“It is brilliant,” he says.
This is the nature of our conversation.
We’d met a couple hours before, at Mack Sennett Studios down the street. There was something very natural about the 48-year-old Danish actor, even as he stood posing before the cameras, flanked by smoke machines. I paced in the shadows, behind the assistants (one of whom explaining to another that she had to piss so badly on the commute that she pulled over and squatted right there, “in the goddamn bicycle lane”) and stylists and the monitors applying backgrounds and filters and effects. I watched Mikkelsen walk back and forth, patiently directed, cracking the occasional joke. He’s handsome and regal, I thought, even though, back in 2011, while friend and fellow actor Stellan Skarsgård was accepting the award for European Achievement in World Cinema on Mikkelsen’s behalf, he playfully remarked, “I don’t admire you for your looks, because you’re not good-looking. You have an ‘interesting face.’” But this interesting face sports the kind of physical aerodynamics made for currency, royalty, the pages of history books.
(On being voted Sexiest Man Alive in Denmark multiple times, he tells me, over lunch, “In little Denmark, yes. Everybody who’s on television becomes the Sexiest Man Alive eventually. It doesn’t matter if you’re doing the weather report. I did prefer to be the Sexiest Man Alive than the Ugliest Man Alive.”)
I expected to be nervous, tense, fidgety as a dreaming dog. I mean, in 2010 Her Majesty Queen Margrethe II of Denmark knighted the guy. But, between outfit changes, when Mikkelsen joined me reclining on a loveseat backstage and we discussed ice hockey at Sochi, we were just two guys on a loveseat, discussing ice hockey at Sochi. I mentioned that the fate of the U.S. Women’s Team drove me to drink. He laughed.
Afterwards, while standing out back waiting for his driver, Jesús, I fixed his shirt collar and bummed a cigarette.
At the Mexican joint, finally (trying to get my phone’s map to calibrate on the drive over, I’d steered poor Jesús in about six different directions), we take a seat near the back. It’s quiet and dimly lit, like all those sanctified watering holes up in the widespread wilds of Northern Michigan, the deeps of Montana’s Big Belt Mountains, somewhere in the Yukon, pubs for the unpretentious man and woman, those grizzled ambassadors of the working class. But this is Silver Lake, after all, and the guy in the corner with the waxed mustache is wearing a Mickey Mouse hat and a monocle.
Mads orders a Coke, I order a beer. Then Mads orders a beer.
“Before you started your career as an actor,” I say, “you were in dance. Tell me a little about that.”
“Well, I was a dancer out of coincidence, a little like I became an actor out of coincidence. I was a gymnast as a kid, and there was a choreographer who went out and saw us and asked if we wanted to be part of this musical—they needed somebody in the background to do jumps and flips and shit. And then she asked me later on if I wanted to learn the craft of dancing. So, I did the math: there were a lot of really hot chicks, and not a lot of boys around. I stayed with that for a while, eight or nine years.”
“Did any of the skills you learned in dance overlap into acting?”
Our food arrives. Mikkelsen thanks the waiter before answering: “I’m not super conscious about it, but obviously I have an awareness of myself physically. Any character has a kind of energy—he’s either fast or slow, or he’s light—and I think, subconsciously, I’m using some of that stuff without really putting a finger on it. One thing I have learned that is a virtue among dancers is discipline.”
“Are you something of a perfectionist?”
“I’m not a perfectionist in the sense that I’m anal about anything. But I do insist on getting some answers if I have some questions. Most people find that nice to work with, but—” he laughs to himself, “—but I can be very insisting, like, this is not fucking working and let’s try something else, you know?”
“I can be that way with my writing. If it goes through an edit and somebody moves a comma, I freak out.”
Mads Mikkelsen laughs, a deliberate response, that interesting face softened. And trying to describe this face would be like trying to describe the sky or the amorphous play of water over a stone. His inkdrop eyes could easily be misconstrued as vehement or even sad. They seem to hold in them a certain indelible logic, a set of axioms left there by circumstance, like a scar. It’s refreshing that the guy’s kind of a goofball.
That’s the indescribable self-revelation great actors possess, this intrinsic something that makes their characters seem malicious (as Le Chiffre, the terrorist who kidnaps James Bond and proceeds to torture him by repeatedly whipping his balls with a roped carpetbeater in 2006’s Casino Royale), abysmal (as One Eye, the mute Norse warrior who disembowels his enemies in 2009’s Valhalla Rising), or vulnerable (as Lucas, the lonely kindergarten teacher falsely accused of child rape in 2012’s The Hunt). Because these characters are representations of us all, and each one of us is a grid of selves, a messy flux of psychic debris. Great actors have the chops to dig through that debris and reflect what, essentially, makes us human.
