Mads Mikkelsen has a not-so-secret weapon when it comes to playing villains, of which he has portrayed many. So many, in fact, that Mikkelsen has been six different characters that had a problem with their eyes. Intriguing bad guys, it seems, require an ophthalmologic trauma — whether it’s his Bond villain Le Chiffre weeping blood in Casino Royale, his Kaecilius’ sinister purple-ringed peepers in Doctor Strange or his one-eyed killers in Valhalla Rising, The Three Musketeers and Polar. But aside from his characters’ curiously high rate of optical issues, there’s a second element the Danish actor has employed to great effect: stillness.
Many performers instinctively go big when playing the heavy. Mikkelsen has, to be sure, portrayed characters with a wide range of personalities over the years (particularly in acclaimed films from his native Denmark). But when the actor is cast as an antagonist or antihero, he’s become a franchise player by embracing minimalism.
“Often when it comes to the villain, I think that the more we can persuade the audience to listen and make a fraction of what the character is saying make sense, the more interesting the character is to look at,” the 56-year-old Mikkelsen explains during a Zoom call from Copenhagen, where he is dressed in casual loungewear and smoking a cigarette.
The son of a nurse and a bank teller, Mikkelsen became a gymnast and then a professional ballet dancer before he switched to studying acting at the relatively late age of 31. He has said he was more in love with the drama of dancing than the act of it. Those years spent rolling, leaping and pirouetting have affected him as an actor. “Dancing has helped when it comes to my awareness in a room — how heavy or light is a character, slow or fast — but I rarely think about it,” he says. “Gymnastics, on the other hand, is quite clearly coming in handy when it comes to doing stunts.”
He broke into cinema playing a heroin dealer in Nicolas Winding Refn’s 1996 film Pusher, earned global notice in 2006’s Casino Royale and acquired a strong fan following for portraying Hannibal Lecter on NBC’s 2013-15 series Hannibal.
Whenever Mikkelsen first appears onscreen, one can’t help but be captivated by his face. He looks like a stone temple idol; a formidable slate that the camera’s gaze can’t quite penetrate. He then combines his imposing facade with bits of character that slip through in glimmers and hints. The resulting performances make audiences lean forward — even when his dialogue is full of melodramatic threats about global domination.
Take Mikkelsen’s first scene in Fantastic Beasts: The Secrets of Dumbledore, the third film in the Harry Potter prequel franchise. The setup in the April 15 domestic release is that heroic Hogwarts professor Albus Dumbledore (Jude Law) is meeting his former-lover-turned-nemesis Gellert Grindelwald (Mikkelsen) for a civil cup of tea in London. Fans will focus on Dumbledore finally declaring his love for the Dark Wizard, making the beloved character’s queerness canon at last.
But Mikkelsen makes the scene interesting for another reason. At first, the reunion plays like a meeting between a fractured couple. Then one brings up politics (which always ruins everything), and there’s a subtle change in Grindelwald’s expression — from a mind that’s open to shut, from an aura of light to dark. It’s perhaps the most impressive “special effect” in the CGI-stuffed film.
“I love that scene,” Mikkelsen says. “It puts aside that they’re wizards and it’s just two grown-up people with a painful and beautiful past. Their past obviously meant the world to them, but was also full of disappointment. We wanted to establish that warmth before we went into the dilemma of the scene.”
It’s also a tonal flip from the more theatrical Grindelwald played by Johnny Depp in the franchise’s previous film, 2018’s The Crimes of Grindelwald. Depp was ousted in 2020 after a U.K. court ruled against him in a libel lawsuit versus The Sun newspaper, which called Depp a “wife beater” following his tumultuous divorce from actress Amber Heard. Depp denied the charges, but the verdict sent Warner Bros. scrambling to recast the pivotal Fantastic Beasts role while production on Secrets was underway. Producers phoned Mikkelsen and gave him two days to decide.
