It would be fair to say that Mads Mikkelsen is an actor who likes a challenge. He has played a drug addict on the streets of Copenhagen and a one-eyed gladiator charging around the midge-ridden Scottish Highlands. He has become a warrior in ancient Greece, a resistance fighter in the Second World War, and a Knight of the Round Table. Though he is a Dane who can’t play the piano, he nailed the Russian composer Igor Stravinsky, and though he doesn’t really walk around with blood seeping from his eyes, he is still best known for his Bond villain, Le Chiffre, in Casino Royale. Only last month Mikkelsen took the Best Actor prize at Cannes for his extraordinary turn as a divorced kindergarten teacher accused of molesting a child in The Hunt. So it seems the only predictable thing about this 46-year-old actor is his unpredictability. And usually some kind of gruelling (or gruesome) transformation.
The upshot of all this is that seeing Mikkelsen off screen is a bit of a shock. First, he has two eyes, neither of which is oozing blood. Second, he looks like a rippling Hollywood stud. More Bond than Bond villain, you might say. The first sight I catch of him is outside the London hotel where we’re meeting. Mikkelsen is standing in a doorway, tanned and tall, wearing a leather jacket and jeans and puffing on a cigarette. He has a startlingly handsome, wolfish face: crafty eyes, cheekbones so chiselled you could cut yourself on them, and cupid’s bow lips that quiver readily between a pout and a snarl. It’s a face that could only belong to an actor or a model. Despite all this, no one on the busy Soho street recognises him.
In Denmark it would be a different story. Mikkelsen has become something of a pin-up back home, where his name is usually preceded by the words “heartthrob” or “sex symbol”. Would it be fair to say he is a superstar there? “Yes, it probably would,” he says with a crooked smile. “You know, every time I go into Copenhagen I still forget. But you know, if I don’t feel like the attention, I stay home.”
Does he like being a sex symbol? “I suppose it’s better than being known as the ugliest actor in the world,” he says. “But I don’t want to be the stupid blond. I want to be an actor. And a lot of people can’t see through that shit. Even critics, you know? They used to make out I was only in the film as eye candy. That annoyed me.”
Mikkelsen tells me a story about a job he once did in Denmark. He was playing a cop in a TV series called Unit One, a gritty precursor to Danish hits like The Killing and Borgen. “I wanted to cut off all my hair because this cop was a crazy guy,” he says. “I said, ‘No cop like this would have floppy, sexy hair in his eyes all the time. Are you actually going to compromise the reality of this situation just to have some cute hair?’” He laughs incredulously. “Anyway, thankfully I don’t play many characters with cute hair.” He doesn’t mention whether he got his way, so later I go online and look it up. Yep: short, slicked-back hair.
The film we are here to discuss, A Royal Affair, is a departure even for an actor with such a varied CV. “This might be the first time you see me smiling,” he says. Not that he smiles much. Already a blockbuster in Scandinavia, the film is based on one of Denmark’s most famous love stories, about the doomed affair between King Christian VII’s doctor, Johan Struensee (played by Mikkelsen), and the English-born queen of Denmark. “The crown jewels of Danish history,” is how Mikkelsen puts it. You might be unfamiliar with this turbulent history, but in Denmark it’s taught in school and has been the subject of more than 15 books, as well as a ballet and an opera.
Set in the late 1700s, A Royal Affair is written and directed by Nikolaj Arcel, who wrote the screenplay for The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo. It’s a beautifully made film, a mainstream period drama with a European arthouse sensibility that’s more interested in characters than corsets. And Mikkelsen, for once, gets to play the romantic lead.
“This is the only time I’ve done it,” he says, running a hand through his floppy hair in jest. “I’m usually a crazy priest, a junkie or a one-eyed slave. But I didn’t see Struensee as a romantic lead. I saw him as this passionate, conflicted, intense, complicated person. But I suppose there were moments ... when we were sitting by a lake in our costumes and I would be making eyes at the queen and saying, ‘Oh your Majesty ...’, while she’s peeking out from under a little parasol.” He laughs. “I guess that’s romantic.”
By gaining the ear of the king, who in true Hamlet fashion is as mad as a box of frogs, Struensee begins to influence him. Eventually, the working-class doctor is running the country with the king as his puppet and the queen in his bed. It’s an extraordinary story, almost too good to be true. “You are used to these stories about the French court, but this one is incredible,” Mikkelsen agrees. “In one year the doctor made 3,000 changes to the law. That’s ten a day, which is just too much, too fast. But we were making a film, not a history book. And I look nothing like the real Struensee. He was a very small, very chubby man with enormous calves. The complete opposite of me ...” Another crooked, confident smile.
Mikkelsen grew up in Copenhagen in the 1970s. His father was a union boss in a bank and his mother a nurse. The family weren’t film buffs and Mikkelsen can’t recall ever going to the cinema with them. He did gymnastics for 12 years from the age of six, and left high school without a clue what to do next. “I was a very focused kid,” he recalls. “I always had this crazy lifestyle ... billions of jobs, two hours of gymnastics every day, handball, anything with a ball, really. I must have had ADHD or something. I was very energetic, and very small. I didn’t start growing until the last year of high school.”
