Mads Mikkelsen is one of those actors that makes all of his characters fascinating and intriguing to watch. He brings a complexity to his performances that makes you wonder as much about the unspoken life of the people he embodies as the moment he’s currently living. In the medieval epic Age of Uprising: The Legend of Michael Kohlhaas, Mikkelsen portrays Michael Kohlhaas, a respected and well-to-do horse merchant, loving husband and family man whose peaceful existence is turned upside down when a nobleman steals his horses, setting off a chain of irreversible events. And on the NBC drama series Hannibal, his work as Dr. Hannibal Lecter is both charming and unsettling, making it always unpredictable.
During this recent exclusive phone interview with Collider, actor Mads Mikkelsen talked about what drew him to this film, what it was like to have to pick up the French language for the role, what it was like to work with director Arnaud des Pallières, and that he’s an actor who enjoys working with children and animals. He also talked about what he’s most enjoyed about exploring Hannibal Lecter for two seasons, and now heading into a third, how he has a vague idea about where Hannibal Season 3 is headed, that he’s happy with the length of the 13-episode season, how he’d love to go to Comic-Con, if his schedule will allow it, and why he’s so satisfied with his career. Check out what he had to say after the jump.
MADS MIKKELSEN: There were so many things going against this. It was speaking French, which I do not. It was sitting on a horse for another three months, which I don’t necessarily do, every day. But, I read it and there was something very intriguing about the script. It was very different from anything I’ve ever read. It was obviously based on the book of Kleist, which was a piece of philosophy more than it was a piece of grammar. I met the director and I had some questions. In our Western world, we do recognize the story about the man seeking justice. And then, he will slowly but surely become darker and darker until he ends up someplace he didn’t anticipate. In this case, the first step he takes, when he takes things into his own hands, he wipes out a whole village, with babies, kids and women. That’s not the normal way of doing things. So, I asked [Arnaud des Pallières] about that and I asked him other questions, and he was just like, “Yeah, that’s the way it is. That’s the way I want it.” He was just as radical as the script, and I found that intriguing, as well. For some reason, I just left that meeting going, “I like the whole idea of jumping into something I find intriguing, but I don’t necessarily agree with and understand.”
What was it like to have to pick up the French language?
MIKKELSEN: It was a huge challenge. One thing I can say about the French language is that no one in the world loves their language as much as they do. It doesn’t matter if you’re close, it still sounds terrible to their ears. You can tell on their faces, and they will put their hands up. So, that was a big challenge. And obviously, the horses were a big challenge. It was not only horse riding, but it was dealing with the horses and bringing a little foal into the world. There were a lot of challenges. I did speak French in one film before this, but I played Stravinsky, so it was fine to have a Russian accent. I also spoke Russian, in that film. I had spoken a little French when I started, and I was hanging out for three months with the horse people and they only spoke French, so I picked up a little more from there.
You said that the director had a very specific vision for this film, that he wanted to stick to, but did he allow you to bring any of your own ideas to it, at all?
MIKKELSEN: Once we started acting and doing the scenes, there was tons of space. It was more in the structure of the script and the order of the scenes that he was so firm. He would not even discuss it. And I loved that. But, there was tons of freedom once we started. In the one scene where my wife was dying on the kitchen table, we did that 10 times and they were 12-minute takes, every time. And they were all different and all extreme, because she was dying and I was breaking down, but he gave us freedom, every time.
MIKKELSEN: Typically, I work with the script and the director for awhile before, just to make sure we’re on the same page. We might throw everything up in the air again and question ourselves about, “Is this the right thing? Should it be a little more? Should it be a little less? Is this the right situation for the scene? Should it wait?” And we might end up with the same result that we started with, but it’s very important to address everything, so that we don’t stand on set and waste our time doing it there, which I hate. Once we’re on set, we start work. That doesn’t mean that something that happened yesterday won’t be addressed tomorrow because it changes the whole thing and we have to address it. But, I prefer to do it before we start shooting.
Horses play such a big part in this character’s life and in the story, and they really set him on his path for the entire film. What was your relationship like with the horses, through your prep and during the shoot?
MIKKELSEN: I enjoy that. I’m one of the actors who really enjoys working with kids and animals, which is always a no go. There’s something beautiful about it because you tend to forget yourself, as an actor. If you’re focused on the horse or you’re focused on the kid, you might forget yourself to a degree where you act way better than you normally do because you’re focused on something else. Horses are a little bit different. If you’re a horseman, you don’t pay any attention to the horse. It’s just a part of you. So, I just spent as much time as I could with the horses and the horse people, day in and day out. I spent a lot of time with the female horse who was giving birth to the foal, later on, so that she got used to me and my smell, and she wouldn’t be afraid of me, once I started helping her with labor.
Your character in this film talks about how it’s not the idea of death that he finds most upsetting, but knowing when and how it will happen. Do you feel the same way, in regard to your own life?
MIKKELSEN: Absolutely. I’m terrified about psychic people who have their little shops. I always walk across the street and go somewhere else. Imagine if one of them came out with their face all pale and said, “Hurry up and enjoy yourself.” No one wants to know that. I think the meaning of life is life itself. We don’t necessarily want to know what it is, but we want to live it. Hopefully, we’ll go out fast without knowing it.
