From portraying a sadistic Bond villain to the world’s most notorious cannibal, Mads Mikkelsen is so good at playing bad. But in The Hunt, a Danish film by director and screenwriter Thomas Vinterberg (The Celebration), Mikkelsen does a complete 180 and plays a wronged, innocent man.
Lucas (Mikkelsen) is a kindergarten teacher beloved by students and community members alike. But when a little girl falsely accuses him of sexual abuse, he becomes persecuted by his friends and neighbors. The audience suffers along with Lucas as his life spirals into desperate chaos. Lucas’ pain, grief, and frustration is all the more immediate thanks to Mikkelsen’s powerful performance — one that earned him Best Actor at the 2012 Cannes Festival.
Hollywood.com sat down with Mikkelsen to hear about his experience making this heartbreaking, incredible film. And, because we couldn’t resist, we dug for some dirt on Season 2 of Hannibal.
Hollywood.com: Congratulations on the film, first of all. I thought it was incredible — hard to watch at times, but incredible. What drew you to the project initially?
Mads Mikkelsen: The script itself was extremely beautiful and heartbreaking — and frustrating to read, because I got the same sense that the audience gets, a sense of frustration. You feel the need to do something, hit someone, kill someone! We spent a lot of time discussing why we had that feeling of danger, if it’s something we should change. Should [Lucas] do more? We realized, no, he’s reacting the right [way]. He’s going straight to the source, to the kindergarten, straight to his friends; he’s doing everything right in a civilized manner, but the doors are going clomp, clomp, clomp [closing in his face]. So he’s realized that he could scream up louder and he would be guilty in the town’s eyes. If he was quiet, he’s still guilty … So it’s really frustrating to read, because he’s doing what I probably would’ve done myself and that was not enough. So, that was a major reason. And working with Thomas [Vinterberg, the director]. I’ve always wanted to do so. We’ve known each other for years and we never had the chance to do anything, but then all of a sudden it came along.
How was it working with Annika Wedderkopp, who played Klara? Your relationship with her is obviously the crux of the movie. How did you build that trust and that rapports with her?
Well, it’s basically… it’s my job to figure that you can tell the girl as much as you want. I just had to spend time with her and have fun with her. And she is a kid. Just have fun and ask and play and go for a walk so she’d feel comfortable with me. And that was established the same way with the guy who plays my son [Lasse Fogelstrøm].
Basically for me, it’s just hanging in there, because I cannot plan, and I don’t think that should be too much of an actor’s job to plan too much anyway … With kids, you’ve got to hang in there, forget your planning, and be as honest as you can with the scene. Then you probably become better than you normally are. So, I think it’s a gift working with kids. I can see there being a problem for people who are used to planning their own scene, but they would rarely act with the other guy anyway.
Well, Annika was really wonderful.
She was absolutely fantastic. She was a gift. Obviously the way she looks, the way she’s so natural with the things she’s doing — and the thing with her nose [mimes wiping his nose]. The best thing about the whole thing was that when she was done doing something that was quite emotional, she would just jump into the corner and play with her friends. She was not affected by it at all, which is like, “Oh, thank God!” Because, that could be a long day if we have to build her up every time.
There are a few scenes that stand out in my mind as being particularly intense — the grocery store scene and the church scene near the end. They’re engrossing for sure, but also hard to watch because they seem so real and the emotions are so strong. How did you prepare for those?
They were both scenes that were highly anticipated by me and Thomas — like, finally! Finally, I get to do this! They are very different scenes in terms of what we’re trying to say. I mean, they’re both stuff that starts happening, spur of the moment. Obviously, in the supermarket, when he’s being humiliated, and he comes back for a split second and doesn’t know what to do, he head butts the guy. And the others go, “We didn’t see that coming from this guy!” And [the viewers] all go, “Yes! Thank you!” So we as an audience, it’s very interesting, could not live with him treating this in a civilized manner. We enjoy when he become uncivilized, just like the others. That’s what we enjoy and that’s very interesting. Do we really give up and say that you cannot win this battle in a civilized manner, you can only do this as an animal? That’s very interesting. That was not truly a difficult scene, [we were] just playing and we enjoyed it — and we hurt ourselves! There was a lot of blood. But it was a cool, good day.
The church was a different thing. It was an 11-hour day, we shot the same thing over and over again. But what we did was, we just had an idea of what the scene should do to the character — and the character originally just comes to the church, he didn’t mean to make a riot or anything, a stand. The only stand he wanted to make was “I’m allowed to be here. I’m part of the community. I’m not going to be beaten by you guys.” And then obviously when the choir starts to sing and everything, the emotion sets in and he can’t control it. He stands up and makes a very embarrassing situation for everyone. But luckily, it also opens up people’s eyes. So that’s the second stand.
What we did [to film] was, we didn’t exactly know when and how to do it and what I would be affected by. I said, “Listen, why don’t we just do the scene? Why don’t we just make them say what they do, I come in, and then just get the choir and if I feel like it, I will get up and confront my friends somehow. I don’t know how and I don’t now why and I don’t know where it’s going to end.” So we didn’t tell any of the other actors or any of the extras that this is going to happen, and nobody in the choir. So we did it. And it was actually me against a whole village, personally the first time we did it, which obviously creates a lot of tension between us and it’s a very awkward situation to be in, even as an actor. And then we tried to copy that, take the best parts and sculpt it a little, but basically that was the fundamental foundation of the scene. And it was a long day, but it was a beautiful scene. It was a beautiful scene that he finally got to do this. We wanted him to be a little frustrated and it turned out that the song [Lucas sings along with the congregation] was so heartbreaking and [the situation] was so unfair for my character or me or whoever, I kind of cracked every time I was trying to sing it. That was beautiful, but we couldn’t anticipate that that would happen. But we could copy it after we did it the first time. So it was of those classic try it and surprise the other actors. And after that, we tried to put it in the schedule.
