The fact that Mads Mikkelsen has two very similarly chilly films — Polar and Arctic — coming out within a week of each other isn’t a fact that’s lost on him. “They’re polar opposites,” he says (get it?), as soon as we broach the subject. Polar, now on Netflix, has Mikkelsen doing the John Wick assassin song and dance, and surrounds him with colorful characters, hyper-violent fights, and excess; Arctic, which opens on Feb. 1, leaves Mikkelsen in near-complete solitude, and is impressively spartan in telling the story of a man fighting to survive after being stranded in, yes, the Arctic.
Despite being best known for playing baddies (bloody-eyed Le Chiffre in Casino Royale, dimension-breaking Kaecilius in Doctor Strange, noted cannibal Hannibal Lecter in Hannibal), Mikkelsen is easygoing in person, striking a victory pose during our conversation for no reason in particular, and as happy to joke about the more unusual aspects of his work as he is to reveal what he stole from sets. (A watch from Arctic and an eyepatch from Polar.)
Mikkelsen sat down with Polygon to discuss his upcoming films, as well as certain other projects (ahem, Death Stranding), plus things he’s simply a fan of.
Polygon: What was it about Polar and Arctic, respectively, that appealed to you?
Mads Mikkelsen: They’re very different projects, but for me, it’s always the same appeal. There’s something that rings a bell, there’s something I find appealing, and it can be a variety of different things. In Arctic, I just loved the story. I thought it was such a humane journey, and such a bold move for a first time director to skip memory lane, skip the flashbacks, and go right into the heart of what it is to be a human being and being stranded, and telling a story about the enormous difference between surviving and being alive. They’re two very different things, and he doesn’t start being alive until this young woman enters into the film. I just thought it was so poetic and beautiful and bold.
And [Polar], I loved the graphic novel. I thought it was crazy, fucking insane. From there on, we were looking for a first script and we started pitching ideas, and the more we talked about it, the more we could see that this could really be something, this could be crazy. It’s a difficult thing to adapt a graphic novel and put it on the big screen unless you start doing animation. Some of the characters in the graphic novel are ten times the size of other characters, which is obviously one way of saying something, and we can’t do that on a screen, so we have to come up with ideas to solve that.
We found a fantastic pitch we believed in, and I’m just in love with something as graphic as that. When we’re brutal, we’re really brutal. And I love the idea that there’s a hitman was retiring. You’ve heard that story before, but he’s not really necessarily pleased with that. He’s not like, “Oh my God, I’ve sinned so much.” He’s not like that. He not socially skilled, he just simply doesn’t have the social skills to be in the world. He’s not like Superman, but he’s lethal in tired way. I just find that fascinating. He’s on the verge of collapsing all the time, so we didn’t want it to be like [pretending to leap] dah-dah-dah!
I was going to ask if you were familiar with the graphic novel before coming onto the project. I’ve read that you’re a comic book fan in general; is that just an enduring love?
It is an enduring love. I kind of stopped collecting at one point. I collected, and it had to be first editions of everything. And it just took over, and there was just no way I could catch up with all the stuff I loved. So I stuck with what I had, and it’s been some years of not diving into that universe, but I still take them out and look at them because I think there is a world in there that is absolutely fantastic. It’s an escape for a lot of people; it was for me as a kid as well. You escaped into fantasy and you could be any one of these guys. Graphic novels can do something that no other form of art can do. I think it’s a different thing than doing comic books. Comic books have the superhero thing where you go supernatural; graphic novels are always based in some kind of realism that is lifted.
Is there any other particular graphic novel that you’ve been like, “Oh, if they made a movie, I’d like to do that”?
I think they have yet to show me a real version of Corto Maltese, this legendary anti-hero from the ’20s or ’30s. He’s traveling around Africa and the Pacific as well, and there’s just so many crazy stories in there of voodooism, and I think that’d be cool.
Of the graphic novels that you did collect, is there one that you consider your prized possession?
