Mads Mikkelsen started his acting career in his native Denmark nearly 20 years ago, but in the past 10 years alone, his credits have grown to include a Bond villain (Le Chiffre in Casino Royale), one of pop culture’s most iconic anti-heroes (Hannibal Lecter in the Hannibal TV series), the man who designed the Death Star in the upcoming Star Wars spin-off Rogue One, and a supernatural antagonist from the Marvel Universe in the new Doctor Strange.
That is one incredible stack of franchises for a single actor to appear in, but Mikkelsen’s distinctive voice and appearance, along with his uncanny ability to add a degree of empathy to even the most nefarious roles, have made him one of the most sought-after character actors in Hollywood. In Doctor Strange, he plays Kaecilius (based loosely on a minor bad guy in the comics), whose plans for the world have, at their core, an almost reasonable rationale — which makes him that much more of a threat.
Den of Geek had the distinct pleasure of speaking with Mikkelsen recently during the press day for Doctor Strange, where the topics included reading comics as a kid, playing a Marvel villain and whether any of these tentpole movies were ever on his wish list.
Den of Geek: So Kaecilius is not based on a major villain in the Marvel Universe.
Mads Mikkelsen: Nope.
Is that kind of freeing in a way, that you don’t have expectations to deal with?
Yeah, I think it is, because obviously everybody has this specific expectation of what Dr. Strange is or Mordo or The Ancient One. This one appears briefly (in the comics), so they could take bits of him and morph other things into that, and as you say, it’s a little freer. Nobody is going to say, but he didn’t walk like that. He didn’t have that accent. So we’re free in that sense, right?
Yes, there was a Kaecilius in the comics, but did they suggest you look at anything else?
No. No. I mean what they’ve done is obviously they’ve made their own Bible, which is our script, and this is the director’s vision and that’s where we start out and this is where we get our inspiration. If we do come with other ideas, of course we can present them but I thought they had a very strong script, a very strong character in Dr. Strange. I had pretty clear idea of what my character was and what he was achieving or trying to achieve at least.
You read comics when you were a kid too?
Absolutely, completely dedicated.
Did the American comics get over to Denmark?
Yeah yeah. DC, Marvel, they all came. I was also a big Will Eisner fan. I don’t understand where it came from. It was something I fell upon when I was a kid. I was just into graphic novels in general, European as well. I was a big fan of Tin Tin. So that was my whole universe, aside from being a gymnast, I was reading comic books. That was all I was doing.
Were there any great Danish comic books?
We had some. We had some. Actually there was a guy who came up with one based on the Norse mythology of Thor and Odin and it was called Valhalla and it was more naïve. It was not as brutal as Marvel. It was more cute but there was a history lesson of all the old sagas and they were very spot on with the sagas. I really cherished that one and funnily enough, he did gymnastics as well, this guy who made them.
You’ve had a little bit of experience playing villains. What’s the key to you of making a villain successful as a character?
I mean obviously if you take a villain like Hannibal as we did in three seasons of the TV show, it’s a very different animal because he’s as much the lead as the other lead. Right? So you have time and you spend time, you identify, you start having emotions for the character. It’s a very different animal to do it in a TV show than to do it in a film where it serves a more specific purpose of helping the hero to tell the story right.
But in this case, there is a mirror reflection from Strange that is something he recognizes in this guy. Something that my character says is not out there. It’s not crazy. It makes sense, he has a point. So that is the struggle that Strange has with himself obviously and directly with me, the means of how I want to achieve a better world, a peaceful world without suffering and death and pain. And that is where Strange has to back up and become a human being again.
I think we have to recognize something, we have to go, “It’s not completely crazy what he’s saying.” And then we have to go, “I don’t like it but that’s a point in that,” right? I think that’s interesting in a villain. If he’s just mad and takes over the world and wants to eat the babies, we don’t understand that. We have to something we relate to. Eternal life and life without pain, I think we can all buy that.
There’s a great shot where you have tears in your eyes as you explain yourself.
Yeah yeah. It’s not that we should have sympathy, it’s just that we see the passion of the man. It’s a man who actually gets passionate and emotional about how beautiful everything can be if (Strange) just joins my club. I mean I don’t have to fight him. He can just come to me and we will make this journey much faster. So I think the passion is what we were trying to bring to life with that tearing up situation there.
Speaking of the eyes, how much of that was prosthetics and how much was put on digitally?
I haven’t seen the finished work so I don’t know how much they’ve done with it but what I’ve seen so far is all prosthetic. I mean it’s a two, three hour job every day. It’s different layers and they did fantastic work. It does come to life to a certain degree via CGI but I think they’ve used less of that after they saw and liked enough of the prosthetics.
One of the other things that’s interesting about Kaecilius is that he has a sense of humor. He has a few quips back and forth with Strange. Was that something that you think developed a little bit more on set or was that always sort of in the script?
It was always there, it was always in the script and as often, as always, it’s a fine balance. You don’t want to take it too serious. You don’t want to be pretentious about it but if you crack jokes on jokes on jokes, all the sudden the drama is gone. Then nobody really cares. But that at certain times where you can allow it and still keep the tension, it works. I think they found a good balance in that.
Obviously Benedict was carrying a lot of it. I think it’s appropriate but it’s such a fine balance. If you do too much, you get, “ome on guys, move on.” If there’s too little, it doesn’t feel like Marvel.
What’s it like being on the Marvel set and how much is physically there for you to work with?
There were a lot of sets that were there and there was obviously a lot that wasn’t there. We had giant staircases, we had whole city streets of Hong Kong and Kathmandu built so there’s enough for us to go, “This is amazing,” and then on top of that at the end of the street was a green screen where we could place whatever is going to happen.
It didn’t interfere too much our job. I mean because we didn’t fight the green screen, we were not fighting a tennis ball, we were fighting each other but in terms of geography it was a little upside down and mirrored and we had to go and look at it. They made an animated version of some of the fights actually. If you hang upside down and it’s mirrored at the same time, you can lose track — where is Strange now? Is he there, is he there, where is he?
You’re going from one huge franchise, the Marvel Universe, to another huge franchise within just a few months. What can you say about being in a Star Wars film?
I’m trying to stay relaxed about it, especially because they’re both iconic franchises, I mean Marvel and Star Wars. If you start thinking, “Oh my God, we have to fill out these shoes,” you can’t move, you can’t do anything. You have to go in, do your job but obviously when you step back once in a while you realize this is crazy, this is big. But you can’t do in the moment. You have to focus on what you’re doing.
You’ve been a Bond villain, you’ve played one of the most iconic killers in pop culture, you’re in the Marvel Universe and you’re in Star Wars. Were any of these on your bucket list when you started out 20 years ago?
No no, not even close. I mean I couldn’t imagine anyone wanted to do try to redo Hannibal Lecter. I didn’t think about it. I never thought I would work anywhere outside Denmark. It was just my native tongue, that’s my base but then I got a phone call and I did King Arthur and things started changing and but it was never a dream. It was never something I was approaching at all. It just happened and so I could not have imagined that I would sit here now.
Doctor Strange is out in theaters on Friday (November 4).