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Mads Mikkelsen is a versatile and intrepid actor but what is it that he does? Not very much in most cases, as he happily admits during a break from shooting the third Fantastic Beasts movie. (He was recently parachuted in to play the wizard Gellert Grindelwald as a replacement for the disgraced Johnny Depp.) “I think I’m a minimalist,” says the 55-year-old Dane. “But there are energies that I can juggle, or play around with. Do I choose to move faster or slower, more lightly or more heavily, than I do in my own life?” Stillness and silence become him; he has a sculptural presence that can make the act of contemplation alone seem dramatic.
It’s a shock now to look back at his first film role as a shaven-headed, knife-wielding goon in Nicolas Winding Refn’s kinetic thriller Pusher (1996). Even then, loping around with knuckles dragging and ‘RESPECT’ tattooed in black ink on the back of his head, it is impossible not to be struck by the gentleness and elegance of his features; the plump, pursed lips and the mournful eyes recessed in their sockets combine to undercut the character’s coarseness.
That quality was also central to his work as the menacing Le Chiffre in Casino Royale (2006), where the physical quirks typical of a Bond villain (Le Chiffre was prone to shed the occasional tear of blood) were less striking than the tension between Mikkelsen’s sorrowful beauty and his capacity for sourmouthed sadism. “He’s mysterious,” said Anna Mouglalis, his co-star in Coco Chanel & Igor Stravinsky (2009). “You don’t know what’s behind his eyes.”
As an actor, Mads has this huge vulnerability, and he’s able to share it in the most delicate way.Thomas Vinterberg
Mikkelsen is at his most achingly understated in Another Round, his second film with his compatriot Thomas Vinterberg following The Hunt (2012). In the earlier picture, which won him the Best Actor prize at Cannes, he played a kindergarten teacher falsely accused of abusing one of his infant charges; his core of inner righteousness in the face of an entire society’s opprobrium was worthy of comparison with Henry Fonda in Hitchcock’s The Wrong Man (1956). “The part was written for Mads,” Vinterberg tells me. “In the beginning, he was a blacksmith figure, a Robert De Niro Deer Hunter type. But I felt the character was too strong, so I decided to reverse it and make him a kindergarten teacher. I gave him glasses, humbled him. As an actor, he has this huge vulnerability, and he’s able to share it in the most delicate way.”
The crisis in The Hunt was external, whereas in Another Round it comes entirely from within. In the new film, Mikkelsen plays Martin, also a teacher, this time of college-age students. In his first scene, he is seated behind his desk in the grip of an unspecified malaise. He can’t see where his life is heading, or even to the end of his next sentence. As he flounders through the history syllabus, his students smell blood. Disgruntled at his erratic teaching, they mock and jeer. One even walks out. The spectacle of someone turning their back on this most charismatic of actors seems to go against nature.
It is at a dinner with friends, all of them struck by a low-level midlife listlessness, that a possible solution presents itself. They propose to put into action the theory of the Norwegian psychiatrist Finn Skårderud that humans need to adjust permanently their blood alcohol level to optimise performance. Once it is raised to 0.05 per cent, Skårderud argues, the idea is that life will flow that bit more freely.
“It’s like we have this choir in the film of people babbling and doing funny stuff,” Vinterberg explains. “And then there are the breaks in that, which Mads fills out with great subtlety and precision, sometimes without saying anything. That’s when you see what a fine-tuned instrument he is.” Though cultural specificities in the picture arise from Denmark’s particular relationship to alcohol, Mikkelsen believes Martin’s sense of dislocation is universal. “We can all relate to that feeling of standing on the platform and the train is leaving. And there seems to be no way to catch it: it’s gone.”
All the right moves
Mikkelsen has his own way of keeping that sensation at bay. “He enjoys learning things,” says Lone Scherfig, who directed him in his first English-language role as a morose, taciturn doctor in Wilbur Wants to Kill Himself (2002). “With every part, he would master a language or a skill or a sport. He likes the physical challenges and that’s also how his range gets bigger, though he certainly had a great platform of talent to begin with.” Scherfig was one of his teachers at theatre school in Copenhagen in the early 1990s, when he switched from his previous disciplines of gymnastics and dancing to acting. “Not that I could teach him much because it was obvious to everyone he was so talented from the beginning. Because of his dancing background, he would never need to stop and think before attempting something – he just tried things out to see if they rang true with his mind and his body.”
Because of his dancing background, Mads would never need to stop and think before attempting something – he just tried things out to see if they rang true with his mind and his body.Lone Scherfig
Physicality is integral to him. “As a kid, I was climbing every wall you could find, every fence and tree, and doing stunts for the hell of it,” he says. From old Monty Python episodes, he parroted English phrases, but it was Buster Keaton who became one of his earliest idols. “The beauty and grace and drama of what he did can be heartbreaking. Nobody should compare me to him but I grew up trying to do his sort of insane stunts. I started dancing way too late so I didn’t have the base of a dancer. But I was a gymnast so I could pull off certain physical things. The reason people found me interesting, I guess, was that I always found the drama in the moves. Otherwise I couldn’t understand why I should do it. I was more in love with the drama of dance than the aesthetics.”
His opportunities for physical comedy on film have been confined largely to the directorial work of his most frequent collaborator, Anders Thomas Jensen. Mikkelsen has been swaggering and brutish for other directors too – among several films he made with Refn is Valhalla Rising (2009), in which he rampages across the screen as an unspeaking, one-eyed 11th-century brute. But it is only under Jensen’s direction that he has had the chance to explore his Keaton-esque tendencies.
