Mads Mikkelsen Source
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Mads Mikkelsen’s Rites of Passage

Source: IFC Fix
Date: June 10, 2010

An unconventional, saturnine sex symbol in his native Denmark, actor Mads Mikkelsen has become an adored presence in international productions both indie and blockbuster-sized. He wept blood as the villainous Le Chiffre in the 007 reboot “Casino Royale,” assassinated Nazis as the latter half of the Danish Resistance duo “Flame & Citron,” managed an Indian orphanage in the Oscar-nominated “After the Wedding,” survived two-thirds of the “Pusher” crime trilogy, and fought alongside mythic Greek hero Perseus in the recent “Clash of the Titans” remake.

But for now, he tickles the ivories. In director Jan Kounen’s stylish biopic “Coco Chanel & Igor Stravinsky,” Mikkelsen plays the titular Russian pianist and composer to the famed French fashionista (Anna Mouglalis) who became his benefactor. Inspired by the 1920 Parisian love affair between these two titans of 20th century artistry, the film kicks off with an impressive restaging of the 1913 premiere of Stravinsky’s “The Rite of Spring,” a commissioned modernist ballet that left audiences both raving and booing. This detail was important later when Mikkelsen called me from Denmark to discuss his musical inclinations, what he smells like, the film that has influenced his entire career, and the animal he channeled to play a mute, one-eyed Viking in next month’s “Valhalla Rising.”

What did you discover while researching one of the world’s most influential composers?
The most interesting thing was reading Stravinsky’s own biography, because he barely mentioned anybody else but himself. It just tells the story of a gigantic ego, and that was an important thing to bring to the table. He was a complex man in many ways. A very “held” man, approaching life in a stiff manner. Orthodox Russian, all classical virtues. He’s a patriarch as well, and then all of a sudden, he’s leading this flamboyant Paris life with Coco, who’s doing the exact opposite of what a woman should in his world.

I don’t think he was especially attracted to her physically, but he was mentally. There was something about her he did not understand that fascinated him. At the same time, he was very crazy in his music. The world was divided into his letting-go energy when he was composing, and he was almost like a clerk when he was not. [laughs] He wasn’t a cliché of an artist, sitting in an attic, getting drunk and inspired. He got up every morning at 7 o’clock, did push-ups, ate eggs, started working, then finished at 5 o’clock in the evening. Coco managing to open him up, and to put some of his music into his own life.

What was more challenging to learn: speaking Russian or playing the piano?
Somebody else has to be the judge of that one. [laughs] I had to learn French as well, which was difficult because I was surrounded by French people. Every time I did something in Russian, they thought it was fantastic. Every time I did something in French, which I actually could speak, they thought I sounded terrible! [laughs] Maybe the music was more difficult because I’m playing. It’s not my sound, but I did insist on being able to hit the right keys so we could feel free with a camera, not the classic “cut from face, cut to hands.” That was tough, because he was crazier than I remembered when I first listened to the music. His rhythms are all over the place, but once you get it, you don’t forget.

You were a professional dancer for years. Have you had other musical inclinations?
Dancing is the only experience I have. I always wanted to play some kind of instrument — piano, saxophone, whatever. I took it up for a while, then forgot about it because I didn’t have the time. All of a sudden, I had the chance here to pick up piano in a serious manner.

I think that my background as a dancer helped me a lot because trying to count and be specific with [Stravinsky’s] music is impossible. I couldn’t learn music from scratch, so I had to dig into it more emotionally, and you often do that as a dancer as well. You listen to the music, start understanding it, and know exactly what’s happening where and when. That was my approach with the piano lessons.

As depicted in the film, the premiere of Stravinsky’s “Rite of Spring” causes an uproar among the crowds. Have you ever been booed by an audience?
Yeah, I did a crazy version of “Romeo and Juliet” once, and I played Romeo. I liked it, but I can see why it didn’t work all the way. There was always a young crowd in there, and one day when we went out holding hands [for the curtain call], 40 actors, the whole back row in this enormous place started booing like crazy. We all looked at each other: “Oh man, who is it they hate?”
After that, we had to go one at a time to do the bows, and me being Romeo and she being Juliet, we were the last ones: “Uh-oh, they haven’t been booing yet, it’s bound to come now.” For some reason, they didn’t, but I’m sure they booed at us somewhere.

