“Sometimes,” Mads Mikkelsen says, “you overthink a film for a year and it ends up not what you wanted. And sometimes you just throw it out there and it becomes what you intended.”
As far as Mikkelsen and his first-time feature director, Joe Penna, are concerned, their expert survival drama “Arctic,” playing out of competition at Cannes and just acquired by Bleecker Street, is an example of the latter.
“Mads read the script, we immediately had a two-hour Skype conversation on a Wednesday and I was scouting locations in Iceland on Friday,” Penna reports. “And a month and a half after that we started shooting.”
It was all so fast, Mikkelsen says with a gleam in his eye. “I didn’t tell my agents. They found out, though. ‘Where are you going?’ ‘Iceland.’ ‘Why?’ ‘Just a trip.’”
Sitting on a sunlit hotel terrace, both men radiate the engaging energy that must have powered what Mikkelsen says was the most difficult shoot of a career that ranges from work in his native Denmark (he won best actor at Cannes for “The Hunt”) to international fare like “Casino Royale” and “Rogue One.”
“It was an incredible journey,” he says. “It felt like a rock ’n’ roll project, ‘We have a camera, let’s do it.’ It was a little like my first film, and it’s nice to have that feeling at age fiftysomething.”
Mikkelsen plays a plane crash survivor patiently waiting for rescue in the frigid Arctic, “going through the Groundhog Day of his routines,” when an unexpected appearance upends everything.
“There is a difference between surviving and being alive, and there was no life left in him until then,” Mikkelsen explains.
When the actor said that in that Skype talk, he unknowingly echoed the “surviving not living” phrase Penna and co-writer Ryan Morrison had put on top of their whiteboard, and, the director says, “I knew then he understood the character.”
Because “Arctic’s” gripping story and Mikkelsen’s exceptional, in-every-frame performance are perfectly suited to the snowy conditions, it is something of a shock to learn (“I would have done it differently if I’d known,” Mikkelsen deadpans) that the whole story as written by Penna and Morrison was originally set on Mars.
Several factors, including the success of Matt Damon’s “The Martian” mandated a move, and while being stranded in the desert was considered, changing it to the Arctic (“We did a find-and-replace from ‘He can’t breathe’ to ‘It’s really cold,’ ” Penna jokes), helped him focus on the film’s pared-down approach.
“On Mars there would have been too much technical information to impart. Here I was able to take an ascetic approach,” says the director, whose background with a successful YouTube channel and music videos is very different than the classic style he uses here.
“Robert Bresson’s belief was the less you know about the hero the more you fill in the blanks,” Penna notes. “Here there is no wedding ring on his finger, no locket with a picture; we know nothing about the character.”
That minimalism extends to the almost total absence of spoken words, which Mikkelsen enjoyed, albeit with reservations.
“I’m a big fan of it, a big fan of Buster Keaton. It’s back to the roots of filmmaking, something to look at,” the actor explains.
But while “at first you think it’s great, no lines to learn, it’ll be a walk in the park, you have to remind yourself not to start producing something you don’t have to. It might be nothing, a tiny look, but you shouldn’t be trying too hard to explain things to the audience.”
The consequence of the move to Iceland that was hardest for the Brazilian-born Penna was the cold weather. “I used battery-heated clothing — until this film I didn’t know it was a thing,” the director says enthusiastically, while Mikkelsen adds, “I’m a Viking, right? I’m supposed to love this, but it got cold.”
Despite conditions that included winds so strong a few doors were ripped off cars, the actor says the role was “hard psychologically as well. It’s basically being alone, no costars to work off; mentally it’s a lonely journey.
“That’s why when he catches a fish he doesn’t kill it right away. In addition to food, it’s also company, something that reminds him he’s not alone.”
Not that the physical trials of “Arctic” were exactly easy, especially the part of the story that has Mikkelsen’s character pulling a heavy sled.
“I was as thin as I could get, I couldn’t get any skinnier. (“His wife was livid with me,” Penna chimes in)
I would love to have had a shower scene so everyone would say I really suffered.”
Though the actor says he at times slept in his blood- and dirt-encrusted makeup so he wouldn’t have to get up early to have it put on again, Mikkelsen is not a big believer in that aspect of acting.
“Let me put this Method acting myth to rest; there is no such thing as staying in character,” he says strongly. “Asking your kids to call you by a different name, moving away for a year, I find it very pretentious. We have to be smarter than our characters; we have to understand them and interpret them.”
Though there was always a crew within walkie-talkie hailing distance, Mikkelsen was often out by himself in remote landscapes, and the experience has stayed with him.
“We had a big frozen lake I had to walk on, and we didn’t really know how solidly frozen it was,” the actor remembers. “Sometimes I could hear the ice crackle, and sometimes I could hear fish splashing underneath the ice. It was extremely scary and extremely beautiful.”