How Mads Mikkelsen Generates Sympathy for the Devil

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Although Mads Mikkelsen has been knighted by two separate countries for his services to the arts, he first came to the stage almost by accident. Born and raised in working-class Copenhagen, he trained as a gymnast and spent ten years as a dancer before realizing that what most appealed to him was the drama of performance. His breakthrough was in “Pusher,” a Danish gangster movie shot on a tiny budget, which became a cult hit. Mikkelsen modelled his character, Tonny, on Robert De Niro’s in “Mean Streets,” but he had a frenetic energy and easy naturalism all his own. Coming up in the Danish film scene at the same time as directors such as Lars von Trier and Thomas Vinterberg felt, he told me recently, like being “the naughty boys in the class who were doing something that hadn’t been done before.”

In 2006, Mikkelsen appeared as the villain in the James Bond film “Casino Royale,” and other Hollywood franchises promptly seized on the actor’s suave hauteur and razor-sharp cheekbones. In the past decade alone, he’s been a Harry Potter villain (“Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald”), a Marvel villain (“Doctor Strange”), an Indiana Jones villain (“Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny”), and a Star Wars villain (“Rogue One”). Characters who might all have been of a piece were instead imbued with a distinctive edge and depth, and often proved more engaging than their heroic counterparts. Mikkelsen’s ability to generate sympathy for the devil is deployed to greatest effect in the NBC series “Hannibal”; the three seasons he spent playing the show’s urbane man-eater cemented his status as an unlikely Internet darling.

Throughout, Mikkelsen has maintained close ties with filmmakers in Denmark. His best works include realist collaborations with Vinterberg, namely “Another Round”—in which Mikkelsen starred as a schoolteacher who begins drinking on the job, winning over his entire class with his newfound charisma—and “The Hunt”—in which he played a man falsely accused of sexually abusing a child, and for which he won the Best Actor award at Cannes. He’s also dabbled in period pieces: in 2012, he starred in “A Royal Affair,” Nikolaj Arcel’s Oscar-nominated, Enlightenment-era romance about Johann Friedrich Struensee, the court physician who implemented sweeping political reforms while tending to the mad King Christian VII—and sleeping with the queen. A decade later, Mikkelsen and Arcel have reunited for another eighteenth-century saga, “The Promised Land,” which will be released this week. Mikkelsen plays Ludvig von Kahlen, an army captain who seeks to make his fortune by cultivating moorland that has long been hostile to human and plant life alike. Kahlen is a prideful stoic who immediately clashes with a sociopathic local aristocrat. Though violence seems inevitable, the question of whether the crops will survive the first frost is a source of equal suspense. Mikkelsen is perhaps the only actor who could mine such drama from potatoes.

On the day we spoke, Mikkelsen, who was at home in Copenhagen, wore a gray zip-neck sweater, his platinum-blond hair tucked under a knit hat. Five minutes in, he lit his first cigarette; he proceeded to chain-smoke through the rest of the interview, his answers punctuated by contemplative drags and enthusiastic hand gestures. Our conversation has been edited and condensed.

I’d love to hear about what brought you to “The Promised Land.” I know you’d worked with Nikolaj Arcel before—had you read the book that it was based on? Did you know the history?

I did a film ten years ago with Nikolaj called “A Royal Affair,” which is a well-known story, at least for my generation. We were taught that in school. But the guy in “The Promised Land,” Kahlen, kind of disappeared out of history. He managed to do something nobody else had achieved, but he also abandoned the project completely, and never turned back to it. For that reason, I think it was forgotten. Nikolaj came to me and pitched this story about something with potatoes. [Laughs.] And I thought, All right, is there something else in the story? And, sure enough, there was.

I did not read the book. I thought the script was great. If there was something I had missed in the script, I might have gone to the book and seen if there was something we’d forgotten, something that was essential for this story. But I didn’t do it because you can also end up being super disappointed with little details that are not in there, but are not supposed to be in there. So I kind of wanted to stick with the script and let that become my bible.

