Marrakech: Danish acting legend Mads Mikkelsen, who’s the go-to guy for Hollywood to play the ultimate baddie in blockbusters like James Bond, Star Wars, and Indiana Jones, believes he’s armed with a secret weapon: “his funny accent”.
“It’s quite simple. It’s the funny accent. It’s as simple as that. It used to be Germans, then it was Brits, then the Russians, and for some reason they fell in love with the Danish accent. That’s definitely part of it,” said Mikkelsen at a masterclass at the on-going Marrakech International Film Festival. A day earlier, this self-described “niche bad guy” had just received the Lifetime Achievement honour at the festival.
Mikkelsen, who broke into movies in 1996 as a drug dealer in ‘Pusher’, is one of the biggest cultural exports out of Europe. His turn in popular franchises such as the putrid villain in Casino Royale and playing Hannibal Lecter in the NBC series Hannibal proved that he pulls his weight in any film.
“But in Denmark we don’t divide it into bad guys and good guys. We tend to look at more complex characters … I have been lucky enough to do different villains in different universes,” he added. After the masterclass, Gulf News sat down with the lanky and suave hero for a roundtable interview and covered a lot of ground … Here’s his take on his craft, his love for Bruce Lee, and more ...
Playing villains in Hollywood blockbusters like the ‘James Bond’ franchise:
“It doesn’t matter to me if a role is good or bad. We actors tend to find something flawed in good guys and we tend to find something good in the bad guys we play … Characters don’t walk around like [good or bad] … In my head, it often starts with something I recognize in a character in myself too. It may be a little part, but I make it bigger … I just can never put my morals into the characters I play.”
His method behind choosing roles:
“First of all, I am not getting offered everything in the world, so I don’t say ‘no’ constantly. But I turn down offers if I don’t find it interesting or if I cannot communicate with the director. Sometimes, a director couldn’t persuade me that his project was interesting either. I say ‘yes’ based on the script and it’s got to check something in my head. It doesn’t have to do entirely with my character, but the story must be something I find interesting to watch. The next step is based on if I can communicate with my director. We may not agree with his version, but we need to communicate.”
Harbouring any fear of being cancelled out if playing toxic roles:
“No, I have no fear whatsoever. I play characters that are constantly doing a lot of mistakes, but that’s the drama of the film. The drama is all in the mistakes we make like the time when we should have gone left, but we went right. As actors our job is to bring that to light. And if I ever start thinking of whether people are going to hate the character that I play, then I am finished. I don’t care if they all hate the character, because it’s a story that we are telling. If you go down the path of being fearful of being hated, then you should just quit acting.”
Being stereotyped in Hollywood as this foreign, niche bad guy:
“Something has happened in America where this whole range of mid-range films are not being done any more like the early Martin Scorsese films. They are simply not being done anymore. Either they are doing very small independent films or the very big ones and that can potentially be a disaster for American films. As far as being stereotyped goes, I get respect from all the directors because I have always worked with people who have an idea … I don’t think of Hollywood as this big machine. I can only work with people I relate to.”
Making a mark in Hollywood as a European talent:
“When I do Hollywood films, I often can be in the shadow of big stars like Harrison Ford. But back home, it’s a little different. We did a casting for ‘Promised Land’, and I realized that the other characters were nervous because of me. They were far younger and so my job was to break the ice by having a couple of [beverages] with them and prove to them that I am just another human being.”
His unending fascination with Bruce Lee:
“We were all fascinated with Bruce Lee when we were growing up. He was just so cool and elegant in the most sublime manner. He was a God in martial arts, but his face was so interesting. The camera would rest on him, and he had something always interesting going on with his face. He had that minimalist actor inside of him as well that I found so fascinating.”
Learning from his characters and directors:
“I learn from my directors, but not characters as much. As actors, we have to be smarter than our characters because we are the ones who are seeing their flaws and mistakes. I may not be as smart as Einstein, if I played him, but I must see something that he didn’t see in himself for me to give that edge as an actor. I may learn how to play a piano or a ride horse when it comes to my characters, but I don’t know learn about humanity from them.”
His childhood in Denmark:
“Contrary to popular belief, I was not a dancer as a kid … I lived in a working-class neighborhood and I did tons of jobs and different sports. I was majorly into climbing stuff. I grew up in a neighborhood filled with working class houses, flats, backyards, and cemeteries. But it was all just a fairy tale. I found it incredibly adventurous to climb trees and other stuff. My parents often looked out of their window wondering what I was up to next. It was all an adventure.”
Playing a dark and complex character like ‘Hannibal’”
“I will impact my character but will never let it impact me and that’s my philosophy. My work may impact me and I may have a good day or bad day or be in a certain emotional state for a long time. It may impact me for a little while, but my process is not about persuading my kids to call me Hannibal because that’s extreme. I looked at Hannibal as a fallen angel who see beauty where the rest of us see horror … What he thinks beautiful is not what we think is beautiful. So in my head, I will swap that image of him eating someone with another image that I find appealing so that I can bring out the honesty in that emotion. I never go down this path where I try to figure out why he loves to kill people. You don’t have to go there.”
Working with the same directors again and again:
“There’s always a risk of getting lazy because you know each other too well … But we avoid that bump, we have an opportunity to push each other to a place that we wouldn’t have gone with anyone else or to a risky place. But if we see ourselves becoming too lazy, we should call it quits … Personally, I like working with people that I trust to go that extra little step.”