Skovshoved is a quaint little town on the North Sea shore. Some call it the Beverly Hills of Denmark, and a few ambassadors live here, but it looks nothing like its more famous American cousin, with quiet streets lined with colourful little Nordic houses. It’s nearby a large harbour where some very nice sailboats are moored. It’s also where people practise this very Danish national pastime: skinny dipping in extremely cold water, no matter the season.

More importantly, it’s where the biggest star in Denmark lives ‒ a valid reason to fly to Copenhagen to be in his company. “Mads Mikkelsen is here,” the hotel receptionist informs us. They aren’t lying ‒ right by the receptionist desk stands a man in his mid-50s wearing a track suit. “There’s always a last-minute basketball game to join somewhere,” says the man famous for whacking James Bondʼs crown jewels when explaining his sartorial choice.

Wool suit, shirt and oxford shoes, Zegna; Spirit Flyback Chronograph, Longines

Sport, after all, is the star’s main hobby when he’s not working. For some mysterious reason, up until now, Hollywood has decided Mikkelsen should mostly play bad guys, but it’s doubtful it’ll be able to keep typecasting someone with this much talent for very long. Even if he does play the villain in the upcoming Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny, Mikkelsen has a range of diverse projects on the horizon. He is kind enough to discuss his double career with us.

I think we did the photoshoot near the neighbourhood you grew up in, right?

It’s not that far. It’s near the neighbourhood I live in now. The neighbourhood I grew up in is in the middle of Copenhagen, it’s like an old-school working class area. Then I made some money and I moved out.

Can you talk a little bit about both neighbourhoods, the one you grew up in and the one you live in now?

Nørrebro was one of three working-class areas in Copenhagen. When you’re a kid, the world is too big. You just stay where you are, and I stayed there many years before I put a foot anywhere else. And you thought the world outside was so different… and so… out to get you! And later in life, I realised that it doesn’t, that it’s pretty cool. It was old-school, ʼ60s and ʼ70s. Quite a lot of old men, pups and people sitting on benches. They would take care of somebody’s baby when they were shopping. It was very peaceful and a classic big-city environment. My new place is close by the ocean and close by the woods, which I appreciate a lot. It’s just open air, not so many cars. It’s a different life.

And how did it shape you growing up in this neighbourhood in Copenhagen? Do you think it influenced your personality?

To a degree. It’s not like everybody who grows up there has the same personality. And likewise, if you grew up somewhere else. Of course, you’re shaped by the place you grow up in. It’s with you all the time. But to what degree it shaped me, I don’t know. I guess it’s better to be in different surroundings throughout life and experience a bit of everything than it is to live in a bubble.

I read that you learned how to speak English watching TV shows, but I really don’t believe it – everyone can see your command of the language is excellent…

Large herringbone overcoat and flannel suit, Alfred Dunhill

It’s an international language, so there’s no way around learning it, I guess. I believe I learned English from listening to Monty Python records. I didn’t even watch the show until later. But my brother was in Montreal, on a trip with the school because he was in a choir ‒ a very, very famous international choir. So they got to travel a bit and he came home with 10 records of Monty Python’s Flying Circus. And all their sketches were there. And we just dived into it. And we knew them all by heart ‒ we still know them all by heart!

Obviously at that point, we just repeated everything they said, but we had no idea what they meant. A few other words we could pick up and understand because the rest was just gibberish to us, but that’s how we approached it. Later on, we start understanding more and more. That was our entrance to the language.

“I am a big fan of silence. I think that if we can do the same without words, sometimes it’s better.”– Mads Mikkelsen

That makes more sense because I thought it was the TV show and I couldn’t get it, but if it was the record, you must have listened to it many times to learn the language?

Yeah, absolutely, over and over and over again. It was like old school, vinyl. And we were just sitting in a room listening. And it was fantastic. We thought it was funny, even without understanding anything. Later on, we got to understand who they were. And they had their own TV show ‒ all of a sudden it was airing on Danish television. We spent many days glued to the television set!

They did such great work in those days. It’s probably the best English comedy troupe.

