The Danish actor on coping with extreme situations, eating eyeballs and his new film, Arctic
RD: How did you get involved with the film?
I got the script while I was working on Hannibal a few years ago. I read it and I loved everything about it. I was so positively surprised; my doubts about it were put to shame. I was worried that we would go with flashback mode or make it a love story but none of this happened. It was just very pure—an honest story about the difference between surviving and being alive.
RD: How did you prepare for the role?
I knew I was in for a challenge physically but on the other hand, the character I play had no plans of crashing, he was just on his way home. Therefore, we just decided to drop me into it in the shape I was in, without any real preparation. In terms of survival skills, that was something the writers looked into. We didn’t want the protagonist to be a specialist, but we didn’t want him to be an idiot either; we just wanted him to do common-sense things. So the preparation was very much in the story: "Are we on the right path? Should we go this way or that way?"
"It's impossible to really be human without another human being around you"
RD: How do you think you would handle this kind of situation in real life?
It’s difficult to say. In many ways I would manage the way my character managed. I think a lot of things he does would be out of my range but obviously in the end it’s all a question of stamina right? I have quite a bit of stamina. In the beginning, my character's very careful with the amount of energy he uses and the amount of energy that he consumes through the calories that he’s eating. So he’s not letting anything go to waste. That was not the case for us, obviously, we were shooting 12-14 hours a day and I was spending way more energy than I was putting into my body so I was getting much more tired than my character would have done in that situation. Hopefully I would do something similar to what he did. But you never know.
RD: What was it like filming those gruelling scenes with the raw fish?
It was sad and uncomfortably numb. And that’s what we wanted, there was no pleasure in what he was doing, there was no hope in his eyes, the fish didn’t taste of anything, neither bad nor good. So that was what we were aiming for, having a man who’s a comfortable lump, the walking dead. That is until the second character enters the film and all of a sudden he becomes more and more human every day.
Obviously, we claim that it’s impossible to be really human without another human being around you.
RD: What's the worst thing you’ve ever eaten?
I ate an eyeball the other day, I think it was a fish eyeball, it was a little slimy. Ever since I was a kid I’ve been very good at eating gross stuff, it was one of my ways to get attention from the opposite sex. I’d get the attention but it was the wrong kind of attention so I had to change my plan [Laughs].
RD: What’s your favourite food?
Anything Asian: Thai, Vietnamese, Japanese. I just love miso soup and rice.
"It’s interesting to feel insignificant; like you’re a nobody and you don’t matter too much, I think that’s healthy for all of us"
RD: Why do you think people are so attracted to the survival genre?
Its’s immediately identifiable in the sense that you can imagine yourself in a situation like that and you think, what would I have done, and how would that have been? And like with any good genre film it’s not about the genre, it’s about the story we’re telling through it. So yes, it’s about surviving but it’s much more about the need to be around other people in order to become a human being.
RD: What’s the most extreme situation you’ve found yourself in in real life?
Luckily, I’ve not been in a situation like this guy but I think there are always situations that you don’t perceive as dangerous until later in life. Many years ago in Iceland I went to see an enormous waterfall and there was nobody there. I was there with a friend and we separated and spent about two hours around that waterfall. I found a way to climb down and go underneath the falls and just sit there and watch tons of water just streaming in front of me. That was a moment where I went, “what the f*** am I doing? Nobody is going to find me here if I slip!” but I had that urge to be lost. I’ve had that since I was a little kid I guess. I’ve always enjoyed going to places and sitting down and thinking, nobody can find me. It’s interesting to feel insignificant, like you’re a nobody and you don’t matter too much, I think that’s healthy for all of us.
RD: Is it more difficult to get lost when you’re famous?
It’s much more difficult, yeah. But there are places, especially in Iceland! Things have changed but that’s just the way it is, I don’t go around crying about that it’s just part of the life I’m living now. It was a surprise, it might sound naïve but I never thought I’d be recognised.
RD: Do you have secret places you go and hide in?
Yeah, I have a few places, and If I told you they wouldn’t be secret [Laughs].
RD: Did you look to any famous performances by other actors for inspiration?
No, I never watch something specifically when I work on a character but I think that everything I have watched in my whole life, since I was a kid, inspired and stuck with me. I have a lot of actors I’m impressed with, Meryl Streep, De Niro, Buster Keaton. Bruce Lee was a big hero for me when I was a kid. They’re all very different but they all inspired me in different ways.
RD: If you were stranded on a deserted island with any of your characters who would it be?
I tend to play a lot of annoying characters to be honest. I wouldn’t want to spend too much time with any of them. I think Overgård (the main character in Arctic) wouldn’t be bad company. He seems resourceful in the sense that he has a certain stamina, and I have a hunch that we could figure something out. Maybe I would like to be stranded with the guy from Casino Royale, just like two minutes before he loses all his money. I would like to have him there when he’s rich so he could call in a chopper or two.
Mikkelsen as La Chiffre in Casino Royale (2006)
RD: What's the most fun you’ve ever had making a film?
I’ve done quite a few dark comedies with Anders Thomas Jensen and we laughed quite a bit making those films. My favourite is The Green Butchers.
Arctic is out in cinemas across the UK and digital on May 10