A star for many years in his native Denmark prior to crossing over with the villain role in the first relaunched Bond movie, “Casino Royale,” Mads Mikkelsen, attending the Marrakech Film Festival as part of the Tribute to Scandinavian Cinema, has for quite some time now been one of our very favorite working actors. From early collaborations with Nicolas Winding Refn (the ‘Pusher’ Trilogy, “Valhalla Rising”) and Susanne Bier (“After The Wedding,” “Open Hearts“) right through to supporting roles in Hollywood fare (“The Three Musketeers,” “Clash of the Titans”), Mikkelsen is often the best thing in his movies, even if he’s only in them briefly.
But of course these last couple of years have kicked it up a notch further, with Mikkelsen taking two very different roles (almost mirror images, in fact), one of which broadens his appeal by bringing him weekly into U.S. living rooms as a guilty, evil, brilliant man unsuspected by those around him, the other of which gained him even more arthouse credibility and the Best Actor award at Cannes 2012 as an innocent everyman wrongly accused of a terrible crime. Those two projects are NBC’s hit show “Hannibal” and Thomas Vinterberg’s “The Hunt,” respectively, and in combination they make a pretty compelling case for the actor’s range and charisma. And cheekbones.
With a small group of journalists, we got to talk to the energetic, often-smoking Mikkelsen (Scandinavians love their cigarettes; a key learning from this year’s festival) who is both garrulous and relaxed doing press rounds—a testament to the fact that while his fame may have only gone international in his forties, Mikkelsen has plenty of practice at this sort of thing. It was a conversation that touched various aspects of his current career, from the allure of evil in “Hannibal” and a teasing glimpse into season 2, to his relationship to the recent “Scandinavian invasion.” But we started by talking a little about the next film we’ll see him in, “The Salvation,” directed by fellow Dane Kristian Levring, co-starring fellow “Casino Royale” alum Eva Green along with Brosnan-era Bond villain Jonathan Pryce and Jeffrey Dean Morgan (no known connection to the Bond franchise).
So tell us what we can expect from “The Salvation”?
We finished that last year, actually this year—just before Summer. It’s about two Danish brothers who migrated to America in the 1870s. They’re hunters and they’re working for 7 years. I call my family over, I have a wife and son who’ve obviously grown since I’ve been away, then terrible things happen and I clean up. It’s a classical western and takes place with a lot of different nationalities like America in the 1870s [would have had].
[2014 Cannes competitor] “Michael Kohlhaas” [our review here] is a kind of western too. Is it a genre you’re particularly drawn to?
I’ve never been specifically attached to westerns, but there are those I like—one of the best westerns I’ve seen is “Unforgiven.” I think the genre has something extremely powerful, that can allow them to talk about good and evil in a very straight way. Obviously in a modern drama we are blurring [that dichotomy] for good reasons, but there are good people and there are bad people in the world.
Tell us about working with NBC on “Hannibal.”
A really interesting experience, and very hard work. TV is obviously so different from film, because it’s a never-ending process it keeps going, you keep receiving new pages. It’s so different film when you have a script that goes from there to there and you work out how to do it and then you do it. But with TV we don’t necessarily know, where there, it’s somewhere out there, so we can’t make the same course. But we can explore a character that will go on for a long time in a different way, so I’ve enjoyed it tremendously.
Didn’t you once claim that as a result of bad TV experiences you would not go back to the medium?
Did I? I can’t recall. I did a TV show called “Unit 1,” it wasn’t a bad experience but, yes, the first season I didn’t have a good time because I was coming from Nicolas Winding Refn films where the corners were sharp and radical, but now we had round corners. You can’t show blood—it’s the Danish TV syndrome: you must appeal to the 8-year-old and the 90-year-old to see the show. It was frustrating because I liked to do the real thing, but after a year I accepted this, so I enjoyed the second year. What we are doing on “Hannibal” is not so rounded … it’s quite radical.
What can you tell us about Season 2?
Not much because it’s a secret other than the character of Will Graham is now in jail, the tables are turned and he has to play me now to see if he can get out. The question is how much I’m aware of that. It’s quite explosive and quite dramatic what happens in the second season.
