What makes Mads Mikkelsen one of the great actors of his generation is tough to pin down precisely, given that a certain inscrutability is key to the Dane’s brand of unsettling magnetism. As inclined to play an lovable serial killer on NBC’s improbably brilliant Hannibal as he is to embody the titular bitch in Rihanna’s viral “Bitch Better Have My Money” music video, Mikkelsen delights in toying with audience expectations—even as Hollywood seems determined to typecast him as a villain.
In Denmark’s Oscar contender Another Round, nominated for Best International Feature as well as Best Director (for Thomas Vinterberg) at this Sunday’s ceremony, he stars as one of four high school teachers who attempt to ease their midlife ennui by maintaining a constant blood alcohol level of 0.5 percent. Not a cautionary tale, nor a boozy bacchanal, the film instead provides a nuanced look at the existential highs and lows of binge drinking, with Mikkelsen holding center stage as a man intoxicated first by alcohol then by the vertiginous joie de vivre it seems to offer. Swigging, staggering, and in the climax dancing through his character’s unsustainable social experiment, Mikkelsen is at once giddily loose and brilliantly controlled, delivering the kind of towering yet naturalistic performance we’ve come to expect from him.
A superstar in his native Denmark, Mikkelsen’s still better known in Hollywood for playing baddies or supporting characters in major franchises: Le Chiffre in Casino Royale, brimstone-eyed Kaecilius in Doctor Strange, and honorable Galen Erso in Rogue One: A Star Wars Story. (He’ll soon add more studio cash cows to his résumé, taking over the villainous role of Gellert Grindelwald from Johnny Depp in an untitled Fantastic Beasts threequel and signing onto an undisclosed role in the fifth Indiana Jones.) But Mikkelsen’s hypnotic screen presence and consistently interesting choices as an actor have made him more of an arthouse fixture with mainstream appeal than any kind of rising talent on a traditional Hollywood trajectory. A gymnast and dancer before he became an actor, he carries his characters with a kind of raw, spring-loaded physicality that turns their bodies into extended expressions of whatever emotions rage beneath his haunting, impassive, ruggedly gorgeous features.
From wordless tour-de-force turns to adventurous forays into absurdist black comedy, Mikkelsen has distinguished himself as an actor worth following anywhere. Laser-focused on locating the elemental tensions of his characters, he hones in most on their brutality and grace, providing a blend of pathos and bone-dry wit that thaws out even the most glacially removed among them. With Another Round heating up at the Oscars this weekend, what better time is there to sing Mikkelsen’s praises by looking back over 10 of his best performances?
The films of Danish writer-director Anders Thomas Jensen, all starring Mikkelsen, are most easily distinguished by his overlapping interests in male bonding, human frailty and food. Tragicomic but often running full-tilt into the absurd, they’ve offered Mikkelsen some of his most unusual roles. If you’ve seen or heard of this first feature, a pitch-black crime comedy, that’s likely thanks to the actor. In its tale of robbers attempting to go straight (kind of) by opening a terrible restaurant, it’s his alternately funny and frightening performance as trigger-happy droog Arne that most complements the film’s tonal riffing on Quentin Tarantino and the Coen Brothers. Despite frequently unloading his firearm into less-than-deserving targets—from a flaming truck engine to a categorically innocent farm animal—Mikkelsen’s Arne is still a sympathetic, oddly endearing figure. An early comedic role for Mikkelsen, it remains a stand-out.
The scuzzy, pulsating menace of Nicolas Winding Refn’s Pusher trilogy—each film following a different low-level player in Copenhagen’s criminal underworld—reached its apex in this second entry. Mikkelsen plays Tonny, a slow-witted skinhead struggling to take ownership of his life after a decade-plus of slumming it on the streets or behind bars. Vicious, belligerent and adorned with unfortunate tattoos, Tonny still intimidates, but very hard years have stripped him of the impetuousness that ruled his misspent youth. Mikkelsen invests completely in Tonny’s aching, addled inner life, even as Refn takes him to predictably dark and hopeless places. Forgiveness is in short supply around Tonny; much of the performance rides on Mikkelsen perfecting the pained micro-expressions that flit across his taciturn features as he’s berated and abused ruthlessly by those in his orbit. So it’s a credit to the subtle modulations and cumulative depth of Mikkelsen’s work that Pusher II ultimately stirs sympathy for Tonny, a detestable yet curiously vulnerable figure who can’t fully grasp the redemption his soul so desperately seeks.