With everything this man has last, throughout the journey he takes in this story, do you think he thought finally achieving the justice he was pursuing is all worth it, or do you think he would have given up his pursuit and ridden off somewhere with his daughter, if he knew how it would all turn out?
MIKKELSEN: That’s obviously the big question. I think that’s why we made the final shot of the film his face for four minutes. For the first time in the film, it dawns on him. He realizes what he’s done, what he lost and what the ultimate prize was. He got justice, but he lost everything else. I’m not sure if he’s regretting it, in that moment, but he realizes it. His journey was blind. He was a blindfolded man. He couldn’t even see the peasants and soldiers around him, in need of a leader and a better life. He doesn’t care. He’s a very selfish person. And for the first time, in the whole film, he realizes what the prize is. I see regret in him, but it depends on who is looking.
Your work as Dr. Hannibal Lecter on Hannibal is just fantastic, and it’s really one of the best shows on television. What have you most enjoyed about exploring that character for two seasons, and now heading into a third?
MIKKELSEN: Obviously, he’s a very specific character that we all know from the books, so our challenge was to make it our own. That’s easier said than done, but it was a good start that he’s not in jail and he’s a man outside who’s making friends, to a degree, even though he’s a weird character. When we meet him, the FBI doesn’t suspect him. Don’t ask me why, but they don’t. So, we took out all of the things behind their backs because we thought it was tedious. We only show him in his true nature when he’s by himself in his private moments. One of the things I really liked about him was that, from a very early start, we agreed that this man is not a classic psychopath. We went back and forth on what is his diagnosis, and does he have one? I came up with the idea that he was a fallen angel. He’s a man who sees beauty where the rest of us see evil. So, in many ways, I could play it as I would have done in a normal character, and just mirror it. On top of that, I give him a lot of empathy and emotions, like anger and sorrow and happiness, but he’s in charge of when he’s using these weapons, as opposed to the character of Will Graham who’s not in control of his empathy because the empathy is in control of him. He’s a mirror, in that way. That’s interesting. Instead of being a psychopath with no emotions, we made him a very emotional man who just chooses when to use those emotions.
Have you had any discussions with Bryan Fuller yet about where Season 3 will go?
MIKKELSEN: I have a vague idea, but that can always change with Bryan. One thing is for sure, after tonight, and that’s that he has to get out of that house.
How often are you stopped on the street now, and do you ever have experiences where people back away from you because they’re afraid?
MIKKELSEN: Well, I haven’t seen it, but they might have done it without me noticing. I don’t think so. Maybe in the ‘60s and ‘70s, people had a harder time knowing the difference between a character and real life. Today, it’s not the same. People will come up to you and say something about the character, that either they enjoyed it or hated it. But, I think those days are gone where people think you’re the character, unless you’re dealing with people who are a little weird.
One of the reasons the show is so great is because it’s only 13 episodes, so there is no room for filler. Was that part of the appeal for you, as an actor, or would you have been game for a longer season?
MIKKELSEN: No, I don’t think I would have been game for a longer season. I think we work hard enough, as it is. We wanted it to be a beautiful show. We wanted the style to be a part of it. We wanted the camera to be one of the actors and help us, so that we’re not standing in an empty room and making all the magic. There is something very poetic and beautiful about the show. Even on the murder plateaus, it’s lifted into the beauty of Hannibal’s vision. Without that, it wouldn’t have been interesting, at all. There’s a very big helping hand for us.
Will you go to Comic-Con this year?
MIKKELSEN: I would love to. Depending on my schedule, I would love to go. I was there years ago with James Bond, and it was super fun. It’s fantastic to meet all of these people who have very different interests, but they’re all there together. They have fantastic, interesting questions. I really enjoyed it.
At this point in your career, what attracts you to a project and what gets you to turn down a project?
MIKKELSEN: It always ends with the script and the director, in my world. Michael Kohlhaas was one of the stranger projects, in the sense that I was intrigued, but I wasn’t sure if I understood or grasped the whole thing. And I was also intrigued by the [director]. Both him and the script were extremely radical things, so that was one reason to say yes. It’s always how my communication is with the director. Even though he didn’t necessarily buy any of my ideas, I had a feeling that I could work with him and communicate with him. I need that, always. If I turn something down, that would be a reason. Also, I’ll turn something down if I don’t find the script interesting, at all.
MIKKELSEN: Yeah, I think so. I’ve never felt dissatisfied. When I started, I started out really lucky. I was lucky enough to be a part of the wave in Denmark where we did quite radical things, and I enjoyed it because my dream was not just to be working, but to do something that I admired myself, that I’d seen abroad and that I’d seen in America. We hadn’t done that, at all, in Denmark, at that time, and then I was suddenly a part of that. So, I’ve always felt satisfied. Obviously, now it’s just changing with working abroad, in Europe and back home in Denmark. I’m still satisfied. I don’t necessarily have a goal for where I want to go. If I can continue working with interesting people like this, my career will go somewhere. I don’t know where, but it will go somewhere. But if I’m focused on my career, I will miss out on all the opportunities I’m actually enjoying so tremendously.
Age of Uprising: The Legend of Michael Kohlhaas is in theaters and on VOD on May 30th.