Over the past year Mads Mikkelsen has been winning international awards and many believe it's about time. There were standing ovations when he took out the best actor award for Thomas Vinterberg's The Hunt in Cannes last May and this time last year he received a career tribute from The European Film Academy (EFA). A montage of his roles at the latter ceremony showed his astounding range, from his physically demanding turns for Nicolas Winding Refn (Pusher, Bleeder, Pusher II, Valhalla Rising), to his gut-wrenching movies with Susanne Bier (Open Hearts, After the Wedding), to his English-language blockbuster roles (King Arthur, Casino Royale, Clash of the Titans, The Three Musketeers), to his stunning period turns (Coco Chanel & Igor Stravinsky in France and A Royal Affair in Denmark), to his hit comedic movies (The Green Butchers and Adam's Apples) and his Emmy Award-winning Danish cop series, Unit One.
"My character is up against irrational emotions, and they kick me. It’s like I’m in a Kafka novel."
The 2011 European Film Awards ceremony was in fact a night when Denmark ruled, with Lars von Trier taking out the main prize for Melancholia and Bier the director gong for In a Better World. Interestingly, the conflicted doctor Mikkelsen might have played in Bier's film was portrayed by another good-looking Scandinavian actor, Sweden's Mikael Persbrandt, soon to be seen as Beorn in The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey. Unlike mild-mannered Mikkelsen, Persbrandt, who is also famous on Scandinavian television for playing tough cops, has been is a bit of a wild man over the years.
“A bit?!” Mikkelsen retorts with a brimming smile. “We go way back, me and Mikael. We even made an arty black and white short film [2002's Now by Danish director Simon Staho] where we played a gay couple. It's not a straightforward story. It's very dramatic. But we do slip the tongue in!”
Mikkelsen shares an even stronger camaraderie with Stellan Skarsgård, who had long been Scandinavia's biggest international star – until his son Alexander became a vampire on True Blood. While there's never been a sense of competition between Mikkelsen and Skarsgård Snr., the tall outgoing Swede stole the show at the European Film Awards with his hilarious recollections and musings as he presented Mikkelsen with his gong, before the pair partook in a big bear hug.
“Obviously, Stellan stole my moment because nobody could remember who got the award but everyone remembered his speech!” the more understated Mikkelsen recalls. “That's his typical fucking style! But it was such fun.”
Watch interview with Mads Mikkelsen, Thomas Vinterberg, Tobias Lindholm in Cannes 2012:
This year Mikkelsen missed out at the EFAs, though Vinterberg and Tobias Lindholm won for best screenplay. Interestingly, their story is more prescient now than when it was made as it follows a teacher who is wrongfully accused of child molestation. In many ways, though, the story focuses on inter-personal relationships, in the manner of Vinterberg's 1998 Dogme film, Festen (The Celebration), which depicted a disastrous family wedding.
The Hunt examines how teachers and social workers react following a genuine misunderstanding, so that Mikkelsen's Lucas becomes a hated outcast in his small tight-knit community. They actually convince a kindergarten pupil into accusing Lucas of molestation. Mikkelsen explains this was based on fact.
“There was a case in Norway where a social worker essentially put words into the kid's mouth. But we made it into our own story. Our film is much more about how fragile life is and about how fragile friendship is. My character is up against irrational emotions, and they kick me. It's like I'm in a Kafka novel. So what can I do from there? A lot of people ask why Lucas isn't reacting, but he is reacting constantly. The problem is, who should he hit? Everybody is doing it out of love, there is nobody to hit, there is nobody to be angry at. I can't hit my friend, I can't hit the girl in the kindergarten. So it's super frustrating.”
The film examines the mores of modern society where the rules have become a little inflexible, notes Mikkelsen. “We are not allowed to take a photo of our little son in the swimming pool because there are other kids in there. Things are getting absurd. Obviously people are making these rules because they love their kids, but there has to be a balance in there somewhere – and we're having a hard time finding it. Of course, there are a lot of sick people out there and a lot of kids who are not telling a lie. It's not a story about trying to defend the man who is wrongly accused. We are trying to tell a story about how big, big love can become big, big fear and implode society.”
Mikkelsen has never been into hunting, he says. Born in the Østerbro area of Copenhagen, he is the son of Bente Christiansen and Henning Mikkelsen, a cab driver. His elder brother Lars is also an actor.
“I was a very small kid actually, but I was very athletic,” he recalls of his early years. “I played handball and I was a total sports freak at school.” This physical agility led to his initially pursuing a career as a dancer. “The transition from dance to drama was easy enough because I was in love with the drama of dancing and then I decided after a long time to just do the full drama package instead of waiting for some dramatic dance to come along.”
It was while attending the Århus Theatre School that Mikkelsen made his film debut in Refn's first feature, Pusher. The Drive director had risen to fame together with Mikkelsen, and at one point the actor admitted he would do almost anything for his old friend, including battling it out for months near-naked in the freezing Scottish Highlands in Valhalla Rising. While they have planned to reunite for a long-gestating Hollywood heist movie, it has yet to happen.
Keen to strike while the iron is hot, Mikkelsen has been pursuing other English-language projects. He recently filmed the mob thriller The Necessary Death of Charlie Countryman, co-starring Evan Rachel Wood and Shia LaBeouf, and has just played the most famous villain of them all, Hannibal Lecter, in a 13-episode series titled Hannibal, an adaptation of Thomas Harris' 1981 novel Red Dragon. Hugh Dancy plays Will Graham, the criminal profiler who is on the hunt for a serial killer with the FBI and enlists Dr. Lecter's help with the case.
“I do whatever I find interesting and that can be a blockbuster because it's a very entertaining family film that my kid can see, or something like The Hunt because it's super radical and very dark. I take it from what my gut feeling is and obviously after talking to the director as well. I am not planning my career. If you plan your career you can only be disappointed. But if you do the things that you find interesting, or at least make you happy, it will become a career.”
Watch 'The Hunt'
Sunday 26 April, 12:30am on SBS Viceland (streaming after broadcast at SBS On Demand)
Director: Thomas Vinterberg
Starring: Mads Mikkelsen, Thomas Bo Larsen, Annika Wedderkopp
What's it about?
A teacher (Mikkelsen) lives a lonely life following a difficult divorce, all the while struggling over his son's custody. His life slowly gets better as he finds love and receives good news from his son, but his new luck is about to be brutally shattered by an innocent little lie. This acclaimed film (written & directed by Festen's Thomas Vinterberg) was nominated for Best Foreign Language Film at the 2014 Academy Awards.