Mads Mikkelsen has villains on lock. The Danish actor, best known in the U.S. for playing the titular serial killer on Hannibal and as the antagonist in the 2006 Bond film Casino Royale, knows how to tap into the dark side of humanity. But in real life Mikkelsen is upbeat and enthusiastic about life. He's interested in why we create villains in our storytelling, of course, but that doesn't mean he actually wants to be one.
The actor embodies a new sort of villain in the latest Marvel effort, Doctor Strange, playing a sorcerer named Kaecilius who wants to gain eternal life at the expense of Earth. In the film, out Friday, Mikkelsen's heavily made-up character wants to defy death because he's seen what it can do.
We spoke with the actor, who will also appear in December's Rogue One: A Star Wars Story as Galen Erso, about why he prefers villains and whether he would personally choose to live forever.
How did you approach playing the villain in a big film like this?
For me, the script is always the bible. That's where the key is. That's where we're working from. And we can talk a lot about background stories, which is super interesting, but at the end of the day this [script] is what we're doing. And we have to fulfill this dream of the writer and the director. I look at that and if there's something I think we could add to make the character a little more that or a little more that, then we discuss it. I don't want the character to be too one dimensional and we will discuss that. But the script is always the first approach. On a film like this, because it's obviously in the Marvel universe, a huge part of the whole thing is costume and makeup. We don't look like average people on the street. That gives us an extra kick to jump into that universe—once you're dressed like that, once you have that mask, then you're allowed to go in. But if you're just dressed in your Adidas, you feel a little silly waving your arms around.
Is it important for you that your villains feel like well-rounded human beings?
I mean, they only have so much screen time. So we can only justify them to a degree. But it's important for me that we're on the same page: "This is what we're trying to do." It depends on what type of villain it is, too. Obviously Hannibal had an enormous amount of screen time, so he could also elaborate a little more on his background and self. But a villain is serving a purpose. The villain is a mirror reflection of the hero. There's something in that mirror he recognizes, something he hates. This is his battle. So I think that's a very smart move in this film and in general to give the villain some good cuts, some good points, so we don't go, "Take him away!" It's more like, "Wait a minute, he's on to something." That, I think, is important.
Why do you like playing villains so much?
Why not? They have cool stuff! They say cool stuff! They're radical, in the sense that they're in love with their goal. They don't care so much about the means. That's something we all hope we could do. They skip morals. We wish we could do that, but we can't. That's why we're human.
So is it liberating to act that out?
It's all liberating, even to play the good guy. The good, especially in this case, also has to have a side we simply don't like—a flaw he's fighting as well. So I think, whether it's a good guy or a bad guy, there's always something liberating in bringing him to life—if he's well-written.
How long did it take for your makeup to be done every day for Doctor Strange?
Way too long! It was between two and three hours, depending on how many hands there were available. But it was worth it. At first I was like, "This is not happening." But then I got used to it and I sat in the chair, and that was my little preparation and meditation to start off the day in a good way. It became part of the whole process. I rarely listen to music during that time—I don't know why. I think I was just listening to everyone talk. Sometimes I was in the mood to talk myself. But it's very early so sometimes you nod off.
Was there something about this story overall that compelled you?
First of all, it's a Marvel film. It would be very hard for a comic fan like me to turn down any part in any Marvel film. Secondly, when [director] Scott [Derrickson] mentioned the flying Kung Fu stuff I was like, "This is happening! I've been waiting 51 years for this!" So I was over the moon for that. It was a combination of reading the script, realizing Benedict was playing him—he's a perfect match, I can't see anyone else—so it was a no brainer.
Were you cast in this before or after Star Wars?
I cannot remember the order. I shot Star Wars before.
Did it occur to you then that you were shooting two of the biggest movies of the year?
Not really. I'm strangely unaware of certain things sometimes. The second I step back I go, "Oh yeah, that's crazy." The second I'm in it, I forget it. It's a little like being recognized on the street. It's big to a degree here, but obviously back home it's much more. I forget it every day! I don't know why. I go out and I start shopping and then it's, "Oh, sure." I think it's good that I don't think too much about the whole thing. If you go, "It's a Marvel film! Don't fuck it up! It's a Star Wars film! Don't fuck it up!" That's too much pressure. You just have to think, "Oh, this is cool. I like it. Let's go for it." Then when you're backing off you can go, "That was crazy."
Did you have to learn to fight for Doctor Strange?
Yeah. I've done fights in films before. Not Kung Fu, but a lot of sword fights and fist fights. I've done a lot of that. So this was a brand new technique and it was made for smaller people than me and Benedict, that's for sure. We were on the floor like, "This is not happening." But we got stronger and stronger and I think we got pretty close to being awesome at it.
You're now awesome at Kung Fu?
I think we all are. Not necessarily at Kung Fu in general, but the fights in the film themselves. I don't think I should go into a ring, though. I'd have to use some of my working hero tricks in there. Those aren't allowed.
Who would win between you and Benedict in real life?
He's bigger than me. I do have the advantage of maybe being a little faster and older—and wiser. But I don't want to be caught in the corner by him. I'd have to keep a distance, that's for sure.
You have this all figured out.
I've never thought about it before, but now that you mention it…
Did the themes of the film make you think about time in a new way?
Of course. It's not that I haven't thought about it before—that we live only a short time. I think we all do. Since the beginning of humanity we always created some God, some religion that could justify why this was happening. We can worship the sun or the moon and make those into characters eventually, but it's all got something to do with answering the question "Why are we dying?" It's been a big question for everyone for always, except maybe for the people who are fatalists and say "There is no reason. Let's have fun." Most people would like to have another ride on the carousel because it is a fun carousel.
If someone offered you eternal life, would you take it?
In all the stories you see throughout history, there's always a price. And that price sucks. It's like, "Why do you have to have that crazy price?" But yeah, I think I would. We wouldn't know what life would be like because we define everything out of a timed perspective, like the quality of a life and the periods you go through. So everything is defined and we give it quality stamps for that reason. But if there are no time spans anymore, is quality gone? We don't know. But let's say that we just have a fun, great time. Because I think life is fun. If it's as fun as this, then I'd go for it.