One such reflection, however fun-housed, comes in the form of Mikkelsen’s portrayal as Dr. Hannibal Lector on NBC’s eponymous series.
“Let’s talk about Hannibal,” I say.
Mikkelsen points at my beer, which is almost finished. “You’re fast.”
“My first one always goes fast.”
“It’s my second one that always goes fast,” he says. “And my third.”
“You like whiskey?”
“No,” he says. “Stuff tastes like fucking deodorant!”
“How’s your taco?”
“It’s good, good,” he tells me, and then, getting back to brass tacks: “With Hannibal, we’re dealing with a man who, out of necessity, is trying to make friends, trying to behave as normal as he can, even though he’s, you know, three-piece suit, art collector. A couple of bells are ringing, you know? He’s exotic. He has a funny accent. But I think he’s a very honest man. He’s emotional, he’s got empathy. But the difference between him and the Graham character (played by Hugh Dancy), obviously, is that he’s in charge, he’s in control. I decide when I’m happy. I decide when I’m sad.”
“Is it difficult to play such a calculated role?”
“It’s a decision when he blinks, when he becomes human,” Mikkelsen says, thankfully reverting to third person. “He has no master plan. It’s a decision in the situation that this is the side he wants to show, a benefit from doing this as opposed to doing that. I mean, it’s always a challenge to play any character, but I think there’s a beautiful simplicity in it. I think he can be as honest as you or I, but in some situations he’ll react completely different from anybody else. He decides when to show what. And that’s his whole circus.”
“Is the goal to humanize this person?”
“‘Humanize’ is a big word for a cannibal,” he says.
Hannibal, then, exists as an observer, “the Fallen Angel,” as Mads puts it, who “sees beauty in horror.”
“His interest lies with Will Graham. He finds him interesting, he’s intrigued. His mission is to become close to him and become friends. And hopefully, one day, show him the light. That would be beautiful.”
“Or he could eat him.”
“Obviously,” he says. “I could eat anyone.”
The meal is finished. We head outside to have a cigarette, where Jesús is waiting to take Mads Mikkelsen across town, to another engagement, something in regards to the Oscars that weekend. And it strikes me, finally, that I’m having a cigarette with a movie star, a knight, the Sexiest Man Alive. You forget, though, that he inhabits a region filled with media attention and public pandemonium, of incessant jet lag and life in hotels.
“You know Ray Winstone?” Mads says. “Very Cockney accent. We were shooting King Arthur [in Ireland], and then we rented a car and we were outside Ballymena. And Ray couldn’t fucking find his way, and we got lost in this village. He rolls down his window, and there’s this old man, and Ray says, in his heavy Cockney accent, ‘Oy, mate, mate. What’s the fastest way to Rockland?’ And the old man just looks at him and says, ‘Are you going by car, sir?’ Ray’s like, ‘Yeah.’ And the old man says, ‘That would be the fastest way, then.’”
We both laugh.
“That reminds me of another story,” I say. “Back home in Michigan, there was this old Finlander sitting on a bench outside a café. This fancy car pulls up with Illinois plates, and the driver rolls down his window and says, ‘Can I take this road all the way to the next town?’ And the old man looks up and says, ‘I don’t give a shit.’”
Again, we laugh, deliberate responses, each choosing to show a particular side to the other at this particular time and place. And here, standing on a sidewalk in Silver Lake, we’re just a couple of guys, standing on a sidewalk in Silver Lake, discussing two other guys at another time and place, guys who don’t give a shit.
Photographer: Carlos Serrao for beautyandphoto.com. Stylist: Vanessa Geldbach for eamgmt.com. Groomer: Joanna Pensinger for eamgmt.com using Oribe and Tom Ford grooming. Set Designer: George Segal. Videographer: Monica May. Location: Mack Sennett Studios at macksennettstudios.net. Photography Assistants: Ron Loepp, Simon McDermott-Johnson, and Roger Pittard.
Grooming Notes: Skin revitalizing concentrate and bronzing gel by Tom Ford. Dry texturizing spray and Fiber Groom elastic texture paste by Oribe and strong hold control balm by V76.