Long before Drive director Nicolas Winding Refn became buddies with Ryan Gosling, he had a different leading man. The physically intimidating, yet oddly sweet Mads Mikkelsen linked up with his Danish filmmaking brother for Pusher 1 and 2, Bleeder, and Valhalla Rising. And Mikkelsen has since become an international movie star in his own right, slithering into the imagination of virtually every filmgoer by smacking James Bond’s testicles in Casino Royale, stabbing giant scorpions in Clash of The Titans, leading an underground resistance in Flame & Citron and picking up a Best Actor Award at Cannes for The Hunt.

Taking a break from starring as Hannibal Lector in a new NBC series shooting in Toronto, TORO caught up with the rising star to chat about his latest Oscar-nominated film A Royal Affair, which involves a fascinating chapter of Danish history.

This isn’t a widely known story outside of Denmark. What did you know about it going in and what did you think when you read the script?

I would say that kids from my generation and back know, but my kids didn’t. It wasn’t taught in school, I’m not sure why. But we knew what it was. We knew that the king was crazy and my character shagged the queen and was killed. The details were a little blurry. So when I read the script, I was kind of surprised. First of all, it’s not every day that you get something that gets you this emotional when you read it, even less so with a historical drama because they have a tendency to fall in love with the dresses and the horses. I think it found a fragile balance between the Danish tradition of being focused on story and acting while telling an epic story. That’s what I thought when I first read it.

Was there much research material available on your character?

There are certain things you can read. We always have to be careful and remember that history is written by the victors. So in the first books written about this period, he was the villain. He was the German guy who was trying to take over the country. When the Enlightenment came later on, they changed history again. Somebody else wrote about him, but he never met him. So this is all based on what he wants to write. So the guys who wrote the script obviously went deep into research. But the big thing for us was the letters and the diaries. This is where you find something that is truthful and not just a historical interpretation. We went to a museum after we made the film and it was very touching. They had the scarf he wore when they cut off his head and there were some beautiful drawings that the king made right after Johann Struensee died. He was obsessed with Struensee and was drawing him for years after. Very childish drawings, like a cartoon. There were drawings of Struensee and another guy and they looked totally the same (laughs). Very touching.

Do you think it makes much difference for audiences if they don’t know the story?

I think people might not believe it. They’ll think it will be too good to be true, because it really suits a film. You’ve got great passion. You’ve got people having fights in front of the king and taking over the country. You’ve got blood and executions. You have it all. I think people will think we added drama or a love story to the film, but it really happened. It’s all there. And I hope people will believe it. It’s a good thing that it’s going around the world. It’s a dramatic part of Danish history. We’re used to it but it was quite dramatic.

You started your career in the Danish film industry right when it exploded with Dogme 95 and Refn’s Pusher films. What was it like in the middle of that and was it clear how important those films were while making them?

It was hard for me to say because that was my start. Pusher was my first film. I knew one thing for sure: we wanted to change Danish cinema. They were still making folk Danish comedies from the '70s in the '90s. They had not done anything that even remotely looked like something by Scorsese or any of the other filmmakers that we loved. We all grew up with those films thinking, “We should do something like that.” So for the first time in history, I think we were in a situation where we weren’t directed by an 80-year-old man telling us how to behave like young people, so that changed a lot. We made little clubs and wouldn’t work with each other. I was with Nicolas Winding Refn, so we wouldn’t work with the Dogme people and the other way around. Then we all grew up and started working together. But we needed that isolation to define what we wanted to do. I think we were aware when we did Pusher what it was. Pusher was the first breakthrough film before Dogme. They invented Dogme after they saw Pusher to be honest (points at recorder). Print it. (laughs) Because it was a rough film, they had never seen anything like that. They said, we need to make some rules to do that. But it doesn’t matter, we made it that way because we didn’t have any money. We didn’t have a dolly so we were running with the camera and therefore it became handheld. If we had a dolly, we would have used it, right? So we did it out of the energy and if that inspired people to do other things, that’s cool. I didn’t like the rules. But if it helped people and it placed them on the map. I welcome it.

Have you and Refn talked about doing anything in Hollywood?

Yeah, we have. Nothing specific. We will work together again one day. He’s finding his footing and so am I. He’s got his new loverboy, I guess, Gosling (laughs). I think they suit each other pretty well right now. But some day we will reunite and maybe we could even manage a ménage à trois. That would be great. But I think that he has to find his footing first. If there’s something that he could give to me, he would love it and I would be there. But it doesn’t always work that way. You need a name to fund an American film and it’s not me yet. Our last project Valhalla Rising was a radical film, much more than Drive, I would say. It has been doing surprisingly well cult wise. I think there are more people who have seen it in Canada than in Denmark. I mean, there was nobody in Denmark who saw it and I am a name there. So unless you’re a heavy smoker or you like drug music…(laughs) I thought it was beautiful film, just not very accessible. But Nic and me, we are going to work together again. Even if it’s just a small part where I walk though the back of the screen and someone shoots me, we’ll do it. Our lives aren’t done yet, I just think he’s finding his way through that jungle in Hollywood now and he has to do that. But we will meet again.

What do you look for in roles since you do such wildly different movies?

Well, what’s interesting to me can be many things. Let’s face it, I’ve also fought giant monsters with a little sword. But I grew up with films like that and all of a sudden when I’m 45, I get the chance to swing around and fight incredible 3D creatures. It was fun (laughs), I don’t know how the film turned out but we had fun. And it was as hard as anything else. I had to pretend that I was with a giant scorpion. When you do a Dogme film, someone really hits you and that’s not even acting. So, I found that interesting and obviously they paid me some money. It could have been cool, but at least it wasn’t that bad. I can’t go into a project thinking it will be bad. I have to go in thinking, “it’s going to be cool and I’m wearing a little dress and carrying a sword.” There has to be something that I find cool or interesting or deep or French (laughs).

What was the appeal of Hannibal?

Well, when I read the first pitch and a few of the episode ideas I thought, “Are we allowed to do this on American television?” (laughs) It’s a challenging thing because it comes from an iconic character and an iconic film. We can’t separate totally from what Anthony Hopkins did, but at the same time we have to separate some. Because this is set before he was captured, that means I can’t be a complete psycho from the beginning because I have to make friends around me. But what he did was so brilliant it’s still there haunting us even as we do our own thing.

I have to ask about The Hunt, which was incredible. Was the experience of making the film as emotionally overwhelming as it is to watch?

Not really. Obviously, it was a long journey and we tried to shoot it chronologically, but that wasn’t always possible. I mean, if you have a long day where you play a broken man for eight, nine hours, you will carry it home to some degree. But I always believe that you have to get into your character and out again really fast and not insist on your kid calling you by your character’s name or anything like that. So it was emotional, but it’s harder to make a film with shitty writing. That’s fucking hard work. So in a way this was easier. Even though it’s a tough film in terms of what I go through as a character, it’s easier to access.

Did you give your director Thomas Vinterberg a hard time about inventing the Dogme rules on set?

No, no. I actually did a Dogme film. I cheated all the time because I don’t care. I thought it was a great PR start, but why are we kidding ourselves? “Guys, why are we waiting for the sun? Put a lamp up, I want to go home.” But it was good for certain people who needed it. It made them say, “We should focus on the acting and the story?” And for me it was like, “Yeah, every film should fucking focus on that. Ridiculous rules. Did you come up with that now?” But I think all actors are like that. It’s also a good playground and people found some things they could use later on. I just found it a bit silly. I embrace it. I just like making fun of it.

Related >> TORO Reviews A Royal Affair

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