It's quite the transformation. For his role in Riders of Justice as a flinty military officer returned from Afghanistan, Mads Mikkelsen had his head shaved and grew a bushman's beard. With the floppy brown hair gone and the distinctive cheekbones having disappeared from view, audiences will do a double take. The Danish actor looks like a seasoned soldier but nothing like his familiar self.
The beard was real because Mikkelsen hates fakes that get in the way and can come loose.
"With that look it was easier to persuade a room that you might kill them if you look like that than if you look like a member of the Beatles, right?"
Like many films, Riders of Justice has had its release delayed many times. Just after a media round table that I took part in early this year, interviewing Mikkelsen and the film's director, Anders Thomas Jensen, the pandemic struck again.
On that discussion, Mikkelsen used audio only. The high cheekbones were hidden from view again, but the distinctive voice was there and the answers always considered and interesting.
In Riders of Justice, Mikkelsen plays Markus, a professional soldier not entirely unlike the obsessive action guy who drives a Hollywood vigilante blockbuster. One of the first questions related to the film's key theme.
Why is the revenge movie such a lure for audiences?
For director Anders Thomas Jensen, the answer was easy.
"It starts with a core feeling that everyone knows, an everyday feeling like the frustration of being held up for hours in heavy traffic that results in a feeling of grievance."
If Riders of Justice is a revenge movie, it is also a madcap dark comedy poking fun at the genre, offering some philosophy along the way on conspiracy theories that appear to underpin and seek to justify violent acts of revenge.
How did Jensen's pitch work on Mikkelsen?
"I just saw Markus as this macho man always knowing violence and just cracking on the inside," the actor responds.
"Like a man who tries to find logic in something in which there pretty much is none".
Markus is in the field in Afghanistan when he hears that his wife has been killed in a train crash back home in Denmark, leaving his teenage daughter traumatised. It is a tragedy, inexplicable and senseless, for which it is impossible to find a perpetrator, but it causes Markus to marshal his training and elevate his response to extreme levels. When a trio of hackers approach him with their particular conspiracy theory accounting for the random, senseless accident, Markus leaps into action and the film leaps in turn into some hilarious comedy. Tinged with dark irony, of course.
Mikkelsen and Jensen first worked together on Jensen's short film Café Hector in the mid-1990s. Mikkelsen's brother had a role but Mads crashed the set and got a part too. It was six years later that Mikkelsen appeared in front of international audiences in Open Hearts. It was co-written by Jensen and Susanne Bier.
Jensen, whose credits are mostly in screenwriting, has directed Mikkelsen five times. He is confident that his long-time friend and collaborator has nailed it with his portrait of a conflicted military commander.
"He can play anything, Mads."
Granted, the actor has seemed up for anything since he began combining work in the international screen industry with the Danish films where he started. The many genres of movie in which he has appeared include young adult fiction like the Fantastic Beasts films and a turn in a James Bond. The intimate Danish dramas like Another Round have continued all along.
I ask if Mikkelsen has been pushing himself to test his limits.
"No, I respond to screenplays and characters that I believe in, with directors I believe in. Like most actors I try to make a scene intimate, a situation the audience can relate to, whatever the film, Fantastic Beasts or Another Round."
He takes the discussion back to Riders' difficult themes of revenge and conspiracy, adding that "if there is no meaning, we will try to find it, to find something. The human race is always fascinated with where it cannot find meaning. Perhaps because if there's no meaning, we don't know why we're here."
It may not be possible for his character Markus to resolve his deep hurt and anger. I say that he seems like a man with a very limited tool set for what he has just been served.
"Absolutely," Mikkelsen says.
"He has learned from way back, from his father, definitely from the army, that he has to be the strongest man in the room. This is his biggest strength and his biggest weakness."
Another journo asks whether Mikkelsen was interested in the study of a masculine character who found it easier to turn into an action hero than go into therapy.
She mentions that the actor has said he is resistant to the idea of therapy.
"I see a lot of him in me ... I'm not the kind of guy who needs to talk to people about what I'm thinking about."
Some filmgoers may find the humour in Riders of Justice unsettling.
What is it about the Danish sense of humour?
Is it about saying what others are thinking, but are too inhibited to express?
"I think that's right. It's a kind of humour you may also find in, say, Scotland and Australia."
Jensen was affected by a real-life tragedy himself.
Early in the production of Riders of Justice, his teenage daughter died in a car accident, causing the filmmaker to fall into deep depression and suffer a nervous breakdown.
It was the starting point for his movie.
"You can look to alcohol, to God, to pills ... when you are angry and think that revenge is a meaningful way of regaining your life.
"That's why I created this Markus character, facing PTSD, forced to face a life he'd been running away from."
When asked what makes his lead actor so special, Jensen says he's really good at picking up on other people's psychology, at understanding why others behave the way they do.
"Mads is good at so many things.
"Physically amazing, he can play comedy, and he's a team player, the perfect actor."
Then he pulled himself short with a light laugh, declaring he "wasn't going to say any more nice things" about his friend and collaborator.
We all know he didn't need to, and film audiences do too.
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