Nikolaj Arcel and Mads Mikkelsen The Promised Land
Nikolaj Arcel and Mads Mikkelsen courtesy of SBIFF

Mads Mikkelsen used silent film star Buster Keaton’s “less is more” approach to acting in order to convey subtle changes over time to his character Captain Ludvig Kahlen, a poor soldier who dreams of becoming a nobleman in Nikolaj Arcel’s The Promised Land.

The Promised Land picks up in 1755 in modern-day Denmark, when Ludvig arrives on the barren Jutland heath determined to establish a settlement and become a wealthy nobleman. But he becomes locked in a bitter war with Frederik De Schinkel (Simon Bennebjerg), a ruthless landowner who is also trying to gain control of the heath. The film is based on the book The Captain and Ann Barbara by Ida Jessen, which creates fictional characters around De Schinkel and Kahlen, who were real people.

In a Q&A following a screening of the film at the Santa Barbara International Film Festival, Mikkelsen and Arcel explained the subtle art of Ludvig’s evolution, and how his love of Buster Keaton inspired him to emote in silence without saying many words.

Mads Mikkelsen on Channeling Buster Keaton in The Promised Land

“I’m a big Buster Keaton fan. I do think that less is more sometimes,” Mikkelsen said. “The character is interesting because he’s shaping his own destiny. Obviously, a lot of things are happening to this character. A lot of things are coming from outside, but he’s also the master of his own destiny, in the sense that he has so many chances to go left instead of right and he chooses right.”

This isn’t the first time Mikkelsen has been vocal about his love for Keaton, the masterful silent film star known for storytelling through physical comedy and his “stone face” expression seen in films like The General (1926), Steamboat Bill, Jr. (1928), and The Cameraman (1928).

“There was something about Buster Keaton that was an empty canvas,” Mikkelsen told IndieWire. “Whatever I wanted to put into him I could do. You could say, ‘He’s not doing anything.’ But I beg to differ. He did a lot. And you could read it. When he did a tiny little smile, the entire sky opened. It was worth waiting for. We should be careful that we’re not doing the show reel when we’re doing a character. We should be honest with the character.”

Also Read: Mads Mikkelsen: Things I’ve Learned as a Moviemaker

Ludvig’s stoic nature in The Promised Land makes him blind to motives of other characters around him, like his tenant’s wife, Ann Barbara, played by Amanda Collin.

Mikkelsen continued in the Q&A: “He is a big part of the reason there is a drama here. So we needed him to be a specific character that does not need anyone around him. He doesn’t see anyone around him. He wants to be something that he hates. He wants to be a noble person. And he hates them, which is already dramatic.”

Arcel — who also worked with Mikkelsen in 2012’s A Royal Affair, another 18th century period drama — urged Mikkelsen to take more credit for the subtle intricacies of his work.

“You make it sound so simple Mads, but not a lot of people can do what you do,” Arcel said. “It still moves me to watch your performance in this film.”

The director pointed to the time jump at the end of the movie when Mikkelsen plays and older Ludvig.

“It was so magical to watch it, because they didn’t really do any makeup. It was just a little. And I was like, ‘Okay, we’re ready to do the scene. You’re 10 years older.’ And then suddenly it was like, wait a minute — he’s 10 years older now! How did he do that? It’s almost like just a little thing you do with the walk and the face and it’s so subtle, but all those little subtleties that you do is what makes this work. This evolution that you’re talking about is so subtle. It’s really all Mads. It’s quite incredible.”

Mikkelsen adds: “It’s such a tricky thing to do, especially if you only have 10 minutes left for the film and you want to make that jump. So we did agree on approaching it in a more internal way than an external way.”

Watch the full interview with Arcel and Mikkelsen at SBIFF above.

The Promised Land arrives in theaters on Feb. 2, 2024.

Main Image: Nikolaj Arcel and Mads Mikkelsen courtesy of SBIFF