Don’t worry: Mads Mikkelsen, who’s earned a scarily devoted following for his role as everyone’s favourite intellectual cannibal on television’s Hannibal, isn’t going to eat you. Although he does look mighty hungry in his new film Arctic, which casts the Danish actor as a pilot stranded on the tundra, forced to survive on melted snow and the occasional char fillet. (The moment his character finds a package of frozen noodles is delightful, even if Dr. Lecter would not approve of such high-sodium junk.)
Besides mixing up his diet, Joe Penna’s new film allows Mikkelsen the opportunity to step away from the many psychopaths of his filmography (Casino Royale, Doctor Strange) and play the hero, even one who is put through unrelenting hell (offering echoes of his role in Nicholas Winding Refn’s Valhalla Rising). Ahead of Arctic’s release this weekend, The Globe and Mail’s Barry Hertz spoke with Mikkelsen about the man-against-nature genre, and whether Hannibal’s appetite may ever resurface.
What’s interesting about Arctic is that the backstory of your character isn’t explained at all – it’s all about the action on-screen. Is that what attracted you to the role?
I wouldn’t define myself as a fan of the survival genre, so what I liked about this is that it doesn’t fall into the trap of going down memory lane, relying on flashbacks. The big question in the film is whether it’s possible to be human all by yourself. Or do you need someone else to become human?
What do you do as a performer to prepare for that head-space of isolation?
In my mind, this character wasn’t prepared to be stranded in the Arctic. He was just on his way home and crashed, so I didn’t prepare tremendously besides talking with Joe about the story again and again, and turning every line around. Even in terms of getting in shape and knowing about survival, we weren’t interested. The things he comes up with should be the things any of us would come up with in that situation. You didn’t want him to be an expert, just a man who does what feels like common sense.
During the shoot in Iceland, what sounds like an intense 19 days, how close of a bond do you build up with the director?
The plan was to shoot 30 days, but we lost 11 due to the weather conditions, so what you have are very prolonged days instead. You sit and look outside and it looks fantastic, but it’s too lethal to go. So it becomes like summer camp. We’re all in the same spot, and these are the only faces you see for that stretch. It’s a special bond.
Are you adhering to your character’s diet during all this waiting?
My character, he has his patterns and rhythm in the film, where he's trying to minimize his physical energy and save his calories. I couldn't do that, because I was working constantly. But I'm not a big eater when I shoot. So that physicality and the lack of me eating, I lost 14 pounds. My beard got annoying, too. And my voice changed, to a degree. I spent a lot of time by myself not talking, so I became rusty.
This is mostly a silent movie. How do you separate your normal craft with dialogue stripped from your performance?
It’s an enormous tool to take away from an actor. That said, I love films where people don’t talk, where the image itself can tell a thousand stories. The risk is that it feels boring, but there’s also a risk of producing something that’s not honest.
Was one of the attractions here playing a hero, not a villain, for once?
It's not always up to me, of course, because I have to get offered something that's different. I'm lucky that people have seen me through different eyes. But for me to be picky and wait and wait for that one part might take forever.
Now I have the question that I’m sure you’re asked all the time: Is there a chance Hannibal could return?
Those questions always come up in these situations, where one person asks if there's a chance. And I say there's always the chance, but there's no news. And then they leave out the bit of there being no news, and it just erupts from there. It's the same story as far as I know. If it does happen and we find a new home for it, that's great. I don't know any of the actors or crew who wouldn't want to be part of it again.
How annoying is it that this question keeps coming up, like, well, just now?
No, it’s not at all. It’s a pleasure, really, because there’s a lot of people who fell in love with something that we did, and these people are interested in the other stuff we’re doing now, like Arctic. All of a sudden, we have this completely new fan base. That’s nothing to complain about.
This interview has been condensed and edited.
Arctic opens Feb. 8