Before he became an actor, Mads Mikkelsen spent almost a decade as a dancer, a practice evident in the carriage of his characters. Each vibrates on his own frequency: as jittery drug dealers, sweaty butchers, pagan warriors, and worldly cannibals. Thomas Vinterberg’s Another Round, features one of the rare moments in Mikkelsen’s filmography when he straight-up dances. His character, Martin, has the leaden tread of a man stuck in a midlife crisis. Throughout the film, his friends urge him to show off some moves for old time’s sake, and he resists until the final scene, an ecstatic burst of choreography that pops like a sea spray of Champagne. As an actor in Hollywood, Mikkelsen is better known for playing franchise villains — Casino Royale, Doctor Strange — but he’s perhaps too fast, too fun, to become a simple stock character. Closer to his native Denmark, where he is a star, his characters take on honeyed shades of darkness. As a celebrity, he has a touch of aloofness, as though he exists in his own world of pleasant amusement. “I’m rarely starstruck,” he says, chain-smoking in a green tracksuit from his home in Mallorca. “Maybe because what I’m doing has never been a dream of mine.”
Are you in Mallorca?
Do you see Rafael Nadal?
Yeah. I’ve seen him quite a few times. Not here, but I’ve seen him play in the French Open. Nothing beats Federer though. Even when he loses, he’s just amazing to watch. It’s insane.
So you’re Team Fed?
Yeah, but my wife is a Nadal fan. I am a Nadal fan as well. We’re just so lucky to have both of them at the same time. And Djokovic, of course. It’s so rare you have icons like that peaking at the same time, just like Messi and Ronaldo in football. It doesn’t matter which side you’re on as long as they’re both there. You’re building stories around these guys. But it’s the style, obviously. It’s wonderful to watch this bull terrier Nadal, who is so physical and intelligent, playing this elegant shit, Federer, who’s playing the finest violin in the world. If they were both playing the same way, it might be boring.
Before you became an actor, you spent about a decade studying dance, including a stint in New York at the Martha Graham Dance Company. How long were you there?
I was there for half a year, maybe more. This was ’87, so I was 21 years old. It was the first place I really visited outside of Denmark, and it was the biggest place ever. I remember going through the Lincoln Tunnel, very little cash in my pocket. I had a place to stay, I had a scholarship. And everything was just like the movies. There were even kids playing from this fire hydrant that was broken. I got myself some roller skates, and that’s how I transported myself. I was really a kid of the ’80s.
What was your life like growing up in Copenhagen?
My father worked as a union man in a bank, and my mom was a nurse in a working-class area. And they became maybe more middle-income people later on in life, especially my father, who eventually got a bigger job in the union. But we always stuck in that working-class area. That’s where we lived.
What were their aspirations for you?
It was a different time, as we say. The ’80s were strange because it was not the hippie days, but life was open to a degree. It wasn’t like, “You’ve got to get yourself an education.” At least not where I came from. I was the first in my own family to go to high school. My brother did as well. But nobody else in my school went to high school. It was just not something you did. I can’t remember them being frustrated that I didn’t get a real job.
I did everything. Cleaning, bartending — I wasn’t sitting still. And then this whole dancing thing started and I made some money, but I still worked on the side. Then the dancing took off. That was a surprise to them, and they enjoyed watching the stuff I did. Of course, it was a completely different world for them. But I never heard them say, “When are you going to get a real job?” And then, obviously, my brother also became an actor. They were just tremendously proud of us.
When you decided to go to drama school after studying dance, did you feel like you were in a rush because you were older than your classmates?
I was super-pleased to get in because it’s difficult. But part of me thought, Jesus, I’m 30 when I get out. I was in school with some people who were almost ten years younger than me. All the 20-year-olds, they’re going to get the jobs. But I did a film in my third year that came out when I graduated the year after. And so the doors started opening for me.
That was the 1996 Nicolas Winding Refn movie, Pusher, right? Which would have been right around when Thomas Vinterberg and Lars von Trier came up with their Dogme 95 manifesto, beginning a Danish film renaissance.