Is that your philosophy of acting? That the script is the beginning and the end?

Yeah, in general. I mean, I’ve touched upon real-life characters before, and I don’t mind reading up on the characters and seeing if there are certain angles of them that we missed out on—especially if they’ve written autobiographies. That always tends to show who they are, what they think of themselves. But it’s so difficult with biographies in general, because it’s normally somebody hailing that person, you know? Just flattering and praising them. So we have to dive into other places if we want to figure out who they were.

Arcel has talked about how, when the two of you sat down with Anders Thomas Jensen, who co-wrote the script, you were the one who was especially adamant that Kahlen had to be kind of unfeeling at the beginning. Why was that important to you?

I had a feeling that they were a little too colored by being people of the 2023 morality, afraid of any kind of backlash—which is always the case these days. Kahlen was a hard man, but too often in the beginning [of the film], he became human, like you and me. And I was, like, “But isn’t that his journey, that he will eventually become a more solid human being and realize that life is what’s right in front of him, and not necessarily his ambitions?” We all agreed on that. And then I was stubborn and said, “But I think we should take some of that 2023 moral out of him, at least in the beginning.” And they didn’t disagree. So, the small little smile that will make the sky open—the Buster Keaton smile that we see so rarely, but, once we see it, we know there has been a change in Buster Keaton, right? We agreed on maybe page 68 or something, that it would happen there. And then we stuck to our guns, and we didn’t shy away from him, you know, hitting a child, or being extremely brutal to people around him.

It’s not the first time you’ve pushed for something darker. I read that you had wanted a different ending for “The Hunt,” in which your character would have been killed. What appeals to you about that kind of extremity?

I think I have the liberty of going down that path, because I’m just the actor. If you are the director-slash-producer, you also have to see it in a completely different dimension. Like, are people gonna watch this? And I think there is something to be said about that. If “The Hunt” had ended on my note, I’m sure fewer people would have watched it. But, if I’m just sitting in my own room thinking, I thought that ending was the most honest approach. I mean, it was not just that he would have died. The person who shot at him—there’s a gang of boys running around, and one of the boys is always a little outside the group. He was the one pulling the trigger. He’s so desperate to do something to be part of this little village, you know? It was doubly heartbreaking.

But I think it was a good choice at the end, what they did. I also didn’t want to dance in “Another Round,” and that turned out to be a fantastic end scene. So don’t listen to me when it comes to endings.

It does seem that, particularly with these Danish films, you have a very collaborative environment. I know with Nicolas Winding Refn, who directed “Pusher,” it was really a conversation between the two of you about your character and his trajectory.

Yeah, it’s a small community. We’re kind of the same age, give or take ten years. We grew up with the same dreams and visions—and also had an enormous opportunity that nobody has, to change things, because things needed to be changed. We were in love with “Taxi Driver,” and that had already been done twenty years before us, in America. We were not even close to doing anything that was that energetic or that different. So we had an open playing field that was, like, Let’s just go and do it. Let’s give it a shot. And everybody wants to do it in their own way. For that reason, the community got very tight-knit very fast.

Do you feel like that ethos has changed the way you approach other projects, even these American blockbusters?

I approach it like that, but I think all actors do. Even if you come from America or England or Germany, I think everybody wants to have a creative space where we listen to each other and solve the mystery of the scene. Regardless of five hundred people standing around you waiting, or enormous set-pieces, we have to shrink it into something that's intimate for us—two actors and one director. Regardless of whether we’re fighting giant scorpions in a fantasy film, we have to make it work. It’s not always the case that we can get away with that. But, to a degree, everybody wants it. Also, the directors and the producers want that, but I can’t call them in the middle of the night the same way I can call Nick [the director of “Pusher”] and say, “Nick, I have an idea for tomorrow. I can’t sleep.” [Laughs.] That is a different thing in a small community.

