Danish actor Mads Mikkelsen has long been one of his country’s greatest acting exports, though he was mainly unknown among American audiences until he played the villain Le Chiffre in the James Bond reboot Casino Royale. Earlier this year, he also had a key role in Louis Letterier’s hit remake of Clash of the Titans, another worldwide blockbuster that has helped solidify his fanbase outside his home country.
This summer, Mads is appearing in a couple of foreign language films, the first of them being Jan Kounen’s Coco Chanel & Igor Stravinsky, in which Mikkelsen plays the famous Russian composer whose turbulent relationship with France’s fashion icon following World War I prompted them both to a new level of creativity, Stravinsky to write his classic “The Rite of Spring” and Chanel to create her popular fragrance.
Then next month, the actor reunites with Danish director Nicolas Winding Refn for the Viking epic Valhalla Rising, which takes a far more artistic approach to the Viking epic, combining brutal and gory violence with gorgeous landscapes and cinematography. In that one, Mads plays a mute warrior known as “One-Eye”–he essentially has one eye–and he kills anyone he doesn’t like.
ComingSoon.net has spoken to Mads a number of times over the years, going back to his appearance in the James Bond movie where he gave us some great poker tips, and we got on the phone with him last week to talk about these two very different films as well as his upcoming appearance as the villain Rochefort in Paul W.S. Anderson’s 3D The Three Musketeers and whether he may be back for a “Clash” sequel.
ComingSoon.net: So last time I spoke to you was on the set of “Clash of the Titans” and neither of these movies had played at Toronto yet, so I assume you shot these before “Clash.”
Mads Mikkelsen: Yeah, I did the other (one) “Valhalla” and then “Coco” was the last one, that’s right.
CS: Okay, they’re such different movies. I was curious about how you can switch gears, ’cause I would think “Coco” would have been before “Valhalla” since that one seems like it would have been a better lead-up to “Clash.”
Mikkelsen: Yeah, that would have been nice. I was wearing extensions again in “Valhalla” and killing myself on a mountain, so I was just looking forward to sitting down and having a nice dialogue with a cup of coffee in hand. It turned out to be harder work than that, because I had to pick up French and Russian and play piano in two weeks, so I was starting to miss the mountain again.
CS: I was curious about that, too. Did you ever play piano before at all or did you just learn for this part?
Mikkelsen: I played those two pieces like a piano boxer, like everybody else does. No, I never tried to play really classical music, never.
CS: How did Jan approach you to play the part of Stravinsky? Did he just send you the script? I know he had wanted you to play the part.
Mikkelsen: Yeah, it was a strange combination of… in the beginning, it was supposed to be William Friedkin that was shooting the film and that went down the drain for some reason, and then they handed it over to Jan Kounen, and he’d seen a lot of things with me and he was interested in using me. We had a meeting, we sat down, and I talked to him and we looked at each other, and I said, “Listen, this film is taking place in Paris in the ’20s” and they wanted to shoot it in English, and I said, “I don’t believe in that. Nobody speaks English in Paris these days, so I wouldn’t suspect that anyone did in the ’20s, so I think we should do it in the original language, which would be French and Russian.” So he was totally agreeing and then we looked in each other’s eyes again and I said, “Maybe you should find a Russian guy who could actually play a little piano then.” So he thought about that for a while and then called me back and said, “No, I want you to pick it up and learn the whole thing.” That was obviously a challenge, and we we went for it.
CS: That’s pretty amazing for two weeks, because your Russian sounds good, but also you speak French in a Russian accent…
Mikkelsen: Yeah, it was a little crazy. Originally, we had three months of rehearsals but the one film was pushed forward and another one was pushed back, and all of a sudden, we only had two weeks. It was either that or say “no” and I liked the project, so I went for it, but it was really really crazy. I’m glad you say it sounds good. The French guys loved my Russian, they thought that was beautiful, even though it was probably rubbish for a Russian guy, but it was harder with the French, because everybody, they love their own language in France, they’re in love with it. I was actually much better at French than I was with Russian, but I could see on people’s faces, “Oh my God, this sounds terrible!” (laughs) It was tough work, but we did some post-production in ADR and I went in and worked a day or two on it, and replaced the Russian accent where it wasn’t, so we did a little after work.
