Although I have a very clear memory of first spotting the great Danish actor Mads Mikkelsen in the 1996 Nicolas Winding Refn-directed film PUSHER, it wasn't until the beginning of the Dogme 95 movement in Danish cinema that I really began to take note of individual directors and actors from Denmark, including Mikkelsen, who starred in 2002's Dogme 28–OPEN HEARTS, from director Susanne Bier, who went on to make BROTHERS, AFTER THE WEDDING (also with Mikkelsen) and the Oscar-winning IN A BETTER WORLD. An interesting side note: There was a time shortly after Zach Braff made THE LAST KISS that he was going to remake OPEN HEARTS, but I'm guessing not many studios would finance a drama so unbelievably, powerfully sad. It's probably good he didn't get that off the ground.
So there was a great deal of the mid- to late '90s and early 200s that I was obsessed with films from Denmark, and if you watched any good ones from that period, odds were good it starred Mads Mikkelsen. If you're curious what this great actor did prior to playing the villain in the first Daniel Craig Bond film (CASINO ROYALE), you really should see him in works like WILBUR WANTS TO KILL HIMSELF, THE GREEN BUTCHERS, ADAM'S APPLES and his reteaming with Winding Refn, the truly bizarre and wonderful VALHALLA RISING. Sure, Mikkelsen will dip his toe in Hollywood spectacle (KING ARTHUR, CLASH OF THE TITANS, THE THREE MUSKETEERS), as well as the occasional smaller film from other European nations (COCO CHANEL & IGOR STRAVINSKY, A ROYAL AFFAIR and his current work AGE OF UPRISING: THE LEGEND OF MICHAEL KOHLHAAS (which I'll get to in a second), but he's committed to always returning to Denmark, which is where he was when we spoke recently.
Proof to his national pride are the Oscar-nominated masterpiece in paranoia THE HUNT and the Danish western THE SALVATION, from director Kristian Levring, which just premiered at the Cannes Film Festival. And of course let's not forget Mikkelsen's masterful work as Dr. Hannibal Lecter on NBC's "Hannibal," which regularly begs the question "How the fuck is a network able to put something this insane and gory on TV week after week?" It's a bold and brave show that takes chances like no other show I can think of in recent memory, and begs its audience not to be afraid to use the darkest parts of its brain. And Mikkelsen is mesmerizing to watch, as he reveals a comic undertone the rests just under the mind of the smartest serial killer we've ever met.
When I spoke to Mikkelsen, it was just hours before the Season 2 finale of "Hannibal," and I was able to ask a couple of questions about the show (but since I hadn't seen the finale, I didn't ask much about that). But we were actually on the phone to discuss AGE OF UPRISING, from director Arnaud des Pallières, the story of Michael Kohlhaas, a 16th century French horse dealer, who is wronged several times over by an aristocrat and demands justice to the point where he raises an army and threatens to level the nation if he doesn't get it. Some called him a radical, some a fanatic, some a leader, and his performance is fiery and heartfelt. And it features Mikkelsen speaking French throughout the film, which begged my first question. Please enjoy my brief talk with the great Mads Mikkelsen…
Capone: How many languages do you speak?
Mads Mikkelsen: Well, the thing is I don’t really speak French. I speak it to a certain degree, especially when I drink. I can pick it up, absolutely not fluently and not without an accent. But I picked that one up and I picked Russian up, and Swedish I speak, and German I speak, a little Spanish. But none of them as well as Danish and English.
Capone: The film a very simple, stripped-down story about justice, and it almost feels like the more that it’s simplified, the more complex that it becomes. In the end, justice is served to a certain degree, but then it’s followed by this horrible injustice. Was that something that appealed to you about this story?
MM: Well, the story was one thing. I mean, it was an old book from Heinrich von Kleist. Kleist; it's almost a piece of philosophy more than an action-packed story. It’s always been one of his works in philosophy, and I think it’s been dramatized a couple of times before. But what really caught my eye in this one was the director. I liked the script; I was intrigued by it because it was so radical. Normally, you would build up a character--he’s seeking justice or vengeance, but in this case, it’s justice. And on that journey he will take matters into his own hands, and he will slowly but surely be corrupted by his own power. This was the exact opposite. The second he determined that, “I’m going to do something myself now,” he wipes out an entire village--babies, children, women.
