Mads Mikkelsen is as bad as he wants to be

The Danish acting legend, now starring in Indiana Jones 5, has made a blockbuster career for himself conjuring empathy for unsympathetic characters
Mads Mikkelsen

“Would you like to see me smoke a cigarette outside?” Mads Mikkelsen says abruptly, mid-sentence. I have actually already seen the Danish actor smoking, though never in real life: paparazzi photos of him enjoying cigarettes are particularly popular among his fans and, since he smokes a lot and is typically required to do so outside, particularly numerous. Entire galleries of Mads Mikkelsen smoking exist online. “Wouldn’t that be interesting?” he says, laughing.

We’re midway through lunch on the covered patio of the restaurant at the Chateau Marmont in Los Angeles when Mikkelsen abandons his carpaccio and guacamole and moves fluidly to the back of the space, where a heavy curtain serves as a wall. He gathers it in his hands as if feeling out a secret passage, until a narrow opening appears. He slides through, into a small secret antechamber with a mesh ceiling, crowded with French bistro-looking benches, chairs, and small tables with ashtrays and matchbooks on them. He sits on one of the benches and leans forward, sliding a cigarette out of a pack that I don’t recognise but which I easily identify as European because it is covered in dire warnings.

Mikkelsen, 57, is wearing daddyish sneakers, maroon joggers, and two zip-ups, one navy and one a mouldy green. He is dressed as if for a long flight. His features, however, mark him as a someone; the diners who don’t immediately recognise him as he sashays by still look at him a little too long.

When I lament the ageing effects of cigarettes, Mikkelsen – who in spite of sucking down cigarettes since the ’80s, has the ruddy cheeks of a milkmaid – tells me that one of the most successful anti-smoking campaigns in Denmark involved an apple with saggy skin: “They didn’t mind dying brutally, but just getting the skin a little older, that makes them sweat!” He would love to quit, he says, but he is “stuck.”

It’s not merely the act of smoking that makes him look cool doing it; it’s that there’s nothing utilitarian about it. Mads Mikkelsen smokes cinematically, his chin lifted and cocked to one side. The way his skin stretches over his cheekbones makes every inhale look well-composed. As an American and terminal dork, I would look like I’m sipping from a sippy cup.

After a luxurious inhale, he continues a thought about acting that he was halfway through at the table. “The whole idea of the main character is that we will learn bit by bit why the person is how the person is, and that’s not the case with the other characters – the sidekick, or the bad guy,” he says. “The camera is not telling my story. It is not going to bed with me and waking up with me the next day.” He explains that he doesn’t change his approach when he’s playing a non-lead character, but he does have to be aware that he doesn’t have the scaffolding of, say, a long intimate close-up – Timothée Chalamet staring into a hearth for like an hour at the end of Call Me By Your Name – to convey the depth of his character to the audience.

Mikkelsen has been a leading man, often – just not in the United States, where his most notable roles have been as villains. In 2006’s Casino Royale he played Le Chiffre, a spy who cries blood (the blood tears were made digitally, he says; other strategies they tried burned his corneas) and since then he has starred in the series Hannibal, played an evil wizard in Fantastic Beasts: The Secrets of Dumbledore, and appeared as a villainous accountant in the music video for Rihanna’s “Bitch Better Have My Money.” This month, you can catch him as a Nazi scientist named Jürgen Voller in a little multi-generational romp called Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny. (Director James Mangold fondly recalls Mikkelsen drinking coffee and smoking in an alley when they were shooting, often in full regalia.)

Denmark, Mikkelsen explains, does not have “villains” in the same way America does. The characters he plays in Danish films are often civilians in extreme situations, as in director Thomas Vinterberg’s films The Hunt and Another Round, in which, respectively, he plays one teacher accused of sexually assaulting a child and another who loses himself in an experiment with constant inebriation.

Mikkelsen’s skill is in conjuring empathy for unsympathetic characters. This makes him a gutting protagonist and a compelling antagonist. There are moments in Indiana Jones when audiences might catch themselves stressing on behalf of Voller… before remembering that he’s a Nazi. “Mads inhabits whatever character he plays with a hundred per cent commitment to their perspective,” Mangold tells me in an email, “This takes a certain kind of artistic bravery, a fearlessness that Mads possesses. In all honesty, I think he has been offered the roles of ‘villains’ in movies simply because he is so fearless about taking them on and humanising them.”

His approach feels un-American, in a good way. Where American blockbusters, by and large, love to blast a gorge between good guys and bad guys, Danish films are often more ambiguous. Movies about the Second World War of course depict Nazis, Mikkelsen says, but generally in a hyper-realistic way, and not as wild megalomaniacs. Denmark does have its “rough guys,” he adds – its Marlon Brandos and James Deans – but those roles don’t interest him as much as truer-to-life characters.

