Interview | Lars Mikkelsen – The man behind Sherlock's Charles Magnussen

With Britain’s surge of interest in subtitled Nordic Noir dramas such as Borgen and The Killing on BBC4, it was only a matter of time before familiar Scandinavian faces started crossing the North Sea, injecting their own unique talent into British productions.

The third series of Sherlock, first aired on New Years Day, wasn’t immune to the Nordic charm, with Danish actor Lars Mikkelsen gracing the screen as Sherlock’s arch-nemesis, the artful blackmailer Charles Augustus Magnussen. “Apparently it was a big success over there, wasn’t it?“ Mikkelsen ponders modestly. Success might be considered an understatement; with an audience of 9.7 million pulled in during the first five minutes of the opening episode, it continued to break records with an incline of 3.5 million viewers catching up on iPlayer.

“They contacted me whilst I was doing another production in East London” he tells me. “I auditioned and the part was mine!” Mikkelsen makes it sound like an easy process. Yet with his silver-tongued Danish cadences, dropping in tone like a swooping predator, coupled with an unflinching, malign presence of mind on screen, it’s hard to imagine anyone else playing the role. Did Mikkelsen need to refer to Arthur Conan Doyle’s original writing to help his characterization? “It’s quite obvious from the script that he’s a very sinister character – it’s such good writing that you don’t really have to search anywhere else” he admits. “Part of the audition, of casting, is also to see if I entail what the part is about, you know? What I contributed with was this feeling of him enjoying the contact he has with people. He enjoys watching the effect he has on them”.

But it isn’t just Charles Magnussen who enjoys watching the interaction of people. The shows dynamic writing duo, Mark Gatiss and Steven Moffat, are also present on set. “They stick close by the set all the time, which is really nice because it’s quite an elaborate construction with the scripts. It’s nice to relate with them, to ask them: what do you actually mean by this sentence?” He pauses for a moment. “The relationship was very good too”.
The scripts weren’t the only elaborate construction. Sir David McMurty, the head of the British precision engineering firm Renishaw, loaned out his £30 million mansion in Gloucestershire for Magnussen’s post-modernist lair. “It was wonderful to be on that location, especially that house,” he recalls. “Having that mansion sets him up nicely. Really sets him off, doesn’t it?”

When I interviewed Mikkelsen in Copenhagen in the spring of 2013, his admiration for British acting was at the forefront of his enthusiasm for the craft. “I always say that you produce the best actors in the world,” he told me, a sense of wonder curtailing his smile. “It’s got to do with the approach you take; you do stage, television and films so you’re not confined to one thing. 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”.

So what must it be like, less than one year later, to act opposite Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman, two of Britain’s best-loved actors and international household names? “Oh just beautiful, just beautiful!” he exclaims. “I was a bit star struck the first day, but they were just so nice and so outgoing and everything was just possible from day one”. Did professionalism make him at ease? “Oh yeah” he says. “It’s the usual respect, you know? They are good lads, really good actors. I had to give them my best”.

Despite the tight schedules of all those involved and the urgency to keep plot details under wraps, the rehearsal process wasn’t forced or sporadic. “There was a fair amount of time” he begins. “We were in Cardiff shooting, so we had days off when I could work out what I wanted to do. I mean, with television and films, I’ve rarely approached it where you do loads of rehearsals. You just do a read through” he says, hovering over the wording of his next sentence, before giving up on it. “You basically just do it” he chuckles, “you know?”

Now that he’s further consolidated his presence with a British audience, does he hope to make a return to our screens in the near future? “I’d love to! I don’t think I made a total fool of myself with this, so there might be some new things coming”. His velvet accent tentatively shifts up a tone, barely containing his excitement and curiosity. “Lets see what happens!”

You can read LSi’s previous interview with Lars here or our LSi review of Season Three of Sherlock review here

Ben Meagher

Photo: Property of

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