Guest of Honor

Mads Mikkelsen Faces the Darkness

The "Casino Royale" villain talks about his Cannes-winning role in Denmark's Oscar-contender "The Hunt," his country's lack of giant scorpions, and happy, happy Hannibal Lecter.

The people of Denmark have voted Mads Mikkelsen their country’s Sexiest Man every year for over a decade… but he’s not just another pretty face.  His work in films for directors like Nicholas Winding-Refn and Thomas Vinterberg have made him among the standard-bearers for Danish cinema, and he’s gone on to mainstream Hollywood success — as the grim Le Chiffre in the Bond reboot “Casino Royale” and in the title role on NBC’s “Hannibal.”

“The Hunt” is Denmark’s official submission in the Academy Awards’ “Best Foreign Language Film” category this year. It features a typically dark Danish plot… and a Cannes-winning performance from Mikkelsen.


Brendan Francis Newnam: Mads, welcome to our show.

Mads Mikkelsen: Thank you for having me.

Brendan Francis Newnam: Tell us a little bit about the character you play in “The Hunt.”

Mads Mikkelsen: Lucas is a man like you and me. He’s a schoolteacher who got fired half a year ago because the school shut down, and now he’s eventually found a job in a kindergarten, not the job he preferred, but that’s where he is, and he’s making the best of it. He’s just kind of like struggling with a new divorce and the custody of his own son, and that’s where we find him in the beginning.

It’s a little small community, a lot of friends, and they have a lot of things in common.  And all of a sudden one day a little girl accuses him of something and his whole world collapses and implodes.  And this is where we start the story.

Brendan Francis Newnam: You’ve been in lots of films. I’m wondering, what were the particular challenges of playing this sort of character?

Mads Mikkelsen: Well, there’s always challenges with every character, I think. I would rather turn it around and say, it might look like a difficult film, but it was not as difficult as it looks — in the sense that the script was extremely well-written and beautiful and heartbreaking. So for us as actors, we prefer that, as opposed to things that look less difficult but might be, actually.  Because it’s not that well prepared.

Brendan Francis Newnam: Because you have to fill in the blanks, in a way, when the script isn’t strong enough?

Mads Mikkelsen: More like, we can lean into a script like this, and we can feel free in a different way than we can with stuff that’s not working — it’s as simple as that.

Brendan Francis Newnam: But also in a script like this, and in a lot of realist sort of films, you don’t have the benefits of costumes or CGI or anything like that.

Mads Mikkelsen: Well, we’re kind of used that Where I come from we don’t have giant scorpions and pirate boats! So this is a kind of film that we’ve been growing up doing and watching ourselves, so we’re kind of used to that. I don’t mind CGI, and I love fighting giant scorpions as well…

Brendan Francis Newnam: You like crying blood?

Mads Mikkelsen: I would love to do that again. But this is where we come from, this is our base.

Brendan Francis Newnam: I’m interested in that. This movie also has some dark themes, it’s a dark story… and that’s not uncommon in Danish film. And also Scandinavian culture in general. What is it about Scandinavian culture, beyond simply the darkness which happens many months of the year?

Mads Mikkelsen: It is quite interesting, I think: It was last or the year before, we were voted the most happy people in the world, and yet we come up with these kind of, as you say, very dark films!

I do not necessarily see this as a dark film. I see it as a topic that has been on the surface and nobody wanted to touch it. It’s not being politically correct to address issues like this, and I see more like… less fear of touching dark subjects than you might have in other places in the world.

Brendan Francis Newnam: When you finished this role — or maybe simultaneously as you played this role playing a man wrongly accused — you were playing a young serial killer and a cannibal.

Mads Mikkelsen: I like the way you emphasize “young.”

Brendan Francis Newnam: Well I think you’re young, I mean makeup is amazing…

Mads Mikkelsen: Yeah, great!

Brendan Francis Newnam: In radio we’re always young.