CS: Did you have any sort of connection to Stravinsky’s music or did you know anything at all about it before he approached you about this?
Mikkelsen: I knew a little about him, and obviously, I knew “The Rite of Spring,” but not as much as I got to know it. I mean, I was sleeping with it, I was listening to it daily in the car back and forth in the middle of the night. It’s such a piece of genius work that it’s unbelievable. The more you dig into it, the more crazy it becomes, so it wasn’t totally new for me.
CS: How did you learn about Stravinsky as a person? I know there are probably books about him and I’m not sure if he kept some memoirs but to get into his demeanor while he was going through this balancing act between the two women, his wife and Coco, while trying to decide what to do.
Mikkelsen: These are all stories that are well known. Nobody really sat down and wrote it down in a biography, but it’s a well known fact that they knew each other for a lifetime and it was a love/hate relationship, because he actually threatened to kill her several times, so it does indicate there was a strong connection between those two. Having said that, we’re doing a film that is heavily inspired by these two people; we’re not in the business of making a 100% perfect portrait of any of them. We’re inspired by them and we’re telling a story that’s about two enormous egos that inspire each other. But I did read the biographies, and the one that was specifically interesting was his own biography. That was very interesting to read, because it barely mentions anyone else but himself, and it does say a lot about the person he was, so I think that was one of the keys to his personality and the other key, of course, was his music. Any person that starts out with a piece of music that is so beautiful, so Charlie Chaplin, and then he just tears it apart, rips it apart, it does say something about his personality as well, so that was the other key.
CS: Although these two movies are very different, both these characters, Stravinsky and One-Eye, are both rather silent. Stravinsky talks a little bit as much as you’d expect for this type of movie. Do you like playing those kinds of characters who don’t say a lot and is it harder to play those types of characters?
Mikkelsen: No, it depends. I think we have a tendency in movies these days, it becomes almost like the book. It’s more words, words, words–people talk about everything–and film is a media that’s supposed to be looked at, that’s supposed to be felt, and Stravinsky was not a super-communicative character. He was a very stiff, very held man, and he was very vivid and energetic in his music, but in his real life, he was the complete opposite. Our story is obviously that Coco kind of brings a little more life to his life, but he’s not a man of a lot of words, that’s for sure.
CS: Did he talk at all about Coco in his memoirs, besides being his benefactor?
Mikkelsen: He didn’t. There was nothing in there. I think he might have mentioned her in a side sentence that she was at a party or something, but definitely not talking about her.
CS: Both of the actresses in the movie were amazing, so were you familiar with either of their work before working with them? I didn’t know their work at all.
Mikkelsen: No, not at all. I met them and I thought they were perfect, both of them, right away. Two very different people, and it was very beautiful. Anna speaks fluently English so we could communicate on that base, and Elena, she had little French and very little English to do with, so that was a combination of French and Russian, me not speaking any Russian. She was a really good help for me as well. You can always have a teacher that can give you so much pressure, but as an actor as well, she was very comfortable to work with in my foreign language.
CS: As someone who has worked in Hollywood and extensively in Denmark, as you work with actors from other countries, do you find that their systems are the same or very different?
Mikkelsen: Yeah, it’s pretty much the same. It’s the species. Actors are a race. They have different approaches, but essentially, it’s the same work. I know a lot of people who work this way from back home and other ways back home. It just becomes actors who are in it for the same reasons. I think it’s a little like soccer players. They meet all over the world, they can play soccer, so the communication is really easy with people from other countries. Some of them never met each other before, playing in Europe or in Mexico or in New York, but they know what the game is. I think it’s a little like that with actors as well.
CS: How did Nicolas approach you to do “Valhalla Rising”? You two have obviously known each other for years, so was that something he’d been talking about doing for a long time?
Mikkelsen: Yeah, he talked about it for a while after we did the second “Pusher” film. He had this idea, he had it for a long time, and all of a sudden, he called me up and said, “Now it’s happening, rock ‘n’ roll. Do you want to play a mute one-eyed warrior that doesn’t have a future or a past?” And who am I to say “no”? But that’s Nick. I had no questions. I didn’t even have to read a script because I had worked with him before and I don’t think I would have jumped into this project with somebody else. We have a special way of working together, and we do believe in each other so much that we would probably do anything together.
