Mads Mikkelsen: From Serial Killer to 'Star Wars' Secret Weapon

He's played Bond bad guys, Marvel supervillains and Hannibal Lecter – but his 'Rogue One' role may be Danish actor's breakthrough moment

Galen Erso (Mads Mikkelsen) Credit: Jonathan Olley

It's getting dark out, but even in the dusk, Yoda's silhouette is unmistakable. Cast in bronze, his ears spread wide as wings, Luke Skywalker's life coach stands atop a burbling fountain within Lucasfilm's sprawling San Francisco campus. In a building behind him, actors from the new Star Wars movie, Rogue One, navigate the lobby – Riz Ahmed one moment, Felicity Jones the next. 

In a lounge a few floors up, their co-star Mads Mikkelsen settles into a big leather armchair, gazing out at the Golden Gate Bridge and noshing on trail mix. Like his fellow actors, Mikkelsen is here to promote Rogue One, and he isn't above geeking out about his surroundings. Gorgeous vintage movie posters for classics like The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance hang everywhere. Life-size replicas of Stormtroopers and Darth Vader stand sentinel in the halls. "Isn't this place incredible?" Mikkelsen asks. "I could never bring Nicolas Winding Refn here – he would definitely try and steal something." 

Refn – the director of art-house thrillers like Drive and The Neon Demon – is, like Mikkelsen, a Dane, and the two men began their movie careers together, back in Nineties-era Copenhagen, with a micro-budget gangster flick called Pusher, in which Mikkelsen played an unhinged would-be tough called Tonny. As Mikkelsen's current locale illustrates, though, he's come a long way since then. In Rogue One, the events of which predate 1977's Episode IV, he plays Galen Erso, a brilliant scientist instrumental in creating the planet-obliterating Death Star. "He's a man of the Empire," Mikkelsen says. "And, believe it or not, they have love and families in the Empire as well. He knows there's the possibility of his invention being used in a destructive way, but it doesn't stop him."

"I grew up with pop culture. So I would be a hypocrite saying I don't love James Bond, and that I don't love flying kung fu – 'cause I fucking love it."

The character occupies a thick moral murk, in other words – and thick moral murk is where Mikkelsen feels most comfortable as an actor. American audiences know him best, after all, from his turns playing the ominous terrorist financier Le Chiffre in the 2006 James Bond reboot Casino Royale – a character who, thanks to a "derangement of the tear ducts," as he puts it, literally cries blood; the lung-munching, mind-fucking Hannibal Lecter on the fantastic, woefully short-lived NBC gorefest Hannibal; and, most recently, the nefarious Kaecilius, battling Benedict Cumberbatch and doing aerial martial arts in Doctor Strange

The key to portraying extreme villainy, Mikkelsen says, is to muster an empathy for the villain that can be jarring to hear him discuss. For instance: "Hannibal Lecter is just fucking wonderful – he's an elaborate, complex person. He's not evil. He just loves beautiful things and tries to make everything beautiful." We're talking about the same guy who murders and eats people, right? "Obviously, seeing beauty on the threshold of death is a little bizarre," Mikkelsen concedes. Then he shrugs. "But that's what he sees. We divide characters into good guys and bad guys, but even when they're the bad guys, we have to find something that we identify with." He adds that not only actors but all of us share an ingrained infatuation with darkness: "We have been fascinated with evil since the dawn. Two minutes after we invented God, we invented Satan." Mikkelsen grins. "We needed him."

Mikkelsen's open-mindedness when it comes to climbing into the heads of, say, cannibal gourmands makes him particularly adept at exploring extremes of human behavior, and although he has starred in several finely observed, small-bore European dramas – like The Hunt, for which Mikkelsen won Best Actor at Cannes by playing a small-town teacher accused of child molestation – he doesn't look down his nose at so-called genre work. "The snobbery in my business is enormous," he says. "I did not grow up on deep Czechoslovakian dramas or French art films. I watched Bruce Lee. Later on, I saw Taxi Driver, and Krzysztof Kieslowski's Decalogue, and I was blown away, but I grew up with pop culture. So I would be a hypocrite saying I don't love James Bond, and that I don't love flying kung fu – 'cause I fucking love it."  

He grew up a self-described "comic-book boy" in Copenhagen, the son of a nurse mother and a banker dad. "I was very curious," he says. " 'What's around that corner?' It was a very big world, and I was, 'I gotta hurry to see the whole thing.'" He worked a series of jobs for pocket money, ranging from paperboy to stranger vocations: "I was the delivery boy for a dentist – bringing false teeth to old people in a big wooden box," Mikkelsen, now 51, recalls. "I broke a few, because I was always riding on my bike, taking shortcuts down stairways. I was very energetic." 

From the time he was about seven to 17, he also funneled that energy into gymnastics. "I was very good at jumping and spinning and stuff, though not superstrong in the rings and shit. My friends and I would spend a tremendous amount of time just doing stunts – running and throwing ourselves out of high places, daring each other to run and do a flip from a trampoline onto a mattress. Very Jackass."  

That led Mikkelsen to a career, in the late Eighties, as a dancer – a path that unfolded both in the ensembles of musicals and in artsier, more rarefied contexts: "When I was 19, I went to New York and studied at Martha Graham's school for four months," he says. In love with what he calls "the drama of dance," he decided, at age 26, to enroll in acting school, and he was 30 when Refn cast him in Pusher, which was such a hit in Denmark that it birthed two sequels and made Mikkelsen nationally famous.

Mikkelsen says he never consciously plotted to break into Hollywood, and notes that most of the big roles he's played came about after directors saw him in something and approached him with a part. "I came over here and got an agent after Casino Royale, and after that I had quite a few auditions," Mikkelsen says. "But one day I found myself in an office, trying out for a Fantastic Four something, extending my arms like a rubber man, and I was like, 'This is so embarrassing. I'm standing in a fucking office, reaching for something on the other side of the room, and I have one line. I can't do this anymore.'" He shakes his head at the memory. "Happily, I get phone calls now."

Mikkelsen lives with his wife and two children in Denmark; in his spare time he watches The Walking Dead ("There's nothing cooler than zombies"), reads Michael Connelly detective novels and immerses himself in history – he once binged simultaneously on biographies of Stalin, Hitler and Genghis Khan. Mostly, though, he works, and whether it's a superhero flick or an austere drama, Mikkelsen says, his job is the same: "We've got to go in there and be real. There's a reality you have to respect." He calls making blockbusters "spectacularly fun. I don't think I would want to fly around on wires eight films in a row, but I love doing it, and I'll do it again. At a certain point, though, you want to go the other way: 'Please give me The Hunt again.' Something small." He laughs. "But if I do eight of those films, then I'll go, 'Please let me fly around with a sword again!'"