On Movies: From 'Hannibal' to 'The Hunt,' Mads Mikkelsen shows creative versatility

Mads Mikkelsen (second from left) in "The Hunt." Mikkelsen's character is "an outsider in the sense that he was a little different than the majority of the guys."
Mads Mikkelsen (second from left) in "The Hunt." Mikkelsen's character is "an outsider in the sense that he was a little different than the majority of the guys." (PER ARNESEN / Magnolia Pictures)
Posted: July 22, 2013

Mads Mikkelsen won the best-actor prize at last year's Cannes Film Festival for his star turn in The Hunt. Directed by the Danish director Thomas Vinterberg, it is a dark tale of a reckless accusation that upends a man's life. Mikkelsen plays Lucas, a mild-mannered kindergarten teacher, accused of sexually abusing a young child. The lie spreads, people turn hateful, hysterical. Everything unravels.

The actor, wearing eyeglasses and an air of quiet purpose, gives the role incredible dignity. And the Cannes jurors - among them Ewan McGregor, Nanni Moretti, Emmanuelle Devos, and Alexander Payne - gave him the award.

"I was simply happy," Mikkelsen recalls of the scene at Cannes. "I was moved. And I shared it - I still share it - with Thomas. You cannot be good in a film that doesn't work, and I think Thomas has made a fantastic film. So it's much easier to be seen, and be liked, in a film like this than to be fairly good in a film that nobody likes."

On the phone from New York, where he is doing interviews to promote The Hunt's U.S. release - it opens Friday at the Ritz Bourse - Mikkelsen explains that his character was a part of the community, "but also an outsider in the sense that he was a little different than the majority of the guys."

When the accusation and the rumors ripple across the landscape, the question for Mikkelsen was: How much should his character put up with?

"When does he stand up for himself? And how? And can he do that at all? . . . This is a guy who believes in the system and a guy who would tackle these charges in a civilized manner. . . . He's fighting emotions, fighting the irrational, in a civilized way - and that's a battle you are bound to lose."

For Vinterberg - whose 1998 film, The Celebration, was the first release out of the boldly minimalist Dogma movement established with fellow filmmaker Lars von Trier - Mikkelsen was someone he had long been keen to collaborate with. The Danish actor, who is 47, has worked steadily in Europe and Hollywood, starring in this year's Academy Award-nominated A Royal Affair; as Draco, captain of the king's guard in Clash of the Titans; and as Le Chiffre, the Bond villain in Casino Royale. In Denmark, Mikkelsen is a star.

"Normally, I will write for specific actors," says Vinterberg, in a separate interview. "I ask them early in the process, 'Do you want to do this film?' and then go ahead and write the script for them.

"That was not really possible with Mads, because he's become a movie star; he wants to see a script. So I wrote it for a young Robert De Niro type, more working class and tough, a man of few words. . . .

"But then when Mads read it, we actually changed the character quite a bit together, and I rewrote it for him. . . . That's when he became a teacher, and became very humble and became soft, somehow.

"I found it more interesting for Mads, at this time in his career, having been these Vikings and villains, I felt it would be interesting to see this very vulnerable side."

Vulnerability is probably not a trait to be found in Mikkelsen's performance in the title role of NBC's Hannibal. Created by Bryan Fuller, the well-received series, which premiered this spring, finds the famous forensic psychiatrist and cannibalistic serial killer at a point in his life before the events of The Silence of the Lambs.

Mikkelsen says he was reluctant, at first, to take on the part.

"I was wary. I hesitated. For obvious reasons. Anthony Hopkins had done it to perfection, and so we really had to figure out why we wanted to do it. And when Bryan pitched me about how this is taking place before Hannibal was caught, I realized there were a lot of opportunities to give life to a different kind of Hannibal, a man who needs to make friends, a man who needs to be humanized to a degree where he can walk around in a real world and be part of it.

"And for that reason, I said yes. It would be a different side of Hannibal, at least, in the first couple of seasons . . . and I've enjoyed it tremendously."

On break until September, when he starts shooting Hannibal's second season, Mikkelsen plans to head home to Copenhagen. There are more movies in the works, but he is still considering The Hunt and what it means.

"We tried to make a film about how enormous love can be turned into enormous fear, and eventually into hate," the actor says. "And that can happen in any society, at any time."


The Hunt

Opens Friday at the Ritz Bourse

Contact Steven Rea at 215-854-5629 or srea@phillynews.com, or follow on Twitter @Steven_Rea. Read his blog, "On Movies Online," at www.inquirer.com/onmovies.

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