Mads Mikkelsen on Embracing Alcohol, and Life, in 'Another Round': "It's Not a Moral Story"

Another Round
Henrik Ohsten

Mikkelsen plays a high-school teacher who decides to stay permanently inebriated in the Danish dramedy from director Thomas Vinterberg.

Mads Mikkelsen's chiseled features, raspy voice and cool steely gaze have made the Danish actor a go-to bad guy for any casting agent looking for a supervillain — James Bond's nemesis Le Chiffre in Casino Royale, Doctor Strange's warlock adversary Kaecilius — or serial killer (TV's Hannibal) with a touch of class.

Back in his native Denmark, Mikkelsen has carved out a parallel career as a character actor, with dramatic turns in the likes of period romance A Royal Affair, or social dramas After the Wedding and The Hunt.

Another Round, from The Hunt director Thomas Vinterberg, is a rare comic performance from Mikkelsen. He plays Martin, a Danish high-school teacher in a mid-life crisis. Like his four teaching friends — played by Thomas Bo Larsen, Lars Ranthe, and Magnus Millang — he's stuck in a rut. One of the friends suggests they try an experiment: there's a Norwegian philosopher who argues man is born with a blood alcohol level 0.5 percent too low. The four test his theory by trying to maintain a constant level of intoxication, in the hopes it will enliven their lives and careers. The experiment does not go exactly to plan. 

Samuel Goldwyn Films picked up Another Round for the U.S. shortly before its gala premiere in Toronto September 12. Unable to attend Toronto due to quarantine rules, Mikkelsen spoke to The Hollywood Reporter from his home in Copenhagen.

It's three in the afternoon there. What's your blood alcohol level?

I've actually been a good boy. I've been working all day, so it's zero at this point.

What sort of "research" did you do to prepare for this role?

In terms of preparation, we had to get into the theory, to find out what does a blood alcohol level of 0.5 percent, 0.8 percent, or 1.2 percent really feel like. We did quite a few experiments with the director where we drank together and tried out the different levels. We filmed it and noticed how our speech got slurred, how the movements started changing. But to be honest, among the five of us [director Thomas Vinterberg and Another Round co-stars Thomas Bo Larsen, Lars Ranthe, and Magnus Millang] we have enough experience with alcohol that we had a good idea where we were going.

Did you apply the experiment during the shooting?

No. Not during. Before the shooting. During there would be no way of controlling it. We were doing 12 hour shooting days, that's a long time to keep a level of 1.2 percent. No, no. It was for inspiration. The classical thing for an actor to do when they play drunk is to try to pretend they aren't drunk. Like drunk people do, trying not to look drunk. That's fine up to a certain limit but we pass that limit in some of the scenes. So we had to check out other approaches, like the way you walk when you are just completely wasted. But truth is stranger than fiction. If you google some of those YouTube videos of drunk Russian people, it is just insane what they do. That inspired us. 

Were the drunk scenes improvised or scripted? 

Some were a lot of ad-libs. Some of them, the ones with a lot of dialog, were tightly scripted. The ones with less dialog was more us on a loose line, going off doing crazy stuff.

Is it possible to play drunk while drunk?

No, not while drunk. If you're drunk you can't listen to the director, it doesn't work at all. It just becomes kids running around doing whatever they want. But it's possible to play drunk if you create the mood of being drunk. The four of us made an oath to really go for it and after a while, if you get into that mood of being drunk it takes over a little. It's like a lot of things with acting. It takes over and suddenly, it's not that difficult. But we had to make a contract that this was what we were going to do. 

I assume the Norwegian philosopher referenced in the movie, Finn Skarderund, who claimed we were all born with a blood alcohol level 0.5 percent too low, is a fiction. 

No. He actually exists — he's real. He came up with his idea 20 years ago. He obviously got assaulted from all angles. But he never tried it out. For him, it was more a philosophical view of life. We took it to the next level and did the experiment for him. It's obviously based on the fact that great artists and a lot of big political leaders have done enormous and beautiful, fantastic things while intoxicated, right? Our theory is that maybe that will help our high school teachers as well.

Does alcohol get a bad rap in films, particularly American films? 