Is it that important to you—to have that say in your character? I remember you talking about walking miles to do every shot in the survival drama “Arctic,” not wanting to have a stand-in or a body double, just having the narrative continuity and the ownership.

That’s super important. I think it’s important for all of us. It’s a very fine balance. If you start interfering with story lines because you have your own personal vanity, that’s a complete no-go. But you have to have vanity on behalf of the character and the story. So, I will go as far as I can, and feel out how far I can get. I might be wrong. I’m often right, I believe. And the more we can help each other out—you know, if a director wants to make something brutal, and I think, It’s not super brutal. We can make it a little more brutal. That’s what you want, right? So why don’t we do this? I will insist on saying it. And, if they say, “Yeah, but I don’t want it that brutal,” that’s fair enough.

Is there an example of that? A moment of brutality that you thought could go further?

Oh, many times. I think it’s often me just putting myself in there instead of a stuntman. I mean, stunt guys are fantastic. They save our lives every day. But sometimes it is more brutal to watch the actor actually do it, and actually fall down on set, and not make it too choreographed. Not, like, one, two hits, and then one in the stomach. Maybe just one, and it just becomes clumsy, and it lands, and you’re out. That might be much more brutal to look at than the classical boom, boom, boom stunt. So it can be as simple as just putting you in the situation to take the bruises. Because that has a bigger impact.

Of course. I’m thinking about that scene in the grocery store in “The Hunt,” when your character gets hit by a hostile townsperson who still believes he’s guilty.

Yeah! And they are not fancy hits. If it’s “Doctor Strange,” it’s a different kind of stunt. Flying kung fu! But, if we’re dealing with reality, I like it to look and feel real, and feel clumsy. You rarely hit somebody straight on the cheek. It’s on the nose, and then it’s on the throat, and it’s ugly. Going for that is something I think is worthwhile.

I know that Nikolaj Arcel had a not-great experience with Hollywood in between “A Royal Affair” and “The Promised Land.” You’ve talked about the constraints of a James Bond film, and the difference in the action with “Doctor Strange”—I’m curious about how you feel working within the studio system in America versus the Danish scene.

I think it’s a very different experience for an actor than it is for a director. Ideally, we are chess pieces in the hands of a director. And, even in Denmark, that can be a lifted [or elevated] film, it can be a crazy comedy, it can be an attempt at sci-fi with a very low budget—but we have to understand the framework of the film. We have to put ourselves in that place. In a Marvel film, I’m not going to insist on playing this realistic character who runs around on the streets like in “Pusher.” I have to understand that world. With a director, it’s a very different story. They pick him because he has a unique touch on the films he’s done previously, right? They want that. They really, really beg him to come. And, when he comes, they say, “We love you so much, but can you change completely? Can you just become one of us?” [Laughs.] That’s not what they’re asking us, as actors. They will live with my funny accent, they will deal with it, and they’ll figure out how we fit it in. They’re not telling me to change completely, because they saw something they wanted in this character. For directors, it very much depends on the scale of the budget. I don’t know where the number is—let’s say it’s eight million dollars. If it’s above that, it’s not the director's film anymore. And I think that directors just have to be aware of that when they go to America.

It seems like you’ve been moving between these systems pretty fluidly and successfully. You’ve done the James Bond thing; you’ve done the Marvel thing. And, in all of these, your physicality is so striking and precise. We’ve talked about the clumsiness of the fighting in “The Hunt” and the dance sequence in “Another Round.” How does your training as a dancer and a gymnast come to bear?

I was not the best gymnast in the world, necessarily—we were outside the Top Ten. [Laughs.] So, we had plenty of time to fool around and do stunts constantly, in this massive place, with mattresses. We tried to make them look as real and crazy as possible. I think that that’s coming in handy today. But to do a flying kung-fu film—we had wires and stuff going on in “Doctor Strange”—was like a dream come true, because I watched these films when I was a kid. I loved Bruce Lee. And I was not only doing flying kung fu—Jesus, I had an orange fucking jumpsuit! How cool can it be? So, yeah, that I was able to do that at the age of fifty obviously had to do with my past. I wouldn’t have been able to train that up.

