DENMARK'S answer to George Clooney was a gymnast and dancer before he hit the big screen. Now he's a reluctant leading man who won't move to LA, finds Sheila Johnston answer to George Clooney was a gymnast and dancer before he hit the big screen. Now he's a reluctant leading man who won't move to LA, finds Sheila Johnston
MADS MIKKELSON is regularly voted the sexiest man in Denmark, sometimes the sexiest in the world. The American showbusiness newspaper Variety once described him as his country's answer to George Clooney.
Yet he is the most reluctant of leading men, one who, like Clooney, has gone far out of his way to catch the curveball roles. In this country he is best known for his last film, Casino Royale. At the time, all eyes were on Daniel Craig's debut as the new James Bond, but Mikkelsen's decadent Le Chiffre – poker player extraordinaire, banker to world terrorism, flogger of 007's most delicate body parts and weeper of crocodile tears of blood – certainly gave Craig a run for his money. In fact, Mikkelsen has cornered the market in one-eyed antiheroes (the other one is an escaped Viking slave in the forthcoming Scottish epic Valhalla Rising, of which more later).
"Yes, looks like it," he concurs genially. Denmark's George Clooney has invited me up to his London hotel room (unfortunately, it's just because he wants to be able to smoke) and looks at once pleased and embarrassed when reminded of his reputation. "Ooooh, I don't know about that," sighs the 43-year-old, mock-mournfully. "Not getting any younger!"
Mikkelsen's next film will do nothing to reinforce his status as a heartthrob, and everything to boost him as a serious actor. Set in 1944, Flame & Citron chronicles the daredevil exploits of two real-life members of the Danish Resistance, Bent Faurschou-Hviid and Jrgen Haagen Schmith, code names Flame and Citron.
But these are no old-style heroics. Instead, the freedom fighters are shadowy, ruthless, treacherous (the film is strongly influenced by Jean-Pierre Melville's 1969 classic, Army of Shadows, which portrayed the French Resistance as a band of gangsters). As the shabby, bespectacled Citron, Mikkelsen is a bundle of neuroses permanently covered in stubble and nervous sweat. "He was a workaholic, an alcoholic and a drug addict," he says. "He took amphetamines just to keep awake and they made him sweat a lot. But I kind of liked him. He's a pretty cool guy. And I'm not doing films to be glamorous."
The film has shocked Danish audiences. "Flame and Citron are very famous. And, as with a lot of heroes, people tended to put them on a pedestal. This shows the Resistance in a murky light for the first time in Denmark. You must understand that we were not used to war. We were a very civilised nation and sneaking up from behind and shooting someone in the back of the neck is very different from shooting at someone who is shooting at you. Flame and Citron killed people who were not supposed to be killed.
"I never spoke to Citron's family. He had a wife and a daughter, and the daughter committed suicide. A lot of the Resistance kids did that. They had a very, very strange relationship with their fathers, and if they didn't commit suicide, their fathers did. They were living with too big a burden."
Six foot tall, Mikkelsen is, in person, taller and more muscular than he appears on screen. His cat-like grace betrays his background as a gymnast and professional dancer. "It was a real Billy Elliot story," he says wryly. "My family was working-class: my dad was a trade union official, my mum was a nurse and, after high school, I was a gymnast, on a fairly high level, competing nationally. One day a choreographer came looking for people who were able to jump in the air and do flips and stuff, for a musical. She asked me if I had any interest in taking dance classes and I thought, 'Yeah, why not?'
"At first I had a hard time telling my friends, but I was making a lot of money, because there was always a shortage of male dancers. I studied classical and contemporary ballet and went to Martha Graham's studio in New York. That was eight or nine years of my life." During this period Mikkelsen met his wife of 22 years, Hanne, also a dancer; they have two children.
Through musicals, he was drawn to acting, and applied to drama school. His screen debut, Pusher (1996), about drug dealers, was fortuitously timed: Lars Von Trier's Dogme manifesto had just made low-budget grunge fashionable. Though Pusher itself was not a Dogme film, it was a hit and Mikkelsen's career was launched.
He will shortly be seen in Coco Chanel & Igor Stravinsky, one of three forthcoming biopics about the couturier (she is played in this film by Anna Mouglalis). "Stravinsky was way smaller than me, and I don't look at all like him. But I decided early on that his music would be the key. A lot of it starts out very romantic, very beautiful, almost like a film melody that would win an Oscar, and within 20 seconds he starts mucking it up and taking it somewhere else.
"So he must have had some unexplainable inner energy. I believe he was a strong character, who would fill up the room. Very arrogant. We catch him at a time when he is falling heavily in love with Coco, who was like that as well, so there were two egos clashing."
Also coming soon: Valhalla Rising, set in the Highlands in 900AD and directed by Nicolas Winding Refn, who made Pusher. Mikkelsen's runaway slave is one-eyed, mute and covered with elaborate woad markings. "In the beginning you think, 'This is going to be a piece of cake. No lines to learn!' Then you realise it's very complicated to express yourself without dialogue. But my character is more like a myth than a real person. I would say the film is an epic, loving tribute to Sergio Leone and Kurosawa."
Mikkelsen has now made two films in Scotland, the other being the dark comedy Wilbur Wants To Kill Himself (2002). "I love the accent, the midges and the strange, strange weather," he says, adding jokingly, "The Scots are full of shit, and that's something we Danes are full of as well. It must be genetic, because we went there lots of times. We have as our neighbours on the one side Sweden and on the other Germany, but we have very little in common with them in terms of our sense of humour. We're much more like you, definitely."
Despite his fast-rising international profile, he has no plans to leave home. "I enjoy being Danish and part of Europe. There are a lot of interesting new things going on in Denmark right now. I was never a big fan of the Dogme concept, but I can't complain because it put us on the map: it was a nice PR trick." Notwithstanding, Mikkelsen appeared in one of the best Dogme films, Open Hearts, though so far he has never worked with Von Trier himself.
"My base is Copenhagen – my roots, my language, my house are there. I don't want to drag my kids around just because Dad's ambitious. There are already too many people running round LA, trying to make it, knocking on doors and taking off their hats. I see no reason to do that."
• Flame and Citron is released on 6 March
THE Viking adventure movie Valhalla Rising, starring Mads Mikkelsen as a mute warrior, was filmed in Scotland last year in a ten-week shoot. This week, filming began in the Highlands on director Neil Marshall's Centurion, a sword-and-sandals thriller starring Michael Fassbender, Dominic West (best known as Detective McNulty in The Wire) and Bond girl Olga Kurylenko, right. Centurion is produced by Christian Colson, who scored a huge success with Slumdog Millionaire.
So are things looking up for Scotland as a film location? Maybe. Film production spending in Scotland fell by nearly a half last year from 6.6 million to 3.6m, but experts at Scottish Screen hope filming here will rebound after a sharp fall in the pound. "All UK feature film production did dip last year, not just Scotland," says Scottish Screen locations chief, Belle Doyle. "We are expecting it will be a lot better this year because we are a cheaper destination, the dollar and the euro are both stronger against the pound."
And a Scottish-Irish co-production, Outcast, is now in pre-production and will be filming in and around Edinburgh. Described as a "Celtic horror film", it stars James Nesbitt as a killer in pursuit of his former lover. A French feature film and a German television film are also due to start shooting footage in Scotland shortly.
Television is increasingly important though, particularly BBC drama, with spending rising from 8 million to 18.5 million in 2008, on shows from The 39 Steps to Hope Springs and a children's series called Waybaloo, billed as the new Teletubbies.