Yeah. That’s what I was dreaming of, making films like Taxi Driver or Mean Streets, something we’d never done in Denmark at that time. That period placed Denmark on the map together with Thomas and Lars von Trier and Dogme rules. There were times Pusher was exactly what we wanted. We felt as if we were 15 even though we were much older. We were naughty, we were doing something illegal, it was cool. But I also bumped into situations where for the first time I was like, Why is this scene here? Where is this going? What is my development? And I hadn’t questioned that too much at that point. This is a very big part of the way I approach things now, to understand what’s going on. I didn’t ask that many questions then. Sometimes it was not feeling right, and I couldn’t put a finger on it.
Then the film came out, and I learned that people write about it and think you’re great or they think you suck. And it’s like, “And who were they?” I met some of them. I was like, “Seriously, you have an opinion about this film? You’ve never seen a drug dealer in your life.”
What is your relationship with fandoms? I know you’ve experienced some very intense ones throughout your career.
It came late in my life. Pusher was predominantly a Copenhagen cult film. It didn’t really travel in Denmark. And because none of us were known at that time, everybody thought we were not actors. We were not recognized, especially not me, because I was bald in the film. And then I did a cop show, Unit One (Rejseholdet) in 2000. All of a sudden, we were aiming at having people who were 5 years old and 95 years old watching it, meaning the corners will be much rounder now. We can’t be too edgy. I remember for weeks when I was shooting in the beginning, I was waking up sweating in the night. I was abandoning everything I believed in. But it was also the first time I got a job where I could consider buying the smallest house in the world.
Then it came out, and all of a sudden, the world was different. Everybody recognized me. And I was fairly old at that point: 30-something. Since then, I’ve never bought a normal Coca-Cola. It’s always like, “Here’s your cola, Master Mads,” or “Get your fucking Coke, and get out of my shop.” There’s no neutral Coca-Cola anymore. They all serve me in a special way, with hate or with love. I simply hadn’t seen the fame coming. But it’s okay. I handled it fine. It was not about me. It was about the concept of me. I was luckily not 17 years old. You might believe everything. You might believe you are special. I forget it every day I go out. I walk out the door and somebody says, “Hey, can I get a photo?” Then I wake up. Oh, yeah, that’s right. I’m this guy.
It seems to go both ways. You tell a very funny story about not recognizing the producer Jerry Bruckheimer a couple of times on the set of King Arthur.
I had a couple of drinks with Jerry Bruckheimer and Antoine Fuqua after that incident, so it was all good. Maybe he couldn’t remember me. It might’ve gone both ways. It’s a funny story, and I felt like an idiot, obviously, but at the same time, this is a little how I approach everything in life. Even the biggest stars are just people. Sometimes it’s also liberating for a producer that you don’t run around in circles for them, because they also just want to hang out and be one of the guys. I’m rarely starstruck either. That’s the way it is. Maybe because I’ve never been a film geek or it’s never been a dream of mine, what I’m doing — even though I love doing it now — maybe that helps me a little, so I’m not running around with my mouth open all the time.
Was Casino Royale your worldwide moment?
I guess it was. I got the script before I did the casting, and it was the first time I got a script where your name is printed on every page. I fell asleep on the plane, and I forgot it on the plane. I am the reason why they put your name on the script. This is what they’re trying to avoid. I panicked. I was out of the plane. I’d walked maybe a minute or something. I realized, Oh, no, and I went back, and they wouldn’t let me in. I think I was just lucky. I think somebody who cleaned up that plane had no idea what it was and threw it out. But that is obviously a complete disaster if it ends up on the front page of The Sun. I mean, this is the worst way of blowing it. I got ahold of those scenes somehow, and I went and did the audition.
What was your relationship with Hollywood after Casino Royale?
I got an American agent and it was like, “Okay, so you did a Bond film. Now things are happening. Move over there and spend some time and do all the meetings and the chitchat and some auditions.” I never had the chance to think about whether it was a film I wanted to be in or not, I just did them all. Some of the stuff was interesting. And other things were just like — this is where I felt you can completely lose your confidence as an actor. Standing in an office with a person who looks down at his paper, and you pretend you have long arms and say one line.