I’d love to hear a little bit more about your upbringing in Copenhagen and how you got to that point.

My upbringing was in a very working-class area. When I was a teen-ager, my father became middle-income, but we still stayed out there, and I had no dreams of being an actor or a dancer at all. I was just doing gymnastics because I was in a school where the math teacher had a gymnastics club. He took all the kids that were hanging around on street corners and asked them to be part of the club so we didn’t spend time on the street too much—and then I played handball and stuff, so I was very physical. Everything that happened later on was just coincidence in my life. I watched as many films as anybody else, but I wanted to be Bruce Lee! I didn’t want to be an actor. I just wanted to be him—I identified with the character on the screen. So, when somebody asked a few of us from gymnastics to be in a musical, in the background, and do some flips and acrobatics, and the choreographer there asked me if I wanted to learn the craft of dancing—because I had certain skills for that, apparently—I had nothing else to do, and I said, “Yes, why not?” And the first time I’d ever seen theatre was when I was on a stage. So there’s kind of a Billy Elliot story, where I couldn’t really tell my friends what I was doing. [Laughs.] Once they figured out how many women were dancing, and how few boys were, some of them gave it a shot as well.

Were they surprised when they saw you onstage?

A few of my close friends came in and were, like, “What the fuck?” Yeah, it was fun.

What was the musical?

The first musical I did was “La Cage aux Folles,” which is a story about this couple, two men, who have a drag cabaret. It was a very physically demanding performance; we were wearing dresses that were, like, twenty pounds, and high heels. We would do flips and somersaults and shit in those costumes. It was really fun.

How did you get from dance to drama? I guess it’s less of a leap in some ways.

I started late at dance, so there were certain things that, as a base, I never got, because you need to be four, five, six when you start doing that stuff. Other things I had tons of—I mean, I can flip and spin, and I also have a certain sense of musicality. But I was much more in love with the drama of dancing than the aesthetics of dancing. A lot of the time, we were dancing with, like, eight people doing the exact same thing at the same time, and that was beautiful, and we were all happy. But it didn’t fulfill me, really. Sometimes you’d get a choreographer who would say, “This is something else we could do.” And it was much more—yeah, I’ll use the word again—brutal dancing. And it became much more personalized and dramatic. But we did it very few times. And I was more and more doing musicals and watching actors, like, They do drama full time. If I really love drama, why shouldn’t I give that a shot? Because maybe I’m more in love with that.

Would you ever go back to the theatre now?

I did a ton of theatre in the beginning, when I was graduating as an actor, and then before that as a dancer. I think the last thing I did was twenty years ago, with a friend of mine—a two-hander—and I loved it so much I thought that was the right moment to say, “That’s it for me.” It was a nice high note to end on. I don’t feel the craving when it gets to seven o’clock in the evening. I don’t go, “Oh, I need to go onstage.” [Laughs.] I will never say never. If something comes my way and I find it interesting—but I will be so crazy rusty, so I will also be shitting my pants.

What brought you to “Pusher”?

Nick [Nicolas Winding Refn] originally didn’t want to cast any actors, because he didn’t want actors in his films. He wanted solely people from the street. But the casting director said, “Listen, you need at least two, maybe three people that have some experience, because these parts are too big, and they have an arc, and we’re not sure we can get anyone from the street to do that.” He was reluctant. And then she said, “There’s someone over there in a theatre school; have a look at him”—that was me. “He apparently is not doing too well over there. Nobody understands what he’s saying. He’s from the street that you’re shooting on.” [Laughs.] And I was from that area, and I did have that language, and it took me a while to get rid of it. He called me when it was still there. He cast me—he had no idea what I was saying. But he loved that. He thought it was right. So, that was the beginning of that beautiful relationship.

This was the time of Dogme 95—a transformative moment for the Danish indie scene. Did it feel that way in real time? What was the energy as everyone was coming up together?