What makes this movie so unique and so effective is that the audience never doubt Lucas’ innocence. But, that’s the complete opposite of what you’re doing on Hannibal right now, where it’s all about deception. How was it to go from one to the other?
Well yeah, in many ways it’s the same drawer — but also obviously not. What we’ve done with Hannibal, which is quite interesting, is that is he’s full of empathy, as opposed to Will Graham… who’s also full of empathy but he cannot control it at all, it’s controlling him. I am totally in control of my empathy, meaning I will decide if I’m sad, I will decide if I’m happy. I will decide if I’m being influenced by music or if I’m angry. It’s a totally controlled thing, but every time he goes with an emotion, he’s honest with it. He’s not a psychopath who momentarily believes it, he’s very honest with it. He’s an honest man — and he’s not said one lie in the whole show. We made a big, big thing over that: I will not have one lie. Try to make him as honest as possible. So yes, there are similarities in the way I approach this as an actor, but there’s obviously a tiny wink in the eye as Hannibal, which there is absolutely not in the character of Lucas. And the wink is very very small in Hannibal. I have read a couple places where they would like a much bigger wink, but we couldn’t do that. Because obviously those two cops [played by Lawrence Fishburne and Caroline Dhavernas] would see it. If the audience sees it, they should see it. So, we can’t go there.
Obviously — and I’m sure you get this question all the time — Hannibal Lecter is such an iconic character. But you’ve really made him your own. How do you feel about the audience’s, and the critics’, reaction to you in the role Anthony Hopkins made famous?
I tried not to read too much in the beginning, because when people have reactions they have been mixed — and I understand why. You have Anthony Hopkins doing it to perfection, so you anticipate something down that alley. But at the same time, as a critic, you don’t want it to be that alley, because you can’t match it. I understand, it’s a very thin blade for me and for the critics as well. The fact that people have thought, “He’s not doing anything, he’s not evil enough. He should be much more evil. What is happening?” You can’t take that super serious — but I’m listening to it — because we can’t go down that path, because he’s not in prison, he’s right in the face of people. He has to have friends and so he has to be humanized. In all his private moments, we see who he is.
But I hear it and I understand that frustration, but we have been there ourselves and we had to make the decision that we couldn’t go down that path. So if people embrace what we’re doing and they like it, we’re happy with that. Of course we could’ve done something else, but I don’t think [audiences] would’ve bought it the same way. I’m super happy that a lot of people like it. There were big shoes to fill and the only reason why we could get a yes — and I think that Brian wanted to do it — was that if he’s a different Hannibal. He’s still Hannibal, he’s just outside the prison, so he’s bound to be a different person.
So now, going into Season 2, we have a different dynamic between Hannibal and Will Graham. What would you like to see happen?
I’m curious about whether the Will character is going to be out in the open that he knows and I know. If that’s the case, it’s one thing. But if Will’s still confused, it’s a different thing. Oh, even more interesting! If Will plays that he doesn’t know, he’s conning me now. If he’s doing that, that’s going to be interesting — that he’s playing the game on me now. That’s going to be very interesting, seeing what path they want to go down. I kind of like that last one that he’s going to play me as well. But, I will be surprised if I didn’t know.
Well, Hannibal seems to always know everything.
He is such an annoying guy! He knows everything about the human nature, the fruits, anything about the food, any kind of music, instruments from the last millennium… He’s really annoying in that sense. He’s also a psychiatrist who doesn’t necessarily want to hear his clients talk, which is rare. He likes to talk himself.
The show is so stylized, between the graphics, the mood, and even the suits you wear. Does it add an extra layer for you to step into those costumes?
It does. We obviously have to remember that the Hannibal character — not only in all the films, but also in all the books — he is extremely elaborate. He’s a three-piece suit man in love with language — he’s not from England, he’s from Lithuania, which is good. Good for us, but that doesn’t mean he doesn’t love the English language. Obviously he would find American banal [if he did]. For him, he’s either going to eat it or he doesn’t want to hear about it. We now know that a man in a three-piece suit, if he collects art and listens to opera, he’s definitely a killer. You know that. We didn’t know that in the ’80s, that was definitely something that happened in those days, so it’s still there. We have to do [the wardrobe and stylization] because it’s in the books. He is a different kind of person than the other guys. Even more so, I have to be even more trustworthy as much as I can. If I was so weird all the time, I mean, we couldn’t get away with one episode. I’m just weird enough.
Going back to The Hunt again for a minute. The end of the movie is a bit ambiguous, but I walked away thinking that Lucas is always going to live in fear, always going to be persecuted. And I was wondering if that’s what you were trying to portray. And just generally, what were you hoping audiences would leave with?
It’s definitely what we were trying to portray. We did not want to put a face or a person on [the hunter], we even wanted to leave it maybe in his imagination. The scene that most pointed at this ambiguity is when my son is getting the rifle. That’s the only scene in the film where Thomas’ approach is a little stylistic, in the sense that everything I see [in the scene] is realistic, then I look at all my friends and see that they are all standing, looking at me. And that is stylistic. That is definitely something that [Lucas] feels. They are not staring at me, looking at me. But I see these people that I once loved and who once loved me and I can’t read their faces. I have no idea what they are going to feel about me tomorrow. And for that reason, the end was really that I cannot stay here, it’s never going to be the same.