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What Most Fans Don't Know About Mads Mikkelsen

Famous for his turn as the James Bond villain Le Chiffre in Casino Royale, his stately take on Hannibal Lecter in NBC's Hannibal, the dark Kaecilius in Marvel's Doctor Strange, and the antihero Galen Erso in Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, Danish actor Mads Mikkelsen has amassed a fascinating catalog of work since he began his screen career in 1996. While Mikkelsen has made numerous English-language films, he hasn't forgotten his cultural roots, and he's consistently worked in the Danish film industry over the years, with films like The Hunt — a powerful tale about a teacher falsely accused of a horrible crime — garnering international attention and accolades. 

And as someone who's played so many mysterious characters, it should come as no surprise that there's quite a lot to learn about this amazing actor. So let's take a stroll through Mikkelsen's past to explore the things that most fans don't know about this intriguing star.

Mads Mikkelsen started out as a ballet dancer and gymnast

Mads Mikkelsen has an incredibly commanding screen presence and a charisma that often leads to him stealing every scene that he's in. From Casino Royale to Doctor Strange, Mikkelsen's performances exude a controlled physicality, and his fight scenes in projects like Hannibal and Valhalla Rising demonstrate his athleticism again and again. But what most fans don't know about Mikkelsen is that he actually trained and worked as a gymnast and ballet dancer before he began his acting career.

Mikkelsen started with gymnastics, and he credits the sport with saving his life. He was once in a motorcycle accident that could've ended badly, but as he explained to Scan Magazine, "Somehow I managed to flip in the air and land on my feet. I'm not sure how I did it, but it might be the fact that I have a gymnastic background."

Eventually, the actor decided to pivot to ballet and studied at the Swedish National Ballet in Gothenberg for a year. He spent the next decade as a ballet dancer, as well as starring in musicals, until Nicolas Winding Refn cast Mikkelsen as the lead in the dark cult classic Pusher. But even now, his athletic background serves him well. As he explained to Scan, "Being a dancer comes in handy in a lot of situations as an actor, especially when you are dealing with stunts. And I would tear up the contract if someone else were doing my stunts. I say, 'That is why I am in the film. I don't have the cool lines, I have the cool stunts, and I will not give them away.'"

Mads Mikkelsen is a homebody who also loves sports

While Mads Mikkelsen often plays very intense and glamorous roles like Igor Stravinski in Coco Chanel & Igor Stravinski and Tristan in King Arthur, in real life, Mikkelsen prefers to spend his non-working time with his wife, Hanne Jacobsen, his children, Viola and Carl, and local folks. Mikkelsen told Scan Magazine, "I enjoy just sitting on my bench at home looking out over nothing. And I enjoy seeing the neighbors, seeing friends and seeing the family. I travel way too much in my professional life so usually I am just happy staying at home in Copenhagen." 

Because of his athletic background of gymnastics and ballet, Mikkelsen is now an avid sportsman and often dreams of taking time off work for sports training. In the same Scan Magazine interview, he said, "I could easily take three years off and just do sports. I would watch everything I could watch and participate in everything I can participate in." And as for his favorite sports, he went on to say that he enjoys riding bikes and playing both tennis and football (we're assuming he doesn't mean American football).

This down-to-earth attitude about Hollywood and being a famous screen actor is indeed refreshing, and Mikkelsen even goes so far as to bring his family with him when he's filming on location around the world. Based on the characters he plays, most Mikkelsen fans probably didn't know that he's very much uninterested in playing the Hollywood game as so many other actors do.

He found being cast in a James Bond film 'anticlimactic'

As the blood-crying villain in James Bond's Casino Royale, Mads Mikkelsen hit the international stage with a bang as Le Chiffre, 007's strangely compelling and scar-faced nemesis in the gritty reboot of the franchise. Mikkelsen's face and charisma are so spellbinding in this role, even as he's the bad guy (or maybe because of it), that he makes it virtually impossible to take your eyes from him, even as he shares the screen with the inimitable Daniel Craig. But in his classic sardonic tone, Mikkelsen actually found being cast in Casino Royale a major letdown. 

Talking to The Huffington Post, Mikkelsen said, "I had a meeting first, then a casting, and I was all ready to do the torture scene with Daniel (Craig). And there was so much going on around us, people running in and out, and then someone said, 'Great having you on board.' And I didn't move, and then they said, 'Go away, I don't want to see you, you got the job.'" Daniel Craig was shocked, as he'd been through five rounds of auditions by this point, and Mikkelsen was cast after just one. Mikkelsen went further saying, "They'd done their homework, seen my stuff, so it was fine, just a bit of anticlimax because I was so ready to do more for them, but it was ... shrugs ... you're in." Well, it may have been an anticlimax for Mikkelsen, but for many of his now-fans around the world, it was their first introduction to this fascinating performer.

