This, broadly, is how it goes for Mikkelsen in Hollywood: he’s one of a roll call of European actors (Vincent Cassel, Mathieu Almaric, Alexander Skarsgård) recruited to add spice to popcorn. For Mikkelsen, that means being ready to shoulder the status of morally ambiguous sex symbol, whether as Bond villain (Le Chiffre, Casino Royale’s blood-weeping banker), enforcer (the baneful Rochefort of last year’s The Three Musketeers), or mythical monster bait (Clash of the Titans’ Draco).
“It’s just another part of being an actor,” he says, the lisp in his English rasping a little after the night shoot. “It’s not only doing arthouse films, but going in there and really, really believing there’s a giant scorpion and you’re going to kill it.”
Yet behind the blockbusters, his arthouse career is booming. This year, he won Cannes’ best actor prize for his role in The Hunt, the new film from Festen director Thomas Vinterberg, in which a nursery school teacher is accused of pedophilia. He also stars in A Royal Affair—a classy Danish drama based on the true story of the political maneuvering of Johann Friedrich Struensee, the German doctor who became personal physician to the mentally unstable King Christian VII. Both films will screen at Telluride.
Struensee used his influence over the regent to move from right-hand man to puppetmaster, making time to embark on an affair with the queen, father their illegitimate child and become the de facto ruler of Denmark for 10 months in 1771, before a conspiracy instigated by the king’s mother led to his arrest and execution.
“Before we made films about gangsters, everything was about the royal families,” says Mikkelsen. “They contain so much drama. This is really about the love affair between three people—Struensee, Christian and Queen Caroline. And how painful it is when Christian discovers the whole thing. He seems more jealous for Struensee than for his wife, because he really, really loves him.”
Mikkelsen’s portrayal of Struensee is deft and nuanced. The doctor achieves the power to help society’s weakest by exploiting a mentally weak king, and every twist of that compromise is played out in Mikkelsen’s performance. And if Struensee’s skill was in seizing a moment, it’s hard to resist casting Mikkelsen in a similar role. He’s one of Danish cinema’s talented opportunists, an actor who developed his style across genres as the country’s film scene matured from the flash-bang adolescence of Dogme 95 into something more conservative and commercial.
“The big bang happened in the mid-90s,” says Mikkelsen. “At that time—how can I compare it?—Danish cinema was like a country today that doesn’t have the iPad. We were doing stuff that was really old school. And now I think we use that base to be brave enough to go out and make genre films.”
Denmark’s current genre king is Nicolas Winding Refn, who gave Mikkelsen his first film role as lovable drug dealer Tonny in the 1996 crime drama Pusher. “He always had the touch of something stylized,” says Mikkelsen of the Oscar-winning Drive director, “even when he was making really hardcore, almost documentary-feel films in the beginning.”
The pair, who last worked together on the Viking action flick Valhalla Rising (2009), are set to reunite with an as-yet-unnamed Hollywood heist movie that should bump Mikkelsen up to leading-man status. “If no one else will give him the lead in a Hollywood movie, I will,” said Refn of the project in 2010.
Until then it’s art and business as usual for Mikkelsen, with a starring role in Arnaud des Pallières’s Michael Kohlhaas (a revenge story about a horse merchant-turned-vigilante, based on Heinrich von Kleist’s novella) balanced out by his rumored casting as the anvil to Chris Hemsworth’s hammer in Thor 2. That’s another Hollywood bad-guy role, but it will get his face on the billboard, some money in the bank, and—let’s not forget—should be a lot of fun, too. “If I was doing The Hunt constantly,” Mikkelsen says, “I would get very old, very fast.”
A ROYAL AFFAIR
Denmark, 2012, 137m
Director: Nikolaj Arcel
Based on novel by: Bodil
Starring: Mads Mikkelsen, Mikkel Boe Følsgaard and Alicia Vikander