Mads, bad & dangerous to know
It can be hard to judge the talent of a foreign actor until you have seen them act in their native tongue. Imagine evaluating the talent of Gerard Depardeau, for example, based soley on his work in "My Father the Hero", "Green Card" and "The Man in the Iron Mask". He would surely seem an oafish, one-dimensional performer. Few non-English speaking actors would come off well in such a test.
Especially those whom we see only in big American films. Taking the thankless parts in blockbusters, playing the villains. How many great foreign actors have sold their souls to the Bond brand over the years, playing the evil Mastermind in one film or another, from Gert Frobe to Curt Jurgens to Michael Lonsdale?
Most recently we had Matheiu Amalric, a legitimately brilliant actor, bulging his eyes a little and smirking through every line in "Quantum of Solace". Before him, it was Mads Mikkelsen. You may remember him from "Casino Royale", where he put that stone-faced glare to fine use. And wept tears of blood. And was utterly wasted.
He had appeared in one other Hollywood movie, as Tristan in Antoine Fuqua's stodgy "King Arthur"(2004). He's the tracker, the one whose action figure would come with his pet hawk in the packaging, ready to grip his forearm with its talons. But here is the difficulty for Hollywood with foreign actors - in Denmark, Mikkelsen is a Massive Star, perhaps Danish cinema's prime leading man. In "King Arthur" he is reduced to playing third or fourth banana behind the likes of Clive Owen and Ioan Gruffudd and Ray Winstone. But he can't turn off that star quality, that charisma, and he makes an impression. In his scenes with Owen, in particular - who is a fine actor in the right role, but too often miscast - he is the one who commands the screen, he is the movie star. He makes his silly character interesting, with only a few lines of dialogue and a few scenes. This makes movie stars look silly and unbalances narratives. So Hollywood feels safer casting foreigners like him in villain roles where their charisma and thespian chops can be put to narrative use. No doubt Mikkelsen was bored stiff by the experience anyway. At least in "Casino Royale" he had, in Daniel Craig, an actor of equal presence and charisma to play off and a half-decent script to work from.
He is accustomed to much meatier drama, however. In Denmark he has established creative partnerships with both Susanne Bier and Nicolas Winding Refn, two radically different but equally talented filmmakers. For Bier he has been magnetic in realist dramas "Open Hearts" (2002) and "After the Wedding" (2006), revealing a sensitive, vulnerable everyman quality rare in an actor of his range and skill. "After the Wedding" is particularly fine work, a subtle and truthful portrayal of a man who is torn between the new life he has built himself and the legacy of his past. The impossibility of such a choice is beautifully, painfully conveyed by Mikkelsen. Tellingly, when Bier made her first American film in 2007 with "Things We Lost in the Fire", she used Benicio Deltoro in the role Mikkelsen would have played had she made the film in Denmark, which gives you some idea of his profile and ability. For Refn, he played the doltish and doomed Tonny in the first two chapters of the magnificent "Pusher" trilogy, and also appeared in "Bleeder" (1999). His Tonny is a great creation; stupid and self destructive, yet fragile and boyish in his boorish defensiveness, and Mikkelsen is uncannily convincing. If he was American, he would be a megastar. But only a few foreign actors ever really cross over into US Cinema. They have to be exceptionally handsome (Antonio Banderas, say) or able to convincingly play an American character (like Viggo Mortensen). The others are restricted to stock parts; either as villains, latin lovers, drug barons or worst of all, as the local colour in US travelogues.
Mikkelsen is too big in Denmark and too good to stay there, and so his next two projects together offer a telling statement about exactly where his career lies at the moment. He is due to apear in Louis Leterier's remake of "Clash of the Titans" alongside Liam Neeson and Ralph Fiennes. Something about him evidently suits historical or even mythological roles; that Nordic, Viking bone structure, perhaps, or his easy access to a certain unreconstructed masculinity. For alongside the Hollywood behemoth, he has reunited with Refn for "Valhalla Rising", which looks a sort of Viking "Southern Comfort". It involves Mikklesen as a mute warrior of near-supernatural strength called "One-Eye", bounty hunters, a manhunt, and apparently a trip to the pre-Columbus New World. Refn has yet to make anything other than a fascinating film (even the little-seen "Fear X" is great in its unique way), his technical ability is unquestioned, and it is exciting to speculate just what he will do with a period setting and a decent budget, filtered through his particular, distinctive sensibility...especially with Mikkelsen aboard.
Valhalla Rising trailer
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