Mikkelsen spotted an ad calling for young, unemployed, creative types for dancing courses. He applied, started doing amateur shows, and somehow ended up a professional dancer for the next decade. “I became a dancer late, and an actor late,” he muses.
He even ended up in New York for a summer studying under legendary choreographer Martha Graham. “It was my first trip outside Denmark,” he recalls. “Martha Graham came in a few times. She was lying about her age and must have been about 102 but she was saying she was 90. Anyway, she was this amazing old woman who would fall asleep in the middle of class, wake up, straighten her back, and show us her moves. She would say, ‘Jump boys!’ and we would start jumping all over the place. Then we would look at her and she would be nodding off again.”
Mikkelsen returned to Denmark and, nine years later, realised it was the drama of movement he loved most. In his thirties it dawned on him: he wanted to be an actor. He tells me this as though it was a series of coincidences, but I’m not so sure. After all, he was the one who answered that first ad, who wrote to the Martha Graham Company, who took himself off to drama school. He ended up acting in the famed Dogme movement, a rigorous, avant garde school of filmmaking (Lars Von Trier, Thomas Vinterberg) that put Danish cinema on the map in the 1990s. In fact, it was a film, Open Heart, by a Dogme director called Susanne Bier, that led Barbara Broccoli to give Mikkelsen a call and ask if he fancied being a Bond villain.
Mikkelsen, however, is hilariously gruff and indiscreet when I ask him about Dogme, which was made up of rules such as no special lighting, no props and no director credits. “I hate those rules,” he announces. “I hate the fact that they made rules at all. I thought it was pretentious. I thought, ‘Guys, if you don’t like lighting in a film, take the lighting out. Don’t make a f***ing manifesto about it. The fact is people have always been making those kinds of films. It was because they had no money.”
Actually, his first screen role had nothing to do with Dogme. It was 1996 when Mikkelsen turned up to audition for a young, geeky Danish director who had just been kicked out of film school in the US for throwing a desk across the classroom. He was called Nicolas Winding Refn and he was making his first feature, an experimental, low-budget thriller about Danish street life called Pusher, which became a cult classic. It launched both their careers (Refn has gone on to direct Tom Hardy in Bronson and Ryan Gosling in Drive).
“It was an intense first film to do,” Mikkelsen recalls. “Nicolas wanted to work with local people who lived on the streets: drug addicts and criminals. He only wanted a couple of actors for particular roles, but the problem was that he hated actors. They were too schooled, too technical and sounded like f***ing theatre luvvies.” He grins. “So basically, I was perfect. I grew up in the area where we shot the film and I knew it. I knew what he wanted, and he loved what I did.”
The duo have since made another three films together: a sequel to Pusher, Bleeder, and, in 2009, Valhalla Rising, an extreme, naturalistic Viking epic shot in Sutherland, Glen Affric, and on the Ardnamurchan peninsula with a next-to-nothing budget and a cavalier attitude to health and safety. Mikkelsen, whose character One Eye is mute, spent most of the time trekking up mountains, covered in mud, cuts and bruises, with midges trapped under his prosthetic eye. It’s the toughest job he has ever done.
“You either have sun with midges, or rain,” he recalls. “I think I preferred the rain to eight hours of being eaten alive, rolling around in the mud with an axe. The crew were all in mesh hats while we were wearing next to nothing. It was very tough, mentally and physically. We would drive up a hill every morning, walk up some mountainside, and start fighting.”
Refn has said of his longest-term collaborator: “My whole mission has been: how will I bring Mads Mikkelsen to Hollywood?” What is it about their relationship that keeps them coming back together? “He is a brilliant filmmaker who makes no compromises,” Mikkelsen says. “He is very radical, and he knows I like to be radical. We both love this side of each other though we are so different. He only talks about film; I only talk about sport. We only ever see each other when we work together. But I am very good at translating his characters, which are basically all versions of him. He enjoys the way I play him, whether I’m a one-eyed warrior or a junkie on the street. They are all versions of Nicolas.”
Mikkelsen’s sense of his own talent could be seen as arrogant, and sometimes he can be hilariously full of himself (“I was very fast and very talented,” he tells me of his years as a dancer). But there is something refreshingly honest about it. There is nothing polished or guarded about him. He knows he is good, and he says so. His recent years working in Hollywood (he is rumoured to be playing another villain in the Marvel sequel, Thor II) have done nothing to soften his edges. On screen he has a brutal, brooding, very masculine presence. Off screen, he is quirky, no nonsense, and resolutely unstarry. “I like to stay home with my family,” he shrugs, when I ask him about his wife of 25 years, a former dancer, and their two children. “But travel is good in a way. It makes you redefine each other each time you see each other. Also, it helps that I think my wife is the hottest woman in the world.”
And take what he has to say about watching himself on screen. “I love it,” Mikkelsen sighs without a hint of embarrassment. Our time is almost up and he is already searching his jacket for his cigarettes. “I learn from it. If it’s good, I forget myself in it. If it’s bad, I notice everything. You know what?” He leans forward and that wide, villainous grin creeps across his face again. “I don’t believe actors who say they can’t stand it. Are they really telling the truth?” He shakes his head. “Come on ... It’s fascinating seeing yourself like that. ”
A Royal Affair is released on Friday