I think it might have felt even more like a transformation for people outside looking at it. We were in the midst of it. We just felt it was natural: “Let’s go this way. Let’s do that. Let’s rent a camera. Who’s got some money? Do you have a car? Let’s do it.” That kind of energy. We were also aware that we were the naughty boys in the class who were doing something that hadn’t been done before. But how big an impact it would have later on, we had no idea. Certain films started to travel—Dogme 95 came up and placed Denmark on the map. Lars von Trier took off. A lot of things happened simultaneously, but we started out just wanting to make different Danish films.

Did “Pusher” feel like your breakout moment? Or when did you feel as if something had shifted for you?

Well, “Pusher” was obviously something special. But I got a bicycle for doing that film. A cheap bicycle. That was the salary! [Laughs.] And I was actually negotiating very hard with the producer on whether I could get a children’s seat on the back of it. He said no. I’ve known him for many years now, and I love him, but we can still laugh at that negotiation. So that wasn’t a career at all—it’s just something happened. And I felt I was becoming an actor—I was part of something that was important for me. The career happened later, I guess, when I started getting jobs in big theatres, and I got a job on a TV show that lasted for three years—which I was so afraid of doing, because I came from this rock-and-roll environment. TV was much more—the corners were round. They were not sharp. It wasn’t radical. And that was the exact opposite of what I came from. Once I figured out the frames, and how to be creative within the frames, I was happy again. But it took me at least a year to adapt to that, because I was a naughty boy.

You came to acting relatively late, already having a family, needing to negotiate for the kids’ seat on the back of the bicycle—do you feel these things affected how you responded to fame, or your approach to the job?

It’s so hard to know what would have happened if it had happened earlier, but you can definitely see, if a certain amount of fame or recognition comes your way . . . it’s, like, That person didn’t even want to speak to me yesterday, and now they want to buy me a beer. What the fuck is going on? When you’re thirty-five, you can easily understand that that has nothing to do with you; it’s got something to do with what they see. When you’re seventeen, that’s trickier. Maybe you believe, eventually, you know, Maybe I am God! Maybe I’m the greatest in the world!” And that is not a healthy thing. That’s easier to tackle when you’re in your mid-thirties and have a family.

The other long-running TV show that you’ve worked on is “Hannibal,” which pushed a lot of boundaries; it’s almost the opposite extreme. It’s kind of a remarkable thing that it existed on network television.

Yeah! That was very, very different. Before the audition, I had the same fears that I had the first time because I really wanted to expand my own borders. I do like things that are more radical in general. If this is one, two, maybe three seasons, I don’t know how long it’s gonna run—will I be happy in something with rounded corners? But then I met Bryan Fuller, and he pitched me—not three seasons—he pitched me ten seasons within two hours. It was insane what he was talking about. And I immediately understood that this man has absolutely no borders. I thought it was a fantastic match, and I wasn’t wrong. He’s a brilliant, genius writer. So that was a different animal. I was very, very happy to be part of that. And I’m very proud of it.

And now you’ve reunited with him for “Dust Bunny,” which recently wrapped production in Budapest.

Yeah, his début as the director of a feature film. He asked me if I wanted to be part of it, and I was very proud of him asking me. It’s an honor—he needed someone around him, because it was his first time. It was as crazy as “Hannibal,” but of course we were on different turf. We were in Budapest, and the crew was from there as well. A great crew! It was not as easy as doing “Hannibal”—let’s put it that way. But I hope it pays off. It’s a very beautiful story. And he was wonderful to work with again.

What was his pitch to you for that?

I don’t know what we’re allowed to say. But it is about a little girl who lives in an apartment building, and she has a neighbor, and one day she invites the neighbor in to help her out with something. And then everything goes crazy from there.

I heard it described as a “family horror movie.”

Yep. That sounds about right.

You often play paternal characters, sometimes with a very brutal side to them. In “The Promised Land” you’re taking in this little girl. Even in “Hannibal” itself, you have this relationship to Abigail, the daughter of another serial killer, that’s almost fatherly, in a twisted way.

