It's tough to tell what Danish actor Mads Mikkelsen is best known for in the film community. If you're a Bond enthusiast or mainstream movie junkie, he's Le Chiffre, the card player with a bleeding tell in "Casino Royale." If you're an art house devotee, he’s probably known by either One Eye or Tonny, depending on your preference between early Nicolas Winding Refn works, "Valhalla Rising" and "Pusher." More recently, he's made a name for himself on television as the new face of Hannibal Lecter on NBC's grisly crime drama, "Hannibal," and this Friday everyone in Los Angeles or New York can see his Cannes-winning performance in the powerful drama, "The Hunt."
In his latest film, Mikkelssen plays Lucas, a kind-hearted kindergarten teacher hoping to reunite with his son despite a difficult ex-wife. That is before an unforeseen turn of events flips his world upside down, forcing him to question the community he lives in and the people he once called friends. Throughout the ordeal, Lucas remains understanding, kind, and as Mikkelsen says, empathetic -- a trait he also sees in Hannibal Lecter.
"There's not a lot of parallels [between the two characters], but one thing they have in common is they do have empathy," Mikkelsen said during an interview at the Crosby Street Hotel in Manhattan. "In Lucas' case, he's obviously a man who's not able to control his empathy. He's like a normal person. When you have empathy, you can feel it. As opposed to Hannibal, who can choose when to have empathy and what kind of empathy. Once he's there, once he decides to be sad or happy, it’s a genuine sadness and a genuine happiness. But it's very, very controlled from Hannibal's side."
"I see three different scenarios and they're all very interesting," Mikkelsen said. "One is that [FBI Agent Will Graham] knows what I'm doing and I know that he's knowing it. The other one is that he has no idea and he's still in his blurry world I can manipulate. And the third one, which is very interesting, is that he knows but he's not telling me. So he's going to play me now. That would be interesting."
No matter the path, the next season of "Hannibal" will undoubtedly be packed with more gruesome encounters with serial killers and their contorted victims. The first season assuaged many fears of the network show being too P.C. for its R-rated subject, including the show’s star.
"I read the script, and I was like, 'Ooo. Can we get away with this?' I didn’t want it to end up like a film that was R-rated and then they turn it into a PG-13 rating in the middle of the season. They didn't. I think that what Brian wants is pretty much what we're getting here. We can be better and more inventive, but the base of it, the tone is what he wanted."
The closest the show came to censorship was when the fourth episode was pulled following the Sandy Hook shootings in December and the Boston Marathon bombings in April. Mikkelsen, a native of Denmark, said he didn’t fully understand the decision considering "there was nothing in that episode that was remotely connected to the shooting," but admitted it was a cultural decision.
"I don’t want to step on anyone’s toes. There’s a different culture here," Mikkelsen said. "[But] if you’re going to follow what happens in America you’re going to have to take everything off [TV] every day."
Though it’s been slapped with an R-rating, "The Hunt" and Mikkelsen's character in it are both much more morally focused. Mikkelsen describes Lucas as "a loner," but also "the guy who helped the other guys with their homework and then helped them up when there were bullies around." Then the story shifts, and Lucas is faced with an impossible choice between civility and pure animal instincts.
"He's insisting on dealing with the matter in a civilized way, and everyone around him is reacting in an emotional way. And that is a fight he's bound to lose. Why do we want the man to be uncivilized? Why do we want him to behave like an animal? That’s very interesting, that we as civilized people want him to react like that."
"One of the reasons I found it frustrating [at first] was probably like the audience as well: 'Why is he not doing anything?' I asked myself the question, and Thomas [Vinterberg, the director and co-writer] said, 'Read it again.' And I [realized] he is doing something. He's doing the right thing. All the time."
Other than the anticipated second season of "Hannibal," there's been talk of Mikkelson re-teaming with "Valhalla Rising" director Nicolas Winding Refn for a sequel to their violent viking tale from 2009. While Mikkelson says he's open to it, has has not taken part in any discussions to date.
"I've never talked about a sequel to 'Valhalla Rising,'" the actor said. "It's obviously not going to be that character in that universe, but it's going to be inspired somehow. So I'm just going to wait and see what he brings to the table because one thing is what Nicolas says and a very different thing is what he does. I've read in the papers that now we're going to do it in Singapore or wherever it was, and I thought, 'That sounds cool to me. Let's try it.'"
Take a look at the trailer for "The Hunt" (warning: minor spoilers), and look for it in a theater near you this today.