Mads Mikkelsen gives a perfect interview. The night before we met he was celebrating the completion of Thomas Vinterberg's The Hunt – a glorious comeback for the Festen director that won Mikklesen a Best Actor Award at Cannes. But far from bleary eyed and grumpy he's charming, funny, candid and free of vanity. He even apologises for being five minutes late, which in the world of celebrity interviews is virtually unheard of.
Ethereally handsome and abundantly versatile, 46-year old Mikkelsen's acting repertoire is broad. He's convincingly played a Bond baddie (Casino Royale), a swashbuckling knight (King Arthur), a violent drug dealer (Pusher), a one-eyed Viking (Valhalla Rising) and now he's a romantic lead in A Royal Affair, Nikolaj Arcel's splendid historical drama that tells the little known story of the love affair between Johann Friedrich Struensee, a physician turned social reformer who falls in love with the Queen of Denmark and foul of her insane husband, King Christian VII.
Fresh off a plane from Copenhagen, Nicolas Winding Refn's original muse spoke to STUDIO about 18th century Danish rebels, his sex symbol status and whether he'd ever consider doing a musical.
STUDIO: Did you have to get up horribly early to catch your flight?
Mads Mikkelsen: Yeah.
STUDIO: Are you a morning person?
MM: I'm normally a morning person, but I was out celebrating another film we've just finished.
STUDIO: Which one?
MM: Thomas Vinterberg's The Hunt.
STUDIO: We haven't seen much of him in the UK lately.
MM: Oh, he's back! This is a good film.
STUDIO: And you're playing someone who's accused of child abuse?
MM: Yes. It's a heartbreaking story.
STUDIO: It must be difficult getting into that mindset.
MM: Well, I'm innocent so it's not so bad.
STUDIO: I was completely swept away by A Royal Affair. It's a fascinating story that we know very little about over here.
MM: It's very famous in Denmark. Obviously you guys have so many stories with the Royal Family... but we have a few. This one is by far the most interesting and the one that changed Denmark for good, so it's a well known story and for that reason we had to be quite delicate because everyone has an opinion on what did and didn't happen. Our approach was very much inspired by what we know and then what goes on behind closed doors was up to us.
STUDIO: Struensee is a complex and emotionally rich character and you managed to convey the struggle he has juggling his principles with his desires. He wasn't black and white.
MM: We did try. In the history books he's brought to life in different ways. History is written by victors and he lost, so the first couple of things we knew about him were from his opponents. Later on, when people started digging into the story and history in general, it gradually changed.
What we're trying to do is see him as a doctor and a man of enlightenment, but he's not active, he's not a revolutionary. He's writing anonymous little articles and that's his life. So when he gets the chance to work for the King it's not like a social climb, it's not like he's in it to change Denmark. He's opening the King up and making him stand up for himself and gradually you see him thinking, "Why should they whisper in his ear? Why shouldn't it be me?" and then it takes over. Like every good dictator starts out – they believe and then it changes.
STUDIO: His good intentions were very evident.
MM: We had a strong feeling that there must be some kind of love between the King and Struensee. From what the King wrote about him, he was full of love. For that reason we wanted that to be a part of it, so it's a triangle about three people who love each other in different ways. Struensee had a conflict of emotion for him. He was obviously very fond of the King, but he was also betraying him by having an affair with his wife and using him to his own ends.
STUDIO: Your character and Queen Caroline were obviously very much in love, but their relationship was so doomed...
MM: We know for a fact from her letters and diaries that it was a stormy love relationship that went both ways. It wasn't a political alliance and that was a gift for us because we could make a romantic film as well and not just a cold political thriller.
STUDIO: I notice Struensee was very buttoned up. You weren't wearing flamboyant brocaded jackets or wigs like the other characters. Was that decided so that he would appear different to the rest of the court?
MM: We wanted Struensee to be somehow recognisable. He was not a big fan of wigs. You will see paintings where he is wearing wigs, but at the court and in private he was not. And he referred to the power people as The Wigs. You would have seen him in a wig once in a while, but it just looked stupid.
