Acclaimed Danish actor Mads Mikkelsen has had quite a varied career. He rose to prominence in his first film, Nicolas Winding Refn's Pusher in 1996. He then went on to do blockbuster films Casino Royale and Star Wars: Rogue One, and very small independent films, like the upcoming survival drama, Arctic. Mads Mikkelsen is a versatile performer, becoming one of the most sought after character actors in Hollywood. He takes the lead in two very different films this February.
I had a chance to speak with Mads Mikkelsen while he was doing press interviews for Arctic. The film is a gripping story of survival in the desolate cold. Mikkelsen stars as a crashed pilot working against the elements. He must single-handedly plot his own escape in a nightmare scenario. Arctic, shot in Iceland over nineteen days, is the debut feature from writer/director Joe Pena. It is beautiful and engrossing. The pristine white wilderness belying the desperate fight for life. Mikkelsen speaks at length about the grueling shoot, working with a first time director, and the quick turnaround after getting the script.
Mads Mikkelsen is also starring in Polar, the Netflix adaptation of the extremely violent Dark Horse Comic series. He plays Duncan Vizla, aka The Black Kaiser, an elite assassin who's being hunted by his former colleagues. Arctic and Polar may sound similar, but are completely different films. They show Mikkelsen's significant range as an actor, and his ability to pull off extremely physical performances. He discusses the difficulties of filming Polar after wrapping Arctic. Polar is currently streaming globally on Netflix. Arctic will be released by Bleecker Street Films on February 1st.
Mads, I haven't spoken to you since Casino Royale. I'm pretty excited for this interview.
Mads Mikkelsen: We go way back. (laughs)
This is a brilliant story of survival. Why make this movie? Why do such an extreme film?
Mads Mikkelsen: The simple answer would be the script. I just loved the script. It was everything I hoped for. I was turning the pages and wondering if it would fall into the flashback trap. It didn't. It was so clean and honest. I found it poetic and beautiful. It was a simple go ahead.
There's little dialogue in this film. What was it about first time director Joe Pena that gave you the confidence he could tell this story?
Mads Mikkelsen: Well, I've worked quite a few times with first time directors. I always find them intriguing and interesting. They seem to be radical in the sense that they have this film, and they just want to make this film. They don't take any prisoners. That can be a very interesting ride. It certainly was with Joe. I found the story to be enormously beautiful. It's the difference between surviving and being alive. These are two very different things. I thought the story just nailed it.
You've previously stated that the nineteen day shoot was the most grueling of your career? Talk about filming in those conditions?
Mads Mikkelsen: It was brutal. We were hoping to shoot in thirty days, but lost eleven days. The weather just kills everything. We would open car doors. They would break and just disappear down the valley. We never saw them again. It's one of these things that looks so great on paper. You love it. Then a couple of months later when you're standing in the snow, you're just cursing yourself for saying yes. It's insane. It's a radical story. It's a radical surrounding. The main character is the arctic. It gives us a lot of gifts, but it's also our biggest enemy. It's an interesting thing to embrace. It may be easier when your thirty, instead of fifty-three but I did it anyway.
There was a really quick turnaround between getting the script, meeting Joe Pena, and filming. What spurred the speed? How did this get moving so quickly?
Mads Mikkelsen: I don't know how they did it. It would fit in my schedule if we did it fast. If not, we would have to figure out stuff for the next year. I guess Joe looked at his team and said we can pull this off in two months. They went for it. It was a rock and roll feeling from the very beginning of this film. I often think a film like this thrives on that energy. It was a smart choice to just go ahead and do it while we still had it on our brains.
What was your best day and worst day filming on Arctic?
Mads Mikkelsen: (laughs) The worst day, it's hard to pick one. The end scene of the film was brutal. There was nothing left in the tank. It was just empty. We were all breaking down. In the middle of the film, there is a blizzard and we hide in the sleeping bag. We're covered in snow when we wake up. So we were covered in snow, then they added quite a bit more of snow. We couldn't get out. We were just stuck under the snow and they couldn't hear us. I had it. It was just too much. The best day...that was when my co-actress appeared in the film. Because it had been a lonely ride, not just for the character, but me as an actor. She appeared, and it was all worthwhile. There was somebody there to play ball with. There was somebody else to have a reason to survive.
