Mads Mikkelsen might not be a household name but the Danish actor has haunted some of the biggest Hollywood properties in the known universe, from playing Jyn Erso’s father in Rogue One: A Star Wars Story ’to featuring as big bad Kaecilius in Marvel’s Doctor Strange to starring opposite James Bond in Casino Royale. The distinctive-looking actor is also known for playing the titular cannibal in NBC’s deliciously macabre (and unfairly cancelled) horror serial Hannibal in addition to offering up a should-have-been-Oscar-nominated role in Thomas Vinterberg’s outstanding drama The Hunt. For me, it’s Mikkelsen’s turn as Le Chiffre in Casino Royale (for my money, the best villain 007 has faced) that both showed the actor’s vast potential and represented his promise best – playing a calculating, wildly intelligent baddie is Mikkelsen’s bread and butter and no one does it quite like him. Even flipping the script and playing on the light side of the spectrum, the actor is undeniably magnetic.
In Arctic, a bone-clatteringly chilly and deeply human account of a man’s attempt to survive a plane crash in a frozen no-mans-land, Mikkelsen is asked to do a lot with little, working for a script that features basically no dialogue at all. And he succeeds mightily. For our full review of the film, be sure to read why we said that it, “much like the Arctic itself, [is] exceedingly fresh and strangely beautiful.” On the topic of his latest film and career, Mikkelsen talks his tips for survival, his love for classic silent film and how that he used that here, being “dumped” in Iceland to go scouting with the crew to get into character, and the innate instinct for human survival. Mikkelsen also reflects on his trademark “intensity” and how that mirrors his true self and spills the one filmmaker he’s dying to work with.
This certainly isn’t your first time in a “quiet” role – I’m thinking One-Eye from Valhalla Rising – what appeals to you about the strong and silent type and how do you go about making that compelling for an audience?
Mads Mikkelsen: It’s very different approaches in these two films. With One-Eye from ‘Valhalla Rising’, he’s a myth. He’s a make believe God. So he’s more a creature than a human being in a way. This guy is more like you and me. He’s a person. He just doesn’t have anyone to speak to so he has to approach that from a different direction. How I approach it, I’m a big fan of the old silent movie and I’m a big big fan of Buster Keaton and I think what he was able to do with minimal expressions was outstanding. You could track just a tenth of a smile, and the sky would open up and everything changes so I am a big fan of those kind of films. I love talking films as well but there’s not much of that in this one.
This is a very physical role in a very demanding setting, can you talk about your preparation and shooting in Iceland?
The preparation was predominantly dumping me in Iceland and having me go scouting with the crew. My character was not prepared for a crash and neither was I so I spent the first two weeks just walking and walking and walking and looking for places and during that I learned what it was to walk in that and what kind of challenges we were facing. That was the physical preparation but the mental one was in the story, in the script, and in that we turned every little rock. We wanted it to be subtle and to be an honest film. So that was a different type of preparation.
I love how restrained the storytelling is here and how much faith Joe Penna has in its audience. We see glimpses of backstory – like when Overgard removes his socks and he’s already missing some toes to frostbite – but nothing is ever really spelled out. Can you tell me something that you created about the character that we don’t necessarily learn on the screen?
I could but I’d rather keep that to myself. I have a background story that was to a degree helpful for me but at the same time, I don’t think it would be helpful for people to know that story. We deliberately wanted this character to be you and me and everyone else. So we tried to avoid him having a fight with his wife just before the plane crashed and then making a story about that. We wanted to just make a story about being stranded and what do you do and how do you become human again. How do you go from just surviving to start living again.
That in some capacity is him attaching himself to saving his would-be savior. Can you talk about how that is something that drives Overgard and his mission to survive and how that’s so intrinsically tied to her survival?
You nailed it because that’s what it is. On the surface, it looks like he’s saving her but she’s waking him up. He’s getting a wakeup call. All of a sudden, there is a reason and there’s a person next to him giving him a reason to live. It’s not enough just to survive anymore. Now you have to live. I think it’s a vital turning point of the film. He’s a practical man and he saves her and crosses a river and the lake and makes it to a plane and puts her in a bed and before he puts her all the way down, he feels her heart. He’s been alone for months and months and hasn’t been near any human being and the poetry of that is that humanity comes with her.
If you were to crash land somewhere, what’re the things you’d want to have with you and do you think you personally would have a chance at surviving?
Setting up systems and being very concrete about a schedule is one of the smartest things you can do. Within that, you can rock and roll and become better and better every day but you need a schedule and something to wake up to. Whether I would be capable is a different thing. I’d like to think I was capable and I would be but I don’t think that’s a rare thing. I think we all carry that around. The survival instinct is enormous and people go to great lengths to survive. It’s the strongest instinct we have I guess.
What about being on location helped inform the reality of this and being in that vast nothingness effect your performance and take on the character?
The thing is you can only imagine what it’ll be like until you’re there and the script was written with that in mind. We would change little things once we saw what we were dealing with but not big things. But I think we were surprised as to how big an impact it had on us. It’s our biggest strength, the setting, and it’s our biggest obstacle as well. One of the things that was quite clear to me the further we got into the film and the more drained I became, the more emotional everything became. When there’s nothing left in the tank, your emotions are right there on the surface and waiting to explode out. Little, little things can have a big impact. We were surprised that some of the scenes got even more emotional than we had planned.
That’s especially true in the finale, which sneaks up on you emotionally.
Yeah, that was shot at the end and the last scene. At that time, there was really nothing left so I let it all out.
You’re probably best known for playing villains in high profile projects – be in from the James Bond franchise, in Marvel’s ‘Doctor Strange’, or in the cancelled too-early ‘Hannibal’TV series for NBC – and yet you bring a lot of that same intensity and stoic intelligence to your more human, or heroic, roles. Do you consider yourself intense in real life or has that just become something you’re known for in film?
I think it’s a mix of those things. In real life, I’m probably what you would call dedicated and I will speak and talk really fast and loose myself in that. And I’ve done that a few time in more comedic roles back home – not in “comedies” – but it tends not to be the first tool that I first bring out when I act. It’s an interesting question because I guess I’m quite intense for some people and for other people I’m just annoying. It goes hand in hand I guess.
Is there one filmmaker that you’re dying to work with?
Aside from the other projects that are coming in the future that I don’t know about, I must say claim my love affair with Scorsese and De Niro and what they did in the 70s and 80s and it’s a huge inspiration, not only for me but for a lot of my colleagues. So if Scorsese rings one day, I’ll be there.
Mads Mikkelsen will next be seen in Netflix shoot-em-up Polar.
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