STUDIO: Do you like the dressing up aspect of your job?
MM: Yes. For certain films it definitely gives another aspect to my work. The good thing is that everybody is dressed up so you don't stand out. I remember when we did Clash Of The Titans and all the boys were wearing mini skirts and after a couple of days we didn't think about it. It was so absurd sitting around when we weren't shooting smoking cigarettes and giving dead arms, but we were wearing mini skirts. So sometimes that kind of setting helps you to join the film's universe.
STUDIO: Can you talk about working with rising star Alicia Vikander who played Queen Caroline? (23 year-old Vikander will be seen next alongside Keira Knightley and Jude Law in Joe Wright's Anna Karenina)
MM: I think we were the last to get our hands on her in Scandinavia. She's just flying away, but she's got all it takes. She's young, pretty, very talented, but most importantly she's a very hard working actress and the camera simply loves her.
STUDIO: Are you happy with the end result of the film or looking back is there anything you'd like to change?
MM: Nothing. I'm super pleased. When we were shooting it was like being away on a summer camp. There was an atmosphere of something very different from a Danish film I'd ever done before.
STUDIO: You've got a massive back catalogue and you've played extremely varied roles. Taking it for granted that you always accept well-written scripts, what other criteria draws you to a part?
MM: The director. I have to be able to communicate with them. It doesn't necessarily have to be a straightforward communication, it can be weird and awkward, but I have to find some level that we can communicate on. And I don't have to understand exactly what he wants as long as I can feel that he's dedicated.
STUDIO: You're scheduled to work with Nicolas Winding Refn again...
MM: I'm scheduled to be working with him for the rest of my life.
STUDIO: In an untitled heist project?
MM: Yeah. I don't know what's up next, but I know he's in Los Angeles right now working with Ryan (Gosling) and they're doing a good job together, so if there's a hole in there I can fill up one day that's what I'll do.
STUDIO: What's he like to work with?
MM: We're not friends, but we're working friends, you know. We have absolutely nothing in common. I'm a huge fan of sports and he can only, I mean only, talk about films. But when we work it's like me translating him. I'm interpreting him, lets put it that way, and he likes to be interpreted.
STUDIO: The New York Times called you "a slightly unearthly sex symbol"...
MM: Oh my God.
STUDIO: And you've been voted the best looking man in Denmark on a number of occasions...
MM: But that was a long time ago.
STUDIO: How do you manage to keep your ego in check when you're surrounded by all this adoration?
MM: Oh, I don't have to. My wife will take care of that! (laughs) I think if that sort of thing happens to you when you're 17 you might fly away a little bit. When it happens to you when you're past 30 you know what it is. You know that they have to find someone and if it's not me next year it will be the weatherman or whatever.
STUDIO: You're just about to start filming action comedy The Necessary Death Of Charlie Countryman alongside Shia LeBeouf.
MM: It's down the alley of the Coens or David Lynch. It's very beautiful. It's produced by the guy who wrote Little Miss Sunshine.
STUDIO: I've not seen you in much comedy.
MM: I've done several comedies back home, dark, black comedies – Adam's Apples, The Green Butchers –really dark crazy, crazy characters. This is a little bit the same. I think it's more drama than comedy, but it's definitely ridiculous once in a while.
STUDIO: You used to be a dancer and a gymnast. So what turned you on to acting?
MM: My body gave up. (laughs) I don't know. I was always in love with the drama of dancing and when that wasn't happening decided to do drama full time.
STUDIO: Would you consider doing a full-blown song and dance movie? Can you sing?
MM: I can sing, but I'm sure nobody wants to hear it! (laughs) There was a time when you could do it. Singin' In The Rain is a fantastic film. I've done Chicago in the theatre twice. I've done a lot of that stuff, but in the theatre, way back when I was a dancer. I don't know. Maybe.
Words by Rachael Scott
A Royal Affair is out in cinemas now.