Mads Mikkelsen
Photo by Thomas Laisné

Mads Mikkelsen: “That’s how we defined it”

Short Profile

Name: Mads Dittmann Mikkelsen
DOB: 22 November 1965
Place of birth: Østerbro, Denmark
Occupation: Actor

Mr. Mikkelsen, how often can you recognize when you’ve just done a really amazing performance as an actor?

Our self-awareness as actors is pretty missing in that way! There are plenty of times where I thought, “That was something…” And then nobody thought that was anything. (Laughs) And then there's other times where I said, “Oh, I don't know about that.” And everybody loves it! So it's not that easy. For example, you remember the dancing scene in Another Round? I was firmly against this.

How come? You were uncomfortable?

Actually, I used to be a little gymnast, so that was handy! I was fairly good. Lars Ranthe, who was also in the dancing scene in Another Round, we both used to do gymnastics, so were able to really run around and do some crazy stuff! But I was arguing with Thomas Vintenberg, the film’s director, day in and day out: “Why are we doing this? This is insane. We cannot have this in a realistic film.” And he just kept saying, “Man, I’ve tried to explain it to you 150 different ways, can you just shut up?”

“If we’re going in the wrong direction, I will insist: we have to go this way, because if not, we’re just serving the crowd, and we want to serve the character.”

And that became one of the most beloved scenes in the entire film.

Yes, he was absolutely right! But my thinking head could not get around how we could squeeze that into a realistic film… And now, when my thinking head is gone, I know it was insane that I ever said, I didn't want to do that. So sometimes it's like that, it’s easier to see it afterwards.

And what about the opposite? Do you know if something in a scene isn’t quite right?

Well, I think, as is so often the case, my weakness is my strength! So your Achilles heel is your strong point! I am very stubborn, so if I do believe that we're going in the wrong direction, I will insist: we have to go this way, because if not, we're just serving the crowd, and we want to serve the character. And I'm often right — although sometimes I’m wrong.

How do you strike a balance between listening to your gut and trusting in your director?

It’s this balance: do you strangle it, or do you let go a little? I think commitment should go all the way, but never to the degree where you become blind. It is a fine balance, and somebody has to go pull on your shoulder sometimes, but I do believe commitment has to be like that; on the behalf of the project — unlike on behalf of your career, where I think your commitment should be non-existent. This is exactly what's wrong with the character I played recently in The Promised Land, which is a period piece. The story takes place during the 1700s, when King Frederik V is attempting to cultivate and colonize an unforgiving area of Denmark. My character is a soldier taking orders from the king, he only has the goal in mind, so everything else is just stepping stones that don’t matter in his life. But I think if you make those stepping stones the most important things in your life, you’ll get to that goal eventually. That's how I see it.

Have you ever had to make similar kinds of tough choices in your career as an actor? It must be hard, for example, to leave your family at home to go on set for days or weeks at a time…

Definitely! But I can also bring my family with me occasionally, that makes things more interesting and fun. I speak with my wife and if she likes it and I like it, there’s a chance we can do something. Of course, there are also times when I’m going out the door in the morning and I’d rather stay home with my kids. But you’ve got to eat! The good thing is that unlike my character in The Promised Land, I’m not going to starve!

“I understand we need to link certain emotions to our life... But we have to respect the times we’re dealing with, and we have to be faithful.”

How is it for you to work on a film that is so steeped in history? To what extent do you do your own research, or do you rely on the script alone?

Well, a lot of it is already nailed down, but I'm a history freak so, for example, I was the one who said to Nikolaj Arcel, the director, that although we needed this scene with the kiss in order to have something we relate to in 2023… Nobody really kissed each other until the 1880s. It was not a thing. It was a romantic thing that came later with poetry and novels. I understand we need to link certain emotions to our life, so I did compromise with that. But I also said that if we keep doing that, we’ll end up with a 2023 film. We have to respect the times we're dealing with, and we have to be faithful, to a certain degree.

This was also an important chapter in Danish history, no?

This is an enormous chapter — but it's unsung. Nikolaj and I also collaborated on A Royal Affair, another Danish history film, and the events of that film most people know about. This one is really like, “What? Did that really happen?” There are many reasons for that, I think there must have been some shame in how they were treating each other at the time, so people writing history wanted to skip that chapter.

It seems like these days, the Danish filmmaking scene is a very close-knit community; many of the same actors, directors, and screenwriters are often working together. Is there a new generation coming up?

Sure, sure. I’m not really involved in that, they have their own community — and they want to kick us out! They want to create their own thing, and that’s the way it should be. It has to be their thing, they have to find themselves. And then in a few years, they might pick up the phone and say, “Ah, he wasn't so shabby, let's call him.” (Laughs) We did the same. We had this group and this group, and they hated each other. That’s crap, this is good. That's how we defined it. And then when we grew up, it was like, “Oh, it wasn't that bad.” So that's how it is: define yourself, and then once you've done that, then you can grow as well.