You physically carry all of this weight throughout the film. It reminded me of those guys that walked to the South Pole, dragging their supplies. How much were you really pulling in those scenes?
Mads Mikkelsen: A lot, there was no way I could be assisted. They wanted virgin snow, so I had to be out there by myself. It didn't matter if I was a mile away or right in front of the camera, I had to walk out there by myself, pulling everything, in order to keep the virgin snow.
Mads Mikkelsen: Yes, but we had such beautiful shots. We shot for four to five nights on this hill, where I am sitting and cranking to get the signal. Every time the sun was setting, the crew would stay up there, and I would leave the platform and walk on the ice by myself.
How was the interaction with the polar bear? That's a frightening animal.
Mads Mikkelsen: (laughs) The polar bear when I filmed was a giant guy, an Icelandic man dressed up as a polar bear. We were not allowed to be anywhere near that polar bear. It is trained, they say, but the only one that can get close is the trainer. We were told not to say anything, not to smell too much, just stay quiet and in the background.
A question about the logistics, obviously you can't leave trash or spoil the environment. Were the set-ups here the most difficult of your career?
Mads Mikkelsen: I wouldn't say it was the most difficult, just the toughest. Difficult is a different thing. That's when you're filming a scene and it doesn't work. This was not the case here. It was just tough, tough as hell. I believe I lost fourteen pounds in the first two week.
Mads Mikkelsen: Just walking around, walking, walking, and eating very little. It was not planned. It was not supposed to be a method thing or anything like that. It was just unavoidable.
How did you physically prepare for such an arduous shoot?
Mads Mikkelsen: They didn't want me to work out. My character, he crashes, he's not prepared for this. He's just on his way home for a nice cup of coffee. He's as surprised as I am. So they just dropped me there. (laughs) We went scouting for a couple weeks. We got in shape just by walking, and figuring out little details. How do you behave on ice, snow, and mountains. We found our own way of doing things. It's crazy, but was fun as hell.
You've done huge films, Bond, Star Wars, and very small films like this one. Which intrigues you more as an actor?
Mads Mikkelsen: Both of them. I don't think you would find any actor who wouldn't like to be in an indie film or a big film. We love all, it's all acting. If you're doing a certain thing, again, again, and again; you want to shift gears, do something else. I've been very lucky and fortunate that people have seen me with different eyes. I can go back and forth, do big stuff and small stuff.
You have a huge 2019, what can you tell us about Polar, the Netflix adaptation of the Dark Horse Comic?
Mads Mikkelsen: We just had a screening yesterday, the first time I saw it on the big screen. It's an action thriller, in a crazy way. It's based on a graphic novel by a guy named Victor Santos. When I say graphic, I mean extremely graphic. Our challenge was to bring that to the big screen. I think we managed to do that in a crazy manner. It's quite brutal, and funny, which is a good thing.
Talk about training for Polar, there's a lot of gunplay and fighting? Was that fun to do after trudging around in the snow?
Mads Mikkelsen: I was hoping it would be like a walk in the park. It turned out not to be. (laughs) It was almost as excruciating. The stunt sequences were very extreme. I'm always wearing no shoes, half naked, the conditions were very cold. You're walking on concrete and there's military boots stepping on you all the time. It was crazy conditions. But we wanted it that way. We wanted it to be brutal and heavy. We wanted it to look like we were hurting ourselves.
Do you prefer a streaming release or theatrical?
Mads Mikkelsen: I'm super excited. A lot of people will be able to see it. We all want our films on the big screen, but these days people have big screens at home. I think they will serve it justice as well. The Netflix opportunities are endless. I hope they come to terms with the rest of the movie world and accept each other. It's definitely a part of the future.
Are you signed for more Polar films?
Mads Mikkelsen: I don't know if I signed to do anything . (laughs) I'm a rookie when it comes to paperwork. This is a standalone film. But there's obviously a door we can open if people want to see a second one. We have quite a few good ideas about what that would be.