Mads Mikkelsen, the biggest ‘foreign language’ star in TV and film right now, is looking a little dishevelled as he arrives to talk to The Red Bulletin. Mikkelsen, 48, best actor at the Cannes Film Festival two years ago and current star of Hannibal, hasn’t shaved and his shirt is tucked untidily into his jeans. But he’s wide awake and in excellent spirits. “Before I begin, I should perhaps warn you,” he says. “We Danes are very good at laughing at ourselves. There’s a wicked sense of humour hidden behind everything we say.”
THE RED BULLETIN: You’ve played a Bond villain, Norse and Greek men of action and now Dr Hannibal Lecter. Why such extreme characters?
MADS MIKKELSEN: The answer is very simple: my life is boring, so a script has to move me. It has to be dramatic, exciting, crazy even. I need that counterpoint. Comedies, for example, I don’t really do at all. Unless they’re really nuts. Hannibal, the third season of which you’re currently filming, certainly isn’t played for laughs.
Did you have any qualms about playing one of the most notorious fictional criminals?
Not once I’d met Bryan Fuller, the show’s creator. He wanted to tell me the story in 10 minutes; he was still talking two hours later. He raved about Hannibal in the way a person would about a love affair. It was clear to me after we spoke that I definitely wanted to work with such a crazy guy.
How deeply did you research the role of a cannibal?
Hahaha, you mean, did I…… well, not take it to its ultimate conclusion, obviously, but how far? Apart from his eating habits, he’s a classic psychopath. Hannibal Lecter is no one-dimensional beast. Don’t make the mistake of trying to whittle him down. He loves art, music, good food, languages – and he also loves to kill. It’s a passion of his. There’s even a certain, erm, love about it. And I try to express that too… does what I’ve just said sound too crazy?
Depends on your definition of crazy.
Well, he’s one of the most terrible monsters we’ve ever come across. But aside from his cruelty, there’s a lot that we can learn from Hannibal. That life on the verge of death is more interesting, for example. Because it makes us realise that we should make the most of life every day. Hannibal has no time for niceties, either. He refuses to waste time on stupid people. There’s something to be said for that sort of attitude. And personally I’m absolutely fascinated by his incredible self-confidence.
Because I’m not a confident person. I’m unsure of myself every time I try something new, every time I work. That feeling of insecurity is my constant companion. Insecurity could be helpful when you have to play fearful, distraught, doubting characters, but sometimes you play the hero.
How can you be insecure and play the hero?
I have to forget my insecurity. I know, I know: it’s easier said than done. What I try to do is get into a sort of flow when I’m acting. At that point I’m not thinking, I’m just being. If I start thinking about it, if I become aware of what I’m doing, it will have a negative effect. I have to redo the shot as soon as I realise that that’s happening.
What if the director is happy with your work?
Sorry, but there are no exceptions when this happens. I always insist on redoing the take because I know that it wasn’t good. I just know, you see? Regardless of whether or not the director is happy.
Do you think you need to be a bit of a loner to succeed as an actor?
In a certain way our job is both very social and very anti-social. When we’re working, we’re surrounded by people non-stop. We wouldn’t be able to do the job at all if that weren’t the case. At the same time, as an actor, you’re going through a process that’s exclusive to you. You have to find and explore another life inside of yourself. You have to be completely alone for that, and you have to be able to do it regardless of how many people there are around you. You have to learn how to do that. There is something enormously inspiring in learning to follow solely your own thoughts and to listen solely to the music inside you.
How do you learn to do that? Inner maturity? Years of meditation?
Cycling. I cycle every day, if I’m alone for an hour or two; longer if there’s a group of us. Cycling is my drug. Ask any marathon runner or triathlete. We all know that feeling. When you’re sitting on your bike, almost spitting blood, your brain starts producing endorphins. They’re wonderful little things. You get addicted to them. I become frantic if I can’t cycle for a couple of days.
So you are, in a way, a drug addict?
Ha! To a certain degree, yes. Of course there are times when you’re just weak from exhaustion and get the flu. That’s a bad trip, if you want to put it in those terms. But normally you just end up with this great rush of adrenalin. Some people need danger to get the same kick and climb mountains. I’m not at all interested in that sort of thing. What I’m keen to do is to push myself to the limit, to the point where there’s really nothing left, where I just can’t do any more. That’s what fulfils me.
What exactly is it that fulfils you?
I’ve thought about that, about what it is exactly, but I don’t know. Honestly, I don’t. Actually, I’m probably just addicted to sport. When I’m not on my bike, then I’m playing some sort of ball game – football, handball, tennis. When I do take a break, I watch sport on TV.
What’s the most memorable bike ride you’ve ever been on?
One time when I was on a bike in LA. A friend of mine had two racing bikes and challenged me to a race. I hadn’t ridden for a while at that point, but I wasn’t worried because I’m in pretty good shape normally. Next thing, we’re off: up and down the hills around Los Angeles. It was awful, I thought I was going to die. I didn’t have a hope of beating him, which was so incredibly frustrating. After the race I said to myself that I wasn’t going to put up with that again. So I bought myself a racing bike, trained on it, came back and gave him hell. It was huge fun, let me tell you.
Do you regularly hold private races on public roads around Los Angeles against your friends?
It’s not an everyday occurrence. But that time I really wanted to make amends. I just couldn’t take it.
You do know it’s illegal to race on the streets?
You’re right, of course. And it was dangerous, I have to admit. In the middle of the streets of LA there are these huge drain grates for rainwater. They’re too big to cycle over. Your tyres can get stuck in them – that could have nasty consequences even if you weren’t travelling at 50kph. I found myself hurtling towards one of those grates doing around 50kph. I saw it too late to avoid it. I knew I was either going to have a major crash or just leap over it. Thankfully, I made the jump. The grate just caught a tiny part of my rear wheel. Things were pretty close that time.
Maybe you have a guardian angel watching over you?
I am not at all religious. You can’t get anyone less religious than me. Sure, it would be nice if there were some kind higher being, but until we are more certain on that score, we’d be better off taking charge of our own lives. Our actions, our responsibility. I prefer to think of it that way.
Did you get a kick out of your near miss?
No, I was unnerved and frightened by it. As I said earlier, I’m not interested in danger.
But you also said earlier that life was more interesting on the verge of death.
Which doesn’t mean that you should risk it carelessly.
You say that while smoking a cigarette.
One-nil to you. I have tried to stop, but it hasn’t worked out.
Just think of all the people you could give hell to on a bike if you had clearer lungs.
You’re right. If I stopped smoking, I really would be able to go faster. Maybe I’ll manage to stop if I look at it that way.