For a guy who New York Observer film critic Rex Reed recently called “Denmark’s most iconic export since Hans Christian Anderson and Hamlet” (in a characteristically arch bit of hyperbole), Mads Mikkelsen is cool as an agurksalat—the cucumber salad that’s a staple of traditional Danish cuisine. The singularly talented, strikingly handsome actor has every right to beam with pride at the moment, having nabbed the Best Actor award at the 2012 Cannes Film Festival for his brilliantly shaded performance in The Hunt and charming viewers and victims alike as the suave killer with a taste for sartorial finery and internal organs in NBC’s hit series Hannibal.
But hubris is not Mikkelsen’s style; in conversation, he comes across as genuinely surprised and pleased to find himself at this enviable stage in a consistently adventurous and rewarding acting career that began in the mid-1990s, following extensive training as a gymnast and dancer, with his breakout role as Tonny, the terrifying drug dealer in Nicolas Winding Refn’s Pusher and Pusher II.
Since then, Mikkelsen has wowed critics and audiences alike with his impressive range and commitment to complex characters, taking on diverse roles including the animalistic One-Eye in Refn’s Valhalla Rising, a hapless gangster in Flickering Lights, a conflicted priest in Adam’s Apples, an enlightened ladies’ man in A Royal Affair and one of the twentieth century’s greatest composers in Coco Chanel and Igor Stravinsky (he probably could have played the clothing designer doyenne just as effectively). Mikkelsen is perhaps best known to mainstream audiences as Tristan in King Arthur and as Le Chiffre, the tattooed villain in the 2006 James Bond reboot Casino Royale.
In The Hunt, Mikkelsen plays Lucas, a divorced kindergarten teacher and recreational hunter living in a small town in snowy Denmark and basking in the camaraderie of his hard-drinking buddies. When a young girl, Klara, invents a story about an inappropriate interaction with her affectionate teacher, Lucas is condemned as a pedophile and his life becomes a Kafakaesque nightmare of false accusations and violent attacks. As a supremely decent man now vilified by former friends caught up in a wicked witch-hunt, Mikkelsen is heartbreakingly sincere. “There is so much evil in the world, and if we hold onto each other it will go away,” Lucas tells his supportive son in a moment of desperation, yet by the film’s stunning climax his belief is severely tested.
Directed by Dogme 95 co-founder Thomas Vinterberg (The Celebration, It’s All About Love, Dear Wendy), The Hunt confirms Mikkelsen’s status as a brilliant character actor, international star and accidental sex symbol (he looks damn good in an array of autumnal outfits in a recent GQ fashion spread). Oh, and his awesome first name? Just like Django, the “d” is silent. Mikkelsen surveyed his career in a lively phone call with Keyframe.
Keyframe: While both you and Thomas Vinterberg have been mainstays of the Danish film industry for nearly two decades now, this is the first time you’ve worked together. What took so long?
Mads Mikkelsen: Thomas and I have known each other for years, but when we were starting out he was part of one group, with people like von Trier and Søren Kragh-Jacobsen, and I was part of a group with Nicolas Winding Refn. The different groups tended not to work together in those days, and it took us quite a while to realize that those other guys were talented as well, and to start mixing. But first, it was important for us to define who we were as actors and directors.
Keyframe: What did you make of the Dogme 95 movement at the time?
Mikkelsen: I didn’t get it. I had no idea why you should make a film according to a set of rules. Refn and I made the first Pusher film at least a year before the Dogme manifesto, and in a way it was a Dogme film not because we wanted it to be but because we didn’t have any money, so we brought our own costumes and props and such. But to impose these sorts of rules seemed banal to me. I’m certainly not going to sit around for three hours waiting for sunlight. Having said that, Dogme was important and worthwhile for some of those filmmakers, and it definitely helped place Denmark on the filmmaking map.
Keyframe: Vinterberg has of course broken all those old rules by now. How did the two of you approach the script and your character, Lucas?
Mikkelsen: We discussed the script in detail, deciding when and how this civilized man, Lucas, would react to his problems and take a stand. Who does he want to confront? Who does he want to forget? These were the questions we had to deal with in order to find the ending of the film. But the character, this ordinary, civilized person accused of doing something terribly wrong, was always there. I just needed to figure out how tough or how soft to make him depending upon his situation.