Jensen co-wrote Wilbur Wants to Kill Himself, as well as the brace of emotionally intense dramas Mikkelsen made with Susanne Bier – Open Hearts (2002) and After the Wedding (2006) – though the films that he has directed have their own comic wildness. Audiences accustomed to a sober, pared-back Mikkelsen will get a rude and pleasant jolt once they see him as a budding Sweeney Todd in The Green Butchers (2003), a perversely credulous and idealistic priest presiding over a community of criminals in Adam’s Apples (2005) – “He inhabits the character’s sadness without making the character sad,” noted the critic Wesley Morris – or a priapic, curly-haired lug with traces of bull in his DNA in Men & Chicken (2015).
“What’s uncommon is that he has a strong sense of both comedy and drama,” says Scherfig. “But on film, it’s primarily been in Anders Thomas Jensen’s films that he has been able to use full-on slapstick.” Mikkelsen insists that it hasn’t been a conscious demarcation. “I don’t get those offers from anywhere else. Obviously if the Coen brothers asked me to be part of their world, I would gladly go, but that hasn’t been the case. And not a lot of people are doing the sort of comedy that Anders is doing, which is where my humour lies. I’m not a romcom guy. I can’t sit still when I’m watching one; I want to go out on to the balcony and scream! But I find Anders’s stuff funny. The characters are always behaving like children even though they’re in adult bodies. It’s so wonderful to be annoying and not making sense but to believe that you’re always right. There’s something very dramatic and funny about that.” For Jensen’s films, he says, “you need the balls to fall and hurt yourself. Because if you fall and don’t hurt yourself, it’s not funny.”
Making a murderer
If outright absurdism hasn’t come his way from other sources, he did at least exercise his slow-burning wit across three seasons of Hannibal (2013-15), in which he was a wise and radical choice to take over the role immortalised by Anthony Hopkins in The Silence of the Lambs (1991), Hannibal (2001) and Red Dragon (2002). In contrast to Hopkins’s juicy showboating, Mikkelsen distils the character’s inner turmoil into near-imperceptible gestures, such as the way his eyes dart suddenly to a screwed-up tissue in his office. (The blubbing patient who left it there during therapy does not live to see the end of the first season.)
“My performance had to be that way because he was surrounded by people he wanted eventually to be his friends,” he explains. “He couldn’t do his tongue-slurping thing.” He mimics the noise Hopkins makes in The Silence of the Lambs to accompany the memory of eating a victim’s liver. “That would be weird. No one would want to be his friend. Once he goes to jail, we can pull off something else.
“There was the combination of him being a minimalistic character but then, when he shows his true colours, he would be the devil – he didn’t have to hide it then. He could have fun with it. We just had to wait for those moments where we would do that. Anthony had, I believe, 15 or so minutes of screen time [in The Silence of the Lambs], but it feels as if he’s in every scene. That’s the sort of impact he had. What he did was world-class, just masterful. But the TV show was a different animal.”
When I ask Vinterberg to name his favourite Mikkelsen performance outside of their work together, he settles on Open Hearts, in which the actor plays a married doctor drifting into infidelity. “He blew me away in that,” he says. “He was so naked and honest.” The film contains some of his most complex work, as he reveals in granular detail not only his character’s creeping disappointment in himself for betraying his family but his continuing helplessness in the face of his own desires, no matter how pathetic they make him appear. “He has a humanity and a sincerity in that part,” says Bier. “But he’s also very sexy and masculine, which makes for an unusual cocktail. And yet he has no vanity. Another actor might have tried to make the character appear better than he is, but he embraces all the complications.”
I have a hunch that Lars von Trier would be tricky for me to work with. I insist on being part of the world we are working in, and not to be a puppet, whereas I have a feeling Lars likes it the other way.Mads Mikkelsen
Though she hasn’t worked with him since After the Wedding, Bier has kept an eye on Mikkelsen’s career, including his forays into blockbusters such as Rogue One: A Star Wars Story and Doctor Strange (both 2016). “I see some of those films and think: ‘Woah, he doesn’t have a lot of material to work with there.’ But he’s still incredibly watchable. I don’t know how he does it.”
As Martin in Another Round, Mikkelsen pinballs between defeated middle-age slump, temporary booze-fuelled victory and the spectre of self-destruction, hitting notes of euphoria and invigoration as well as solemnity, introspection and remorse. He was rightly named Best Actor at the European Film Awards last December, with the film winning a further three prizes, but what can there be left for him to do? “We’ve seen so many sides to him,” says Vinterberg. “He’s been fighting, he’s been shagging, he’s been killed, he’s been killing and now he’s dancing. All we need is singing.”
He could always team up with Lars Von Trier, the only major living Danish director with whom he has yet to work. “We’ve met many times but it’s never come up,” Mikkelsen says. “I have a hunch that he would be tricky for me to work with. I insist on being part of the world we are working in, and not to be a puppet, whereas I have a feeling Lars likes it the other way.” Scherfig predicts that the actor’s star will only keep on rising. “I hope he can move now into a league where he not only decides whether small niche projects can happen but that he will be spoilt for choice. Audiences love him, and he has never given them any reason not to.”
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50 years after its release, we reveal the untold stories behind A Clockwork Orange, as seen through the relationship between author Anthony Burgess and director Stanley Kubrick + Edgar Wright on Last Night in Soho, Jeymes Samuel on The Harder They Fall, Małgorzata Szumowska on Never Gonna Snow Again, Todd Haynes’s The Velvet Underground, the best of Venice and much more…Find out more and get a copy
Originally published: 1 July 2021