EXCLUSIVE! Q&A WITH “VALHALLA RISING” STAR MADS MIKKELSEN
The DLB had the privilege of speaking to acclaimed Danish actor Mads Mikkelsen earlier today. North American audiences know him best as the villain Le Chiffre from the James Bond film Casino Royale (2006), while genre fans will recognize him as Draco from this year’s Clash of the Titans remake. He also has a supporting role in director Paul W.S. Anderson’s upcoming Three Musketeers remake, playing Rochefort.
But today we are here to talk about Valhalla Rising, his fourth collabo with director Nicolas Winding Refn, after their three Pusher films. In Valhalla, Mikkelsen plays One-Eye, a mute and ruthless warrior in 11th century Scotland who has spent years enslaved, fighting criminals to the death for the pleasure of the chieftain who owns him. He slays his captors and, along with the young boy who tended to his wounds while in captivity, joins up with a group of Vikings who are also would-be Christian crusaders and are out to recapture Jerusalem. The voyage they embark on leads them not only into a heart of darkness but very possibly into hell itself.
The film, which was shot over nine weeks in remote Scotland, has been described by Refn as a metaphysical sci-fi film, with the crusaders’ discovery of America standing in for outer space. Beyond that, Mikkelsen’s performance is intense, even if the lack of dialogue and metaphysical nature of the script makes it difficult to connect with audiences.
You’ve talked about responding strongly to directors with vision, and you’ve worked with Nicolas four times now. What do you like about working with him?
I just love working with extremely great filmmakers, and he’s maybe the best I’ve ever worked with. He’s radical in what he does. When he makes street films about drug addicts [the Pusher series], it’s what we do. We want to nail that. And when we do a film that is in the art house cinema department, vaguely inspired by Western Sergio Leone films, this is what we do.
Having said that, we always hope that a billion people will watch the film. The primary goal is not to get sympathy for the characters, sympathy for the story. It’s to create a story we find fascinating. And he has absolutely no weakness, no doubt of turning back and trying to please people. I find that super cool.
Nick has said that you play him really well. What is it about him, do you think, that you get, that you are channelling?
Yeah, it’s hard to say what it is. Nicolas is communicating his ideas in a specific way. It’s rarely what is in the script that is actually going to end up on the screen. It’s a different way he’s working. So I said yes to this film without reading the script because I knew whatever was in there was not the film that we were going to shoot.
I understand him a lot. I think he’s very visual, he’s a very emotionally intelligent director but not super-specific always, and I think my job is to translate the film that is inside his head and let it come out of him. And so that is the kind of dualistic world we have together, which, so far, I’ve been enjoying the experience.
Nick has called Valhalla Rising a “mental science fiction film.” How did he describe it to you when he was trying to get you interested?
He talked about this film years before he actually came up with something specific, and then he called me and said, ‘And now we go. You want to play a one-eyed guy who has no future and no past and he’s not really a human person? He’s kind of like a myth!’ [Laughs] And I said, ‘Yeah, that sounds interesting.’ And then we started working from there.
His way of persuading me doesn’t have to be that big. He doesn’t have to persuade me. I’ll say yes to the next film without seeing or hearing anything about it. Once we start working, we will find a way that we find is the right way.
Nick has talked about making a fifth film with you, a heist film. Is there anything you can tell us about that?
He’s got a few things on his plate right now. I know he’s shooting a heist film right now in America [Drive with Carey Mulligan and Ryan Gosling], and I was supposed to be in it, but I was shooting something else at the same time, and it was a strictly American cast anyway so my job would have been probably be walk through a reception at a hotel and get shot or something. I can pop up in his films as much as possible just for the fun of it.
The film was shot in Scotland. Did you encounter any midges? [Midges are very pesky and persistent bugs.]
[Laughs] Oh my god. It was a challenging film in many, many ways, but one of the challenges was definitely the nature of Scotland. We are not wearing a lot of clothes and we are having fights in mud with heavy, heavy stunts, in zero degrees. And the midges were not an exception as well. If it was not raining and we were not freezing our balls off and the sun came out, we were being eaten alive. And obviously everybody else could have protection gear and mesh over them, but the guys standing there in front of the camera, we didn’t have any blood left when we came home.