Are you referring to your audition to play Mr. Fantastic in Fantastic Four?
Yeah, and actually a good friend of mine got it, Ioan Gruffudd. I know a lot of casting is just first impressions — is there anything there that reminds the producer and the director of the character they’re looking for? But I find it rude to ask people to come into a room and say one line while pretending you have 80-foot arms like the rubber man. “Grab that cup of coffee over there” — it’s like, Are you crazy? There’s not even a scene here. It was kind of humiliating.
What are your thoughts then on these giant Hollywood productions?
The bigger the budget of the film is, the more people have to watch it. That’s the case everywhere, even in Denmark. They get to play with the big toys. Super-crane and spider cameras, choppers and things. At the same time, there is a certain formula, and if you miss it, you lose all your money. I think there is a certain budget limit where it’s not the director’s film anymore. I don’t know what the number is. I would guess it’s around $7 million, $8 million, $9 million. Maybe $10 million. Somebody else is the boss.
Have you witnessed that?
I’ve been very lucky. Let’s take the Bond film. There were a few times when Daniel Craig and I went a little far at the table discussing what the scene might be able to do. It was a scene where I tortured him and he’s stripped naked to the chair, which was kind of radical. We’ve never seen Bond naked, and we’ve never seen him that fragile, and then obviously there are some undertones with the rope. We were discussing how to approach it, and we just went further out with something that was really brutal and insane. One idea was I actually cut him up somewhere, and he had to suffer with that for a while. At a certain point, director Martin Campbell was just smiling and said, “Boys, come back to the table. This is a Bond film. We can’t go there.” We were lost in our indie world, right? You have to respect that. It is a Bond film. That’s the framework you need to understand.
I’ve been in other things where you’re just standing on the set and it makes much more sense if you change a line slightly. And you’re told no because you have to call someone and they’re not awake yet. They’re living somewhere in Miami and they have to clear it and then they have to go through the producer and it’s just like, “All right, I guess we’re not changing that line.” That would never happen on a Danish film. We will on the spot change it up to make it better together with the director and the writer. So that hierarchy is quite different.
Can you give me an example where a line has to go through channels?
If I said the line, you would guess it right away. It was quite a few times on a certain film, where everybody was agreeing this makes more sense, including the director. You’re trying to be creative while you’re wearing handcuffs, and it’s difficult.
In past interviews, you’ve joked about how Hollywood lately goes to Scandinavians for villains. Do you feel frustrated by a certain sense of typecasting, or do you not care because you have complex leading roles to do in Denmark?
Yeah, that’s true. I do them back home. I do them in France. I’ve done it in Sweden. Even Spain.
Like Torremolinos 73?
Yeah, that was a crazy project. I don’t know what happened. Nobody spoke English on set. They forgot me on a beach once — the entire crew. I had this blonde hair, and blue-tinted contact lenses, and I was wearing this Speedo from the ’70s with a cape you wear when you’re Mr. Death. I had no phone, no money on me, and everybody left. I was like, What’s happening? Come back! The director, he came home with 50 percent of the film that he shot — the rest he didn’t shoot. He was always running out of time. I was like, There’s no way he can make a film out of this. But when I watched it, it was sweet and fun. I mean, I can see a lot of stuff missing but it was a good tone.
So yes, I do have that back here in Europe, especially in Denmark. I definitely wouldn’t mind if somebody would give me something else in America. That would be great for me. It would be great for them. Let’s do it.
Your latest film, the Oscar-nominated Another Round, is one such role. The film is about four friends who teach at a high school and are all a little stuck in middle life, embarking on an experiment where they microdose (and, later, macro-dose) with alcohol. My understanding is that as part of rehearsals, you all had an alcohol boot camp.
It was such a precise limit they were talking about like .05 percent. And they beef it up to .08, .1, etc. We’d read some police reports where people start singing at a certain level. People start not being able to put on their jackets. We didn’t feel a lot of things when we did it. It didn’t feel as if there was a big difference. Watching the video tapes back, of course, it was completely different. Even after two beers, your hands start having a life of their own. It’s as if they detach a little and become elaborate. And then you might have a little lisp you’ve been hiding for 30 years. It comes out.