And that would normally be the end of the story, where he ends up, right? But this was like, "Wow, where do we go from here?" So I addressed this with director, when he asked me if I wanted to shoot the movie, and he said, "That’s the way it is." But then I tried to convince him that maybe we should take that down a bit, and he was like “Nope, no way.” And he was obsessed with the work of Kleist. And for the first time in many, many years, I was sitting opposite of a man who was trying to persuade me to be in his film, but basically everything I suggested--and for good reason I suggested it--he said, “No. I hear you, but I don’t want it.” [laughs]
And it was very, very interesting, and he was so determined, and there was something with Arnaud, the director, that was as radical as the script. So I just got extremely intrigued and was like, "I got to see this film, see what’s inside his head." So for me, that was the reason why I was intrigued by both the script and the director. And I have not regretted that at all. He was a beautiful man to work with and extremely radical, which I enjoyed.
Capone: It sounds like you said yes to it just so you could see how the film turned out.
MM: Well, obviously I just could wait and see somebody else do it, but I had faith in it; I had faith in this man. I could see that inside of him somewhere--he only spoke French to me at that time, and I was not fluent at all, so I had to guess--I could just tell that he was determined. He had the film in there somewhere, and he wanted some help to get it out. So I was just intrigued to work with a man that radical.
Capone: There’s at least one time in the film where Kohlhass is called a fanatic, and you could interpret him that way, but it almost seems like it’s more important for us to understand him than to necessarily agree with what he does.
MM: I think that it is important for the character, and probably for the film as well, that we understand him. But we can definitely not go down the same path that he’s doing, which is good. He is a fanatic. He is radical--I'm using that word a lot. If you say A, now you’ve got to say B. "All I want is my horses. Give me my horses, and it’s all good." And people are offering him kingdoms, money, tons of money, enough to buy thousands of horses. He does not want it. He does not want to be powerful, he does not want to have more power, he just wants justice--those two horses. Not just any horses, those two. And he gets what he wants in the end.
So it’s basically a journey of a man and how big a price he would you pay for justice. Right? That’s what this film is about. He’s paying the ultimate price. He’s losing everything, his own life, his wife’s life, everything, and he also takes quite a few lives later on. And he disappoints everybody around him because at that time, obviously, there was a good reason to have a riot. The barons were sitting on everything. So this army he's building, he doesn't even see them. He’s blind. He’s just walking one solid way to get his horses. He doesn’t see that these people need him. They want a revolution, but he doesn’t care. He doesn’t care about these people. He’s extremely selfish in this journey.
Capone: I wanted to ask you about one scene in particular that I found technically fascinating: that horse birth sequence. I’m assuming that was real, and that you had to sit there and wait for that happen, but also act like it wasn’t a big deal when it finally did. But it had to be one of the biggest deals you’ve ever seen.
MM: [laughs] You’re right on the spot. That was an extreme experience for me, of course. We couldn’t practice that, for obvious reasons. We were just standing by. It could happen any time, so we weren’t invading. Finally they gave an injection to coax it a little, but we still can’t know whether it was going to happen in an hour or five. And all of the sudden it was Now, and I rushed out there and I had these French horse people screaming things in my ear.
There were a couple of things that might happen, but we could never know. If she’s standing, if she’s lying down, whatever. One thing I knew for sure was that if she rolled around and bended her legs towards me where I was sitting, I should get the hell out of there, because she might see me as an enemy and she’d kick my face. So that is one thing that we had to cut out, because she did that, and I was literally like Donald Duck standing on the roof, hanging [laughs]. But they were speaking French and shouting stuff in French, and I had no idea what they were staying, and I had to make it look like I was calm and easy, of course, but it was a miracle. Every birth is, of course, and I was sitting in and she started. I could see the little hooves coming out of the... What’s it called?
Capone: The amniotic sac?
MM: Yes! It was all white, and I could see the little snout coming out, and two hooves coming out, and they said "Grab it, grab it, follow the contractions," and just slowly after four or five contractions just pull it out. So I did, and it came out, and I opened up the placenta, the placenta was open, and I got him up and I cleaned his nose, and that was it. And I should say, it was an amazing experience for me, but obviously, Michasel Kohlhaas, he had to have done this numerous times, so it was a strange little thing. And that was a wrap; let’s go do the love-making scene. Hurry up. [laughs] So that was really strange but fantastic, yes.
Capone: You only get one take on that too, I’m guessing.