“It was quite chaotic,” recalls Mikkelsen, who quickly watched the first two films and read the script for Secrets, which he thought was “a great story.” He notes, “You don’t want to copy anything [Depp was] doing — that would be creative suicide. Even if [a role has] been done to perfection, you want to make it your own. But you still have to build some sort of bridge between what came before.”
The Secrets team decided to tone down Grindelwald’s appearance, giving Mikkelsen just a hint of Depp’s platinum hair. They also dialed back Grindelwald’s albino right eye to be just slightly, almost unnoticeably, reptilian. Still, that meant adding another eye-challenged character to Mikkelsen’s repertoire, updating his tally to seven. “We didn’t really focus too much on the eye thing, no pun intended,” the actor says. “In general, doing something to an actor’s face will often end up being something with the eye for a number of reasons: It’s recognizable, they’re the windows to the soul, it’s easy to control while a prosthetic piece often will crack or fall off, and, finally, it’s cool.”
Both changes reflected the actor’s characteristically subtle approach. “Mads has an extraordinary range, he can be terrifying as well as vulnerable, and he’s sexy,” says Secrets director David Yates, who has helmed the last seven films in the Harry Potter universe. “I wanted Mads to explore a version of Grindelwald that suited his strengths as an actor — and that inevitably meant a departure from what Johnny brought to the role.”
The team also elected, more curiously, to not address the villain’s radical appearance change in the film, even though it could have been explained given that Grindelwald is, after all, a wizard.
“That was very deliberate,” Mikkelsen says. “Everybody knows why [the actors changed]. The entire world knows why. It would almost be like an Easter egg to reality to point out we swapped actors. Hopefully we drag them in with the first scene and from there they accept this world.”
Mikkelsen noted in one interview that he wished he could have spoken to Depp before tackling the role, a comment that went viral and one that the actor suggests has been overstated. “I wasn’t like, ‘Oh please let me talk to him,’ ” he says. “It would have been great to touch bases, ‘clean the room’ in a sense. Maybe I’ll see him in the future.”
Another person Mikkelsen didn’t get to chat with was the film’s co-screenwriter and producer J.K. Rowling, who had spoken to the other lead actors about their roles for the previous films. Rowling publicly supported Depp during his court battle and has had an increasingly awkward-looking relationship with the studio following her controversial stances on trans rights issues.
Mikkelsen says he wanted to ask Rowling why, exactly, the fascistic Grindelwald hates non-wizards so much that he wants to subjugate all “muggles.” “I’d like him not just to be instantly demagogic,” he says. The actor invented his own backstory for the character instead. “My reason is that something happened to his entire family when he was a child that explains the hate he carries around,” he adds. “It’s a fantastic, detailed, complex universe [Rowling’s] created, and I’d love to hear her thoughts on it. I hope I will do more than this one [film].”
About that: Secrets might surprise fans by just how conclusive-feeling it is. Without giving anything away, it doesn’t end on an obvious cliffhanger like the previous two movies. Rowling’s stated plan for Fantastic Beasts is that it’s a five-film series, but the storytelling pieces have now been arranged so that while there very well might be another film, there no longer necessarily needs to be — at least with the same cast — should Secrets underperform (the first film, 2016’s And Where to Find Them, grossed $814 million worldwide before Crimes of Grindelwald fell to $654 million). “We hope what we made with this film will keep [the franchise] continuing,” said producer Tim Lewis on the premiere’s red carpet. A studio insider similarly told THR the company is focused on the current film.
One executive with close Warner Bros. ties told THR that five movies always seemed overly ambitious for the Fantastic Beasts concept and he wouldn’t be surprised if the studio reworked its cinematic Wizarding World — assuming execs can figure out how to navigate its relationship with Rowling moving forward. Then-WarnerMedia chairman and CEO Ann Sarnoff issued a statement in December reaffirming its relationship with the author (“That relationship continues today and is more collaborative than ever”). But Rowling didn’t participate in HBO Max’s Harry Potter reunion special and, earlier in April, the author’s red carpet interview at the Secrets premiere wasn’t included in the studio’s 90-minute livestream special (she was shown in a sizzle reel). Rowling also left the premiere without watching the film. She declined to comment.
