Here’s how my weekend started. On Thursday I received an e-mail informing me that Mads Mikkelsen would be available Friday to discuss his new movie Age of Uprising: The Legend of Michael Kohlhaas. I was free to watch the movie Thursday night and speak to Mikkelsen Friday, so I made it happen. I was actually at the Cannes Film Festival last year when Michael Kohlhaas played. I missed it, either because it was showing at 8:30 in the morning, or it was showing in the evening and I was starving so had to get dinner. That’s how Cannes work, that’s another story. It was also just called Michael Kohlhaas back then. This Age of Uprising and Legend seems to be for the American release.
I’ve been a fan of Mikkelsen since his Nicolas Winding Refn movies, and especially Casino Royale. Now he’s a weekly treat on the Hannibal TV series, which aired its season finale the day I spoke with Mikkelsen. While we wait for season three, if you want to see another badass Mads Mikkelsen movie, Michael Kohlhaas is for you. It opens Friday, so you can see it when you would have been watching Hannibal!
Michael Kohlhaas was a horse trader in 16th century France. When his horses are stolen, he seeks justice and reparation. Failing to receive them, his wife is killed trying to petition for his rights. So Kohlhaas leads a rebellion which ultimately attracts the attention of Martin Luther himself. Some spoilers for the movie and the real Michael Kohlhaas are in this interview, but you could always look him up in history books by now.
Did you make Michael Kohlhaas between seasons one and two of Hannibal?
No, I did Michael Kohlhaas before I started Hannibal, before the first season. In the summertime, I think. Are you still back and forth between the States and Europe, or are you hear now as long as Hannibal is on? Well, because we’re shooting everything in Toronto, so I stay there for 6-7 months and then I’m back to Europe.
All of this started for Michael Kohlhaas over his horses, and the principal of justice. Does it take a lot more to get people to fight for what’s right now?
Depending on what side you’re on, you’re either seen as righteous or a terrorist, right? I think we’re still fighting that battle with different eyes all over the world, everywhere. Afghanistan, American, Africa, you see the fights. Most people believe that they have justice on their side. This is also the case with Michael Kohlhaas.
Did it remind you at all of making Valhalla Rising because it was so much about tone and silence? Not total silence like Valhalla Rising but a lot of space between the dialogue.
Yeah, it’s a lot about being present in nature somehow, be there and be part of it which Valhalla was an extreme example obviously. The character in Valhalla is not necessarily a human being. It’s some thing, some animal, something. This guy is a person but he’s quite a radical person. In terms of being out there, a lot of the time all by yourself, there were some parallels to that movie.
Is this really a war without battles? I mean, there’s a crossbow fight but he really wages a war without lots of fighting.
Yeah, there’s that one and we have one that I’m looking at on a distance. Then we have the burning down of the monastery. So there are a couple things but we don’t go in and worship them. We didn’t want to make Braveheart battle sequences. The journey of the man was the part we were interested in, and the battles were something that was happening, either through his eyes or in his eyes.
I’m glad you brought up Braveheart because I guess that’s always what you think about when there’s a historical war movie. William Wallace had so much rage. How do you feel Michael Kohlhaas kept so calm while all of this was going on?
I mean, there is an inner rage obviously in Michael Kohlhaas, ultimately spoken out in the scene with Martin Luther, or called The Man in Black now, where Martin Luther is telling him what is so wrong about his mission, and he’s almost convincing Michael Kohlhaas that this is wrong. And because of that obviously Michael Kohlhaas is tearing up. Everything he believes in, he’s almost giving in but at the final stage he says, “I want my horses.” So it’s a long, long journey for him. He almost gives up and then he still stands on his rights. So there is a lot of things happening inside of him but he’s not doing it out of rage. He’s a simple man. He’s an intellectual man. He wants justice. He does not care about all the soldiers and the peasants that he brought into this war. They’re just following him. They’re being paid. He doesn’t even see them. He doesn’t see they have a battle that they believe he can be their leader of. He has no interest. He wants those two horses. So he’s in many ways a cynical, selfish man who’s not doing it out of rage. He’s doing it out of belief.
That’s what also made me think we put up with so much injustice today and let it slide. Should we be a little more radical in fighting for justice?
It’s hard to say. I’d rather not see the world burn, right? There’s always two sides of the same coin. I am a justice fighter in my real life always. When I see something I find unjust, I react very fast and sometimes too fast. I think it is going on everywhere in the world and I think if we do more of that, it might explode everything. Having said that, there are certain places where we as western people can look at it and say, “You guys gotta stand up for yourself” and they don’t do it. Maybe we’ve got it all wrong. Maybe they see it from a different perspective. So it’s a very difficult question.
Of course, it is a difficult question and that’s why we make art to explore these things and we keep talking about them.
The last shot of the movie is one long take. How do you prepare for something like that and modulate how you’re going to perform from the beginning to the end?