MM: Absolutely, and my big surprise was, normally, you would film that with a few cameras to make sure you saw the actor pulling it out, and all the miracle things I talked about when you see the horse come out, and you’re doing it. When we get that, because he wanted one angle where you see the horse in the foreground, and me behind the horse until the little pony comes out, right? And I was furious. Like, “God damn it, why don’t you take another camera and shoot from this angle?” But what he wanted to do was see the actor really doing this. He wanted it to be real from the POV of the daughter, right? And it’s quite beautiful that way. It’s indicated, but you don’t see the whole thing. It’s almost like a really cool stunt that you don’t go and edit and have little microseconds of a cut that go bing, bing, bing. No, you keep it in the background, and then it becomes extremely brutal and real. So I bent my head and said, “You guys are right. It is quite dramatic and powerful this way.”
Capone: I’m not even sure if you’re aware of this, but tonight will be the season finale of "Hannibal" in America.
MM: Oh, is that tonight? [chuckles knowingly]
Capone: It is. And you’ve been renewed for another season, so congratulations on that.
MM: Thank you.
Capone: I’m as obsessed with this show as I was with the books and the movies, and I’m loving all the reference points that you all and Bryan Fuller are hitting in the writing. I’m sure you've answered this question a hundred times before, but why would you take on this iconic character, and what did you want to do differently with it once you said yes to playing Lecter?
MM: Well, I agreed to take it on because of Bryan, and Bryan has a very elaborate brain, and he works on a different level than the rest of us. I was there just hesitating in the beginning when they offered me this, for the obvious reasons. Somebody’s already done it--a couple of people have done it exceptionally--and it’s become iconic. At the same time, I always felt like, "Come on guys, nobody can play Hamlet anymore because somebody did it really well?" So we also have to look at it from that prospective.
But when Brian said, "Well this is before. This is all before the Hannibal we know. He is a killer. He’s just happens to be a very nice person who is actually making friends outside in the real world. So, we were doing something, at least in the first two seasons, that we have not seen in the films. That gave us a wider chance to create a character for ourselves. And then from then on, hopefully not disappoint people when he becomes a man in jail. But we could not get away with winking the eye, sniffing the air among other people. I can do that in private moments, but I can't do that especially not around FBI agents.
Some people were actually missing [that element of Lecter] a lot in the beginning. But we could not get away with it, but we didn’t want to. We wanted him to be as straight forward as he can be. He’s a man in a three-piece suit, he's an art collector, he loves opera, wondering "Who’s the killer?" [laughs] But still, we were trying to make that relationship with Hugh Dancy and me something that we were interested in. And make him a man with empathy, serious empathy. The only difference between him and other people is that he's in control of his empathy, as opposed to Will Graham, whose empathy controls him totally.
Capone: You mentioned before that in the first two seasons, we were seeing things that we hadn’t seen before, which implies that we're going to see things in the coming season that are more familiar. And I think Bryan’s even said that at some point, you’re working up to telling your own version of the Red Dragon story. Is that what we’re looking forward to in Season 3?
MM: I’m not sure what happens when. I’m not especially into the books. I’ve read the books, but obviously he knows them very well. I think that it will still be treated with a free hand. After tonight, you will see that I have to get out of there, seriously. So, you will see me on the run next season. Where that takes us will be interesting.
Capone: I saw you premiered a film at Cannes last week, THE SALVATION. What can you tell me about that film?
MM: It’s a Western. It’s a Danish Western. And very interesting because, in many ways, MICHAEL KOHLHAAS [the title of AGE OF UPRISING in most parts of the world outside of the U.S.] is a Western as well. So it’s really strange and a coincidence that I made two westerns, one Danish and one French, within three years. But this one was shot in South Africa. It’s a classical homage and tribute to ones we love, from John Ford to Sergio Leone. It’s about two Danish brothers who’ve migrated, and after seven years I feel comfortable enough to bring my family over because we’re settled, and then everything goes terribly wrong, and classically, I have to clean up. Yeah, it’s really cool. It’s a really cool film. I saw it on the big screen for the first time in Cannes, and I really enjoyed it.
Capone: I’m always interested in what’s going on in the state of Danish film industry. Are you committed to continue working in Denmark or with Danish filmmakers?
MM: Not if there's nothing that's interesting. I've been very lucky recently to work on A ROYAL AFFAIR and THE HUNT and now THE SALVATION. Right now, I’m filming a Danish comedy [MEN & CHICKEN] with Anders Thomas Jensen [writing and directing]; we did a couple comedies together, ADAM'S APPLES and THE GREEN BUTCHERS. So now we are shooting something that is far more crazy than those [laughs].
Capone: Mads, thank you so much. It was really great to talk to you.