Mads Mikkelsen: Yes.

Brendan Francis Newnam: But anyway, those are both very dark places to hang out every day, mentally.

Mads Mikkelsen: Yeah, they are. I mean, I would say, for the character of Hannibal, he does not necessarily see it as a dark area or dark place. He’s probably – and I’m sad to say so – but he is probably one of the happiest men I’ve ever played.

You don’t, as an actor, carry anything back home [after playing Hannibal], because he’s tremendously satisfied in his life, and every day is a new opportunity, and he’s just looking forward to tomorrow. So, in terms of like “carrying a weight” or “going to a dark place” as an actor, it’s not really the case with him. He’s going to places he loves to be.

Brendan Francis Newnam: Well, you’ve described him — I think this was you — as someone who is kind of like Satan.

Mads Mikkelsen: The fallen angel, yeah. The fallen angel is pretty and he’s just… fallen. That means that, where we see light, he sees dark, and he finds life most interesting on the threshold of death. It doesn’t mean that he enjoys evilness, he just sees something beautiful there.

Brendan Francis Newnam: Yeah, so he’s not as tortured, it kind of goes with what you’re saying.

Mads Mikkelsen: Absolutely. He’s not one of those guys who’s fighting something from his childhood that is haunting him nonstop. Definitely not. It’s just he sees beauty where we see pain.

Brendan Francis Newnam: I want to talk about something else, which I’m sure you’ve talked about before, but I found it intriguing: You were a professional dancer before you became an actor. What was the inspiration to make that shift into acting?

Mads Mikkelsen: I don’t know. It was never a dream for me to be an actor, and it was never a dream for me to be a dancer. It’s just something that happened, it was a coincidence. I was a gymnast, and I was asked to be in a show and do some flips in the background, and eventually the choreographer asked if I wanted to learn the craft. I had nothing else to do, so I said yes.

So I did that for ten years, but I really felt that I loved doing it, but I was more in love with the drama of dancing than the study of dancing.  And so eventually, after a while, I asked myself the question “why don’t you try to do drama full time?” So I applied for a school and I got in.

Brendan Francis Newnam: Was it ever a question of not going to school, maybe just trying out for films?

Mads Mikkelsen: It could have been — I mean, it’s not really the same situation in Denmark as it is in the States. Films are enormous over here, and at that time, Danish film was not the biggest thing you’d ever seen. So theater would probably be the first step. So school… we had to do that. You just don’t go and walk in on a theater stage like that.

Brendan Francis Newnam: If I’m correct, you did this around ’96-’97, which was a time when there was a lot of energy in this Danish cinema. The Dogma 95 movement was a year or two old.

Mads Mikkelsen: Absolutely. Well in ’95 I did the “Pusher” film as well, so a lot of things happened at the same time.

They were like, Thomas Vinterberg had his group, Nicolas Winding Refn had his group, Lars von Trier had one, and Susanne Bier… and all these groups hated each other of course.

Brendan Francis Newnam: Really?

Mads Mikkelsen: Well we had to. We had to define ourselves. We wanted to do “Mean Streets,” they wanted to do something else, whatever. So our gasoline was to define ourselves. And not necessarily “hate” but let’s say… “disgust” is a good fuel.

Brendan Francis Newnam: It’s not that huge an industry, though! I mean film is big in Denmark, but it’s not that big a country.

Mads Mikkelsen: No no no, exactly.

Brendan Francis Newnam: But you were still tribal.

Mads Mikkelsen: Yeah we did. I mean we had to define ourselves. Later on, when we grew a little older, we did realize that they were not shabby, the other ones, either.

Brendan Francis Newnam: Yeah, and you’ve now acted in most of those groups, if I’m correct.

Mads Mikkelsen: Yes. I’m not a loyal person.

Brendan Francis Newnam: Or maybe the walls just collapse as we get older.

Mads Mikkelsen: They did, and thank God for that.