It was obviously ground-breaking. I don’t know what kind of sense of humour I had when I was a kid. But it was definitely influenced by the Monty Python. Because we jumped right into this absurd brand of comedy which they presented to the world. It wasn’t a huge success from the start ‒ I got into the story of the Monty Python a little later. And, obviously, they were sitting in the studios of the BBC with blue-coloured hair, people did not crack a smile or laugh at the time. So their first few episodes were a disaster. Then they found their audience, mainly younger people.

You were a ballet dancer before becoming an actor. I was wondering if the discipline needed to be a dancer has helped you when it comes to acting.

I think it does help. To a degree ‒ the discipline in gymnastics was maybe not that high level when I was performing. We were Danes. I might have been top 20 in Denmark, which doesn’t say a lot. That would be top two million in Russia! There was such a difference in levels between the countries. We realised that when we had a Russian club visiting us. We could do stuff, we could do flips. It was also just a fun playing ground for us. Later on, after I stopped, the Danish team got Russian and Chinese coaches and then the discipline started for real. But as a dancer, that was a different story. That was a lot of discipline. And for a lot of reasons. It’s just the nature of contemporary dance and ballet, whatever you do, you don’t have a lot of money, you have a room, you rented a room for, let’s say, three hours. So that means you show up, you show up on the clock, and you’re already warmed up. You can’t waste any time. That’s what we carry along for the 10 years I was a dancer.

And I was quite surprised when I became an actor, because nobody showed up on time! They dropped in with a cup of coffee or cigarette in their hands and then we could start after half an hour of chit-chatting! I was just blown away with that. It’s like “what are you doing, guy? We’re supposed to work!” But that’s a different discipline. I can be sloppy, I can walk in with a cigarette in my hand as well, but I do like that once we’re doing stuff that we focus on, we get things done. Sometimes it’s just talking about something and we can get things done by doing that, but at least being creative. And not just chit-chatting about something else that is not relevant to what we’re doing.

And now, on to the Pusher trilogy. It’s quite an unusual debut, I thought, but it reminded me of La Haine with Vincent Cassel. I don’t know if you’re familiar with that movie.

I’m very familiar with Vincent Cassel. He’s one of my favourite actors!

You knew the Copenhagen neighbourhood where the story takes place?

Khaki Revere shirt and trousers, Canali; Spirit Flyback Chronograph, Longines

Well, that was my hood, that’s where I grew up. It came in handy, in the sense that the director was not familiar with it. He was very much from another social class, if you see what I mean. He was a middle of class guy, he’d been to New York, he lived there. But he had a certain drive about him that he wants to tell his story taking place in this environment. And he was very open asking us to interpret it for him because he blankly said, “This is not my area, this is not my place, you guys help me, I just want to bring this story to life.” So, he chose to leave only three actors in the film; the rest of the characters are people from the hood, real criminals, real drug addicts, etc. So, it was kind of a mixture, which he’s always been fond of doing. It became like, “let’s go rock and roll!” We did not have a lot of money. Let’s shoot a film! And that’s how we did it.

You got the Palme d’Or in Cannes for The Hunt (Jagten). I thought it was very interesting how this movie started with a topic that’s quite prevalent these days [allegations of sexual abuse of children], but the way it was resolved was perhaps different than in an American movie. No one goes to jail or gets killed (apart from the dog), things almost get back to normal. Is it a typically Danish way to solve problems? It would have been different with an American director.

It would have been different in certain ways. Not in the moral of the moral of the film, obviously ‒ you are accused of something so horrifying that it doesn’t matter if you’re cleared, you will never be really cleared. Let’s imagine that the guy was accused of robbing a bank. The second it turns out that he didn’t rob the bank, everybody would be high-fiving! There might even have been a few people high fiving before he was cleared, because robbing a bank is just robbing a bank, who cares. But when it comes to kids, this is where our enormous fear comes in. Our biggest love is our kids.

Our biggest fear is obviously something happening to them. So the moral will be the same all over the world that you will never really be cleared of that accusation, it doesn’t matter how much you can disprove it. The moral of the story that will be the same everywhere, but the way we approached the film will be different. I definitely remember Americans watching it for the first time: When that little girl kisses my character on the lips out of the blue, all the Americans went “lawyer up, get a lawyer right away!” And that’s just not normal in Denmark, and I think it would not be normal in the rest of Europe either.

