Mikkelsen, on knowing what he wants

hollywood diaries

Mikkelsen, on knowing what he wants

Mads Mikkelsen is said to be the most famous man in Denmark — Hans Christian Andersen aside — but never have I met anyone who is so completely the opposite of hygge — or hue-gah, as the 51-year-old corrects me, in a bemused fashion, as I clumsily attempt to ask him about the Danish concept of comfort and geniality that is currently being used to sell everything from wine to cashmere cardigans.

It’s not that Mikkelsen is unfriendly — quite the opposite — it’s just that he doesn’t seem particularly cosy, though perhaps this is simply down to his face. You could stare at it for hours and still not work it out. He has a brutalist look to him: chiselled, serious, stark. Glancing at him, you wonder: is this an exceedingly handsome man, or an exceptionally creepy one? Does he want to talk to me, or eat me? This is not such a ridiculous thought, given that he played the titular role in the TV series Hannibal.

Indeed, Mikkelsen is very good at being bad. He was the Bond villain who wept blood in Casino Royale, and played Benedict Cumberbatch’s nemesis in Marvel’s Doctor Strange. Now he has entered the world of George Lucas, with a leading role in Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, the first in a new series of Star Wars spin-off films.

What he can tell me about his character is somewhat limited, given the lock-and-key element to anything set in a galaxy  far, far away. Is he… “Is he a man?” Mikkelsen says, smiling, when I try to prise some information out of him. “Yes, he is. And he’s a father. He’s the father of (leading lady) Felicity Jones and he’s a scientist. He’s a man working on something that can change the world completely.”

Mikkelsen would not call himself a Star Wars geek, but he is a big fan. What he likes most about the films is that they are so much more than science fiction. “That’s the reason it has been so successful — it keeps being something we can relate to. They are family films, family stories. They are about lost fathers, mothers, brothers, sisters, and that is universal.”

Mikkelsen came to acting relatively late, when he was almost 30, after a youth in gymnastics and dance. He was born in Copenhagen, the second son of a nurse and a bank clerk (his elder brother, Lars, also an actor, has starred in The Killing and House of Cards). “We grew up listening to radio plays — we would act them out,” he says. “We knew them by heart. We mimicked them and had fun doing that, but we never thought about being actors. It was not like, ‘Oh, we can become actors.’ No. We wanted to become characters.”

His brother took an interest in juggling and street theatre; Mikkelsen got into gymnastics and dance. “Through that, I discovered theatre. I was more in love with the drama of the dancing thing. I did little parts in some productions and loved it, so I applied for drama school and I got in. It was four years of education. In the middle, I did an audition for a film and got it.” That film was his fellow Dane Nicolas Winding Refn’s internationally successful Pusher, in which he played a drug dealer.

Mikkelsen was with his wife, the choreographer Hanne Jacobsen, by this point, and they had a young daughter, Viola, now 24 (they also have a son, Carl, 19). He believes this grounding worked in his favour. “I was always a very energetic person. There were a lot of things I needed to have a base for before I could make up my mind about what I liked about drama. I was able to pinpoint what I loved about films because I was a certain age. So, I think it was good for me that it happened later in life.”

He is refreshingly unaffected when discussing the process of acting. He thinks method acting is “a very boring technique that is not alive.” He does research, if it is required, “but not dressing up like your character four months before, going and living on a mountainside by yourself making shoes, and not talking to anyone because you want to get into character.”
“I’ll learn how to ride a horse. I’ll do my very best to learn to speak French. I will  try hard to be a brain surgeon if that’s the  case. I will follow the guy for three months  and see how it works if it takes up a big part of the film. But if the character is just a brain surgeon in passing…,” Mikkelsen rolls his eyes.

We talk a bit about Scandi noir, the genre that has come to define his home country. It is safe to say he finds it rather amusing. “It’s all very dimly lit and people wearing very boring clothes.” Does he think it’s become a bit of a cliché? He roars with laughter, “The technique they are using is as skilful as hell. The actors are good and the filmmakers are good. But the storytelling itself… I mean, I love watching it, but it does become, you know, when you see The Killing — I’ve never in my life seen that many suspects that are 100% sure. ‘Oh he did it, they did it. Oh no, it’s the dog who did it. No, it’s the dog’s wife’s mother.’ It is like a Monty Python sketch. It’s so well done that I don’t mind watching it, but in terms of going, ‘Oh, this feels real’? No. No guys.”

Mikkelsen has no plans for 2017 yet. “I don’t have a goal; I don’t have an ambition. My ambition has always been the project I am on. This sounds pretentious. The pretentiousness is that I just see a little too often that people have been ambitious in their careers. This is what they want to do, and all these little things are just stepping stones to get there.”

He looks me straight in the eye. “But you will never get there (like this). You will always be a little off target. And this will have just been in vain then. So, why don’t you just make this project your favourite project in the world? Then the next one. Then all of a sudden everything has been worthwhile. That has always been my philosophy. And so I have no idea where I’m going to end up.”

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