Mikkelsen’s enigmatic bearing has often led him to play villains or antiheroes, but Nikolaj Arcel’s heady, bodice-ripping historical drama offers the actor a different kind of showcase. Set in 18th century Denmark, inside the court of mentally ill King Christian VII (Mikkel Følsgaard), it tells of the forbidden romance between his shrewd young wife, Queen Caroline Matilda (Alicia Vikander), and the royal physicist, Dr. Johann Friedrich Struensee (Mikkelsen). Dashing, ambitious and scintillatingly intelligent, Struensee is a dedicated man of the Enlightenment, and he appears as enamored of Caroline as he is their shared willingness to push the malleable Christian, with whom Struensee is also close, toward much-needed political reform. Mikkelsen’s tragic performance captures the moral complexity of the palace schemer, in all his passion and hubris, but it’s most revelatory in establishing him as an intoxicating romantic lead. Alternately tough and tender, seductive and forlorn, he throws himself into these perilous intimacies with the fury of a man possessed—and the grim gravitas of one who knows he’s surely doomed.
Possibly the most divisive film in this ranking (no small feat in a list with two Refns), Anders Thomas Jensen’s slapstick, weird-science grotesquerie Men & Chicken offers Mikkelsen one of his most darkly deadpan roles. Innate sex appeal offset by a garish mustache, cleft lip, awkward demeanor, and most everything else about the character, Mikkelsen plays Elias, one of two estranged brothers who in short order learn about and travel to meet their biological father and three half-brothers. A compulsive masturbator with an argumentative streak, Elias isn’t exactly polite company, but when his new kinfolk turn out to be a pod of oddballs (to put it lightly), he eagerly takes his place in their bizarrely regimented family structure. Jensen’s farcical tone sews The Three Stooges together with The Island of Dr. Moreau, but its crude stitching is part of the joke in a film that prioritizes absurdist energy over narrative logic. Mikkelsen understands this, and his portrayal of Elias is a patchwork of silly then repugnant impulses and eccentricities, albeit one performed so sincerely he registers as a real character. Altogether, the performance is an impressive feat: a madcap makeover that a lesser actor would have played big, distancing themselves from the character in the process, but that Mikkelsen instead surrenders to completely, holding this strange sad sack intimately close.
The actor’s second collaboration with the Danish director Susanna Bier (after 2002’s wrenching Open Hearts), After the Wedding casts Mikkelsen as Jacob, a relief worker in India who’s drawn home to Denmark after a billionaire there, Jorgen (Rolf Lassgard), offers to make a sizable donation to his struggling orphanage. Accepting an off-hand invitation to attend the Jorgen’s daughter’s wedding while in town, Jacob is suddenly confronted with the past he’d long ago fled, in the form of his ex-flame Helene (Sidse Babett Knudsen), now Jorgen’s wife. From there, Bier’s finely wrought melodrama veers in unexpected yet emotionally seismic directions, ending up an affecting exploration of familial obligation and fate. At its center, Mikkelsen’s virtuosic performance captures Jacob’s pressurized calm and inner turbulence, elevating what could have been a manipulative tear-jerker (see: Bart Freundlich’s inert, gender-swapped remake) into something more raw, graceful and human.
Mikkelsen’s breakout moment arrived with 2006’s Casino Royale, Martin Campbell’s brutal and haunted relaunch of the James Bond franchise. Playing the dastardly role of Le Chiffre, a master criminal in possession of Montenegro’s deadliest poker face, Mikkelsen dresses for the occasion, sporting immaculate black suits, a platinum-plated inhaler, and a scarred left eye that literally weeps blood. More interested in personal enrichment than world domination, and gradually more fixated on his own survival than either, Le Chiffre is a modern, stripped-down Bond villain. Dripping venom behind his mask-like politesse, Mikkelsen makes Le Chiffre every bit the equal of Daniel Craig’s detached, misanthropic 007. The two match wits first at the poker table, matched in their icy cool and mutual hatred, then again once the villain strips Bond naked and ties him to a chair, a sadistic streak puncturing his air of sophisticated menace.
In a tour-de-force of silent stoicism, Mikkelsen braves subzero temperatures to play Overgård, the downed pilot of a small cargo plane, in Joe Penna’s elegant, elemental Arctic. The outline of a man framed against the blinding white and howling winds, Mikkelsen communicates volumes without saying a word, in a role that recalls—and rivals—Robert Redford’s work in All Is Lost six years prior. An early scene of Overgård spearing, filleting and devouring a trout raw from the ice tells us all we need to know about our tough, resourceful protagonist. Indeed, were he not tasked with dragging the comatose survivor of a separate helicopter crash in the direction of safety, one wonders how long he might have remained in the fuselage of his wrecked vessel, deriving purpose and occasional triumph from the bare-bones logic of survival in this barren tundra. Always thrillingly expressive as an actor, Mikkelsen here delivers an immense yet egoless portrayal of a man reduced to core survival instincts, making decision after decision in his long trudge toward an uncertain deliverance. His physical commitment carries Arctic, but it’s the soulful essence of his gaze that elevates the film into something more existential and profound.
