Danish actor Mads Mikkelsen — best known for his skillful and distinctly human portrayal of dark characters in films like “The Hunt,” and “Casino Royale” as well as the television series “Hannibal” — trained as a dancer before enrolling in acting classes.
“I loved every second of it. But I found out that I was a little more in love with the drama of dancing than the aesthetics of dancing, and so it was a natural step for me to try to go that way,” Mikkelsen told Variety film critic Peter Debruge.
During a master class in the Variety Streaming Room presented by the Sarajevo Film Festival, Mikkelsen reflected on his nearly 25 years in the entertainment industry, touching on topics ranging from character complexity to preparing for roles and beyond.
Mikkelsen had a relatively late start to his acting career, making his film debut in Nicolas Winding Refn’s 1996 crime thriller “Pusher” at the age of 30. This launched Mikkelsen to the forefront of Danish cinema, and he went on to work with acclaimed Danish directors such as Anders Thomas Jensen and Susanne Bier. However, it was not until 2006 that he truly broke through in the U.S. as antagonist Le Chiffre in the 21st James Bond movie, “Casino Royale.”
As Le Chiffre, Mikkelsen proved his ability to humanize villains in a way that often makes them much more sinister.
“He’s not taking over the world, and he becomes fragile in a couple situations. He’s just another person that owes a lot of people a lot of money. And so that becomes humanizing to a degree, right?” Mikkelsen said of the role. “I think that’s been the key word with the new era that Bond has stepped into, because we love all the bad guys from the ’70s and the ’60s. They’re iconic. But time is changing and we want to see something a little more realistic in a character.”
Therefore, it is no coincidence that Mikkelsen often finds the most evil character in a project to be the most interesting to portray.
“Five minutes after we invented God, we invented Satan,” Mikkelsen explained. “The other side of the coin has always been there, and we’ve always been very curious of what it is and how much room does it take inside of us, how much space does it take. And hopefully it’s a fraction, but sometimes we feel it’s a little more than that. And that’s why I think it’s always been interesting to put that on the big screen.”
Mikkelsen’s performance as a teacher accused of sexual misconduct by his student in Thomas Vinterberg’s “The Hunt” earned him best actor honors at the 2012 Cannes Film Festival. “The Hunt” was also screened at the Sarajevo Film Festival this year. When discussing his preparation for the role, Mikkelsen said it was all about the mindset.
“It wasn’t difficult to put yourself in his shoes of being dropped into a world where everybody hates you and you haven’t done anything. You haven’t done anything. You’re innocent. And then all of a sudden, everywhere you turn, all the doors are closing. And if there is a door that opens, it’s because somebody wants to punch you in the face,” Mikkelsen said. “He’s one of these people who believe that justice will be served. They’ve got the wrong man, nothing happened, and everybody will know tomorrow. It’s going to be fine. But life doesn’t work like that.”
Mikkelsen and Vinterberg were meant to return to Cannes this year to premiere their latest collaboration, “Another Round,” which follows a group of high school teachers who begin drinking on the job to test out a philosophical theory about humans being more effective with a certain level of alcohol in their systems. Naturally, the subject matter brings with it some comedic moments, but being mainly a dramatic actor, Mikkelsen took the lighter moments in the film very seriously.
“It’s a cliché to say it, but you have to take comedy very serious. As long as you take your character serious and you put him in a situation that is absurd or the character behaves absurdly, it will be funny sometimes,” Mikkelsen said. “If you go for the laugh and you do it for other reasons than being honest to the character, it is not my taste of comedy.”
In “Another Round,” Mikkelsen was also given the opportunity to return to his roots by showcasing his dancing skills, though he was skeptical of this choice at first.
“I kept asking Thomas [Vinterberg], ‘So this is a dream, right? This is kind of a fantasy, right?’ And he was like, ‘No, no. He just starts dancing,’ I was like, ‘Jesus, how are we going to pull that off without being sort of pretentious?'” Mikkelsen said. “Watching the film and the way the story evolves, I think it’s absolutely the right choice, but I had a hard time seeing it while we were doing it. It’s not a performance. It’s something that is deeper built into the film as part of the film. It’s not a solo kind of thing, but it’s a tribute to life and hopefully, people will enjoy that.”
Watch the full conversation below.