The relationship One-Eye has with The Boy, who is played by Maarten Stevenson, is sometimes like father-son, other times The Boy seems to have his own agenda. How well did you get along with Maarten and did the two of you discuss The Boy’s relationship with One-Eye?
Oh, definitely we did. Maarten is a fantastic, brilliant, smart kid. So, yeah, Maarten, he had a lot of questions, a lot of ideas. He was doing it from the logic point of view. He was very mature about his questions. He was very, very smart.
But we also have a layer, let’s put it that way… We have an even bigger layer in this film which is not a logical layer, which is kind of like the mythic layer, and I think he got that as well. He understood that that was part of the film as well.
You conceived of One-Eye as an animal. Why was that approach appropriate for this character?
Normally you build up a character’s shell, or whatever you call it, to try to understand what’s going on with this character, and that’s normally something you do with the actions of your character – the face, and the things your character says; the lies, the truth, whatever he does – or his emotions. In this case, there are no emotions. He has no emotions. There’s nothing. He’s just part of nature.
So for obvious reasons I was trying to find an animal that was going to work for me because I was working with a character that was actually not human, as I had to find something else. So I used the oldest trick in the book which is, like, find an animal. I’d never done that before, but this time it was cool.
Was it disconcerting to play a character with which you could not form any sort of personal connection, or was it freeing?
It was both. At the beginning it was quite difficult. We had to reshoot some of the first scenes, the first couple of days, because just sitting in a cage, looking out at the landscape, whatever, the normal things that you do as a person – you scratch yourself, you fiddle with a little thing – it didn’t work. It became too nothing. So we had to take all that away, be total in karma with the surroundings.
And that was a very interesting challenge because it was super-cold. But after just going in there, saying ‘this is where I am. I’m going to sit here all day,’ you can kind of adjust, to say ‘well, it’s not that cold.’ So that kind of became the character, to try to be part of nature.
In terms of performance, what are the advantages and disadvantages of playing a character who does not speak?
Well, I don’t have to learn my lines. I don’t have to think about funny accents, you know. In this case it was good because all the guys were Scottish people with fairly heavy Scottish accents, and I’m not sure I could pull that off.
The disadvantage of course is it’s one of the major tools of an actor – your language, your communication – and that’s all gone. But, then again, the character doesn’t need to communicate, he just needs to survive.
Is One-Eye a character who should be feared or pitied?
I don’t think we have to pity him. He’s there, he exists. This is the basics of nature, to exist. And after that comes reproducing. He doesn’t get the chance to do that, but he does get the chance to let the kid go on living in the end of the film. So no pity.
Fear? Yes. I think there is a good reason to fear him because he does not react with a normal, logical line. He’s not discussing things with people, he’s not having a communication with other people. He can’t read. But one thing is sure: if you threaten him, he will kill you. That’s it. And that’s what he knows how to do. That’s his only action. And when he’s hungry, he will find something to eat. So that is a little like dealing with an animal but an animal you cannot keep down.
Mads, you have had some strong supporting roles in big Hollywood films like Casino Royale, Clash of the Titans and the upcoming Three Musketeers remake. Would you like to have the lead in a Hollywood film yourself? Is that an ambition of yours?
I’m being quite fulfilled with doing the leads back home and in a lot of European films; I’ve done a couple of French and German films. So I’m not starving after lead roles.
I do find lead roles more interesting in general because there’s more to work with, and there’s a story. The story is helping the character instead of your character trying to help the story, which is the case in smaller parts; they are serving a job, which is to push the story in a certain direction for the main character. And when you do play the main character, this is all taken for granted. You can start to fiddle, and you know something is being done for you as well. It may fit not always easier, but it makes it more dualistic.
Buy, yes, if a fantastic lead role became offered to me from an American film, I’m not going to turn it down that’s for sure. But so far I think I’ve been pretty spoiled with different variations of starring roles.
Valhalla Rising is available on DVD and Blu-ray November 30th through eOne Entertainment.