He thought Anthony Hopkins was the perfect Hannibal Lecter

Mads Mikkelsen's dry sense of humor emerged again in an interview with The Hindustan Times about his work in three seasons of Bryan Fuller's Hannibal. When asked how he prepared for this iconic role, he responded, "I watched everything Anthony Hopkins did, and I copied it." He continued, "No, obviously it's not a secret that he made an iconic character that we can't try to copy it because he made it to perfection." Mikkelsen then dove deeper into his character development, saying, "My character needs to make friends with people, and he's out there; he's practicing as a psychiatrist. So he has to be, to a degree, normal when the people are looking at him and a little abnormal when they're not." 

As we saw on TV, Mikkelsen's Lecter is a very different monster than Hopkins, whose quiet derangement was visible from the very first moments we met him in The Silence of the Lambs. Mikkelsen's, on the other hand, is a studious and controlled performance that relies as much on his dancer's grace as it does an underlying current of madness that only peeks out occasionally. Mikkelsen also decided to play Lecter as a mirror empath to his foil, Will Graham (Hugh Dancy), the man who in the books eventually uncovers Lecter's secret of being a cannibal serial killer and captures him. Mikkelsen's take on Lecter was fresh and thrilling, mainly because it was so unlike that of previous versions and especially Sir Anthony Hopkins' Lecter. This was all by Mikkelsen's design. 

Mikkelsen wasn't supposed to play Hannibal Lecter at all

For fans of Mads Mikkelsen and Hannibal alike, it's impossible to imagine any other actor taking on the mantle of Hannibal "the Cannibal" Lecter with as much singular style and panache as Mikkelsen did. But for NBC, this unknown Danish actor felt like too big a risk, and they wanted a more recognizable and mainstream name for the role in order to help boost viewership. Two of the names being seriously considered were John Cusack and Hugh Grant, but Hannibal creator Bryan Fuller was dead set on Mikkelsen from the very start. 

Fuller told Collider, "There was some resistance to Mads Mikkelsen because he was European, because he was somebody who you could look at and go, 'Yeah, I buy that he eats people.' We were dealing with a very American network that wanted a very American actor to sell to American audiences. ... Finally I just said, 'Mads is the guy, that's the guy I see in the role, and I have to write it, and I have to champion it, and I have to understand it.'" Unfortunately, as brilliant as Mikkelsen and the Hannibal adaptation was, his casting against the wishes of the network led them to abandon the show, especially in terms of marketing, and it was summarily canceled after a cliffhanger ending in its third season.

Mads Mikkelsen has his own fan ideas about where season 4 of Hannibal could go

Even though Hannibal was canceled unexpectedly after only just three seasons, the entire cast has expressed interest in returning to their roles if a fourth season could get a green light at a new network. Mads Mikkelsen has been one of the key cast members who's kept Hannibal fans salivating with the possibility of a new season as he constantly talks about his willingness to return to his Hannibal Lecter should the opportunity arise. 

Mikkelsen, like all of us Fannibals, would love to see the story veer into Silence of the Lambs territory, telling IndieWire, "We'd obviously switch it around a little and do all kinds of crazy stuff with it. That story is so interesting, and the characters in it are as interesting. We'd switch around the genders and maybe even put two characters into one." Mikkelsen even did some fancasting of his own, suggesting that Michael Pitt — who played sadistic Mason Verger in Hannibal's second season before being replaced by Joe Anderson — would be an excellent choice to play a Buffalo Bill-inspired character. Sadly, the rights to The Silence of the Lambs have reverted elsewhere, and if there is a season 4 of Hannibal, it'll be original material.

He's not a method actor

Unlike many of his peers both in Denmark and abroad, Mads Mikkelsen is definitively not a method actor, as in an actor who fully loses himself in a character and stops being themselves altogether as they're working. Talking to The Hindustan Times, Mikkelsen says, "The discussion about method acting or not is always going to be there, and I've always found it quite pretentious in the sense that my job is to get inside the character really fast and leave him as fast as I can. If I was to bring home every character I've played, my family would be very confused. And I don't necessarily think that it will add anything. For me, to understand the character and present him and when I go home, I'm trying to be myself."

In comments to The New York Times, he even went so far as to complain about how when he signed on for Coco Chanel & Igor Stravinsky, he had to learn some French, Russian, and how to play the piano, and this made the role feel more like school than the fun he usually has making a movie.

Mikkelsen collaborates closely on Nicolas Winding Refn's movies

Back in 1996, Nicolas Winding Refn gave 30-something Mads Mikkelsen his first break into movies, with the gritty Danish drug addiction portrait Pusher, and this collaboration would end up shaping both men's careers immensely. In remarks to The New York Times, Refn described their creative process in great detail, noting, "We have a verbal agreement. If I ask him, he has to play the lead." Refn then went to describe their combative relationship as they hammer out details of not just Mikkelsen's character but the story, plot, and dialogue, as well. 