Mikkelsen’s most heartbreaking performance in what’s surely his most harrowing film, this early collaboration with Another Round’s Thomas Vinterberg finds the actor playing Lucas, a man falsely accused of molesting a child in his kindergarten class. Ostracized from his tight-knit Danish community as the lie spreads like wildfire, Lucas finds himself under threat without resources to defend himself. Fueled by misinformation, former friends and co-workers turn on Lucas with escalating force, and The Hunt takes shape as a brutally thought-provoking study of groupthink, bandwagon bias, and the savagery that can lurk inside polite society. None of it would work without Mikkelsen, who grounds the film’s provocative hypothetical in aching pathos. Cast against type as a soft-spoken beta male, complete with wire-frame glasses and blond hair combed messily forward, the star turns the rugged topography of his features into a roadmap to his pain, disbelief and mounting despair. Drilling down into Lucas as a principled man, forcibly riddled with guilt and enraged by the knowledge he has done nothing to deserve it, Mikkelsen cuts deep enough to hit bone.
Meditating on religion and rage through its hallucinatory haze, Nicolas Winding Refn’s highly expressionistic Viking odyssey owes as much to Tarkovsky’s Stalker and Jodorowsky’s El Topo as it does to Herzog’s Aguirre: The Wrath of God and Malick’s The New World. But Mikkelsen’s magnetic work at its center is even more evocative of Toshiro Mifune and his wandering ronin, archetypically hypermasculine and ironically aware of this. As the mute warrior known only as One-Eye, Mikkelsen is so intensely, puzzlingly charismatic that he resembles, not accidentally, a figure of myth. Serene and impassive as the surrounding landscapes—until the brutality of men leads him to leap forcefully into the fray—he’s at all times gorgeous to behold, even when rending flesh and crushing skulls. Mikkelsen has a face that demands close study: piercing, slitted eyes (in this case just the one, blazing); a small mouth that twists almost imperceptibly between affection and wrath; skin stretched taut over cheekbones that appear carved, as if from granite, by the gods. His physique, in Refn’s eyes, is lean and lethal, exuding tension from its toned core. In Valhalla Rising, Refn invites audiences to interpret One-Eye as violence incarnate, the devil on Earth, Christ resurrected, or a combination of the three. It speaks to Mikkelsen’s strengths as an actor that he possesses the insight and hunger needed to tackle such a role, and the divine ferocity necessary to nail it.
Mads Mikkelsen’s most delectably gourmet performance is also his finest to date. Across three seasons of Bryan Fuller’s operatic Hannibal, Mikkelsen slipped into the skin of Dr. Hannibal Lecter, the serial killer cannibal played first by Anthony Hopkins, with such sinuous grace and unnerving sangfroid as to make the role near-instantly his own. Whereas Hopkins’ Lecter began The Silence of the Lambs a caged animal, his cannibalistic appetites a matter of public record, Mikkelsen’s version of the character is more seductive and carefully controlled. An expert psychiatrist and master chef whose fixation on his FBI associates—especially criminal profiler Will Graham (Hugh Dancy)—extends far beyond the professional, his Lecter radiates a dangerous charm that keeps those around him enthralled, even as his sophisticated tastes and impeccable manners disguise his more diabolical nature. But setting aside the initial boldness of Mikkelsen’s redefining a role previously so associated with another actor, it’s heart-in-mouth thrilling to watch him deepen this portrayal over the course of the series, which sheds its procedural structure to foreground a slowly twisting psychological love affair between Graham and Lecter. What makes Mikkelsen’s performance so captivating? It’s the way his finely chiseled features preserve the mystery and magnitude of each tiny curl of his lip, every delicately raised eyebrow. It’s the purring menace with which he savors the show’s theatrically decadent dialogue. It’s the brilliant matching of this actor to a character whose veneer of civility conceals both a primal drive toward death and a romantic’s studied love of it. Really, it’s just the rare and unsurpassed pleasure of watching an actor as scary, seductive and striking as Mikkelsen meet a role so suited to his strengths it may one day come to define him.
Isaac Feldberg is an entertainment journalist currently based in Boston, who’s been writing professionally for seven years and hopes to stay at it for a few years more. Frequently over-excited and under-caffeinated, he sits down to surf the Criterion Channel but ends up, inevitably, on Shudder. You can find him on Twitter at @isaacfeldberg.