A starstruck star

Lars Mikkelsen used to earn a living as a street performer. He even considered becoming a professional clown. Instead he became an actor and recently starred opposite Kevin Spacey in House of Cards. Probably the right career decision then

Lars Mikkelsen slowly lopes across the street, hands stuffed in the pockets of his puffy coat. Head stooped, the sun catches his face, forming dark valleys across his sharp, sunken features.

They’ve portrayed the optimism of mayoral candidate Troels Hartmann in The Killing (Forbrydelsen), and the ruthless Russian President Viktor Petrov in the Netflix series House of Cards. Released this winter, the latter is his second major international breakthrough, after he was cast as a villain in the acclaimed TV series Sherlock, alongside star British actors Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman last year.

But the success hasn’t gone to his head. The 50-year-old arrives wearing the same jacket and hat combo he has worn in every interview I’ve seen him in, and we meet in a Vesterbro cafe, close to where he lives with his wife of 25 years. With his sideways smile and reluctance to make eye contact, Mikkelsen is an unorthodox TV and movie star.

“I hate being cocky, I loathe it. I’m just not that secure, I’m not afraid to admit it. But I know it’s silly and that I should find something else to do than stand up in front of loads of people. I’ve been offered the chance of hosting live events and I always turn them down because I need a part or role to play. Give me a part or role, then I can stand up,” he says, before laughing. “It doesn’t sound too healthy does it?”

As Russian President Viktor Petrov opposite Kevin Spacey in the third season of 'House of Cards' (Netflix)

As Russian President Viktor Petrov opposite Kevin Spacey in the third season of ‘House of Cards’ (Netflix)

Staying close to home
The parts he receives tend to be powerful, taciturn and intelligent men, such as Danish detective Harald Bjørn he played in the recent pan-European crime drama The Team.

“Scandinavian actors are known for a brooding, naturalistic style, which I took a little further with Harald. He’s very good at his job, but very private. Which I think is true of Scandinavians. We aren’t Victorian, but we are a little suppressed on a personal level. The Scandinavian man holds back because their women are so strong.”

Mikkelsen comes across as a thoughtful and modest ‘Scandiman’ whose professional ambition is buried beneath a reticent exterior. So it’s hard to detect the entertainer buried within.

“I was pretty convinced that I wanted to be a clown,” he says of the five years he spent as a professional street juggler before he joined the Danish National School of Theatre aged 27. “I didn’t exit the womb with a clear notion that I wanted to end up here.”

From performing on the streets to appearing in an internationally-acclaimed television series available to almost 60 million people worldwide, Mikkelsen might have come a long way professionally, but he hasn’t travelled far geographically – his new home is only a few kilometres from where he was brought up in Nørrebro.

Back then it was a working class district, with buildings in the now-spacious court yards. These back buildings were cheaper, and was where he and his family first lived as a young boy. But as his parents found better jobs they moved into a front building, just off Nørrebrogade.

“It was a good life. There was an old printing factory in the back yard that was rather abandoned and only used for storage. We broke in and started up clubs, climbed roofs that were five or seven metres above ground. Thinking back I realise how fucking dangerous it was.”

Photo: Peter Stanners

Photo: Peter Stanners

Not sticking out
Few people pay attention to Mikkelsen as we talk in the café, and he likes that. It’s a typically Scandinavian experience, he explains, that famous faces blend into the surrounding and are left alone. It’s one edge of a double-edged sword called ‘Janteloven’, the Danish tall poppy syndrome best summed up as, “you’re not better than anyone else”.

But while many deride Janteloven for suppressing the celebration of success, Mikkelsen sees it as a unifier. Belonging to a community of talented achievers enables you to elevate your craft – without them you can’t succeed.

“Scandinavian nations are very laid back, you feel part of a bigger community. Standing out too much isn’t valued, but there is also a nice feeling of belonging, so you don’t want to rise above it.”

What pulled him out of the tight-knit Danish acting community was his performance in the crime series The Killing, which was an unexpected hit in the UK. While he was unsure of his ability to succeed abroad, he was in need of new experiences.

“At some point you have to shove off and try something else. Even when you’re constantly being challenged with creating new characters, it can get repetitive here. And really, I’ve only just discovered that this craft could take me other places – I didn’t quite believe that I could. I didn’t really think I spoke English well enough, and I thought it was too difficult. I didn’t want to presume. I’m not that confident, so it took a while to really give it a go.”

Mikkelsen discusses his role as the villain Magnussen in BBC’s ‘Sherlock’

Sibling success
And he’s glad he did. Working with Cumberbatch, Freeman and Spacey is the highlight of his career, he explains, though it took some getting used.

“I was always star struck because these guys are so good at what they do. I really look up to people who are good at what they do. So a bit of healthy star struckedness isn’t out of the way,” he says offering an embarrassed half laugh.

“I love the job, I really do. I love cultivating what I know and getting better at my craft. I love meeting people like Mr [Kevin] Spacey or Benedict [Cumberbatch] or Martin [Freeman]. They are such kick ass actors; you really have to step up to match them. The investigation of the craft is the most interesting thing for me, and not the pay off.”

Mikkelsen’s international success is all the more remarkable given that his younger brother is Mads Mikkelsen, best known abroad for his role as the Bond villain in Quantum of Solace from 2006, and as the cannibal psychiatrist Hannibal in the eponymous TV series.

With less than two years separating them, they started their careers as actors almost simultaneously in the mid 90s. Mikkelsen says they’ve never been in competition – in the early years Mads preferred cinema while Lars focussed on theatre – and they’ve managed to coexist in the industry without it fraying their relationship. Having a sibling who understands what you’re going through can be an asset too.

It is notable that a sibling pair has achieved such success in the same competitive field. They both graduated from the Danish acting education that only accepts 24 students per year and is notorious for being the second-most expensive state education after pilot training.

“You’re not playing a Stradivarius, you’re playing yourself,” explains Mikkelsen on why the acting education can be a gruelling and unforgiving experience for some young people he has encountered.

“You have to have complete awareness of that apparatus – of your emotional state, your bodily expression, the whole thing. That can make you weird for a few years because you’re constantly in conflict between what you can do with it, and what you’re supposed to be able to do with it. You can get disconnected from real life.”

We cross the street and enter the back yard of his apartment building. As I take photographs we chat about how he chose Bjørn’s British accent in The Team, before talking again about the joys of working with talents like Spacey.

We take some photos inside the fenced off basketball court, but they’re no good, so I tell him to stay where he is while I look for a better angle.

I walk away and when I turn back toward him, he appears transported far away. Relaxed, with his hands in his pocket and eyes closed,  he takes a deep breath and savours the air – the simple satisfaction of early spring air. M

Features, Culture

By Peter Stanners

Co-founder and Editor-in-chief. Occasional photographer.

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