CS: Was there a full script for the movie at all or was it more vague than that?
Mikkelsen: Yeah, there was a full pitch for the film, and then the script was developed. Then again, I’ve worked with Nick so many times I know that what is on the page is rarely what we see on the screen, so my job is kind of to translate what’s inside his head and be an actor as well. It’s inside Nick’s head. He has a film running in there and it’s rarely what we see on the page.
CS: It looks like a great male bonding movie, going out into nature and doing all sorts of crazy stuff out there. How long did that movie take to shoot and did you have any idea what he was going to do with it after you finished filming?
Mikkelsen: I think we shot it in two and a half, three months, something like that, and yeah, it was spectacular. The place was absolutely phenomenal and perfect for what we were doing. Having said that, we didn’t feel it like that when we were shooting, because it was extremely tough. We’re standing in minus 4 degrees with no clothes on, trying to kill each other and then the mud baths. You knock your elbows open every day with blood all over the place and you just had to get up the next morning and do it again. It was really a brutal shoot for everyone, including camera guys. We were climbing the mountains for two hours before we got to the right spot. It was crazy, but once we were done, it felt like, “Oh, that was cool, that was rock ‘n’ roll like when we were young” you know? But standing in the middle of it, ugh… we were too old.
CS: Then I guess in a sense, “Coco” must have been a good respite in between that and the action of “Clash of the Titans” then.
Mikkelsen: Yeah, I mean that’s what I hoped for, a little relaxation, just to calm down and focus on some kitchen sink drama, but as I said before, it was really tough. I had those two weeks to rehearse and of course, it didn’t stop there. When I was finished shooting in the day time, I came home in the evening and I had to rehearse a lot of stuff, either piano or Russian or French, and I went to bed at 2:00 and got up at 5 again, so it was even tougher than “Valhalla” actually. I didn’t see it coming.
CS: What have you been doing since you finished up “Clash” last year?
Mikkelsen: You know what? There was a couple projects I was supposed to do but for various reasons, they went down the drain. It’s been some crazy years right now, everybody’s afraid of spending money and then all of a sudden, things just go down the drain, so I’ve been having – let’s put it this way, a nice long vacation.
CS: I know you’re signed to do “Three Musketeers” so any idea when you might start that yet?
Mikkelsen: Yeah, hopefully we start in September, it might even be a little earlier as I hear the rumors, but I’m not sure yet, but September is the official date right now.
CS: I remember that you didn’t watch the original “Clash of the Titans” before you appeared in the recent movie, but had you seen any of the incarnations of the “Three Musketeers,” even by accident?
Mikkelsen: I’ve seen a lot of them, and I’m old school. My favorite is the Gene Kelly version, I must say. I think it’s so unbelievably charming and elegant. The good thing about this story is that it’s a very charming script, it’s down the alley of Gene Kelly’s version, and obviously, spiced up a little with a little more brutal action, but I think it’s on the light side, it’s very charming.
CS: When you ever watched those movies, did you ever see yourself as playing the villain Rochefort in it later in your career or did you always think you’d play one of the Musketeers?
Mikkelsen: When I saw the original movies, I was a kid of course when I saw it, so I wanted to be D’Artagnan, and later in life, it would be great to be Porthos, the alcoholic guy, but the guy with the patch on his eye, he’s cool as well. D’Artagnan was absolutely the main guy when we were kids.
CS: Wait, are you going to wear an eyepatch, making this the third movie where you have no eye or a scar over one of your eyes?
Mikkelsen: I think we’re going to skip that one this time. (laughs) I think two is enough. Three times in a row would be a little too pretentious (laughs)
CS: You might have to start charging by how many eyes they want to use.
Mikkelsen: You’d get half price, you’d get me really cheap.
CS: You’re getting away from Denmark with the movies you’ve been doing, so do you feel you’ve gone as far as you can working in your own country? You certainly are one of the top actors there.
