In his new survival movie, Arctic, Danish actor Mads Mikkelsen plays Overgård, an explorer stranded in the titular wilderness. He finds a glimmer of hope when a rescue helicopter crashes nearby. Though the pilot is dead, saving the life of the accident's lone survivor (Maria Thelma Smáradóttir) compels him to face the elements and rescue them both.
The first feature film from Brazilian YouTuber and music video director Joe Penna, which premiered last week at the Cannes Film Festival, Arctic is a standout for its commitment to naturalism and to braving the elements. Its grueling, 19-day production on location in Iceland was at turns the most "difficult" and "challenging" shoot the Hannibal, "Bitch Better Have My Money," and Rogue One: A Star Wars Story actor says he's ever done.
At the Cannes Film Festival, VICE sat down with Mikkelsen to discuss surviving the film, his preparation (or lack thereof), and why it's important to take roles on for yourself and no one else.
VICE: How did you get involved with the project? It’s such a strange film!
Mads Mikkelsen: It was actually thanks to Martha De Laurentiis, one of the producers on the show Hannibal. She was in this project, and she recommended that he [director Joe Penna] should maybe think about me. Then she called me and she said, “Do you have the script?” and it was down in the pile because I have a lot to read! So I pulled it out and I loved everything. I knew it was a survival film, but I was very much in love with the simplicity of the story: the difference between surviving and being alive, and not being alone in the world, not being able to give up and die because somebody is holding your hand. I thought that was very beautiful. Every genre film needs to have a strong story, and that story was really beautiful.
How did you feel about working with a first time director?
I felt good about it! It’s not the first time I’ve done that, I think I’ve done it [for] maybe half of my films!
Is it a conscious decision to work with first-time directors?
It’s not a completely conscious decision, but it turns out that we have something in common. I like it when people are radical, and they have no compromises. This is their first [film]—they’re like, “This is my shot! This what I’m gonna do!” You can find that in more seasoned directors as well, but you often find it in first-time directors. They’re just like, “Fuck the world, I know what I want!” you know? And I love that.
So when you choose projects, is it always just based on reading scripts?
Yep. I’ll never, NEVER do anything I haven’t read. And I’ll never do anything for which I haven’t met the director. I have to really love the story, and if there’s something I don’t understand, if the director and I disagree, but I think that she or he has a flame, I might say, “Well, I don’t agree, but it’s interesting, it’s cool!” So there has to be the combination of those two. And then thirdly comes my part, and then whoever [else] is in the film. But those are the two main things for me.
When you read the script for Arctic, you knew that the conditions were gonna be intense, right?
I had a hunch! But I didn’t really focus on it, so I realized what we were doing when we were there…
Didn't you prepare at all?
No, I didn’t prepare because the character didn’t prepare! He was just on his way home, and he crashed! And then, so did I! I didn’t prepare physically, but I prepared, obviously, story-wise. Joe and I went through everything. We were on the same page, and we might have agreed on my character’s backstory, but we didn’t want to show it.
It’s more about her backstory than his.
Yeah, but for him it is enormously important as well, and that indicates a little thing about him. But we didn’t want to go down that memory lane. I liked that we didn’t fall down that... I call it a trap. Other people love it, but I think if it was like, OK, he had a fight with his father and this long journey was all about learning how to love your father, no. No! This is about fucking being not-alone in the world! And I think that’s a bigger story.
Yeah, it’s just a guy who happened to fall.
Yeah! And with any luck, it could be you! So we can all go, “OK, I see you, I get it.”
Did you also pick that role because it was gonna be difficult?
No… And I say that a little too fast, because there is a tendency, when I look at a lot of my films! But that’s not what catches me. As I often say, if I wanted a challenge, I would just get naked and walk up Mount Everest, right? It turns that my films often are challenging, but it’s not what intrigues me... I think? Maybe it is, I don’t know! It’s funny—with limits, it’s interesting to see where they are! But I would never have done it if it was just that. It has to be a beautiful story first.
What was the hardest scene to shoot?
They were all very difficult in different ways, some were just physically hard. I kept losing weight, getting thinner and thinner, I had no energy at all, and I forgot to eat. I had to do extreme physical things that I would have had a hard time doing when I was fit! So I was drained [but] my emotions were like, right there. And for that reason, some of the scenes also became a little more emotional! I kind of broke down a few times, because the character would have done it. But we were still in control, I was still aware. It was just like, “OK, let’s use that!” You have to go with the tiredness. You have to go with the weather.
Doesn't physicality distract you from your acting? Or does it help?
It’s a mix… When it’s just difficult, then man is free. You don’t have to act it. It’s there, right? At the same time, we also still have to focus on what we’re acting in that sequence, but with this fatigue, it will come out a little different. The conditions were our biggest enemy but also our biggest friend.
You’ve done also some really big blockbusters. Do you find it hard, once you’ve done a really big film, to then do small films?
No, on the contrary. I miss out. I wanna go and do that! And then when I’ve done a few of those, I wanna go and do a flying kung-fu film in Hong Kong! So I find that it’s a lucky situation because you can drain yourself in both worlds, and what they have in common is that they have to be honest to what they do. There is a frame, there is a goal for what we wanna do, and you gotta be honest on that process. So I’m really comfortable in both places.
I always wonder, when actors work on franchises like The Avengers, if it stops them from doing anything else.
I guess it can. Maybe if you start in that and then there’s a tendency for other people not to see you as anything else… But then again, some actors who do that can get an enormous career from it, so… That’s a typical European question! Americans are not that worried, you know? I think that it’s also [the fact] that other people want to write us up into auteur films, or American acting films. They wanna put us in boxes. But very few actors belong in those boxes and I’m very, very grateful that I’ve been able to go back and forth. I don’t think I’ve lost any of my credibility here, or any of my… whatever they call it, there. Everything inspires each other.
It’s just I guess a bit scary sometimes when you see an actor getting into a project that’s like five films long.
You have to be brave sometimes and pick other things not for your career, but for yourself. Oh, it’s good for me to do a Lars von Trier film, or, I’m this American actor, it would be good to be loved in France as well. I mean, that’s also a thing, right? But that’s not the way to do it. You’ll do a Lars von Trier film because you love him—that’s the good reason. Not because it’s good for your career.
It’s like people who do Woody Allen movies just because they're by Woody Allen.
Yeah. But what if it’s a bad film? Don’t do it!
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