Keyframe: Lucas’ interactions with Klara, the girl whose stories set the drama in motion, are always surprising. For such a young actress, Annika Wedderkopp is startlingly present in your scenes together.
Mikkelsen: We were blessed to work with this wonderful kid who had never acted before and who was so natural. I tried to spend as much time as possible with her before we began shooting so that we would be comfortable with each other once we stepped into character. She was able to do these very emotional scenes, then run off and play with her friends between takes. As an actor and simply as an adult, it was my job to take care of this little girl, but she taught me something very important about just going with emotion, forgetting my plans for each scene and just hanging in there and seeing where the scene takes us.
Keyframe: Strong characters and emotions are at the heart of The Hunt, but there’s something else going on here, yes? American moviegoers often tend to view foreign films as allegories for their countries’ political or social climate…
Mikkelsen: I think you’re right! And imagine trying to do that with the more than twenty films that come out of Denmark every year, all so different from each other. That would make for a very schizophrenic portrait of the country.
Keyframe: I don’t want to fall into that trap, but do you think there might be something particularly Danish about The Hunt’s depiction of a close-knit society whose conservative members are quick to turn against the perceived enemy within?
Mikkelsen: I don’t think there is any geographic specificity to this story. The same thing could happen in America, England, Germany, anywhere. Look at young people on the Internet, making up stories about their friends and throwing each other to the lions for no reason.
It’s true that Denmark and its people sometimes try to deal with their problems in an overly civilized way. Look at Lucas; he’s so stubborn, insisting on solving his problem his own way, not taking a stand against his accusers right away. It’s a long journey for him, and he’s bound to lose because he’s fighting emotions that can’t be beat.
Keyframe: Lucas does remain stoic for quite a while, longer than many of your other characters have when pushed to the limit. From Tonny in Pusher and One-Eye in Valhalla Rising to Le Chiffre in Casino Royale and now Hannibal, you’ve frequently portrayed violent characters. It seems the darker sides of human behavior intrigue you.
Mikkelsen: The dark side has always been fascinating to me. We’re talking about movies, and a film about two happy friends sitting around eating apples would be boring. We want drama, we want conflict. I don’t carry these characters home with me, even Hannibal, who is one of the happiest characters I’ve ever played. He’s a happy man in a happy world, or at least that’s how he sees himself.
Keyframe: Did you have any trepidation about stepping into this role already made iconic by Anthony Hopkins in The Silence of the Lambs and its sequels?
Mikkelsen: Absolutely. I had no idea why a Danish guy with a funny accent should do this thing that was already made to perfection. I didn’t just want to run around being purely evil. [Series creator] Bryan Fuller convinced me that we could do something different and interesting because we’re seeing the character before the point of his capture. He’s in the world, making friends and acting almost like a normal person, except when he’s alone. I’ve only seen a couple of the episodes so far, but I think we’re managing to dodge people’s expectations. I’m enjoying it.
Keyframe: Your versatility is very impressive. You’ve played all these bad guys, but also Igor Stravinsky, wartime heroes, priests and the bringer of the Enlightenment in A Royal Affair. How do you choose your projects?
Mikkelsen: I’ve always made choices based on what I like, and somehow this has become a career. There’s no point in aiming for a goal that you can never reach, so I just take it one project at a time. Every opportunity is different. The main thing is I have to be able to communicate with the director. We don’t always have to agree, but we do have to communicate well. And I have to be intrigued by the story. There’s got to be a flame, a fire.
Keyframe: What sparks that flame when you’re posing for a magazine fashion spread?
Mikkelsen: The thing for GQ? I haven’t seen the pictures yet, and I can’t remember exactly what we did, but for some reason I was in a brown tuxedo. It’s a different kind of acting. I’m playing the character of Mads Mikkelsen, trying to sell The Hunt or Hannibal or whatever. I’ve always found it difficult to just stand there and have my photo taken. I need direction, a situation beyond Love me, love me, I’m so cool. Give me something more to do. I’m an actor.