At any rate, the biggest lingering story thread in the franchise revolves around Grindelwald. “Obviously, I still have the Elder Wand,” Mikkelsen points out, slipping into first person for his character and referencing the Wizarding World’s unbeatable weapon. “Dumbledore gets it in … 1945?” (Accurate — 10 points for Slytherin.) “There’s an epic confrontation that we haven’t seen yet. So there is room for more.”
But not for a while. Mikkelsen — who has been married for 22 years to choreographer Hanne Jacobsen and has two adult children — plans to take six months off to devote time to his family. While he has an official Twitter account and a strong online following, he won’t be reading social media much, either. “It’s insanity in there,” he says. “You get into discussions where everything is black and white, nothing is nuanced and even the smallest word can turn your world upside down. I’m staying away from it.”
His much-deserved break follows the actor working for 14 months on Beasts and his other upcoming big franchise project — the long-awaited Indiana Jones 5.
While he’s forbidden from discussing character or story details from the film (the rumor is that he plays, yes, the villain), Mikkelsen revealed the movie feels like a return to the franchise’s early 1980s roots.
“[Raiders of the Lost Ark] was one of my favorite films, and it just oozed that golden period of serials from the 1940s — and that’s in the fifth film as well,” he says. “They’re going heavily back to the first and second film and getting that original feel, the original Indy, something dense and epic.”
James Mangold (Ford v Ferrari) has taken over directing duties from Steven Spielberg, who remains on board as an executive producer. “It felt like a Spielberg film, though it’s obviously James making it with the same vision,” Mikkelsen says. Harrison Ford, who’s pushing 80, returns as the iconic adventurer.
Asked how Ford was holding up following reports that he injured his shoulder on set, Mikkelsen says he was impressed with his co-star’s physicality. “It was the first time I met him, and he’s an insanely powerful person,” he says. “Not just as an actor, but physically. I remember the first day we were shooting, it was a night shoot, then we stopped at 5 a.m. — and then he got on his mountain bike and went biking for 50 kilometers [31 miles]. Harrison is a monster of a man, a very nice monster.”
Jumping onto a longtime franchise’s moving train — whether Indiana Jones, Marvel, Bond, Star Wars or Beasts — doesn’t stress out the actor. “If it’s pressure, it’s a positive pressure,” he notes. “If I got nothing offered from the States, there would be a different kind of pressure.”
Mikkelsen’s next gig is just as likely to be a Danish film. Unlike some European actors who don’t look back after being embraced by Hollywood, Mikkelsen likes to balance his English-speaking films with projects from Denmark. One of his most recent, Another Round, won the 2021 Oscar for best international film and crossed the pond. “It traveled tremendously around the world because of the lockdown, millions of people watched it,” Mikkelsen says. “Obviously there are people who don’t know what I have done besides the franchises. They might see me in one way, but I don’t. And, luckily, directors don’t.”
A remake is being developed by Leonardo DiCaprio. “If an American version of Another Round will make more people see the film than saw the original, I say, bring it on,” he says. “Leonardo is a fantastic actor, so they are off to a great start.”
Looking back at his work and asked which of his scene partners has impressed him the most, Mikkelsen is aghast. “That’s so unfair, no, I can’t that!” he says.
Some of his chill vibe slips and a flash of his onscreen intensity shows up. “I try to make every single scene the most important scene I’ve ever done,” he emphasizes. “I try to make the [actor] sitting across from me the most important and the best — and the best actors I’ve ever been with do the same. We try to make a magical moment.”
Like a wizard.
Kim Masters contributed to this report.
This story first appeared in the April 13 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.