Things I’ve Learned as a Moviemaker: Mads Mikkelsen

From Star Wars to Marvel, from prestige TV (Hannibal) to high-profile Oscar contenders (At Eternity’s Gate), Mads Mikkelsen can be seen stretching his dramatic skills across the board these days. But longtime Mikkelsen fans will know that’s consistent with what he’s always done.

Making his debut in Nicolas Winding Refn’s Pusher in 1996, Mikkelsen fit almost immediately into the intimidating, darkly comic mode in which fellow Danish talent Refn works. By the mid-2000s, he had not only continued to collaborate with Refn, but also received much acclaim for his role in fellow Dane Susanne Bier’s After the Wedding and crossed the Atlantic to Hollywood with a heroic role in King Arthur and a turn as a Bond villain in Casino Royale (2006). His versatility has continued in the years since, exhibited in his portrayals of a serial killer, a swooning, romantic costume drama lead, and even a half-human, half-chicken hybrid.

Mikkelsen’s willingness to take a shot at every part continues with Arctic, a survival thriller set in the titular landscape. In the role of Overgård, stranded with no one to help him, Mikkelsen treks across the wilderness, withstanding natural threats along the way. Matching the feral physicality he honed in Refn’s Valhalla Rising, Mikkelsen crafts a performance as resilient as his character.

MovieMaker caught up with Mikkelsen at the 2018 Evolution! Mallorca International Film Festival—where he received the Evolution Vision award for his extraordinary body of work. The actor offered up some wisdom to navigate moviemaking’s own endless tundra. —MM Staff

Mads Mikkelsen’s ice cold winter includes star turns in Joe Penna’s Arctic and Jonas Åkerlund’s Polar. Photograph by Fabrice Dall’Anese

— As told to Hus Miller

1. Raise dilemmas and questions in your work, rather than providing answers. Robert De Niro and Martin Scorsese are masters of that. Growing up, I lived and breathed kung fu movies, but my favorite film, by far, is Taxi Driver. It changed the way I viewed good guys and bad guys.

2. It’s dramatic for audiences to want to intervene in your character’s life, but at the same time to not be able to stop watching him. My character in the Pusher films is like that. There’s something fascinating about watching an idiot who believes in what he’s doing.

3. With great actors, the audience can tell that something is going on inside their heads. I’m extremely intrigued by both Bruce Lee and Buster Keaton’s faces. They’re both very physical, but one look or expression from them can make you feel something you never expected. They contained so much emotion in the movement of an eye, or a forehead shrug … or even by doing nothing at all in reaction to what’s happening.

4. Be radical. That’s what my peers and I did as we came onto the film scene in Denmark. Don’t listen to the older generation. Do your own thing.

5. Your goal with every project is to put a fingerprint on your work that’s like no one else’s.

6. When you’re seeking out moviemakers to work with, what’s written on the page should speak to you. Does their work have an edge? Is it something unique, a creative way of telling a story? That’s what you’re looking for.

7. Be sure you’re working with a good director. Don’t settle.

8. Work with directors who respect your ideas. Even if they don’t always use them, they should always respect them. As an actor coming up, I was lucky enough to have been “brought in,” and to have my voice heard as an important part of the creative process. You can get that much more when you’re working on independent movies. I love the rock ’n’ roll style of moviemaking: “Let’s see what we can do… let’s try a bunch of different things and see what sticks.”

9. Let whatever project comes your way be your ambition. I never wanted to be an actor. It was not a childhood dream. Everything that has happened to me has been coincidental. But the longer I’ve been doing this, the more ambitious I’ve become.

10. Take chances. You never know how something will turn out. MM

Arctic opened in theaters February 1, 2019, courtesy of Bleecker Street. This article appears in MovieMaker’s Winter 2019 issue. Featured image photograph: Freeze Frame: In writer-director Joe Penna’s frost-bitten feature Arctic, Mads Mikkelsen is arresting as ever. Courtesy of Bleecker Street. 

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