Mads Mikkelsen, The Steely-Eyed Genius of 'Hannibal'

The 'Hannibal' star seduces with his portrayal of the screen's most famous serial killer

Mads Mikkelsen Hannibal
Brooke Palmer/NBC
Mads Mikkelsen as Dr. Hannibal Lecter in 'Hannibal'
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In 2005, when Mads Mikkelsen learned he’d landed the biggest role of his career to date (Le Chiffre, the cunning, villainous banker opposite Daniel Craig’s James Bond in 2006's Casino Royale), he found it difficult to comprehend why those around him were so worked up. “I’d never seen a Bond film at that point,” he says, laughing. Instead of getting excited, Mikkelsen did what comes most natural: he homed in on the task at hand.

“I have the strange ability to shut things out,” Mikkelsen says. “Otherwise you just start shitting your pants and don’t focus on what you’re doing.”

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Laser-sharp concentration and a pristine sense of clarity and purpose have served Mikkelsen well: The 48-year-old actor, already an A-list movie star in his native Denmark, has seen his Hollywood star rise in a major way over the past year. It’s thanks in large part to his titular role as the infamous, brilliant psychopathic cannibal, Dr. Hannibal Lecter, on NBC’s surprise-hit of a mind-bending drama, Hannibal, which kicks off its second season February 28th.

Lecter remains a mentally challenging role for Mikkelsen — “To put yourself in the mindset of a man like that is obviously not simple”— though it serves as the perfect vessel for American audiences to get a healthy dose of the classically trained actor’s typically formidable onscreen persona: oft-understated, steely-eyed, slithering. Mikkelsen is the rare breed of actor able to accomplish as much with his body or eyes — a slight nod or a subtle wink — as one of Lecter’s trademark Shakespearian soliloquies.

“I try to eliminate words as much as possible,” says Mikkelsen, who won the Best Actor award last year at the Cannes Film Festival for his portrayal of a teacher wrongfully accused of pedophilia in the Oscar-nominated Danish film, The Hunt. “There is a tendency to underestimate the power of what we can do without words. Sometimes you can make a scene even more powerful and precise without dialogue.”

It’s Mikkelsen’s ability to be still, in the moment and self-aware, that most impresses — and occasionally scares — his Hannibal co-star, Laurence Fishburne. “He has this kind of danger that’s really evident,” the actor contends. “It’s like, ‘What’s he going to do next?’”

Growing up the youngest son of a banker and nurse in Nørrebro, a northwest district of Copenhagen, acting was never a viable career option for Mikkelsen. A professional dancer for a decade before leaving to enroll in drama school, Mikkelsen (whose brother Lars is also an actor) eventually drew upon a childhood love of radio drama, instilled in him by his father, when turning to acting.

“There was an imagination working really hard in us from the very beginning,” he says of his and Lars’ early fascination with listening to horror stories on cassette tape. “We’d close our eyes and really imagine that we were in the story. And we’d hear it again and again and we could do all the voices by heart.”

Mikkelsen first emerged as a formidable acting presence in mid-’90s Denmark, a central player alongside directors Nicolas Winding Refn, Lars Van Trier and Thomas Vinterberg in Scandinavia’s contemporary film renaissance. He and Refn, in particular, found a creative muse in each other. “It was like a blast of power,” Refn recalls of first meeting Mikkelsen when the then-31-year-old drama student auditioned for his breakout role as a chatterbox of a drug dealer in Refn’s acclaimed 1996 crime drama Pusher.

The two continued to work together in the following years — including on two additonal Pusher films — each helping the other increase his profile. “My alter-ego during that period was definitely Mads Mikkelsen, and always will be,” says Refn, who adds he feels the time and situation is ripe for the pair to reunite on a film together. “There’s a very deep-rooted river between us that needs to run red again.”

For now, Hannibal’s success has Mikkelsen, a husband and father of two, fast becoming a household name in America. To that end, he finds himself fielding numerous offers for roles in marquee films. Ask him if he long ached for Hollywood notoriety, however, and he can only laugh.

“It was never part of my dream,” he says. “I never went for it. I never seeked it out.”

Mikkelsen, for his part, does offer one benefit to his recent good fortune in Hollywood.

“In Denmark we’re making 20 films a year,” he says. “If I’m showing up in even two of those people will get tired of me really fast. So this enables me to work more than, say, two months a year.”