We’d just say, “because I’m an adult, you’re not supposed to do that”. This is the way we approach it. But America is very different. There are lawyers on every street corner, and you’ll just get one right away. So they had a problem with that, they just didn’t find that believable. Unfortunately, maybe it’s America who has a different story than the rest of the world. The rest of the world will approach it like human beings. And that’s what he did, this guy ‒ my character ‒ he approached it like, “I’ve done nothing wrong so there’s nothing to be afraid of.” And why was he wrong?

You’ve built an acting career in two different languages, which is quite impressive. Does working in Danish or English affect the way you act? While watching your movies, I noticed Danish seems a language where it’s harder to get upset, whereas in English, you can get loud easily.

What I think was hard in the beginning was that it’s just not my language, I just had to find a certain freedom in it. But that goes with every language. I’ve done quite a few different things, I’ve done movies in French, in German and in Swedish ‒ to a degree Spanish. Those languages I don’t speak half as well as I speak English. It’s about finding a place where you feel at home. You find your identity in the language.

So yes, I would say maybe in the beginning, it was me wearing two hats, I was playing two characters: I was playing the character in the film and then I was also playing “Mads speaking a foreign language”. And I just had to find a way to morph them together so it was all about the character in the film. The more you do it, the more you find your own footing doing it. English is a more dramatic language. I think we’re just used to watching people doing Shakespeare in English.

You can get away with saying something very, very big, very dramatic and it doesn’t come across as pretentious. In my own language, that limit will come much earlier. There’ll be a lot of those big words in Shakespeare that you will find very pretentious to say. So it’s not really part of our vocabulary in our language. But now I bring some of my Danish energy when I do an English film, and I also learned from the English film so I can bring some of that back and maybe not be afraid of being a little more dramatic. So, it’s a nice school to go to, two different languages and cultures.

In Danish movies, you’ve played all kinds of characters – from a Viking to a school teacher, to a priest in Adam’s Apples – you know how to do comedy! But in Hollywood, you’re almost typecasted as a villain or a character actor. How do you explain the difference and is it your goal to get similar parts in English-language movies as you get in Danish ones?

I would love to. Absolutely. If that came my way, I would love it. I think there’s a few reasons for that not happening. One is obviously still the language and the accent. If you play the main character, then you need to have an all-American accent, unless there’s a really good excuse for not having it, which is weird, because almost 80% of all Americans have an accent! But that’s one reason. The other reason is that in America, when they see something they like, they tend to ask people to repeat that. Whereas in Denmark, it’s quite the opposite. People always try to challenge you and say, “Okay, you’ve never done this, I would love to see you do this!” So that might be a different approach here.

I’m not frustrated about it at all. As you noticed, I have a very good friend who does comedies, writer/director Anders Thomas Jensen – I’ve done five films with him. And they’re “over the top” comedies in the creative sense, where he’s building universes that are surreal. But we approach it with real emotions, like in real life, even though the characters are so insane! So, for me that’s the kind of comedy I do like. I’m not a big rom-com fan, I don’t like easy and light comedy. I like his way of making comedy. So, yes, I do believe I can be funny, but it has to be within the parameters of something I find funny.

I love everything I get from the States. Some things I turn down, some things I don’t. Yes, there’s a variety of different villains I played, but they come from different universes, have different morals and different features. So, I find new elements here and there, and hopefully it fits into the film I’m making.

Double breasted suit with spread collar button down shirt, Canali

You played the titular role in the NBC TV series Hannibal (2013-2015). I’ve spent some time with another Hannibal Lecter – Anthony Hopkins. His Hannibal was very different than yours. He focused on the power of Lecter, but yours is more mysterious. Was that a deliberate strategy?

It was deliberate in the sense that there was no way we’re gonna go down the paths of Anthony Hopkins. That would be creative suicide! I think he’s a masterful actor. I think what he did in the films was perfection! But obviously, we had a TV show on our hands. Every season, I had 13 hours where I could build up the character, create suspense, etc. We didn’t have to show all our cards in the first or the second episode. So, we could build it up very differently than he had a chance to do.

