From a sinister banker who cries tears of blood to a "former" Nazi obsessed with time travel to a therapist who's literally a cannibal, Mads Mikkelsen is no stranger to playing dark, villainous characters. Even his heroes are morally gray enough to, say, slap a little girl in the face.
That's exactly what Ludvig Kahlen, the retired army captain Mikkelsen plays in Nikolaj Arcel's epic historical drama "The Promised Land," does early in the film. Kahlen, whose obsessive quest to attain noble status and rise from the ranks of his impoverished bastard background blind him to what his life could be, is obviously the film's protagonist. Still, he's not exactly someone viewers are rooting for. See: roughing up a child.
"It's the 1750s. We didn't want to squeeze our personal 2023 morals into the film. We wanted it to be like it was at that point," Mikkelsen told Business Insider of the scene. "It makes him brutal, it makes him very firm. This is how people treated each other in those days."
The real Mikkelsen is much closer to a sweetheart than any of his characters. In the case of that moment in "The Promised Land," Mikkelsen spent a week rehearsing with 9-year-old Melina Hagberg, whose breakout turn as the gypsy girl Anmai Mus marked her first ever acting role. They even made a deal: She got to slap him twice for real for every one of Mikkelsen's fake slaps.
Of course, not all of Mikkelsen's roles are as nuanced as Kahlen. Sometimes, he's the uncompromisingly evil villain in a Hollywood blockbuster. And for the record, he loves those movies, too.
In Business Insider's latest "Role Play" installment, Mikkelsen reflects on playing the bad guy in iconic film franchises like James Bond and Indiana Jones, being Rihanna's "Bitch," and why Hannibal Lecter is the one role he'd happily revisit.
On wanting to see Daniel Craig play James Bond one final time and getting called a Nazi by Harrison Ford
Playing Le Chiffre in "Casino Royale" was your first high-profile, major box-office movie villain role, so let's start there. Besides Daniel Craig, who is your favorite Bond?
Yeah, Daniel is one. Then I guess it's Sean Connery.
And a bit of a controversial one but who is the worst Bond, in your opinion?
I don't think there is a worst Bond. I think they all fit in perfectly for the time it was shot. You had someone in the '70s, someone in the '60s, someone in the '80s, and it just feels right. The whole genre of the film was changing constantly. It also changed when Daniel came. I think they all did a fantastic job, but maybe what I grew up with and what I remember best was Sean.
Who would you like to see take on the James Bond character next?
To be honest, I'd like to see Daniel do one more, one last one.
You'd like to see him pick up the mantle again?
Yeah. I'd like to see him wrap it up in a different way.
Didn't he die in the last one?
Well, that's the big question, isn't it? I mean, it's Bond, so I think he can get out of any situation.
"Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny" famously digitally de-aged Harrison Ford. How would you feel about having your own digitally de-aged face on the big screen?
They de-aged me as well, but with a different technique. In the beginning, they thought it was enough just to dye my hair completely black. And then I told them, "You know what? My hair's black, but I look like an old woman now. So let's just do a little thing." I mean, we had to jump 25 years, right? They did something, but not the same technique.
The idea of us having to be forever young, I'm not a fan of that. I don't think anyone is a fan of that. But once you can control it like that, jumping back and forth, I think it's absolutely worth using. You have to be ethical about it.
You've spoken about Harrison Ford being surprisingly goofy on set. Did you have any noteworthy moments with him filming "Dial of Destiny"?
He was just goofy all the time. I remember one of the first days, I was walking on the street in my personal clothes. It was in the studio. There were a lot of people around and he was far away, and then he just pointed at me and shouted, "There's that Nazi!" And everybody turned around and looked at me and I was like, "Oh geez, Harrison. Now I've got to explain to everybody I'm not a Nazi."
He always did stuff like that. No, I loved him. I just got to see him the other day at a party here and he's just an amazing man. A kid by heart, but also very serious in what he does. And I think the reason why he is a legend — well, there's a ton of reasons, but one of them is that he does not behave like a legend. He makes everybody feel at home in the scene around him. He's a real gentleman.
