Ben Meagher has coffee with star of the Danish screen Lars Mikkelsen in Copenhagen and discovers why Mikkelsen once believed he’d become a clown.
On one of the corners of Sønder Boulevard, a lively suburb of Vesterbro to the west of Copenhagen, lies a café-come-corner shop that brews and bottles its own beer and sells those niche magazines your mother warned you about: from cinematic discourse in Berlin to bi-annual issues showcasing the latest and greatest in photographic talent across the continent. Not only can you have a slice of home baked kagelsnegel, but for those interested in people-watching you can also grab a slice of life – especially if you’re on the lookout for Lars Mikkelsen. Then again, he isn’t hard to spot when he’s sitting opposite you.
Although sipping gently away at his coffee under the brim of a black flat cap and shrouded in an all-purpose weather jacket, Lars isn’t trying to be anonymous. As we sit outside, he exchanges friendly waves and bubbling conversation with at least half of the neighbourhood. With success on screen at home and abroad, his foundations of acting began with little more than face paint. ‘I started out miming and juggling around the streets of Europe’ he begins. ‘I was pretty convinced that I was going to be a clown up until that point. It’s a really good way of learning and approaching the craft, but what happens is that after a while you realise you need a punch line every ten seconds. I just got fed up with that. Then I got introduced to Shakespeare. It was Prospero in The Tempest. I mean, I didn’t understand fuck all,’ he admits, chuckling, ‘but I felt something. I felt a relationship; a barrier I wanted to climb.’
After being tempted by the luring abyss of classical texts, Lars enrolled at the age of 27 to the National Theatre School of Denmark, graduating in 1995. ‘Its not like it is in Britain where you have loads of schools and loads of actors coming out’ he cautions. ‘We only have three schools here: Copenhagen, Aarhus and Odense. 24 actors come out of each school and the whole thing is paid for, you don’t pay a penny. It’s really quite extravagant for a small country to have that sort of education.’
Before his theatrical training, the financial comfort at secondary school seldom brought personal confidence. ‘I was very insecure and didn’t really know what to do. I wasn’t very good at anything. I didn’t realise that I wanted anything to do with acting – I just didn’t believe in myself at all so it wasn’t an option really.’ After school, Lars decided to enrol for active military service.‘In the military you don’t apply,’ he explains. ‘You draw a number and if it’s high you don’t get in. So I drew a number way beyond the limit and didn’t get in. But there were these guys behind one of the tables saying to me “Oh that’s a shame, it would have been really something for you.”’ He pauses, cradling his cup of coffee. ‘You know, that was the first time in my life that somebody said we could actually use you for something. When they said that I immediately wanted to go for it again. It was a waste of time really, but I got some discipline that I didn’t have before.’ The sides of his mouth begin to curl sheepishly upwards. ‘And the shooting was fun.’
After firing off a few rounds, Lars then went on to the University of Copenhagen to study Biology. ‘I was sitting there reading chemistry and mathematics – It had nothing to do with animals at all!’ Does he regret not taking his studies further? He immediately shakes his head. ‘I wouldn’t go back to it. I’d still be studying, drinking and just being miserable. I would be the worst biologist in the world!’
From millitary drills to textbooks and juggling, it’s hardly a surprise that he speaks four languages fluently. Lars brushes off any sense of linguistic talent. ‘Most Danes speak Swedish’ he shrugs. ‘We grew up with Swedish television for children, so we just picked it up when we were small. Danish and German are closely related, so if you do a bit of work you’ll pick that up too – German is a really beautiful language. Every language has got its own mark, its own fingerprint. I love it, I think it’s so much fun to try. Whenever you go to a country and you make that stretch to approach that language, you are seen so much better aren’t you?’ Seeing as I can only successfully pronounce ‘Hej’ (hi) and En Kop Kaffe’ (a cup of coffee) I’m praying it’s a rhetorical question. But like most Danes, he’s more than forgiving about my lacklustre attitude. ‘Danish is so hard… the sound, then the grammar – its just exception after exception. The problem here is that our grammar system only applies to half of our words.’ They failed to mention that in the language lessons.
Unlike the chalk and blackboard, learning English was far less conventional. ‘I think my brother and I picked it up from listening to our records of Monty Python. We could recite all of the sketches, all of those funny accents… nothing’s really holy to you, is it?’ he laughs.‘There’s nobody in the world that comes even within a foot of English comedy; it’s by far the best. I think it’s to do with your Victorian identity, it still seems to have a hook on people and that gives you a wall on which to bounce your ball. Sometimes I miss that form, that way of life.’ Time hasn’t eroded all of those royal ideals though. In February 2011, Queen Margreth II of Denmark awarded Lars a knighthood. ‘That was great fun, but I sort of fucked it up,’ he grins. ‘I was told outside that the rules were simple; you approach her, but not too close, then you say thank you for the knighthood and then you start the conversation. I forgot to say thank you and on the way out I turned around and said “Oh and thanks for the knighthood!”’
