It's hard to put a frame around Mads Mikkelsen. The tall, saturnine Danish star was the bad guy in "Casino Royale" and a courageous World War II resistance fighter in "Flame & Citron." He's just completed his first season as the suave, omnivorous Dr. Lecter in NBC's "Hannibal."
In "The Hunt," opening at the Uptown Theatre in Minneapolis on July 26, he plays a kindhearted schoolteacher wrongfully accused of a terrible crime. His performance in the psychological thriller won him the best actor prize at last year's Cannes Film Festival. He's even been knighted by the Queen of Denmark. But he still recalls being jeered at the curtain call the first time he played Romeo.
"One night I remember we had more than 20 people booing in the back row. It wasn't that rare and it wasn't a nice feeling," Mikkelsen said by phone from New York City. "Luckily, I was coming in for my bow joined up with Juliet, so I could always blame her."
A gymnast and dancer before he became an actor, Mikkelsen "realized I was more in love with drama. I got my eyes opened by everything Scorsese had done, the whole period of the '70s and '80s in American movies," he said. "Taxi Driver" was a revelation.
"It was the first film where I had this mixed emotion when I watched it. DeNiro, I didn't like him, then I liked him, then I didn't like him, then I liked him again. It was throwing up questions to me. I had to be active and think about what I saw instead of just giving me the answers. I was used to seeing films where that one's a goodie, that one's a baddie. Here I could not place him, he was a mystery to himself. It was a fantastic way of giving me a dilemma as an audience." That paradox shaped his approach to acting ever afterward, he said.
"I've tried to achieve that in my work. It has to be a dualism, not just black or white. We can't always do it but we can give it a try if the film's well enough written." His ability to shift between roles that are sympathetic or terrifying has given him the chance to build a remarkably diverse résumé. In 2009, he had back-to-back roles as a mute, head-chopping Viking berserker in "Valhalla Rising" and a sexy, intellectual composer in "Coco Chanel & Igor Stravinsky."
"Valhalla Rising" re-teamed Mikkelsen with his frequent collaborator, director Nicolas Winding Refn ("Drive"). Shot in long, unbroken takes on the rain-swept Scottish highlands, it was a remarkably harsh production. "I was fighting with almost no clothes on in below-freezing weather. It was so miserable you cannot imagine it. We were way too old to do that. I was looking at my passport, saying, 'I was born in 1965, this is not fair.' I was dreaming of being on the other movie, sitting down in Paris, having normal chit-chat over a cup of coffee in a normal seat. When I got to Paris I had to learn French and Russian and play piano and they gave me the wrong translation, the wrong music and I had to do it over and over again. I was never sleeping but when I did, I was dreaming my way back to Scotland!"
In "The Hunt," a false accusation spreads rumors, suspicion and fury among the inhabitants of a small Danish town. Mikkelsen's character, Lucas, expects that logic will prevail, but his onetime friends turn against him and seething rancor turns a postcard-pretty village into a 21st-century Salem. He's fired from his job, shunned and banished from local shops.
"Lucas is almost a pure victim," Mikkelsen said. "Being the stubborn man he is, he insists on dealing with this matter in a civilized way. That's a battle he's bound to lose because he's up against emotions. He's trying to keep his sanity when people are losing theirs all around him. Funnily enough, the biggest relief in the film, for me and also for the audience, is when he loses his manners and head-butts a guy in the supermarket."
Mikkelsen sees a parallel between the story and the tension between defending society and giving up the freedoms that make it worth preserving. "In our paranoia and our eagerness to fight terrorism and keep democracy, we're moving democracy to fight terror. We're losing the battle if we're giving in to the fear."
Mikkelsen starred for several years in a Danish TV cop show, so returning to the form for "Hannibal" was no hardship. It took some persuading from his agent to step into Anthony Hopkins' iconic role. He agreed because the show concerns Lecter's life before his crimes were uncovered, a time when "this Satan" was living free and making his way in everyday society. Mikkelsen said he also appreciates the fast-changing nature of American TV, where rewrites are a daily affair.
"I am a film man. I do like that I know where a script starts and finishes. It's an easier way to focus your energy and come up with good ideas.
"Having said that, this character is so unpredictable that he does not have a master plan. He's literally waking up every morning and seeing opportunities. And when I get the new script, so am I."