Were you in character?
Yeah, we were. We were doing some of the teaching scenes, where it’s important we can get away with it as characters. So kids might see that something is happening, but they’re not sure what it is. And they don’t care, because the lesson is great. It’s the best lesson they have had for a long time.
Did you learn anything about your own relationship to alcohol in that process?
Not really. The alcohol part of the film is merely a kick-starter to tell a story about people and about life. In my character’s case, it’s about a man who’s come to a standstill. He’s standing on the platform, and the train has left him. And through the alcohol, he reclaims his life. As opposed to other films about alcohol, there is a tribute in there to drinking. We are aware that the dangers of alcohol can ruin lives completely, but we never wanted to make a moral film. We say that it can lift you and it can kill you. We also wanted to say, “Listen, it’s been here for 6,000 [or] 7,000 years.” And it’s been a social lubricant ever since, whether you want it to get closer to the gods or the spirits or lift the conversation, become creative, meet your spouse, break that little barrier of insecurity.
The director, Thomas Vinterberg, experienced a personal tragedy when he was making the film. His daughter, Ida, who was going to make her film debut in Another Round, died in a car accident just as shooting began. I was wondering what you saw as your role on set — making the movie both as an actor and as a friend who I assume wants to give emotional support?
I think we were all in a shell-shock bubble. She was a big part of the film. She was playing my daughter, and it happened within five days of shooting. It was her story. It was her school. Somehow he felt letting go of the movie now, everything would be even more empty. He had to do it for her. It sounds insane to say something like that, but that’s the only thing he could see. He had a choice — lying in the fetal position 24/7 or doing it 12 hours a day. That’s what he told me. And we all said, “That’s what we’ll do.” It also brought a sense of vulnerability to set. I’ve never been on a set where so many grown-up men started tearing up in the middle of a scene. Because everything was reminding us of that. At a certain point, you can’t have four grown old men sitting there crying when the scene is about having a good time. But there was a strange sense of openness, like, “Let’s try this. Absolutely. Let’s give it a shot.” Everybody would have trashed the film to get her back.
Throughout Another Round, the other characters urge your character, Martin, to dance. We finally get to see it in the very last scene, which is a gorgeous, celebratory release. What was that like to do a straight-up dance sequence for a movie?
I was just insanely rusty. I hadn’t been dancing for 30 years. I know the character was rusty, but there was obviously a fraction of me that was slightly ambitious on my former craft’s behalf. I learned that seeing some of the replays was just not a good idea. I was always like, “Didn’t I jump much higher once? What is happening?”
I know you were concerned with the film ending with a dance. Why?
My concern was that it’s a realistic film. I kept saying, “Listen, this is dangerous. We can come across as super-pretentious. A regular man gets up, and he starts dancing. It’s just crazy.” So in my world, it was always a drunken man’s fantasy. Thomas disagreed completely. And the more we did the film, and the film became a tribute to life, the more it made sense to me. When we were supposed to do the scene, all the youngsters were out there. They had not been drinking a single beer; they were just intoxicated by life. The sunshine came out. And the most famous ship in Denmark, by coincidence, was just sailing through the frame. It was like, “Of course, I’m going to dance. Let’s dance.”
You also disagreed with Thomas on the ending for 2012’s The Hunt, the first film you made together. In that you play a kindergarten teacher named Lucas who has been wrongfully accused of molesting a child. The ending is an epilogue that takes place a year after the main events of the film. Lucas has cleared his name and believes he’s been reintegrated into the small town he lives in, but the movie ends with someone shooting at him and missing. Did you want Lucas to die?
Yeah, I’m disagreeable. I tend to be the guy who is always more a fan of the darkest version of an ending. I don’t have a lot of allies when it comes to that. I was wrong in both cases. We did an ending in The Hunt where my character gets shot, bang, and I loved it. I thought it was so brutal and so surprising. Because I go down like a deer, like boom, boom, glasses in the mud, out. And then someone said, “We can’t do it. We can’t leave the film there. It’s just not happening.” Felt too dark. How many people want us to go in and see this brutal journey and then end up with something even more brutal? Nobody wants to see this. Except for me.