Mikkelsen: Not at all. If you judge it like that, if you put it off like that, that I’ve “gone as far as I could,” that means I’m very ambitious on my career, but I’m not actually. I’m very ambitious on the project, I’m very ambitious on the films we’re making, and I think that cup has not been emptied yet in Denmark. There are a lot of fantastic projects coming on their way, and if I can be part of some of them, that would be fantastic. I think you can say “that was it for that country.” It’s all about the projects and the actual film you’re going to shoot. If you get ambitious on your career, you’ll always be disappointed. If you what you really like to do, I think you will get a career eventually.
CS: That’s a good outlook on it. I wasn’t sure how the movie business in Denmark was these days compared to a few years ago when we first spoke.
Mikkelsen: Compared to a few years ago, it’s not as good yet, and I think for all the countries in the world. We’re still making interesting and funny and strong films, but having said that, what happened in the ’90s was a surprise, it was a New Wave, and if you repeat that and you don’t make something else or at least make it better than it was in the ’90s, it’s not new anymore. Some people do ask for something else or at least something that’s better and that’s what’s happening right now. I do think we’re going in different directions right now with different new styles and genres, and I think that is the future for Danish film.
CS: Have you thought about getting into production anytime? I figure that you have even more weight behind your name with all the movies you’ve done outside Denmark, so have you thought about going back to produce some of these movies?
Mikkelsen: Yeah, yeah, I am back in Denmark obviously. This is my base. I live here and I’ve been here for half a year now. Yeah, there’s been some interest in projects and one was supposed to start here in March. That didn’t happen for various reasons, so there’s a couple interesting things maybe next year when I can fit them into a slot, but definitely I’m in contact with a couple guys I knew from before.
(SPOILER WARNING: The next few responses talk a bit about the fate of Mads’ character in Clash of the Titans in case you haven’t seen it yet.)
CS: Did you sign on to do multiple “Three Musketeers” movies or just one at a time?
Mikkelsen: If I’m going to answer that question, that means I’m going to reveal whether I’m dead or alive at the end of this film. (laughs)
CS: Oh, no… you can’t die in ANOTHER film, too!
Mikkelsen: Well, if you play the bad guy, you’re either in the next one or you’re dead, but in “Clash,” anything can happen. We’re dealing with Gods and giant scorpions. They can glue me together in a billions pieces if they want me back (chuckles) so let’s see what happens.
CS: I hope they figure out a way to bring you back for the “Clash” sequel… they figured out how to bring Gemma back almost immediately.
Mikkelsen: Yeah, exactly. We had a little fun with that. We thought it should be my character standing there with the wind machine looking at him with big eyes (chuckles) but they didn’t like that version, so it became Gemma.
CS: Have they contacted you at all about doing a second “Clash” because I assume they want to start doing it fairly soon.
Mikkelsen: We did discuss it just after shooting it and during shooting it, and they had some ideas how to bring him back, and that would be fun. But it depends on the script. If it makes sense, then yeah, let’s go, but if it doesn’t makes sense, we have to rethink that.
CS: “Three Musketeers” is actually going to be filming in 3D so have you had any experience filming in 3D yet?
Mikkelsen: Not really. They did turn “Clash” into 3D but that was a post thing, so we didn’t really feel that. I don’t know how you’re shooting in 3D anyways. Hopefully, the technique is just there and not to disturb us, and we just do our business, but if there’s a certain technique we have to adapt to, we’ll do that of course, but I don’t know how that works. I should have asked Sam actually, because he’s the master of 3D so he would have known.
CS: So for people here who are familiar with your work from “Casino Royale” and “Clash” who may be interested in “Valhalla Rising” or the Stravinsky movie, what would you like them to get out of those movies?
Mikkelsen: Well, as you said, they’re two very different films. I think that both films are kind of back to basics in a certain way. They do worship the epic side of filmmaking. It’s very visual, it’s like a melody, it’s beautiful to watch, and it’s brutal to watch, especially “Valhalla Rising,” it’s very inspired by the old Tartovsky and Kurosawa films, it’s brutality in a beautiful painting, and it’s not a straight-forward story. If we’re talking about “Coco and Igor,” it’s the same. Lean back and join the film, and do not expect a normal told story, but do expect a journey if you want to jump on the carousel.