I have quite a few. There’s tons of stuff I really love, but Tintin — I have them all, the Danish versions, and I have started the French versions in the first editions. I love the smell of them when I open them, I love the characters. He’s just so ahead of his time. He’s obviously been accused of a lot of things lately, but that’s what you did in the ’30s and this is how you said that in the ’40s; I think it’s very unfair. But the characters are just absolutely wonderful.
I do have to ask one more follow up to that: do you have a favorite of Tintin’s adventures?
I don’t know what you call it in English, but it’s the sun temple?
Prisoners of the Sun.
There you go. [It’s my favorite] for many reasons; it’s one of the first ones I read, and it was the first film I ever saw in a theater — [whispers] I was so scared. I remember I was holding myself going home on the tram, you know, whatever they call them, ding ding, and I forgot ... I was just blown away. I was just sitting there thinking about the film, and I forgot that I had to go to the bathroom, so I had to jump off this little train and just run into the bushes with my father. I was blown away with that film, so that’s probably my favorite.
To jump to a different medium, I do have to ask —
You’re gonna ask about Death Stranding!
How did you end up meeting Hideo Kojima?
Through a mutual friend. Hideo likes to work with his friends, and then he’d been watching some of my films, and then he knew me, and so we’ve got a connection, and he wanted me to be part of this.
I had no idea what he was talking about. I was just meeting with the guy, and then I asked around me, and everybody, who was younger than me, just said, “Whoa, he’s the godfather of all gaming!” And he turned out to be a genius. I mean, whatever he’s doing, I’ve never seen anything like it. Specifically for this, what we’re doing now, I’ve never seen anything like it. He still tries to pitch me what it is and I’m still standing there looking like an idiot, going, “What? Say it again?” It is so elaborate, his world. It makes sense when it’s done, but it’s difficult to grasp when he talks about it.
Are you still doing work on it?
We’re still doing little things, but how much we’ve got left, I’m not sure.
So there’s still not really a clear date as to when that’s going to come out.
I’m not sure. He’ll be the boss of saying that. Yeah, we’ve got some quite heavy instructions on what to say and not to say.
Do you play any video games yourself?
I’m not a gamer. I mean, as a kid, I played whatever was in the arcades; I did Pac-Man and I did Space Invaders, and I fancied myself pretty good at that. But the games that my son is playing, like the FIFA football games, it’s like, if he doesn’t have a player, he’ll ask me to come and sit down, and I have no idea what I’m doing. It’s embarrassing.
To return to Polar, there’s a scene where you have these laser gun cannons. How was that to shoot?
It was blowing us away. I mean, it was just standing there trying to keep your balance, it was almost literally impossible. The power of these guns was like, “Get the fuck out!” And I’m one of these guys — I simply hate having earplugs in. I kind of lose all the other senses. I can’t feel, I can’t see anymore. So of course I insisted on not having any. That was a mistake.
The thing I like about the movie is that there’s a sense of humor that runs through all of it. Despite films like Adam’s Apples or The Green Butchers, I feel like you’re primarily known as a dramatic actor; is doing a little more comedy or lighter stuff something that you want to explore?
The Danish ones are strictly crazy dark comedies, and it’s, to a degree, language-based. There’s a lot of things we miss out on if we don’t speak Danish; that’s always the case in your native tongue. But they’re insane characters, and I love that universe. It’s the best thing for me to dive into after I’ve done numerous, let’s say, straightforward films. I love [director Anders Thomas Jensen’s] world. Doing other light things is tricky because it is really my sense of humor, what he’s doing, and then it’s a little difficult to do something I don’t find as funny.
What I find funny about Polar — or at least what we tried — is that this man who is not socially skilled still has these conversations with a girl who’s not super socially skilled either, and those conversations obviously become absolutely insane. But kind of cute! And it’s hard not to smile and laugh at some of it because it’s like, “Yeah, she just said that, you don’t have to repeat it.” It’s just off, and it’s a way to like them together. And then, obviously, it’s a little up on the volume when he starts teaching a school class [about killing people]. We loved it, and the kids loved it. The idea was to have all the kids be in shock, but we realized it’s actually really cool if half of them love this, because they’ve been missing out on something really cool in school, and the other half is pissing their pants. So yes, I love that concept.
