Mads Mikkelsen and Alicia Vikander in "A Royal Affair." (COURTESY OF MAGNOLIA PICTURES/COURTESY…)
Mads Mikkelsen is that actor you think you know, but aren’t sure you know that you know.
The Danish actor and his almond-shaped eyes, aquiline nose and full lips are immediately recognizable to anyone who saw “Casino Royale,” in which he played the dastardly banker Le Chiffre; maybe less so to fans of “Clash of the Titans,” in which he donned lots of makeup and facial hair to play the martyred hero, Draco. In and around his native Copenhagen, Mikkelsen is routinely ranked the sexiest man in Denmark by the ladies (and surely some men) who vote on such things.
In the next few months, Americans will learn why. Starting Friday, Mikkelsen will star in “A Royal Affair,” a historical drama set in 18th-century Denmark. Next spring, he will topline “The Hunt,” a harrowing psychological thriller in which he plays a teacher accused of sexual abuse. Also next year, he will star in “Hannibal,” an NBC series based on the early years of that cannibal we loathe-but-also-kinda-like, Hannibal Lecter.
Mads Mikkelsen, you’re having a moment.
“It’s nice to be here, with two films people find beautiful or brutal or interesting,” Mikkelsen said at the Toronto International Film Festival in September, where “A Royal Affair” and “The Hunt” made their North American debuts. Even better, he was conducting interviews in his temporary home town: “Hannibal” had begun shooting in Toronto, and Mikkelsen was just settling in, with his family in tow.
“It’s tough,” the actor admitted, speaking of his son, who had just started the ninth grade. “English is not his first language. . . . But he’s ready for it, I hope. He needs to pick up the English; everybody speaks it. But he’ll get there.”
“He’ll get there” could just as easily be Mikkelsen’s life motto. After excelling in gymnastics as a boy, he was recruited to study ballet and was a professional dancer for eight years before entering drama school. He didn’t graduate until he was 30, a year after he landed his first movie role, in the highly regarded crime thriller “Pusher” by writer-director Nicolas Winding Refn.
“It was never a plan to be an actor,” says Mikkelsen, now 46. “It was just [that] I was in love with the drama of dancing and, I suppose, with the aesthetics of dancing, and for that reason I said, ‘Why don’t we do drama full time?’ ”
Almost immediately, Mikkelsen made a speciality of playing villains and dark heroes, including the ancient Norse warrior One Eye in 2009’s “Valhalla Rising,” also by Refn.
“He usually had a patch on the eye or a scar on the face,” says “A Royal Affair” director Nikolaj Arcel. “He’s had a career a little bit like Robert De Niro, where he started out playing a little bit of a punk, a little bit of a rebel, a little bit of a dangerous guy. As he’s got older, though, he’s been playing the romantic lead in several Danish films and even comedies. He’s by far the biggest star in Denmark and the main dramatic actor that we have.”
In “A Royal Affair,” Mikkelsen plays Johann Friedrich Struensee, a physician who was living in Hamburg in 1767 when he was enlisted to become the court doctor to the king of Denmark, Christian VII. As chief adviser and confidante to the addled monarch, Struensee exerted a strong influence on the young man, introducing Enlightenment values to a country that previously rejected them.
“A Royal Affair” chronicles Struensee’s political career, his deep friendship with the king (Mikkel Boe Folsgaard), his romantic relationship with the queen, Caroline Mathilde (Alicia Vikander), and the trio’s eventual tragic downfall.
The story is well known in Denmark, but Struensee’s reputation has shifted through the generations. He “has been a hero and a villain and a hero and a villain, depending on what period of time we’re talking about,” Mikkelsen says. “But what surprised us and me is that it became such a romantic film and a film full of love.”
Love, it should be noted, not just between Struensee and Caroline Mathilde, but between the two men.
“We wanted to have that on film,” Mikkelsen says of the bromance that drives much of “A Royal Affair.” “It’s very, very important to understand that this was not just one political scam. A lot of people had affairs because of political alliances, but that was not the case here. It was just that they really, really liked each other. The king losing me was almost worse than losing his wife.”
Coincidentally, the Danish schoolteacher Mikkelsen plays in “The Hunt” also has an abiding faith in rationality and humanism — which may or may not be justified, as the Kafkaesque story unfolds. “Maybe they both trusted a little too much!” Mikkelsen says, laughing.