“To combine it – to do something real and also be a cutie pie – I don’t really find it interesting,” he says; he could have done it with his breakout role as a drug dealer named Tonny in Danish director Nicolas Winding Refn’s Pusher, but he felt that to do so would have made the character less riveting and less believable. Instead, Mikkelsen made him “an idiot” whose loser traits are at first annoying, then heartbreaking: “I’m not into the ‘hair falling in your eyes, be cute in a corner.’ Not me. The losers are fun. Because we know them. You might have been in that situation yourself sometimes.”

Hollywood has cast Mikkelsen as someone smooth and sinister. Maybe we’re missing out.

A man wearing thick black glasses and a black bowling jacket with “New York Film Academy” embroidered on its front bursts through the curtains into the smoking corner and unsubtly side-eyes Mikkelsen. A woman with curly hair slides in after him. Mikkelsen has by now finished his second cigarette, so we return to the table, followed by diners’ furtive eyes.

I ask him whether he is aware that he is a niche heartthrob in America. “Hahtthrob?” he says with a sly grin, looking down at the table. “No, I did not know. I am a niche bad guy. I didn’t know there was that part also.”

He claims he has experienced loserdom firsthand. He was very small as a teenager, which must have been especially formative in a country where everyone seems to be one storey high. He is six feet tall now, but that didn’t happen until he stopped practising gymnastics for hours every day at 17. He was also the youngest in his class. “I wouldn’t characterise myself as ‘cool,’” he says. “There would always be a guy who was wearing a tie or something that the girls were looking at with eyes like this.”

He goes doe-eyed. “And I would be jumping up and down over here to get some attention and it never worked.” The guy wore a yellow tie, he specifies. “I still hate him.”

Now even his two kids respect him, or at least they did for a little while after he appeared alongside Rihanna in “Bitch Better Have My Money.” “She had seen me in something – something Danish, I remember,” Mikkelsen says. “I got a phone call asking if I wanted to be part of that, and it was fun and insane.” He doesn’t have to jump up and down to get attention any more; all he has to do is light a cigarette.

As it happens, he is excellent at jumping. After he left gymnastics, he gracefully pivoted into a nearly decade-long career as a dancer, studying at the Martha Graham School in New York and Balettakademien in Sweden. (His wife, Hanne Jacobsen, is a former choreographer and dancer as well.) But he was less drawn to the aesthetics of dance – the perfect positioning, the body moving beautifully for the sake of moving beautifully – than he was to the dramatic elements: the yearning on a dancer’s face, the angry energy behind a leap.

He loved the rare moments when dance gave him an opportunity to act out a story. “Five people doing the same thing, and everyone having their hands there, like bling bling bling bling bling” – he waves his hands just so – “that was fun. It was like being in a band, because we did it together and it had a certain energy. But it was much more fun to dance as a Jet in West Side Story, where there was a fight and it was hidden within a dance, and we could use some acting energy. I found that much more interesting.” Mikkelsen dances wildly and drunkenly on a pier at the end of Thomas Vinterberg’s Another Round, and it’s easy to imagine him frustrated by more rigid choreography.

He still keeps himself “in a favoured shape” – but otherwise he left dance behind when he went to drama school. In his early thirties, he entered a Danish film scene that was being revitalised by directors like Vinterberg, who co-founded the edgy Dogme 95 movement with Lars von Trier in the ’90s, and Refn, who directed Mikkelsen in Pusher.

The country’s actors were split into gangs, he says, each one helmed by a different director. Mikkelsen was then in the House of Refn; his friend Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, Game of Thrones’s incest daddy, broke out in Ole Bornedal’s Nightwatch in 1994. Mikkelsen says “gangs” a little facetiously, but the divides among the cliques were well-defined enough that he didn’t work with Vinterberg, for instance, until relatively late in his career. He demonstrates the cold, formal passing greetings he and Vinterberg would give each other in the ’90s. “And then eventually we got a little more mature, and we were like, ‘You know, I kind of like that film he did. It didn’t suck as much as we said.’”

By the time Vinterberg presented Mikkelsen with the script for The Hunt, released in 2012, allegiances had softened. “I think it was just a way you could find yourself. Everybody wanted to find themselves, and the best way to do that was to be very radical: ‘We’re doing it this way.’ And fair enough. It created some independent ideas, and independent styles of making films.”

For those most familiar with Mikkelsen as a tight-lipped villain, his more expressive Danish characters – the viscerally lonely Lucas in The Hunt, or jumpy Tonny in Pusher – may be jarring, as when a reticent colleague reveals an entirely different personality at happy hour. In person, too, he is freer with his expressions and movements. He laughs often, each time revealing canines as sharp and prominent as his cheekbones.