On reuniting with "Hannibal" creator Bryan Fuller — and holding out hope for a revival
You recently reunited with "Hannibal" creator Bryan Fuller on the set of the upcoming movie "Dust Bunny." Did you guys have any conversations about a revival?
It's no secret that all of us who were part of the cast and Bryan, we all want to go back. It's got to happen eventually sooner than later because we're not getting any younger, right? But the story itself can jump, it can have that gap, which is fine. So it's all about finding a home for it, but that's nothing concrete out there now.
Why that's the case? I don't know. We love the show and there seem to be a lot of other people liking it as well. But then I got the chance to work with him on "Dust Bunny," so I got a little whiff of the old times.
So in your mind, where are Will and Hannibal now? Where do you think the story would pick up if there were a revival?
He's got a few ideas, Bryan. So I can't really reveal any, in case we do start, but I'm sure they made it somehow.
Which of your iconic villains would win in a fight — Le Chiffre, Hannibal or Voller?
On his ever-growing collection of billion-dollar franchise roles, and playing with dinosaurs next
You were the villain Kaecilius in "Doctor Strange." Robert Downey Jr. and Mark Ruffalo were recently talking about how sometimes they had trouble understanding what the hell was going on in the Marvel scripts. Did you have that issue at all while filming "Doctor Strange"?
We did have that in "Doctor Strange," to a degree. And that there's a very good reason for that because "Doctor Strange" is born from a psychedelic graphic novel, which was very different from the other ones. So the whole going from one dimension to the other thing was something we had to get our heads around. Luckily, there was some beautiful imagery and graphic paintings they put on the wall, so we got an idea of it.
In terms of what the film was about, I don't think we were in doubt. It was a very solid script, but I must say, watching some of the latest ones, as an audience, I also go, "Whoa. Who's that? Where did he come from?" So I understand that they had a few issues on those.
You've been in most of the top billion-dollar movie franchises of all time at this point: Harry Potter, Marvel, Indiana Jones, Star Wars, and James Bond. Which was the most fun on set experience to the least fun?
I love them all. The most fun must've been "Doctor Strange" because I got to do two things I love: doing magic and flying Kung Fu.
Which franchise would you most want to return to out of those?
Yeah, that one. I wouldn't mind going back to him. But I have a tendency to die in all the franchises, so it's going to be hard.
If you're planning to continue your domination of all the very successful franchises, I think a few you still have left are "Jurassic Park," "Fast and the Furious," and maybe "Batman." So if you had your pick, which other billion-dollar franchise would you most want to join?
I mean, "Jurassic Park" was so iconic when it came out, right? But Batman is also fantastic. I'll go with the dinosaurs. I've been in the magic world before. Dinosaurs, I'll take it.
You want to hang out with some dinosaurs?
Yeah, I might be a T-Rex.
On being Rihanna's "Bitch"
One of my favorite appearances of yours is actually not a film or a TV show, it's your appearance in Rihanna's "Bitch Better Have My Money" music video. If Rihanna ever releases music again, would you reunite with her for another music video?
I would love to. Talking about chaos, I had no idea what we were doing. There was a 12-page script that we only did two of them, but it ended up cool. She was fantastic. She's so talented. That would be fun to go back and do something with her.
Do you listen to her music?
Yeah. I think she's absolutely stunningly talented.
Do you have a favorite song?
Well, "Bitch" is my favorite now. That's the one we play back home.
On why he doesn't really want to reprise any of his past roles (except for Hannibal, obviously)
You've been acting for over 25 years and have so many memorable roles. What's one project you were in that you wish people paid more attention to?
I think that both this Nikolaj Arcel film has got a lot of attention and Thomas Vinterberg's films have got a lot of attention, so I can't complain about them. I would go back to a little earlier in my career. I did a franchise called "Pusher," and specifically the second film, I'm very proud of that. I think it's an absolutely wonderful, beautiful film. "Pusher Two" would be the one.
Which character of yours you would never reprise in a sequel if you were asked to come back?
I really don't want to go back to any of my characters, except maybe for Hannibal because he's not over yet. But things are done when they're done and then we move on. I might be persuaded for some crazy, funny characters. But I don't feel there's anything I want to redo. The next step is a new dream.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
"The Promised Land" is in theaters now.
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