthony Hopkins (not to mention that of Brian Cox in Manhunter). This is a real challenge. Being asked to play Hannibal Lecter is akin to being asked to play Sherlock Holmes. Lecter is an icon of refined malice.
“I remember when I did the Bond film, Casino Royale, Le Chiffre was a role that had been played by Peter Lorre before,” he says. “You just can’t think about that. You have to own the script. You have to free your mind and start over. It’s never an idea to have that in your mind. Trust the script.”
I sense from his earlier comment that the series is aiming to sell us a slightly more likable version of Hannibal Lecter. They’re not trying to make the good Doctor cuddly, are they?
“You’ll have to see how it works out,” he says cautiously. “But I liked the guy Anthony Hopkins played. I really did. Didn’t you? We are not doing the same thing anyway. That would be suicide. He has similar qualities. But he is a man who is living in the real world.”
We will have to wait until next year to see Hannibal. Until then Mikkelsen addicts can sate their desires with The Hunt. It’s an unstoppably exciting film. But it also has serious things to say. By coincidence, Vinterberg’s film arrives at a very opportune time. Across the Irish Sea, in an unexpected aftermath of the Jimmy Savile disaster, Lord McAlpine, falsely accused of paedophilia, is pursuing a thousand thumb-happy Twitter users. The Hunt tells a more old-fashioned tale: following a genuine misunderstanding, teachers and social workers bully a kindergarten pupil into accusing Mikkelsen’s character of molestation.
Is Vinterberg working through a political or social agenda here?
“No. I don’t think so,” Mads says. “We obviously built the plot on real cases. But we made it into our own story. There is an interview where the social worker basically puts words in the kids’ mouth. That is a near word-by-word version of a real case in Norway. But we are not trying to shove anything down people’s throats. It’s much more about how fragile life is and about how fragile friendship is.”
The film manages to be impressively even handed to its antagonists. The young girl is never seen as anything other than an unfairly manipulated victim. The hero’s friends seem painted into a moral corner.
“I think everybody is allowed to be human,” he says. “They believe what they believe. But when the snowball starts rolling, they can’t stop it. And what’s interesting is, my character does all the right things. But it’s no good. If you scream out loud, you are guilty. If you run away, you are guilty. If you stay, you are guilty. There really is nothing you can do.”
Despite a career playing various wounded creatures and unreconstructed villains, Mikkelsen has accumulated something a little more substantial than a cult following. He has become an immovable face of international cinema. Meanwhile, at home, he registers as a proper movie star. Perhaps inevitably (points are awarded for naming the chasing pack), he has frequently been voted Denmark’s sexiest man. Born in New York, Viggo Mortensen probably doesn’t count. But that’s still something to be proud of. Is it not?
“That line is rather old now, I think. That was a while ago,” he says with a broad smile. “I am not sure that’s me anymore. Mind you, it’s nice to be the sexiest man, rather than the opposite of that. But it’s hard to see what use that is. It’s a little like being called the dumb blonde. I do have some kind of talent. Don’t I? I’m not complaining. If they want to write that, then that’s fine.”
There are worse ways of earning a living.
“Yes, yes. I sometimes think I might be a carpenter or something. But for now I am an actor. Who knows what I’ll be doing in 10 years’ time.”
The Hunt is out now