He has 14 minutes of screen time in The Silence of the Lambs, but he still makes such an enormous impact on us. There’s a lot on his plate, in that film. He has to show everything in those 14 minutes. I have 13 hours. So obviously, it’s going to be a different animal. And also, we wanted it to be believable that he could build up friendships and loyalty towards people. We couldn’t have him wink to the audience, we couldn’t have him do his thing in front of people, it had to be behind their backs. So, we had to wait until he got his private moments. And then slowly, slowly, he shows himself more and more to the people around him.

I was trying to guess and get inside your technique and how you’re able to do what you do. I was wondering about your relationship with silence, because it seems that you use silence a lot, especially when portraying menacing characters. People watch you and wonder, “What is he thinking?” And I know you’re a fan of Buster Keaton and of silent movies as well. Could you talk a little bit about how you use silence?

I am a big fan of silence. I think that if we can do the same without words, sometimes it’s better. It’s not always the case, sometimes there will be characters who are very wordy. And that’s absolutely fair enough. But I mean, I do think that if the camera’s in the right place, it will catch certain things that will be intriguing and interesting to watch. And, so you can make a dualism and capture two things at once. If you just make a statement with what you say, there’s no dualism. But if you don’t say anything, the audience might start wondering, “Does he really believe what he’s doing, or is he in doubt?” And I think that’s interesting, both for villains and for good guys. It’s interesting to get the camera resting a little on the characters.

In the new Indiana Jones, you play a former Nazi scientist – that’s ironic to see a Dane play a Nazi, knowing the history of Denmark during WWII. Did you hesitate to take on the role? Not tired of playing a bad guy again?

I didn’t have a problem at all. It’s part of history. And you have to remember, it’s an Indiana Jones movie and this is also part of the universe of Indiana Jones. And let’s just put it frankly, my character, Jürgen Voller, is not a hero. So, I’m pleased to try to bring it to life and be as good an adversary to Indiana as I can. But let’s all hope that Indiana will win that game!

Were you a fan of those movies growing up? Did they resonate in Denmark?

Oh, they seem to have resonated all over the world. I remember vividly watching the first one with my brother in the movie theatre, and maybe… no, I think we actually watched it on these portable DVD things you could rent and we watched it at home. It blew our minds. I’ve never seen anything like it. It’s such a charming film, the first one and the second one and so on. Great storytelling, the filming, the way they used music, it was just a roller-coaster of really fantastic craftsmanship. And I know for sure that quite a few of my colleagues who are directors got inspired by these films and wanted to be directors because of that. So, it had a huge impact. I can honestly say that I grew up with them. It’s quite a surreal thing, some 40 years later, to be part of that universe!

Were there things during filming the movie that surprised you that you didn’t expect?

Quite a few things. Things on this scale… it’s a different kind of budget. You walk into a set, and it’s a giant cave. You know there are no giant caves in London, where we were filming. Normally they will build some of it, and the rest will be green screened. But that’s not the case in an Indiana Jones film. The entire cave was built! It was flabbergasting! You had a little fanboy hat on when you walked into the set. But you had to take it off really fast. Right there, on that set, it’s the budget of two Danish films! You know you’re doing something where people are devoted to details and want to get it right. Even though computerised things today are great, much better than they were even five years ago, it’s still not the real thing, and an Indiana Jones film insists on getting things to look real. That’s a shocker, and beautiful!

How about working with Harrison Ford?

Maybe I wasn’t surprised, because I knew how old he was. But I was surprised by the amount of energy he had for the project. He’s a fantastic person and a fantastic actor. But he’s so devoted to the film! We did night shoots and we’d wrap up at five in the morning. We were all completely hammered and we wanted to go home and sleep. But Harrison would go on a bike ride for 50 km! He had extra energy, he’s out of this world!

Photography: Charlie Gray; Styling: Jay Hines; Grooming: Ingeborg Wolf; Production: Cool Hunt Inc.; Special Thanks: Skovshoved Hotel

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Mads Mikkelsen: How He Played Epic Villains And Still Won Our Hearts
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