By Pierre de Villiers | Photo: Denis Makarenko, Dreamstime.com
Hugely talented but unfussy Danish star Mads Mikkelsen has become one of the most sought after actors in the world.
Mads Mikkelsen has had an incredible few months. Not only did the Danish star win the Best Actor award in Cannes for The Hunt but he also recently landed the highly coveted role of Hannibal Lecter in new American TV series Hannibal. Then there is the Hollywood romantic comedy The Necessary Death of Charlie Countryman he has just shot in Romania and Danish road movie Move On, which is currently being filmed in Croatia. Run off his feet, it is hardly surprising that Scandinavia’s most in-demand thespian, while grateful for his career purple patch, is contemplating an extended break from acting when he sits down for a chat.
“I could easily take three years off and just do sports,” Mikkelsen says. “I would watch everything I could watch and participate in everything I can participate in. I love bike riding, playing football and tennis. I become a little kid every time I do it. So, if I had the money, I would take that break. It’s not like I miss acting like a crazy madman after a few months of not working.”
For now, the hiatus has to wait as film-makers from across the globe continue to scroll to his number on their smartphones. It is easy to understand why so many people believe the Dane is great. Those who have worked with Mikkelsen applaud the fact that he is fiercely talented and focused on set without ever acting like a prima donna. When the cameras stop rolling, he comes across as warm and grounded, avoiding the celebrity scene to spend time in Copenhagen with wife Hanne Jacobsen and teenage children Viola and Carl.
“I enjoy just sitting on my bench at home looking out over nothing,” he says. “And I enjoy seeing the neighbours, seeing friends and seeing the family. I travel way too much in my professional life so usually I am just happy staying at home in Copenhagen.”
Mikkelsen’s love for the country of his birth has seen him steadfastly support the Danish film industry, playing, among others, a restless traveller in Asger Leth’s Move On, a one-eyed warrior in Nicolas Winding Refn’s Valhalla Rising and a teacher accused of child abuse in Thomas Vinterberg’s The Hunt. Ask the actor what he enjoys about working on Danish films and he enthuses about the brilliant scripts that have come his way and the joy of being able to craft something special despite having a budget that wouldn’t even cover the catering bill on the latest Hollywood superhero film.
A royal succes
A case in point is A Royal Affair – one of Mikkelsen’s most recent Danish films. Nikolaj Arcel’s period drama sees the actor playing controversial royal physician Johann Friedrich Struensee who, by manipulating mentally ill King Christian VII, became one of the most influential men in 18th century Denmark, before his commitment to Enlightenment led to his downfall and that of his lover, Queen Caroline Mathilde. Despite a modest budget and largely unknown cast, the film is an affair to remember, featuring brilliant performances and lavish backdrops.
“We had only about 8 or 9 million dollars but what they did with that money was pure magic,” says Mikkelsen. “When you are standing in an enormous castle that is 40 yards to the ceiling and you have all these beautiful people dressed up, you have the carte blanche to go, hey we are allowed to be romantic. It was such a wonderful environment. The main cast members constantly got together in the evening discussing what we were doing the next day. It’s great when you say – this is the start, this is our goal, this is a little group, let’s go for it and do our very best. When I experience that it reminds me why I love acting. It can be such a fantastic, beautiful job.”
A lucky escape
Given his working-class background, acting was not exactly a natural career choice for Mikkelsen. Born in the Osterbro area of Copenhagen, he spent his teenage years in the sort of establishments you won’t find on the Sunset Strip. “Where I grew up was a real working-class area where you had old man’s pubs,” he recalls, with a chuckle. “When I started having beers I was doing it, not at the disco or the cool parties, but at the old man’s pubs. I grew up there with my brother [fellow actor Lars Mikkelsen] and friends.”
As a youngster Mikkelsen excelled at gymnastics, a skill that probably ended up saving his life years later. “I have this 1937 Danish Nimbus motorcycle I ride around on in Denmark and had a crash a few years ago,” he explains. “I stopped at a red light and the next thing I knew there was a car driving right in front of me. I crashed into it and went flying. Somehow I managed to flip in the air and land on my feet. I’m not sure how I did it but it might be the fact that I have a gymnastic background.”
Mikkelsen eventually swapped gymnastics for dancing and, after studying at the ballet academy in Gothenburg for a year, danced professionally for almost a decade. “I was on stage constantly, sometimes doing musicals,” he recalls. “Being a dancer comes in handy in a lot of situations as an actor, especially when you are dealing with stunts. And I would tear up the contract if someone else were doing my stunts. I say, ‘That is why I am in the film. I don’t have the cool lines, I have the cool stunts and I will not give them away’.”
Sex and drugs
After entering Denmark’s state-sponsored theatre academy, Mikkelsen’s big break as an actor arrived in 1996 with Pusher, Nicolas Winding Refn’s drug-fuelled drama that marked the start of a long-time collaboration with the director. By 2000, he was a household name in Denmark thanks to crime TV series Rejseholdet, a four-year gig that not only highlighted his acting talent but also his sex appeal. A Danish women’s magazine declared Mikkelsen The Sexiest Man in the World, a label that is still frequently attached to the 46-year-old.
“I guess they have to label someone the sexiest person in the world, and it is always someone who is on telly even if it’s the weatherman,” the actor shrugs. “For a couple of years it was me and then it was someone else. It’s nicer being the sexiest man than the most ugly man. I live with it, and I don’t mind it, but I don’t go around with a big smile on my face everyday.”
Mikkelsen’s striking looks helped him land his first blockbuster role, playing a knight in King Arthur (2004) before he jumped on board the 007 juggernaut as James Bond villain Le Chiffre in Casino Royale in 2006. His memorable turn as the blood-weeping bad guy boosted his career at a time when the Dane was experienced enough to handle all the extra attention. “After Casino Royale the pile of scripts I got sent got bigger and then you have a better chance that there might be something interesting in there,” he says. “But it didn’t change my life at all. I was in my 30s when the film came out so I wasn’t flabbergasted about what was happening. I knew exactly how it worked. This girl, she would not even look at me yesterday and now things have changed. So I can do the math. But being in a Bond film does make certain things easier.”
Being part of cinema’s longest running franchise has certainly made it easier for Mikkelsen to land roles in other blockbusters, like Clash of the Titans in 2010. And while doing a popcorn flick doesn’t exactly test his acting chops, it allows him to spend some quality time with his kids on set.
“On some of the bigger films it is obviously more interesting for my kids coming to set and watching when you have giant scorpions and machinery that works in a fun way,” says the Dane, who, before tucking into someone’s liver as Hannibal, will be seen in French period drama Michael Kohlhaas. “They do join me if I am away for a long time if it fits in with their school holidays. If there is something interesting happening on set, I will definitely bring them. When I do stunts, I find it supercool that they are watching it.”
If Mikkelsen can’t hang out on set with his kids over the next few months, he will make time for a family holiday. “Sometimes the family is desperate to go somewhere and I’m like, OK then, let’s go,” the actor says as he gets ready to dash off to his next appointment. “I shut up and they decide, but personally I always wanted to travel across the United States because it is an enormous land with so many different kinds of people and a variety in the scenarios. When you are working in the States, you tend to touch down in a plane and then use a plane to get to the next place without really seeing anything. It’ll be nice to take a break and do a proper trip.”