Although the Danish star arrived at the Sarajevo Film Festival to receive his Honorary Heart of Sarajevo Award for his outstanding contribution to the art of film, many of the crowd who attended the event’s morning “Coffee With…” event on Monday seemed, rather worryingly, to be fans of Mads Mikkelsen’s TV work, notably HBO’s cannibal drama Hannibal. Nevertheless, the actor took their questions from him in his stride from him, as part of a wide-ranging conversation that embraced his early career in Danish indie cinema, his move to the US and the MCU, his affection for Pink Floyd, and his love of football. “I always wanted to make money out of sports,” he quipped. “It never happened.”
Speaking of his most recent release, Fantastic Beasts: The Secrets of Dumbledore, in which he played Gellert Grindelwald, Mikkelsen admitted he’d had concerns about replacing Johnny Depp, who withdrew from the franchise due to his much-publicized court case with ex-wife Amber Heard. He also hinted at Depp’s possible return from him.
“It was very intimidating,” said Mikkelsen. “Obviously, well, now the course has changed—he won the suit, the court [case]—so let’s see if he comes back. He might. I’m a big fan of Johnny. I think he’s an amazing actor, I think he did a fantastic job. Having said that, I couldn’t copy it. There’s there was no way I could just copy it, because it’s so much him. It would be creative suicide. So, we had to come up with something else, something that was mine, and build a bridge between him and me. So, yes, it was intimidating. His fans were very, very sweet, but they were also very stubborn. I didn’t interact too much with them, but I could understand why they had their hearts broken.”
Thinking back to his early days, after making his debut in Nicolas Winding Refn’s pusher (1996) as a late starter at the age of 30, Mikkelsen explained that the ’90s were a pivotal time for Danish cinema. “Looking back, it was obviously wonderful,” he said, “but when I was in the middle of it, it seemed only natural—this was just what we did. There was a whole generation of filmmakers on either side of the camera who wanted to change Danish cinema.
“It [used to be] somebody who was 80-something years old directing people who were 17 years old, and then all of a sudden people of the same generation wanted to collaborate. Everybody had their own style—[Open Hearts director] Susanne Bier had hers and Nicholas Winding Refn had his—so we could jump between styles, but we all had some kind of same energy. And I think that’s what changed the movie business in Denmark. It wasn’t just one thing, it wasn’t a bunch of geniuses coming up. It was just that all of a sudden the same generation started coming together. Later on, we worked with those older directors as well, but we needed to identify ourselves first.”
After his breakout role as 007’s nemesis Le Chiffre in the 2006 Bond film Casino Royalein which he had to “kick the shit out of Bond’s balls”, Mikkelsen began receiving offers from the US This led to his stint as Hannibal Lecter (a character he described as “a fallen angel” rather than a psychopath) and bad- guy duties in 2016’s Dr. Strange. “The scale of those films is insane,” he said, “and it’s very interesting to work within that world. I would say that one single set-piece of a Marvel film has the same budget as an entire Danish film, so the sky’s the limit, right? I grew up watching those films, and, of course, it’s fantastic to be part of it. Now, only doing [blockbusters] might not be enough for me, so, luckily, I can luckily go back and forth. Having said that, acting in front of a green screen, fighting a giant scorpion that is not there, is real acting, you know? Sitting in a kitchen, having a dialogue with someone is more re-acting. You actually use your imagination when you work with a green screen—there’s a lot of acting in that.”
A roving microphone passed around by the audience resulted in a lot of random questions: one about the film that changed his life (Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver), another about the first book that made him emotional (The Brothers Lionheart by Swedish writer Astrid Lindgren), and another about how he felt about being “routinely” voted the sexiest man in Denmark (“It’s a fine list to be on, but I wouldn’t be crying if I wasn’t on it”) .
One question that truly stumped him, however, was being asked to name his top three leading actors or actresses. “I will only have three friends if I answer that question, and I will get a thousand enemies, right?” he joked. On reflection, he added, “There are so many fantastic actors that I’ve worked with a lot back home, and there are many more out there. One guy I’ve always wanted to work with is a French actor called Vincent Cassel. I think he’s amazing. I grew up with Robert De Niro, and if I could have Meryl Streep on the team, well, that would be great.”