What is it about the darkest ending that appeals to you?
It’s not that I don’t like brighter, hopeful endings. But I think there’s a certain fear in me that we take the easy path sometimes. Which is not the case in these two films I’m talking about. But sometimes when I read a script, it can come across like that. When I’m like, “Whoa, how on earth could they end on that note?” And then the film simply doesn’t make sense anymore.
After The Hunt, you did Hannibal, Bryan Fuller’s NBC show about Dr. Lecter and his relationship with FBI agent Will Graham. What made you say “Yes” to a network TV show in the U.S.?
Yeah, how did that come around? We had just been successful in Cannes with The Hunt. And then my agent talked about Bryan Fuller — “this genius” she called him — and said I should have a look at it. At first, I was like, “Oh, God, Anthony Hopkins. That’s just a no-go.” He did it to perfection. Then I had a meeting with Bryan Fuller and he pitched the first season. And I was just like, This is absolutely nothing like the film. This is a different animal. I was one out of three or four [actors they were considering]. I was really reluctant to do that. I don’t like castings. Nobody likes castings. “Come on guys, either you want me or not.” But we did a couple of scenes, me and Hugh Dancy, and I think we had a great chemistry in that awkward way it was supposed to be.
Did you see his relationship with Hugh Dancy’s character, Will, as a romance?
Yeah, but not necessarily something that would become physical.
The murder of Francis Dolarhyde (played by Richard Armitage) is the consummation in some ways.
And also cannibalism, obviously. This is the ultimate way to love someone in his world, to eat them — right? We actually did a couple of takes of the very last scene where we were looking at each other, and it was a little too obvious — it was almost a kiss. Me and Hugh were like, “Why not? We have a couple of takes. Let’s do one. It might be cool.”
Did you kiss?
No, we didn’t. Never went for the kiss. Bryan loved it, but he was like, “Too much, guys. It’s too obvious.” And he was absolutely right. But I think we were just stuck on that. And a lot of the Fannibals wanted it as well. It’s been a subject of homoerotic fan art. And for good reason, because they are so united as twins in many ways. But we never wanted it to be a physical thing. It was something much bigger than that.
What were the discussions of the season-three ending like?
It had to be that they managed to kill someone together and both have the same sensation. Finally, I got him. Finally, Will Graham is me. They are inseparable at that point. We also knew that that was not the ending. We knew that there was a fourth season. We had something more up the sleeve, but then it didn’t happen. It was such a surprise to all of us because we did not have great numbers the first season, so we thought that was it. But we got saved and got a second season. And then in the third season we had much greater numbers. So we thought it was a given we would continue. And it didn’t happen.
Talk of a fourth season has gone away, but would you still do it to end the show in the way you envisioned?
Yes. The work itself was brutal because we had long hours, with scripts coming in late. It’s TV, and what we were doing was elaborate. The texts were high-IQ texts. The monologues or the dialogues were always about fine art, music. You had to learn Japanese, Hungarian, and words you had simply never heard before. And you had to do it within two hours because everything came so late. Having said that, I would love to go back. Everybody wants to go back, and if there’s only one season and we’re sure about that, he can finish it in a proper, surprising, stunning way.
It’s still such an improbable show in so many ways because it was on NBC.
Exactly. And I’ve been wondering if we had been on some other platform and could do whatever we wanted, would we have gone more for the graphic stuff and forgotten some of the poetry? Maybe it was a good thing we had to hold back. It served the show really well that we didn’t go full-blast Walking Dead on it.
Thomas Vinterberg told our film critic Bilge Ebiri that initially success confounded him because when you have all of these offers and buzz surrounding you, it can be hard to make purely artistic decisions. I was wondering if you ever felt similarly.
No, I’ve not had that feeling. You have to understand, as a director, you make a film, and then you might not do anything for two years, or you work on the next film for two years. As an actor, you go from one thing to the other. You might wrap up the film, and then you go into Romeo and Juliet. It’s Shakespeare. You’re shit at Shakespeare. You have to learn how to do it, but you love it. Everything is a challenge and brutal. You succeed or you don’t, but you learn something.