I mean, we all know what alcohol is. Like, say you're shooting pool. It's great shooting pool after two beers. After seven beers, it gets stupid. We're not trying to wag our finger and we're not trying to tell people they should become alcoholics. These guys are sort of stuck in their mid-50s and they jump into this experience really. To re-discover life. And then, hopefully, they can quit the bottle again. It's not a moral story. We're just researching the idea of what does alcohol do to us. The story is a tribute to life, more than anything else. 

Bad things happen but the film doesn't end on a sad note. It seems to be embracing alcohol. 

Yes, embracing alcohol in the doses we can control. But it's predominantly a film about embracing life. There have been a lot of films that have the moral message [of the dangers of alcohol] and we do as well, to a degree, but that's not our main goal. 

This message of embracing life, is it in part a comment on a certain puritan streak in the culture today? That we are becoming too obsessed with being perfect and being control?

People can choose any lifestyle they want, but particularly young people are under a tremendous amount of stress. I mean we film actors get a critique once a year, that's the painful day when our films get reviewed. But every day a young person today has 2,000 people critiquing them: how they look, how many likes, how many friends they have. It must be devastating. Besides all the pressure to do well in school. Sometimes you need to go off a little. To lose control a little. To accept that you don't have to be perfect. Obviously that's where, not only alcohol, but everything else that can stimulate you comes in. We are not trying to say people shouldn't live this way these days. It's fine for people to be healthy. But with a lot of pressure, you need to defuse the pressure somehow and alcohol has been used for that for thousands of years. 

Do you think there is a different attitude to alcohol and drinking socially in Danish culture than, say, the United States? 

Yeah. I think there is. I think this is a story a lot of people can relate to all around the world but it is also a very Danish story. I mean, it's changed a lot but when I was a kid it was not uncommon, if you were 13 or 14, to go into a bar and get a beer. We still have a culture where Danes are socialized through alcohol. In the States, it's a bit the opposite. They'll lecture you on drinking or tobacco while they're smoking weed the whole day. Which is a bit of a double standard. But when they're smoking weed, they are doing the same thing as we're doing when we drink. 

Well, I have to say the film inspired me. I had to stop it half-way through to go out and get a few drinks to get my alcohol levels up.

So it did work! Great!

Do you hope this film inspires more people to try this experiment?

Well, we're definitely not hoping people will go out and get wasted constantly, that's not the mission. I hope it inspires them to grab life. Pick up the phone, make that phone call you haven't made. Go back into your classroom, be the greatest teacher ever. Embrace the life you have. Don't go into the pitfall of all the dreams you didn't get, all the things you didn't fulfill. Love the life you have. It's not a status quo thing. Keep dreaming. But don't hate your life. Life can be great if you make an effort. With or without alcohol.

You have an amazing dance sequence at the end. Where did you learn to dance like that?

I used to be a dancer, from my early 20s to my late 20s. I was a professional dancer, with Martha Graham's school in New York, and in a company here. I did a lot of musicals. 

You haven't really used that skill in your films before. Will you be hoofing it more in the future?

You never know. There's not a lot of films where all of a sudden you need somebody to dance, you know? But it could have been anything. Dancing was just one of the things that this character had not gone all the way with. It was just one of those dreams he never fulfilled. 

Are there any dreams you regret not pursuing? 

I don't regret not pursuing dancing because I did that. And I went as far as I think I could. And I was a gymnast before that. As a kid my big dreams were all about sports, being part of the Olympic games, playing for the Barcelona football club. I wanted to be a sports star. That's been my dream all my life. Then I dreamt of being a dancer and then I dreamt of being an actor. That just happened to work out. 

With this role, and in other Danish films like The Hunt, you've played much more mature, softer characters than the kind we know from your U.S. films. Do you think it's about time Hollywood realizes you can play more than just the tough guy, or the serial killer?

I think people are aware of that. I mean I did Arctic, which felt more like a European film, even though it was American. But you know, if you have the slightest, or in my case, more than the slightest, accent, you become the bad guy in most American films. It still works like that, for some funny reason. But I don't complain at all. I love doing all of it.

How do you feel about having Another Round premiere in Toronto and not being able to go there to present it to the audience in person?

I'd be a liar if I didn't say it wasn't heartbreaking. I love the Toronto film festival. I love Toronto, I've spent a lot of my life there. It's a great festival and it's a shame we can't be there this year. We can only hope things will be very different next year. But lockdown has been hard on everyone, on other people and other businesses a lot more than on us, so I'm not going to be the one complaining.