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.
The fact that Mikkelsen is starring in “The Hunt,” written and directed by Thomas Vinterberg, has special resonance in Denmark’s movie culture: Vinterberg, along with Lars von Trier and other filmmakers, was one of the founding members of the Dogme 95 film movement, which professed allegiance to an artifice-free visual aesthetic and rough, low-tech production methods. At the time, Mikkelsen was casting his lot with Refn, who was not part of the von Trier clique.
“I think we needed to have those little clubs to identify ourselves and figure out what we wanted,” Mikkelsen says now. “To be strong groups that hated everybody else — I think we needed that to define ourselves. Then gradually, when we matured a little more, we’d go, ‘I kinda like these guys,’ you know. ‘Let’s start working together and unite our ideas.’ ”
Working with Arcel and Vinterberg also marks a homecoming of sorts for Mikkelsen, who lives in Copenhagen but has been working mostly outside Denmark for the past several years.
“It was just through chance, I guess, that they came to my hands at the same time,” Mikkelsen says. “All of a sudden there were these two beautiful scripts.”
But now, it’s time to find Hannibal. “He’s very, very difficult to define,” Mikkelsen says of the character brought most memorably to life by Anthony Hopkins in “The Silence of the Lambs.” “For him . . . the beauty is right there between life and death. And he sees the world as a big opportunity. Obviously, we can agree that the results of his handiwork is not healthy for anyone, maybe for him. But he’s not a classical psychopath. He’s got enormous empathy, but he’s just not necessarily blessed with being emotional about things. He’s that cross between angel and devil that is real.”
In other words, the perfect fit for an actor as comfortable wearing an eye patch as a character’s heart on his sleeve.
A Royal Affair
137 minutes, at area theaters Friday, is rated R for sexual content and some violent images.