Cannes 2018: Mads Mikkelsen on Surviving ‘Arctic’ and the Possible Return of ‘Hannibal’

The great Dane reflects on his latest and restores hope for Hannibal fans.
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The great Dane reflects on his latest and restores hope for Hannibal fans.

Danish actor Mads Mikkelsen is perhaps among the most adored actors working today. He has a certain quality that makes even his most evil characters surprisingly lovable. It’s nice to see that after achieving mainstream success with films like Rogue One and Dr. Strange, Mikkelsen still is not afraid to take risks. His latest, Arctic, is a first-time feature from director Joe Penna. Of course, you would never know from watching the film. Arctic is the best kind of survival thriller: smart, tense, and supremely entertaining. Mikkelsen stars in the only speaking role as Overgaard, a man surviving in the Arctic following the crash of his plane. It is unclear how long Overgaard has been stranded, but he seems to have managed to get the hang of things. With little hope of rescue, Overgaard spots a helicopter, which crashes in its attempt to rescue him. The crash leaves Overgaard with a new reason to live in the form of a critically injured young woman whom he must keep alive. Appropriately, I met with Mikkelsen on a pier on what was perhaps the hottest day of the Cannes Film Festival.

It’s pretty refreshing to see a survival film about someone who knows exactly what to do in his situation.

We don’t talk about it but he’s a flight engineer. So obviously he has some technical skill. I would say, he’s not that impressive. When you see films where people fuck up all the time they must be fucking idiots. I would have done the same as this guy. It’s all common sense what he’s doing. So when people do the other films, it’s like, nobody would do that. It’s not even normal people, they’re really dumb people. So yeah, we tried to make him have common sense.

We learn very little about Overgaard throughout the film. Did you discuss your own backstory for him?

We spent a little time on that. It’s not important to us. It’s important that what he did would be relatable for other human beings. We want viewers to think that they would do the same thing. We didn’t want it to be a story about reconciling with your father. We didn’t want that background. We didn’t want him to learn a big lesson. That for us would be too small of a story, not interesting. We do indicate that the idea of family is very important for him, so he might have a family back home. We didn’t want her to wake up and we didn’t want him to tell her a memory lane story about his family. We thought that would weaken what we were trying to do.

Do you think the arrival of this unconscious woman is important for Overgaard’s survival? He seems to have a new hope and motivation when she arrives.

Her presence is enormously felt. The humanity comes back in the film the second she’s there. He’s comfortable until she arrives. There’s a strange sensuality as well, which I found interesting. There’s a survival gene in us, and you see that not only with human beings but also with animals. Everything is projected on her. In many ways, she’s rescuing him. She’s the infant that he has to care for. But he does abandon her. He believes that she’s not going to make it so he goes on. What I did find interesting about the film is that he’s sort of the hero and the villain in one character. He’s the victim and the executioner.

Do you often think of your characters as heroes and villains?

I try to find a reason for what they’re doing. He also does make a choice that is heartbreaking for him. Every day as we speak, there’s somebody who looks at their partner who has Alzheimer’s and they decide to leave them because it’s too much. This man chooses to stay. I’m aware that I’m playing the villain in Bond and Dr. Strange. You need to have a reason for doing what you’re doing. It can’t just be, “because I can.” It doesn’t work if it’s just someone who’s laughing and wants to take over the planet for fun.

You mentioned a sensuality that comes with the arrival of the woman. There’s a strange, unconventional romanticism between these characters, as there often is in your work. Hannibal comes to mind of course.

I think that Hannibal and Will, Overgaard and – we call her driver’s license because that’s what he writes down. He thinks that’s her name. We couldn’t find a way to translate that into English. Anyways, they’re not really alive without each other. They are a piece of the puzzle for the other one’s soul. For that reason it becomes romantic. It could have easily been a man, it didn’t have to be a woman. We make it sensual in the sense that this is all we have. I need that hand. It’s not nice to die, but it’s really not nice to die without somebody holding your hand.

When you’re shooting a film like this in nineteen days, is it difficult to leave the character behind at the end of a day?

I think that it’s so much the character as is it the situation. When you’ve been in that situation for sixteen hours, it has an impact. You might just want to be alone. It can make you happy, it can make you sad, it can make you tired. I try not to bring the characters in and be pretentious about my kids calling me a different name. I like to leave the character and look at him. I like to see what we’ve done and talk about what we’ve done. It’s not always the case, but I try not to be pretentious about it.

Before we wrap up, I have to ask, what’s the update with Hannibal?

The update is that it’s back and forth all the time. [Hannibal and Arctic producer] Martha de Laurentiis was actually the reason I read Arctic. I had it lower in the pile, but she called me and said to move it to the top of the pile. She came in as a guiding angel. Three or four months ago we thought there was something happening with Hannibal. We got really close, but it didn’t happen. It’s still in the works, so who knows? I’m completely sure that everyone will abandon whatever else they are doing for Hannibal.

Arctic will be released by Bleeker Street.

Matt Hoffman: Toronto-based cinephile who especially enjoys French films.