In his villain roles, though, he tends to emote very subtly, rarely opening his mouth wider than a slit. These characters’ sinister composure makes the moments in which they unravel even more disorientating. At several points in Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny, his character is ruffled by miscalculations. Mikkelsen’s hair, coiffed into a shellacked schoolboy swoop for much of the film, comes undone. His face reddens. His movements and words have a manic staccato. Each of these sudden displays of emotion is like a splash in a still, dark pond, leaving audiences wondering what eel extravaganza is happening beneath the surface.

The man in the bowling jacket, with a mystifying disregard for the unspoken code of the Chateau – do not talk to celebrities – approaches the table. He apologises at length for interrupting, but continues to interrupt. “Viggo, right?” he says to Mikkelsen, confusing him for another actor of Danish descent.

“Yes,” Mikkelsen says, apparently trying to end the moment as quickly as possible. But the man keeps going: “Can you do a straight American accent?”

Mikkelsen says he cannot, and then clarifies for the man that he is not Viggo Mortensen. “My name is Mads, Mads Mikkelsen.”

The man feigns recognition, and Mikkelsen gamely tries to shepherd him back to safer chit-chat, asking him about his accent (Scottish). The man rejects the rescue. He says he has a film that Mikkelsen – or Mortensen – would be perfect for. When he makes his exit, an awkward moment of silence follows.

Mikkelsen says he is mistaken for his doppelDaner (even though Mortensen is technically American) with some regularity, including one memorable occasion when paparazzi saw him leaving a hotel he was staying at during the Toronto International Film Festival. “I was a little famous at that point, but not that they would necessarily recognise me,” he recalls. One photographer saw him, then the others, and suddenly the clicks of cameras rose around him like cicadas. “Viggo, Viggo!” they called out to him; the next day, several publications misidentified him in their photos.

He later ran into Mortensen at another festival, and told him about the incident. Mortensen, he recalls, did not believe him. “And then we went in on the red carpet, me first and then him after. And they all shouted ‘Viggo’ at me. And he was right behind me! It was so fucking immaculate,” he says.

Mortensen lived in Denmark briefly but left before Danish cinema hit its renaissance, Mikkelsen explains, and then he landed Lord of the Rings. “He was a movie star before the rest of us started doing interesting things in Denmark. And he’s slightly older than me.” He points at my notebook. “Put that down.”

He would be pleased if the sort of roles that come his way in Denmark – or the sort of American roles that come to Mortensen and Coster-Waldau, whom Mikkelsen remembers militantly practising English and American accents by reading aloud from newspapers – were offered to him as well. But in Hollywood, he observes, the leading men and women of blockbusters still tend to be very all-American – “which I’m not.” If you’re not Harrison Ford, you’re a character actor.

An American accent doesn’t come easily to him, either, and he worries that it would be distracting if he put one on. Except for leaning British in Hannibal – not “full British,” but enough to give his character a spooky over-educated lilt – he does not typically diverge from his Danish accent.

He could surely deliver an unaccented yeehaw if he felt called to do so; he could easily shape-shift into Matt Michaelson, all-American leading man. “Mads can do anything,” Mangold writes, adding that he’d love to see him in a musical. “Absolutely anything.”

Mikkelsen is perfectly content to play blockbuster villains as long as Hollywood would have him. “If there’s nothing else, I’ll definitely do this, because it’s fun,” he says. The Nazi role in Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny? He took it gleefully, without hesitation. “And then I can do whatever I want back in Europe.” He never sounds bitter about Hollywood’s preferences. Nor does he take it personally: acting is part of his identity, he explains, but not his entire identity; he takes it seriously, but not too seriously.

When I ask Mikkelsen how Hollywood he is these days, thinking back to how at-home he looked in the secret smoking corner of the Chateau Marmont, he answers with a story. The time: a brief period shortly after Casino Royale. The place: Los Angeles, with Mikkelsen’s manager and several close friends. The ostensible mission: to meet agents. The actual mission: to best each other in the most violent dead-arm war of all time.

“We would just hit each other insanely hard,” Mikkelsen recalls. One day, the group had a meeting with an agent. Ten minutes before the meeting, Mikkelsen had given one of his friends “the best fucking dead arm,” and during the meeting, all Mads could think about was that soon – he didn’t know where, he didn’t know when – his friend was going to get him back.

“I just can’t fucking live with it, and I couldn’t really listen, so in the middle of the meeting, I said, ‘Could you excuse us for a second?’” The two went out into the car park, as if to confer on matters of state, and Mikkelsen asked his friend to free him from the horror of jack-in-the-box anticipation by hitting him right there in the car park. His buddy happily obliged.

The two returned to the office and resumed the meeting, realising as they did that the agent had a full view of the car park. “She did not become our agent,” Mikkelsen says, laughing. “So that’s how Hollywood I am.”

And really, we wouldn’t have it any other way.

Photography by Ashley Olah
Clothing: Zegna, throughout
Styling Assistant: Sergio Navarra
Grooming by Kristen Shaw at The Wall Group
Special thanks to Chateau Marmont