The film posits that Stravinsky’s presence may have been an influence on the famous Chanel No. 5 perfume. What do you think you smell like when you leave the house?
I don’t wear cologne. I do occasionally, but anytime I take a shower, I just put on deodorant. That’s basically what I smell like. But it’s under the T-shirt and jacket, so I’m not sure you can smell it. [laughs] Unluckily, I smell a little of tobacco.

Next up for you is the lead in Nicolas Winding Refn’s savage tone poem “Valhalla Rising,” which comes out next month. How did you approach your role as a one-eyed Viking who doesn’t speak?

Yeah, and no emotions! It was a challenge, but I’ve worked with Nic five times now. As always, whatever is in the script, that’s what’s inside his head. My job is basically to interpret what’s in there, and because we’ve worked together so many times, we’re a very good partnership. We have nothing in common in real life. He’s a film nerd and I’m a sports nerd, so we have nothing to talk about. Once we start working, it’s a different story.

We decided fairly fast what the character is. He’s a tool for the film. He does not have a will or a wish. Yes, he wanted to get free and go home, but besides that, everybody else is interpreting him. We wanted people to say, “This is Satan” or “No, this is Jesus,” using him for all means.

We had to find an energy that was there all the time, and have the camera resting on him for a while without being boring, which is hard when you don’t have a working psychology.

It’s like being a gorilla in a suit. We used the oldest trick in the book, imagining an animal. I’ve never done that before. I always thought it was a little pretentious. But this time I actually did it, and you think, “There’s something going on in there.” What is it? We don’t know. It’s not human, but it’s something that fascinates us.

That’s the presence we were going for. It took us a couple days to find it, and we had to reshoot some things because I was doing normal human things like scratching my knee. It just didn’t work. I had to be absolutely still and part of nature.

Are you capable of having fun when you’re working on such a bleak, slow-burning film?
Keeping the energy is hard because I’m a man of many words. I have many ideas. [laughs] Taking that away from me is like going into a different zone. That’s interesting to do once in a while. I’m sure I was like a waterfall in the evening when I had a couple beers and started talking about what happened today. Everything came out there, but the approach served the film, so everything we talked about was the film. Where’s it going? What color is it now?

As you said before, it’s not a normal way of telling a story. It’s more like a painting, a piece of music, or a meditation. We made sure we touched base everyday and talk about, “Are we on the right track? Is this the melody we’re playing?” Then we’d start shooting the next day.

I read that your favorite film is “Taxi Driver.” What is it about that particular work, and do you think it’s influenced any of the roles you’ve chosen to take on?
It’s influenced everything I’ve done as an actor. It might not be the best film in the world, but it had the biggest impact for me. I was used to watching “here’s the hero, here’s the bad guy, let’s tell a story.” All of a sudden, this became so complex. The main character was a pain in the ass, a total idiot. At the same time, we gradually got closer and closer into his life. We might not like him, but we start understanding him. It was a revelation for me: “What the fuck? This is what it’s all about!”

Any time you place a script in front of somebody who is going to [invest] money, they always go, “Oh man, we’re losing sympathy on page 36. We need the main character to be sympathetic.” No, we definitely don’t. We need to defend the character regardless of how unsympathetic he is, and that’s where we create stories that make the audience think.

You were knighted in April by the Queen of Denmark. What perks come with such an honor?
I get a little silver cross to wear on a special jacket on special occasions. I’m not supposed to wear it unless I’m with the Queen, actually. I did plan wearing it to the tennis club just for the fun of it, but I’m sure it would be taken away from me if I did. Also, it would be fun if I meet Sir Ben Kingsley one day, then I can always say, “Oh, just for the record, Sir Ben.” [laughs]