TORONTO—Mads Mikkelsen is Denmark’s most magnetic leading man, even if he’s best known for playing gritty, if titillating, villains. His mid-’90s big-screen debut was as Tonny in Nicolas Winding Refn’s Pusher franchise, and when Le Chiffre’s blue eyes locked onto Daniel Craig’s in Casino Royale, his worldwide fame was assured.
Mikkelsen has two films on the festival circuit: Thomas Vinterberg’s The Hunt, for which he won the best actor prize at Cannes, and A Royal Affair (opening Friday [February 1] ), a love story that also gives Mikkelsen’s prodigious fan base the rare chance to savour him in a role that’s unabashedly romantic.
A Royal Affair, Denmark’s Oscar contender this year, is a lush and naturalistic retelling of an 18th-century Danish royal scandal. Mikkelsen plays Johann Friedrich Struensee, the royal doctor who falls in love with Queen Caroline Mathilde (Alicia Vikander), who’s already married to King Christian VII.
During a conversation with the Georgia Straight in a hotel room during last year’s Toronto International Film Festival, the actor admitted that it was a nice change of pace to play a romantic lead in A Royal Affair (which was written and directed by Nikolaj Arcel, who penned the screenplay for The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo).
“All too often, the romantic angle on a story is something we have to play up, because we think it’s a crowd-pleasing angle, so we try to add that as the icing on the cake to make for a better story,” he said. “But in the case of Queen Caroline and the doctor, we know they were desperately in love, so it became very fun to play that up a lot and really be able to play the romantic hero.”
With a sly grin, Mikkelsen added: “It was a nice opportunity to tell a romantic story without lying. Because, usually, we’re in the business of lying.”
In its time, the royal scandal between the queen and the good doctor rocked Europe and changed the political landscape of Denmark. It has since inspired 15 books, an opera, and a ballet. Still, the challenge was for the film to have a contemporary feel and relevance and to transcend the bodice-ripper genre.
“It was really important to us to try to tell the story in a way that makes it come alive for an audience, rather than getting caught up in all the costumes and hairstyles and historically accurate sets,” Mikkelsen said.
The actor explained that the role appealed to him not only as a chance to play a shamelessly romantic part but also to make a point about romance in the context of history. The script, he said, is based on one version of events, but there are others.
“Because it’s a story that has been so widely told and retold, what we have is different sources coming up with different ideas about what happened,” he explained. “When you’re telling a story about true events, it’s hard to satisfy all the historians, but we permitted ourselves to tell a story that was more complex because it was true than if it was something we had made up.”