Mads Mikkelsen: the blockbuster villain with leading-man ambitions

From Bond villain to mythical monster bait, Mads Mikkelsen knows his place on the Hollywood roll call. But with his arthouse career booming, he's ready for the big time

Mads Mikkelsen is battleworn. He has just been chasing the moonlight across a Romanian set, filming the climactic gunfight of a new mob thriller, The Necessary Death of Charlie Countryman. It's a US production starring Shia LaBeouf, so naturally the Danish actor plays the baddie.

This, broadly, is how it goes for Mikkelsen in Hollywood: he's one of a roll call of European actors (Vincent Cassel, Mathieu Almaric, Alexander Skarsgård) recruited to add spice to popcorn. For Mikkelsen, that means being ready to shoulder the status of morally ambiguous sex symbol, whether as Bond villain (Le Chiffre, Casino Royale's blood-weeping banker), enforcer (the baneful Rochefort of last year's The Three Musketeers), or mythical monster bait (Clash of the Titans' Draco).

"It's just another part of being an actor," he says, the lisp in his English rasping a little after the nightshoot. "It's not only doing arthouse films, but going in there and really, really believing there's a giant scorpion and you're going to kill it."

Yet behind the blockbusters, his arthouse career is booming. Last week, he won Cannes' best actor prize for his role in The Hunt, the new film from Festen director Thomas Vinterberg, in which a nursery school teacher is accused of paedophilia. Next week sees the release of A Royal Affair – a classy Danish drama based on the true story of the political maneuvering of Johann Friedrich Struensee, the German doctor who became personal physician to the mentally unstable King Christian VII.

Struensee used his influence over the regent to move from right-hand man to puppetmaster, making time to embark on an affair with the queen, father their illegitimate child and become the de facto ruler of Denmark for 10 months in 1771, before a conspiracy instigated by the king's mother led to his arrest and execution.

"Before we made films about gangsters, everything was about the royal families," says Mikkelsen. "They contain so much drama. This is really about the love affair between three people – Struensee, Christian and Queen Caroline. And how painful it is when Christian discovers the whole thing. He seems more jealous for Struensee than for his wife, because he really, really loves him."

The film may be a little stilted, but Mikkelsen's portrayal of Struensee is deft and nuanced. The doctor achieves the power to help society's weakest by exploiting a mentally weak king, and every twist of that compromise is played out in Mikkelsen's performance.

And if Struensee's skill was in seizing a moment, it's hard to resist casting Mikkelsen in a similar role. He's one of Danish cinema's talented opportunists, an actor who developed his style across genres as the country's film scene matured from the flash-bang adolescence of Dogme 95 into something more conservative and commercial.

"The big bang happened in the mid-90s," says Mikkelsen. "At that time – how can I compare it? – Danish cinema was like a country today that doesn't have the iPad. We were doing stuff that was really old school. And now I think we use that base to be brave enough to go out and make genre films."

Denmark's current genre king is Nicolas Winding Refn, who gave Mikkelsen his first film role as lovable drug dealer Tonny in the 1996 crime drama Pusher. "He always had the touch of something stylised," says Mikkelsen of the Drive director, "even when he was making really hardcore, almost documentary-feel films in the beginning."

The pair, who last worked together on Viking action flick Valhalla Rising, are set to reunite with an as-yet-unnamed Hollywood heist movie that should bump Mikkelsen up to leading-man status. "If no one else will give him the lead in a Hollywood movie, I will," said Refn of the project in 2010.

Until then it's art and business as usual for Mikkelsen, with a starring role in Arnaud des Pallières's Michael Kohlhaas (a revenge story about a horse merchant-turned-vigilante, based on Heinrich von Kleist's novella) balanced out by his rumoured casting as the anvil to Chris Hemsworth's hammer in Thor 2. That's another Hollywood bad-guy role, but it will get his face on the billboard, some money in the bank, and – let's not forget – should be a lot of fun, too. "If I was doing The Hunt constantly," Mikkelsen says, "I would get very old, very fast."


Henry Barnes

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Riders of Justice review – Mads Mikkelsen revenge thriller turns screwball
Anders Thomas Jensen’s film is far-fetched, tonally wayward and shouldn’t work at all, but somehow it all comes together

Steve Rose

22, Jul, 2021 @8:00 AM

Article image
The arts in 2012: film
Peter Bradshaw picks his highlights of the year ahead

Peter Bradshaw

29, Dec, 2011 @9:45 PM

Article image
Mads Mikkelsen confirmed as Johnny Depp's replacement in Fantastic Beasts 3
Danish Bond star Mikkelsen to take over the role of dark wizard Gellert Grindelwald in the third Harry Potter prequel

Staff and agencies

26, Nov, 2020 @10:32 AM

Article image
Dune, Bond and Top Gun returns: Films to look out for in 2021
Daniel Craig hands in his licence to kill, Frances McDormand delivers her best ever performance, Carey Mulligan unsettles in a rape-revenge drama and Tom Cruise reaches for the skies … this year’s must-see films

Peter Bradshaw

29, Dec, 2020 @6:00 AM

Article image
Another Round review – Mads Mikkelsen anchors boozy tragicomedy
A reunion between director Thomas Vinterberg and his star of the 2012 drama The Hunt is a flippant and very, very drunken story of an unusual experiment

Peter Bradshaw

30, Jun, 2021 @3:28 PM

Article image
Seeing double: are Side Effects and Silver Linings Playbook the same film?

And what about Argo and Zero Dark Thirty? Joe Queenan on why Hollywood keeps making the same films twice

Joe Queenan

18, Mar, 2013 @7:30 PM

Article image
Lovers, haters and dead dictators: the must-see movies of autumn 2017
Kicking off our guide to the season’s cultural highlights, we head to the cinema for the return of Blade Runner, a tale of taboo sex and Armando Iannucci’s stunning Stalin satire. Here are the 20 films we’re most looking forward to this autumn

Peter Bradshaw

11, Sep, 2017 @5:00 AM

Mads Mikkelsen in The Hunt: watch it here

Our latest film on demand offering is the brilliant Danish drama The Hunt, in which Mads Mikkelsen plays a teacher accused of paedophilia

Andrew Pulver

28, Mar, 2013 @11:15 AM

Article image
The height of suspense: Hollywood's love affair with the skyscraper

Nine of the world's 10 tallest buildings are now in Asia – and Hollywood wants to jump off all of them. Steve Rose on why movies love skyscrapers

Steve Rose

25, Jan, 2012 @7:24 PM

Article image
Martin Campbell: Living on the edge

He is one of the world's most revered action directors, twice rescuing the Bond franchise. Now Martin Campbell has returned to Edge of Darkness, the 1980s TV drama that made his name. He talks to John Patterson

John Patterson

26, Jan, 2010 @9:30 PM