Are there any other comedies or movies in that vein, as an audience member, that you’ve enjoyed?
I’m such a teenager in that sense. I love The Hangover films. They’re very hard not to love, and I think the characters are great. It’s outrageous, what they do, and when things are outrageous, they’re funny. It’s not funny when it’s not outrageous, and that’s as simple as it gets for me.
You mentioned in another interview that you’d just finished watching The Walking Dead. Is there anything else in terms of movies and TV that you tend to seek out or that you’ve enjoyed recently?
I don’t watch a lot. It does happen if I’m in a specific situation, and The Walking Dead thing was this thing I had with my son that we just binge-watched together, and it was addictive, because it’s like, “Yeah, we know it’s a zombie,” we know it’s gonna come, but we just want to see it because it’s cool, right? And I think they were smart. I mean, I haven’t seen the latest season. They’re circling around the start of a society, how do you make a society, and these are the eternal problems they’re dealing with, which is always interesting to watch, and they’re great actors, and if that gets a little boring? There’s a zombie. [laughs] It’s such a cool combination.
I feel like the directors that come up often in conversation in the interviews that I’ve read with you that you haven’t worked with are the Coen brothers and David Lynch; have you ever come close to working with them?
I don’t think so. I don’t have a pile of scripts they’ve sent me. [laughs] And Scorsese’s definitely up there, if not the first one. I’ve got closer to him — not working with him, but I’ve had dinner with him a few times in other situations, and he’s just as amazing as a person as he is a director. He’s wonderful to listen to.
What kind of stuff did you guys talk about?
Film. It’s insane. I tried to stop myself from talking about his films because I’m such a fucking huge fan of his films, and it’s always embarrassing if you’re just that awed, but I ended up doing it anyway. It’s just ridiculous. What can I do?
I feel like there’s a converse there, though; being self-conscious when you’re talking to an artist and saying that you like their work — you’ve been on the other side of that table, how do you feel about it?
Yeah, I started out knowing what that is, because I don’t find it humiliating or embarrassing when people talk to me about these things, but for some reason I find it that way [when talking to other artists]. It’s not a lot of actors/directors. I’m predominantly a sports fan; all my heroes are sports heroes. I would probably be standing like a little boy, like this [mimics being frozen], when I meet them, if I did. So it’s not as bad. I talked to [Scorsese] as the artist he is, and it becomes a vastly — quickly, I forget who he is. He’s such a welcoming man. But there is that split moment just before, where I go, “Don’t make a fool of yourself.” And then I do. [laughs]
Do you have a favorite of his films?
I love them all. Mostly I love the ’70s and ’80s stuff: The King of Comedy, Raging Bull, Mean Streets. And I often say, and I still say, that my favorite film is Taxi Driver — first of all, because it’s a great film. And maybe there are films that are better out there, and maybe there are films that he likes better as well, but for me, it was just a very important time in my life. I saw it, and it twisted my idea of how to make films. I wasn’t an actor at all at that point. I just realized that you can actually watch an entire film with a character you don’t like — and then you like him, and then you don’t like him, and it goes back and forth. He’s sucking me in, and there’s no mercy here. I’m just with this character. And that was just fucking brilliant. I love that.
One last question: They’re doing a Rogue One prequel TV series. Do you have any idea if you’ll be involved with that?
I don’t know. You know, I just heard of it yesterday, that’s the first time I heard of it. So, if I am, they’ve forgotten my phone number. Or maybe they will just reach out later. Whose character are they going to follow?
We had nothing together in the film but, offscreen, we bonded really fast. I really, really like him, not only as the brilliant actor he is, but also as a person. And so [leans over towards mic] if there’s anything I could be in with him, I will do it.