Interview: Mads Mikkelsen

James Mottram 6 July 2021

Danish actor Mads Mikkelsen, 55, might be the ultimate proof that it takes a good guy to play a really bad one. The king of the on-screen villain talks dance, booze and his most famous roles

It couldn’t happen to a nicer guy. It’s a phrase that aptly fits Mads Mikkelsen, the Danish actor who has become the king of franchise films these past years. Already he’s played villains in James Bond film Casino Royale and Marvel’s Doctor Strange, Thomas Harris’ serial killer Hannibal Lecter in TV show Hannibal and the bloke that designed the Death Star in Star Wars spin-off Rogue One. “I grew up with big Hollywood films, watching them,” he says. “All of a sudden, I’m part of that. And I love that.”

Even this past lockdown year, Mikkelsen has been winning at life. “I was planning to learn a few languages. I never got around to it.” Instead, he played tennis, started building a summer cottage at his home in Copenhagen and – like everyone else on the planet – bought a pet. “We spent a lot of time with a dog.” Married to choreographer Hanne Jacobsen since 2000, they’ve been together since 1987 (and have two children, Viola and Carl, in their twenties). “I’m pretty good at doing nothing,” he adds, “but a lot of things at the same time.”

We chat over Zoom, with Mikkelsen dressed in a neatly-pressed black shirt. His hair has blonde highlights, though his goatee is salt-and-pepper grey. He’s 55 now, his face full of character and nobility, but has absolutely no issue about sullying his looks on screen – whether as 007’s scar-faced nemesis Le Chiffre in Casino Royale, or the one-eyed Viking in Nicolas Winding Refn’s Valhalla Rising. Mikkelsen is every performer’s dream: a character actor in a leading man’s body.  

"Even this past lockdown year, Mikkelsen has been winning at life"

Mikkelsen with the Another Round cast

Mikkelsen in Another Round

While some actors abandon their homeland the moment Hollywood comes calling, Mikkelsen has remained as active in Danish cinema as he was when he broke out 25 years ago as a low-level thug in Refn’s stylish crime debut Pusher. He’s repeatedly returned to directors like Refn, Susanne Bier (Open Hearts, After the Wedding) and Anders Thomas Jensen, director of the upcoming Riders of Justice, in which Mikkelsen thrills as a soldier who seeks revenge on the men who killed his wife.

“I think I’ve always been lucky and in a very privileged position,” he says. “They ask me over there to do certain things. And they ask me back here to do certain things, and they’re rarely crossing over each other’s ambitions. I kind of get my thirst quenched in both places.” It’s an ideal position, flip-flopping between homespun character-driven dramas and the big-scale spectacle Hollywood offers. “Sometimes,” he grins, “you want to go out and have a sword in your hand.”

If it’s usually the case of never the twain shall meet, that’s not so with Mikkelsen’s latest film Another Round – a life-affirming Danish drama that recently won the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film. Mikkelsen was nominated for a BAFTA for his performance while Leonardo DiCaprio’s company Appian Way has already bought the remake rights. It’s a remarkable trajectory for a subtitled movie about a schoolteacher who decides to experiment with day-time drinking.

Suffering from mid-life malaise, his mopey character Martin almost feels the polar opposite to the upbeat Mikkelsen. “I mean, I do tend to wake up in the morning and be very, very pleased that the sun is rising and curious about what the day might bring,” he says. “And he seems not to care about it at all. So I didn’t have anything in common with him, from that perspective. I mean, I know the character. I know a lot of people like that. I know the feeling. But I’m not in his situation.”

"I mean, I do tend to wake up in the morning and be very, very pleased that the sun is rising and curious about what the day might bring"

Mikkelsen in Pusher II

In Pusher II

Things change when Martin and three friends decide to test out a real theory first suggested by a Norwegian psychiatrist Finn Skarderud: if humans raise their blood alcohol level to 0.05 percent, they might achieve more. It’s the old adage about Dutch courage. And so, during the day at the school they work at, they all imbibe enough to keep themselves pleasantly drunk. Gradually, the storm clouds lift. “The story is not about alcohol,” promises Mikkelsen. “It’s about catching life, embracing life.”