It happened so early for Thomas, and he was this rock star: pretty, blond, young, very talented. And then he froze. He didn’t know what to do anymore. He spent maybe two years in the world of festivals, awards, applause, as opposed to saying, “This is great, but let me also, in the meantime, start working on something else, so I have both.” I think he spent too much time there, in the warm water. He became more nervous to take the next step. “How can I ever live up to this again? The next one has to be completely different, or even better, as opposed to just what I want to do.” He learned his lesson, but it was brutal — what we call “learning money.”
Actors get to be a little more promiscuous.
Yeah, the permissiveness thing is true. I am allowed. Well, not if you ask certain people. If you ask fans of Hannibal, I should not do anything else. But of course, you can’t.
Is there one film you feel was most organic for you?
I really love this crazy film I did with Anders Thomas Jensen — a dark comedy called The Green Butchers. We took my hair off from here and down [gestures to the top of his skull], so I had this bizarre haircut. My character is called Svend Sweat, because he is always lying and sweating when he’s lying. And if he doesn’t get his way, he will start crying and then he gets his way. He’s the most annoying character you could ever imagine. Unfortunately, I found a lot of things I had in common with him. I was at that point famous for being one of these guys that did documentary-style realism. And then we went in there and did something that was almost creative suicide. We put a theater character into a film. We took it super-seriously. For me, that was an enormous milestone to dare to do that. That was like, “Hey, it doesn’t have to be this. It can also be this.”
So those very specific characteristics, like his hairline — how did that come together?
The hair thing was my idea. I kept going and Anders was like, “No, we can”t do this. It’s going to be terrible to watch.” But I wanted the character to look annoying. And you could spot the sweat easier if he had a giant forehead. There’s something about starting with the look. All of a sudden you can get away with other things. It’s actually only with him I’ve worked like that. Normally, it’s from the script out, and eventually we get a look.
I was wondering if you feel aware of your own charisma or beauty?
It’s an interesting thing. When you’re young, you feel you look too young. You want to look older, more interesting or more mature. And then when you get to my age, it would be nice to look a little younger. It’s always the wrong time. Most actors, we’re duty bound to forget about the camera. This is obviously a pretentious thing to say because we are super-aware of the camera. But there has to be some self-forgetting in the whole thing, and then the camera somehow has to come and find you. When you do forget the camera and you have something, you feel active. You can sense something is happening inside of you, and hopefully the camera catches that, and hopefully that’s also what the audience will see. Many actors do have that sensation, but that has nothing to do with beauty. That’s more to do with feeling we were present in the moment.
As a person of my generation, I feel obligated to ask how you were cast in the music video for Rihanna’s “Bitch Better Have My Money.”
I have no idea. I got a phone call from an agent who asked if I wanted to be in this music video with Rihanna. I kind of boast about not knowing her, but I did know about her music. I was like, “Why not? That’s cool.” When I mentioned it to my kids, my brownie points like … skyrocketed. It was a very chaotic project. I had a great time. And now I’m the bitch, which is kind of cool.
Did you have a meeting with her?
I didn’t meet her. I just showed up on set. She was super-sweet — “Mads, finally, here you are.” I think she had seen something, and she wanted me in it. But she acted as if we had known each other forever. And — the coolest part — she had fake nails with my face on it for the video. To remind her who the bitch is she’s hunting.
Did you take anything from the set?
I’ve got some of those fake nails. When we were done, I was like, “Are you done with them? Can I have some of them? I have a few friends who’re going to be so jealous when I show them this.”
Is there a life philosophy that you feel has carried you through your career?
My approach to what I do in my job — and it might even be the approach to my life — is that everything I do is the most important thing I do. Whether it’s a play or the next film. It is the most important thing. I know it’s not going to be the most important thing, and it might not be close to being the best, but I have to make it the most important thing. That means I will be ambitious with my job and not with my career. That’s a very big difference, because if I’m ambitious with my career, everything I do now is just stepping-stones leading to something — a goal I might never reach, and so everything will be disappointing. But if I make everything important, then eventually it will become a career. Big or small, we don’t know. But at least everything was important.