Have you ever spoken to Anthony Hopkins about the character?
No, I did not wish it.
How does Hannibal differ from other “bad guy” TV characters, and why do you think we’ve an ongoing fascination with them?
A lot of these shows (which I’ve not seen) seem to be about a bad guy that’s taking out really bad people, it’s the justice of mankind. With Hannibal that’s not the case, he’s taking out really, really nice people! Obviously, it’s based on the book but I call him a fallen angel: he sees beauty in what he does, he sees art in it. Why the fascination? Well we can ask ourselves why we invent God and then ten minutes later we invent Satan—why? Because we need him, there’s something fascinating about the other side of the coin.
How much of your time is TV now taking, and with the schedule are you missing out on other roles?
It’s supposedly half a year, but that doesn’t always work out, we have a break and catch up, but ideally it’s six months.
Every time you say yes to something you’re missing out on something else if there is something else, but I don’t look at it like that. 99% of my colleagues are not working, so I’d be a very spoilt man to say I would rather be doing this or this. I like doing it, but if something very interesting comes my way, then I try to make space for it.
What’s your reaction to the recent talk that “The Hunt,” Denmark’s submission to the Foreign Language Oscar race, has a good chance of a nomination?
I’m very pleased to hear that. I mean predictions are … we cannot always know what the Academy will do, but that’d be really great and Thomas [Vinterberg] deserves that.
“The Hunt” obviously won you great acclaim, but what do you say to those who critiqued your character’s passivity?
Well they should ask themselves what would they have done? We’re portraying a civilized man, a man who is trying to fight this in a civilized way as opposed to being animalistic. So it’s civilization versus emotions, and if you’re a civilized man what would you do? Would you hit the kid? Would you kick the shit out of her or the best friend? You would not, because you understand them, you understand the dilemma.
But I had the same frustration when I read it and we talked about it, and Thomas said “read it again.” [My character is actually] doing all the right things, the second I know what is happening I go straight to the kindergarten teacher and I’m angry. I’m going straight my friend to confront him to tell him I’m not guilty. People forget that, they want me to do something but they don’t know what. That is the kind of universe that they would find themselves in—what would they do? Whatever you do you’re guilty. So what do you do?
Did you notice a cultural difference in how the film was received in the U.S. as opposed to Europe?
An American thing maybe—basically they say “get a lawyer!” But if you get a lawyer you’re guilty, so it might be cultural … I understand their point, but I think they should rethink because I had those same feelings and we addressed it every step of the way.
Do you have any other projects in gestation at the moment that you could tell us about?
Hopefully, I will shoot in spring time a film with Anders Thomas Jensen (regular writer for Susanne Bier projects and also co-writer of Mikkelsen’s forthcoming “The Salvation“] who will return after a 10-year vacation from directing. I think we’ve been missing him, missing his dark comedies and I can tell you for sure it’s very dark and very funny, so hopefully he will raise some money and we can get that on the road.
Are you deliberately seeking out something lighter right now?
Not necessarily consciously but I couldn’t do five “The Hunt“s in a row. The emotional journey is such that you need a big break or to do something very very different. Some films are more draining than other films.
Can you explain the “Scandinavian invasion,” the recent international resurgence of Scandinavian filmmaking that the tribute here is celebrating?
If I could I’d be a very rich man! Every time you make a film you want a lot of people watching it and Hollywood is non-stop trying to find the secret formula, and they fail sometimes and can’t understand why. So I don’t think we’re trying to go international with TV and films but we’re trying to do something that is as true as we can get and hopefully it will travel.
If there’s a secret, I would say it’s a generational secret—the generation that came out in the early ’90s from the film schools, writing schools, etc. They started working together tightly on projects and for the first time in Danish history you had a generation all working on the same projects,with shared ambitions, all brought up in the same way. Whereas before that, If you were 20 years old you were being directed by a 78-year-old man and that would be a huge difference. That doesn’t mean one can’t work with a different generation, but as a start, we had to define ourselves so maybe that’s one of the reasons it has been successful.