However, his ear for languages and uncanny ability to pick up accents steal the limelight from royal affairs, particularly in the recent Irish film What Richard Did, which dazzled audiences and critics alike. ‘That was my first gig out of Copenhagen, so I did a lot of work for it because I really wanted the part. My first reading was way over the top! I remember reading it through, sitting with Lenny Abrahamson, a brilliant director. After half a minute he went “no, no, lets drop it”. I switched back to my own accent but after a long time in Dublin I got used to Irish. It was a narrow, thin line to walk but having Lenny by the helm… he’s just an amazing director. We stayed very close to the truth throughout the film; it looks like something we’ve done here in terms of the Dogme films.’
When discussing Danish cinema, it seems inevitable that the Dogme 95 movement should crop up. The derivation of aesthetic spectacle and focus on narrative constitutes a large part of their cinematic identity. ‘What the Dogme movement was really about was taking some of the power from the Director of Photography and giving it to the action itself. You don’t care about lighting or the sound; it was about the action in front of the camera. We’re really, really good at approaching naturalism now. But that at the same time is what constricts us. I think we need to move on from here, not leave it behind completely, but just move forward with it.’ For Mikkelsen, playing a one-legged Serbian Commando in Mo Ali’s upcoming action film Montana is definitely a step away from naturalism. ‘I had a big scale to perform with Montana. Having a prosthetic leg and doing the Serbian-Croatian accent in English… you’d never do that here.You would choose a Serbian-Croatian actor to do that. And you wouldn’t give him a gammy leg either.’
That isn’t to say Danish film remains monotonous in its approach. A Caretaker’s Tale ventured outwards with style, but also with its script revolving around a landlord who uses sexual exploitation for the benefit of his own health. ‘I think they had a hard time casting it because people didn’t want to do it – the violation theme is just rife, it can be too much. But I saw an opportunity for us to make a beautiful film. It tried to get into the Berlin film festival and was sent back. Not a “no, thank you” but an outraged “we’ve never in our lives seen anything like this!” But we knew that. It’s right on the edge of what’s possible to tell as a story.’ With Lars playing an ex-journalist in the midst of a company power-struggle, Headhunter became another attempt to veer away from the domineering ethics of Dogme. ‘Headhunter was an attempt to widen the course we could take, a thriller that was bigger, and the language was more iconic, like you would see in an American movie. We need to do those sort of films too.’
With his breakthrough in Casino Royale, his brother Mads (pronounced ‘Mass’) is no stranger to US based productions, and currently stars in Hannibal on Sky Living. Is there a brotherly competition between the two? ‘People always want to line us up in a competition and of course, I mean when we grew up we were competitive – you are as young lads,’ he admits. ‘But you won’t really see that at all, we help each other and we talk a lot about it and we’ve never, ever been casted as the same role-type. We’re not alike. I’m very proud of what he’s done and vice-versa; we’ve both done really well in what we do. If one of us hadn’t done well then there would have been a lot of agony and nagging!’ Whilst in the military, Lars went to see Mads in an amateur theatre company, singing and dancing. ‘To tell you the truth, what really appealed to me was just all the women there. They were so beautiful and so outgoing and the whole social thing around doing theatre… that’s what appealed to me really; a big sense of community and belonging.’
It’s this same containment and concentration of community that lends itself to Denmark’s visionary cast and crew, with series such as Edderkoppen, 7 years before the dawn of The Killing, fostering Danish talent. ‘I still think that’s one of the best series DR has made. It’s film noir, set after WWII in 1948-9 where corrupt politicians, policemen and gangsters ruled most of Copenhagen. Because of the collapse of society, the guys that were in the liberation army suddenly became gangsters. A whole generation of actors and filmmakers came with that series. It was a foretelling of what was to become.’
Although shows such as Borgen remain the byword for successful ratings, Lars still has a soft spot for the golden oldies of British TV. ‘When I say it, everyone goes “you like that?” But I like Frost, Inspector Morse, Poirot, Miss Marple – I really do! I wish I’d seen some of Luther, but I haven’t seen any of it yet. I saw Idris Elbain in The Wire, what an actor! His voice work there was just incredible – I couldn’t believe he wasn’t American.’ Lars sits up slightly taller, glowing with humble admiration. ‘I always say that you produce the best actors in the world, because you do. It’s got to do with the approach you take; you do stage, television and films so you’re not confined to one thing. I love seeing British actors, they are just so good. For me, as I know for all of the cast in The Killing, when we work in, or are compared to your country, we just can’t believe it. I would never have imagined that would happen.’