I think there’s a nature of drama that’s as you say. This guy in “Dust Bunny” will not come across as super paternal, but he’s stuck with someone, and, within that journey, certain things will seep out of the character that humanize him. If you call the show “Hannibal,” and you don’t call it “Will,” you have a certain interest in the character of Hannibal as well. And, if he’s just somebody we cannot relate to at all, it’s very hard to watch. So, there will be relatable things, even though we will find ourselves as an audience going, How could I feel for him here, when he’s just done that? And that’s the whole trick. That’s the beauty of Bryan’s way of writing.

Is there a particular sensibility that you gravitate toward? A type of role that you enjoy more than others?

No. I mean, I do need two sides of the coin. The baddie has to have something humanizing in him, and the hero has to have some flaws. We need the whole human being in there somehow for us to be able to thrive. There’s nothing more boring to play than the man who’s always doing the right thing, and then it’s just external things that make the film. I like when the character is part of the drama—as in “The Promised Land.” He’s so stubborn that he creates the drama.

Right. He is creating a lot of problems for himself by refusing to cede the ground.

Exactly! Or to compromise. Justice is such a big part of his life. Justice is justice—there’s no in-between.

Another thing that’s really striking about your performance in “The Promised Land”—and in many other films—is just how much you can telegraph with a look. Kahlen is a pretty stoic character who is not the most eloquent. He’s not giving these big flowery speeches. But the way that he looks at the people around him, the things he doesn’t say—they tell you as much as what’s in the script.

Yeah! And, again, it’s not up to me. We have to agree to that as part of the character. The D.O.P. has to be wanting to catch that. If the director finds it boring, we’re not doing it. So, we were shooting a special film. In many ways, it was back-to-scratch filmmaking. Some of the films that we grew up with in the forties and the fifties, maybe even way back to—for me, personally, Buster Keaton is one of my heroes. Being able to say so much as he did with just a closeup on him, and no words at all, always fascinated me as a child.

I don’t mind talky films; I’ve done plenty of them, and I love that if it’s great dialogue. This is also a different time. In the seventeen-fifties, you didn’t come home and ask the woman in the house, “How was your day?” That small talk did not exist. “How was my day? I was just trying to survive, you fucker!” That’s what everybody tried to do in those days. So I really enjoyed that there was room for it in this film—that we could express it through really scoped cinematography, and then zoom into a person and feel how they feel as opposed to saying it out loud.

I can see the continuity between you and Buster Keaton—an acrobat who became an actor, and has this incredible expressiveness, and is able to signal so much with so little. He also did a lot of comedy. Is that something that you would be interested in doing? I feel you’ve not had as many opportunities in that arena, at least here.

I’ve done five crazy, crazy comedies back home—dark comedies with Anders Thomas Jensen, the co-writer of “The Promised Land.” And they are in his own universe. Really bizarre. Very talkative characters, very annoying! It’s basically always adult people who behave like children. It’s been insane fun to do them, and we’re not stopping yet. We have one in the spoon. But it’s a very dark, very poetic kind of humor. That I will do. Rom-coms? Not so sure.

Can you say anything more about the one that you’re working on?

I can say it’s about a little boy who’s always identified as a Viking. [Laughs.]

I’ll look forward to that. You’ve worked on these five comedies with Jensen. At this point, you have a number of long-standing collaborations with different directors. Is that something that you've consciously cultivated, building those relationships?

They’ve built themselves. I cherish coming home and meeting up with friends again, and they’re very important to me for a number of reasons. It’s nice to be with people that you trust and that know where we’re going. If we get too lazy—you know, just pull something out of a drawer and say, “We’ll just do that one, we know how that works”—we’ll have to rethink what we’re doing. But I think so far we’ve been so secure in each other’s company that we actually push the envelope a little more. And I think that’s what a healthy relationship should be: we feel so comfortable that we can go a little further next time. ♦


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