I think it depends. It wasn’t always going to be that way and all of a sudden they just did it. We have a wonderful, wonderful DOP but she didn’t necessarily tell us what she wanted to do. So for us, it was mostly to be in the situation, whether the dialogue was gone or there was dialogue to say. We were living with these horses day in, day out for four months so going out there and getting up on the horse was not really a big difference from what we just did this morning or with any film. The scene was obviously, we knew it was an important situation. This is his one moment in the film where he realizes what he’s done, where he realizes what the price is for everything he’s done. His wife is gone, lots of people are dead, his daughter’s riding away. He got his horses, yeah, but he’s going to lose his head now and he realizes this is going to be the last breath, the last time I’m ever going to see, the last time I’m ever going to stand. So it was basically just staying there and realizing that in 10 minutes I’m not going to be there anymore, and just take in the last moments of life. Regretting the path he took.
What is the longest take you’ve ever done?
I think it might’ve been one of the takes where my wife is dying. I think that’s the longest take I’ve ever done in any film, where my wife is lying on the kitchen table. We did that, I don’t know, 10, 11, 12 times and they all lasted about 12 minutes. There was just a lot of panic, a lot of blood, a lot of strife and frustration. So that was a very draining day.
So it was on this movie. I would have figured there would have to be at least one take Nicolas Winding Refn did that was longer.
Yeah, he has done. I might have done something longer in a car while we were driving around shooting, getting out of the car with the camera, going up to the second floor, into an apartment, do a scene, go back out again and into the car. We probably have done that, you’re right, but it didn’t feel the same because we were on the move. Here it was so claustrophobic inside a room and just being in the situation. Don’t necessarily produce all this heartache, be in it.
When we get to the third season of Hannibal, do you think we have to get Hannibal in the cell now?
I think we have to get Hannibal on the run. Whether he ends in jail, I’m not sure, but he can definitely not stay in his house after tonight.
So you think there will be a period of Hannibal on the run before he gets captured?
Oh, absolutely. I’m sure there will be. He’s too slick. He’s too smart. They’ll have to find him somewhere, in Italy, I don’t know where?
When are we going to see Dollarhyde?
Well, I don’t know the plan, what he’s got up his sleeve. Bryan [Fuller] is playing around with these not only metaphors, but also the characters in different ways than we’re used to from the books. So he can come up any time but I don’t know if he wants to slavishly go for the books or if he wants to be inspired like he has been so far.
Well, he already brought Mason Verger in which was really cool.
Yes, he did. Which is kind of cool. We’ve never seen Mason before he cut his face off. That was some fun days with him.
Does Bryan welcome your input?
Absolutely. Bryan’s writing is so good that our inputs are often reduced to little ideas and little changes. The overall structure is so well planned ahead that we’re not really negotiating any of that but we will definitely ask questions and be on top of it so we know exactly what’s going to happen in the next episode.
Do you eat the food on the set?
All of it. It’s fantastic. There is no human flesh, so that’s the good part. The chef is very good. [Food stylist Janice Poon]’s absolutely wonderful and it’s all super tasty.
It looks really good.
And it is.
And the presentation is phenomenal.
Absolutely, that’s obviously a mix of her and our friend Jose [Andres] from Spain who has all these crazy ideas, but they also tend to change their minds. When I learned what the dish is called in Ukrainian, all of a sudden it becomes a Japanese dish so I have to learn that as well. It’s a little weird sometimes but kind of funny.
How long did it take to shoot the fight with Laurence Fishburne? Was that difficult?
Yeah, it was difficult. He’s done that for many, many years, Laurence and he’s a dancer on the fighting floor, so it was kind of a walk in the park doing it with him. He knew exactly what he was doing, and I was pretty good at it as well. It was a 12 hour day with a lot of bruises and we felt very young, until we woke up the next day and felt very old again, but we had a good time doing it.
Is the book still a resource for you?
No, I’ve kind of let go of the books because I will stick with Bryan’s ideas and his scripts. This is where the heart of the show is. I did that from the very beginning as well. It was not until halfway through season one that I picked up the book and had a reread to see if there was something that could inspire me, but I knew we were doing something different and for that reason I would rather put my hat on Bryan’s shelf.
Was there anything that inspired you when you read it again?
There’s a lot of awesome cool things, also in the films, but all of it is taking place when he is in jail and we haven’t been able to use any of it yet, hence that I am trying to be a man who is a civilian. I’m making friends and I have friends and this guy was not supposed to catch me. So we will hold our horses and get more inspired later on I guess.
Hannibal always had a specific way of speaking. Did you come up with a pace of line delivery on your own?
I’m the actor. Obviously I have my way. I have my accent as well. He’s a man who’s fond of a lot of things. He’s fond of words as well. He’s fond of good wine. He’s fond of beautiful music and everything banal he hates. So obviously using my own street language was not an option. The pace is the pace, also because I am a foreigner, it would have to be a certain pace. Some of the words I’ve never heard before so they have to get into my [head] before they come out. For that reason, I think the pace develops together with me trying to find him.
What was a new word for you?
Oh, there were tons of words. I can’t remember them now but obviously all the foreign words, Ukranian or Japanese. Still a lot of the medical expressions. I know them in Danish but I’ve never heard them spoken out in English, so for that reason it just takes a couple days to get it and remember stuff you’ve never heard before.