Mads Mikkelsen looks like the Scandinavian version of the Marlboro Man, and that really has nothing to do with the half-squashed pack of Marlboro Lights sticking out of his front pocket. Greeting me for our interview, the six-foot Danish star is wearing a brown leather jacket, a rugged plaid shirt, worn-in jeans, and all-terrain boots—the kind of footwear a cowboy might adopt if he traded America’s heartland for Denmark’s cooler, woodsier environment. The actor is also chatting, in Danish, with a soon-to-exit Thomas Vinterberg, director of The Hunt, Mikkelsen’s tense and intimate new drama. I pry and ask what was discussed. “We were actually talking about drinking our brains out tonight,” Mikkelsen says. “But then we realized we had another Q&A, so…”
Surely this can’t be the same slick-haired, impeccably suited, haute-cuisine-loving man who devilishly enticed viewers for 12 terrific hours on NBC’s Hannibal. A gruffly dressed smoker who’s ready to drink his brains out? As opposed to delicately sautéing someone else’s and serving them with salmon mousse and a red wine reduction? Naturally, this is all one big testament to Mikkelsen’s tremendous, transformative range, which is now, finally, blowing up stateside in a big way, with diverse leading roles that are either award-winning or award-worthy. To American viewers, Mikkelsen has largely been known as a muscular side player (King Arthur, Clash of the Titans), an enigmatic villain (Casino Royale), or the co-star of foreign art-house films that have caught Oscar’s eye (After the Wedding, A Royal Affair). But with Hannibal and The Hunt, he delivers two of 2013’s finest performances, clinching a bona fide breakthrough at the age of 47.
In The Hunt, Mikkelsen plays Lucas, a mild-mannered kindergarten teacher in a small Danish hunting town, who’s abruptly accused of sexual misconduct by a young student, Klara (Annika Wedderkopp). The charge spreads like wildfire and turns the whole town on one of its own, and Mikkelsen’s handling of the material is truly something to marvel at. The performance won him the Best Actor prize at the 2012 Cannes Film Festival, and while it may be a departure from playing a cannibalistic mastermind, Mikkelsen’s new film and new series aren’t as unrelated as you might think. We talked about those connections, about Cannes, about Hannibal’s uniquely romantic relationship with Hugh Dancy’s Will Graham, and about how this on-fire star went from “hippie kid” to dancer to Denmark’s biggest sensation.
In the beginning of The Hunt, Klara asks Lucas what his favorite food is, and since we’re right on the heels of the first season of Hannibal, which is, ironically, very much a foodie show, I’m going to ask you the same question.
Well, my favorite food would be anything Thai. I’m definitely connected to Asian cuisine. So anything Thai, anything spicy—a spicy soup, or a crispy pork. Simple Thai food is definitely my favorite food.
From what I’ve seen of your work, the overarching link seems to be a great deal of composure, but also a whole lot brewing underneath of that. Do you consider yourself a very cerebral guy?
I do like to use my brain a lot when I prepare. When I sit down with [a director] and discuss things, I try to be the devil’s advocate, I try to be the scriptwriter, and I try to ask all the questions that I have inside. I try to be fairly intellectual about what we’re doing. But once we start shooting, we’ve been there, and we’ve done that, and I try to shut that out and go instinctively with the character, and see where it takes us. But that kind of fore-work is necessary for us both to be on the same page, and then we can start being creative, and fluid, and airy later on. And it depends on the character, of course. I mean, obviously, with [Lucas], there are a lot of things brewing underneath. A lot of it is private moments. I’ve done some more explicit characters, but when I’m doing private moments, I do insist on those moments remaining private, in the sense that there’s no reason for me to be aware that there’s an audience. That would ruin the whole experience for me.
Lucas, specifically, remains frustratingly calm and minimally defensive through a lot of the film’s accusation process, leaving the viewer wondering if this is all just beyond belief for him, if he’s harboring guilt for something else and feels he deserves punishment, or if, just maybe, he is guilty. Was it frustrating for you to keep his emotions contained?
No. Not when we did it. It was quite logical, everything that happened. It was frustrating and provoking to read it, because I had the same feeling as you had: “Don’t do that,” “Just do that,” “Go do that.” And then Thomas said, “Read it again. What is it you want him to do?” And I read it again, and I realized, “Why doesn’t he just…what?” He’s doing it. He’s confronting people right away. He’s just doing it in a civilized manner. When he gets the information that somebody has said something, he’s just shell-shocked. Someone else might have said, “I don’t give a shit! I want to know who the fuck it is!” But a lot of people would not. So he goes home. And when he does confront the school principal, I would say he’s actually crossing a limit of his own character there already. It’s not passive; it’s pretty active. And when he realizes it’s Klara, he goes straight to confront his friend [her father]. So I think he’s reacting a lot, but we don’t feel it because what feel is that it’s all so unjust.
I imagine you learned a lot about psychology while working on Hannibal, as it’s a show that’s uncommonly astute when it comes to mental health. If you were to play the role of shrink and psychoanalyze Lucas, what conclusions would you draw?
Well, he’s a loner in many ways. He’s part of this community, but he’s probably been the kid who was doing all the other guys’ homework, and they helped him out with the bullies in school. And they like him now; he can drink and he can hunt, but he’s still a loner. He doesn’t go for the girl, and he’s a bit of a slow starter. But he’s a very lovable man, and he has a way with kids, because he’s a teacher and he has a kid inside of himself to a certain degree. But he’s also an extremely stubborn man. He insists on staying; he’s not leaving. “I can shop at this store, I can go to this church. They cannot get me down.” And that stubbornness, I don’t know where it comes from, but it’s definitely a characteristic.
I was wondering if you noticed any other parallels between Hannibal and The Hunt. There’s the imagery of the stag, and the theme of the hunter eventually becoming the hunted.
Yeah, you’re right. It’s not the kind of thing I think about when I’m doing the work, but…I can see your angle. [Smiles] I mean, Hannibal, he’s the hunter, but nobody knows it. And the prey, which is obviously Will Graham, doesn’t know it’s the prey. And that is interesting.
A lot of people have pointed out that there are some gay undertones to the chemistry between Hannibal and Will. What do you think about that?
Oh, I definitely recognize it. But I’m not sure that Hannibal has any sexuality, and I’m pretty sure that Will Graham is straight as a nail. For Hannibal, there’s a lot of romance in life. He can fall in love with a piece of music and he can also fall in love with [Caroline Dhavernas’s character] Alana Bloom. That is, until he’s creating all these beautiful little roses out of tomatoes, and she, the dinner guest, just puts evil carrots on top of it. She’s this close to getting eaten at that point. [Smiles] But, it’s like, he could have a romance with a lot of things, and one of them could be Will. But I’m not sure it would be a physical romance so much as a mental one. And he could have it with [Laurence Fishburne’s character] Jack Crawford. But he definitely, definitely loves Will Graham. As pure as love can get.