Mirroring Mikkelsen's sly sense of humor, Refn joked that he "made" the actor, which is why Mikkelsen is obligated to him. The director also went on to say, "The reason Mads and I always work so well is that he's very good at playing me." But from Mikkelsen's perspective in the same interview, he explained that he's good at "translating" Refn, and what he appreciates most are his crazy ideas that Mikkelsen then gets to help bring to life.

He's been knighted more than once

Mads Mikkelsen hasn't just played a knight in films such as King Arthur, The Three Musketeers, and Age of Uprising, he's also been knighted in real life. In Denmark, Mikkelsen received the "ridder" or knighthood from the Order of the Dannebrog, also known as the order of "White Knights" dating back to the 1600s, for his exceptional work in cinema and television. 

Not to be outdone by Mikkelsen's home country, France bestowed on him the highly coveted title of knight of "Ordre des Arts et des Lettres," which translates to the Order of Arts and Letters. This award is given to those whose contributions to art and culture are extraordinary, and seeing how so many of Mikkelsen's films have come through the Cannes Film Festival, it's no surprise that France would honor Mikkelsen in this way, even as he's not French. Mikkelsen received his French knighthood alongside his longtime collaborator, director Thomas Vinterberg.

Mads Mikkelsen is not religious at all

Many of Mads Mikkelsen's roles have come with a religious component to his character, from Valhalla to Hannibal. There's often a deep spiritual core to his performances, even as he plays an antihero in Rogue One or a villain in Doctor Strange, that suggests so much more going on behind his compelling eyes. In fact, he played an actual priest in 2005's dark dramedy Adam's Apples

But in an interview with German television station Euromaxx, Mikkelsen revealed that he doesn't subscribe to any faith. Instead, he's agnostic. "Even though I'm not religious at all, I believe in treating other people the way you want to be treated yourself," he explained. "I think that one was a smart move by the old religious people." This laidback, do-unto-others attitude might also explain his homebody personality and why he's stayed far out of the hustle and bustle of celebrity life and culture. 

Mikkelsen did a lot of ad-libbing in Rogue One

When you think of a huge franchise like Star Wars, the first thing that comes to mind certainly wouldn't be that the actors had the opportunity to improvise dialogue on set. But in the case of Mads Mikkelsen in Rogue One, he was in fact asked to do quite a bit of ad-libbing. 

In comments to Screen Crush, Mikkelsen talked about his young co-stars, Dolly and Beau Gadsdon, playing his daughter Jyn at ages four and eight. As he explained, it's tough to get young children to act naturally and "say their lines without stiffening up." As a result, Mikkelsen was given a lot of leeway to improvise. "It's basically my job to make them feel at ease and play it out so they forget what they're doing," he explained, "then all of a sudden, you get some beautiful moments with them."

He's a dancer, gymnast, actor, and gifted improviser. What can't Mads Mikkelsen do? 

He didn't know who Rihanna was before making her music video

Since Mads Mikkelsen is extremely family oriented and doesn't buy into all the Hollywood or celebrity hullabaloo that normally surrounds folks in his career path, it's not really that surprising to find out that he didn't actually know who pop sensation Rihanna was when she asked him to star in her music video for "B***h Better Have My Money."

In an interview with Shortlist, Mikkelsen reveals how his children absolutely freaked out not just that their dad had been invited to be in Rihanna's short film, but that he was absolutely clueless to who and how amazing an artist she is in her own right. His children didn't mince their words either when berating their father about his ignorance as they shouted at him, "You f***ing moron! Don't you know who she is? If you don't do this, I'll kill you." Wow, Mikkelsen kids. We want your dad in all the cool things, too. But you still need to chill!

Mads Mikkelsen loves the musical West Side Story

In August of 2020, Mads Mikkelsen received the Honorary Heart of Sarajevo prize at the virtual Sarajevo Film Festival, and to celebrate this accolade for The Guardian, he curated a fun imaginary event inspired by his various roles. From the setting taking place in Galen Erso's Death Star to being catered by Hannibal Lecter, scored by Rihanna, and featuring his favorite Martin Scorsese and Francis Ford Coppola films, the creative exercise said a lot about Mikkelsen's own personal style, as inspired by the roles he's played. 

But one little-known real tidbit about him did emerge from his fictional party. Mads Mikkelsen's favorite musical is West Side Story, and he would love to star in it alongside actual Puerto Ricans, rather than the whitewashing that's happened on-screen in the past. With his ballet and gymnastics background, Mads Mikkelsen fans would surely love to see him singing and dancing in a musical one day.