The film is the brainchild of director Thomas Vinterberg, with whom Mikkelsen previously worked on 2012’s taut drama The Hunt – a film that won him Best Actor at the Cannes Film Festival for playing a man wrongly accused of molesting children. Another Round has a lighter touch, a feelgood tale right to the bottom of the bottle. No alcohol was consumed on set, it should be added; real-life drunkenness is not exactly conducive to good acting. “You’ll have to drink two bottles of scotch every day,” says Mikkelsen. “And people would fall asleep.”

Playing a convincing drunk – when you’re stone-cold sober – is anything but easy. “If you miss it, it’s quite obvious that you didn’t nail it. Right? And it’s always been a test for an actor.” Before shooting, Mikkelsen and his co-stars videotaped each other at various stages of inebriation, using a breathalyser to monitor their intake. They also rehearsed whilst totally sober and took to YouTube for some visual stimuli. “Watching Russian people falling over each other…it was very inspiring!”

Born in Copenhagen, the son of a nurse and a bank teller, Mikkelsen grew up with an older brother, Lars, and remembers when he was first introduced to drink.” I believe I was 13. And my brother and I played on the same handball team – he was two years older. And they went out for drink, which was not legal – they had to be 18. But 15 was fine.” He got his first taste of alcohol, with his brother keeping a watchful eye on him. “He could take me home. That was kind of normal for Denmark…it’s part of our culture.”

In King Arthur

In King Arthur 

Full of energy in his teens (“I was not very good at sitting still”), Mikkelsen trained as a gymnast then switched to dance after being invited to participate in a show. Studying at an academy in Gothenburg, he then started dancing professionally. “I really enjoyed those ten years of my life…it was just a world that opened for me.” Practising contemporary dance, “Martha Graham style”, it was a chance to express himself “in a different way than just talking”. It was also a great way to meet the opposite sex – including his wife, Hanne.

By 1996, Mikkelsen switched to acting, following the path taken by his older brother – and immediately won his role in Pusher, aged 30. “There had been nothing like it in Denmark before.” Making his international breakthrough eight years later in 2004’s King Arthur, the very eclectic nature of his work has meant he’s never slipped into a mid-life crisis like his character from Another Round. “When I do work, I tend to meet a lot of new faces and a lot of new energy. And so my profession doesn’t allow me to just sit around in the same Groundhog Day.”

Even the fact that Hollywood keeps calling on him to play villains doesn’t seem to bother him. “Why me? I have a funny accent over there. So that’s the obvious reason, I guess. Yes, I’ve done a few villains. I’ve also done quite a few normal people and quite a few crazy people. I try to find something that is different from film to film. A Marvel film is very different than a James Bond film, which is again very different from the Hannibal TV show. They're all villains in their own world, but they’re very, very different villains”

"Even the fact that Hollywood keeps calling on him to play villains doesn’t seem to bother him"

He just wrapped work on the third Fantastic Beasts… movie, the Harry Potter spin-off, after he was called upon to take over Johnny Depp’s role of dark wizard Gellert Grindelwald following the scandal surrounding Depp’s recent defamation trial. If that wasn’t enough, Mikkelsen has also been cast in the fifth Indiana Jones movie opposite Harrison Ford, who will reprise his role as the intrepid archaeologist. Rumour has it Mikkelsen’s playing the…well, you can probably guess.

Despite this incredible run, this Great Dane promises he’s not looking forward to the next big thing, but simply finding “the beauty of life” in the here and now. “There is a tendency that we’re looking in the future: as long as I get this, next year will be great...then everything you do now is stepping-stones. That is not important. And you might never reach that goal. I try to live my life as if every day, every stepping-stone, is very, very important. At least if you don’t reach your goal, we’ve had some great stepping-stones.”

Another Round is out now. Riders of Justice is released on July 23.

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