A decade or so ago, around the time he landed the role of the villain Le Chiffre in the James Bond film "Casino Royale," Mads Mikkelsen made his first trip to Los Angeles to try to find an American agent. Having already established a successful acting career in his native Denmark, he figured it was time to see what the Hollywood thing was all about.
"It was a different world," Mikkelsen remembered over lunch on a recent afternoon in Beverly Hills. "Everywhere I went, it was like, 'I love everything you do! It's so great! It's awesome! You're beautiful! Um, what's your name again?' It was like, 'Seriously? You're using all these words and you don't even know my name?' "
Suffice it to say, with prominent roles in two of the most anticipated films of late 2016 — the Marvel comic-book movie "Doctor Strange," opening Friday, and "Rogue One: A Star Wars Story" in theaters beginning Dec. 16 — Mikkelsen has a different experience when he comes to town these days.
Long respected among aficionados of European cinema as a versatile, magnetic actor in films like "Pusher," "The Hunt" and "A Royal Affair," Mikkelsen, 50, has carved out a somewhat improbable niche in recent years as one of Hollywood's go-to baddies. After breaking out in 2006's "Casino Royale," he starred for three seasons as the suave serial killer Hannibal Lecter in NBC's series "Hannibal" and attracted an intensely devoted fan base — no mean feat for someone whose character literally eats people.
Given Mikkelsen's ability to blend cool sophistication and steely menace, it was only a matter of time before the chance to play a comic-book villain presented itself. In "Doctor Strange," Mikkelsen portrays Kaecilius, a sorcerer who threatens to unleash a dark supernatural force on the world for what he sees as the greater good of humankind.
"Obviously his means are not the same as people with morals would have, but his goal itself is not stupid, you know?" Mikkelsen said. "He wants to make the world a better place. That's a good start for villains."
It's no great mystery to Mikkelsen why he's become a magnet for bad-guy roles. "Playing the hero, you have to be all-American — and I'm not," he said. "People over here tend to see something they like and they want to copy that. It used to be the Brits who were playing the baddies and now it's the Scandies."
He shrugged. "I can only embrace that," he went on. "If the alternative is not to work here, I'll take a bad guy any time. I've got plenty of opportunities to do other things back home."
Indeed, in Denmark, Mikkelsen has played a wide range of characters, including sympathetic ones. In 2012's "The Hunt," he portrayed a gentle kindergarten teacher falsely accused of pedophilia in a performance that won him the best actor prize at the Cannes Film Festival. That same year, he starred opposite Alicia Vikander in the sumptuous period drama "A Royal Affair," playing 18th century German Danish doctor Johann Friedrich Struensee, who tried to institute political reforms to bring Denmark into the modern age but was brought down by a scandalous affair with the country's queen. In the deadpan 2015 black comedy "Men & Chicken," he was unrecognizable as a nerdy, mustachioed oddball who uncovers some bizarre secrets in his dysfunctional family.
Marvel Studios President Kevin Feige had been trying to cast Mikkelsen for years. At one point a few years ago, the actor had been in contention to play a villain in "Thor: The Dark World" before scheduling complications got in the way. When it came time to cast Kaecilius, Mikkelsen was the first and only choice.
"You look at Mads' body of work and, yes, people know 'Hannibal' and the James Bond villain," Feige said. "But if you look at his Danish work, he's amazing. He can be funny, he can be romantic. And that's what we want: Actors who, when it comes to villains, can bring pathos to it."
Growing up in Copenhagen, Mikkelsen had been a voracious reader of American comic books and European ones, including the "The Adventures of Tintin" and "Blueberry."
"I was drowning into that universe every day after school," he said. "As a young kid, I remember I loved the feel of 'Doctor Strange.' I might have been slightly too young to understand the whole philosophic part. But I loved the color of it and the magic, of course."
What ultimately sold him on signing to "Doctor Strange," though, was a single tantalizing phrase: "flying kung fu." When director Scott Derrickson first approached Mikkelsen about the project, the actor — who was a gymnast and ballet dancer before turning to acting in his early 30s — instantly zeroed in on the chance to live out a fantasy that dated to his childhood.
"Scott said something about flying kung fu and I said, 'Whoa, hold on. Rewind. Flying kung fu? I'm in,' " said Mikkelsen, who, as a youth, haunted the sort of midnight movie theaters in Copenhagen that would show double features of Hong Kong martial-arts flicks and American horror films like "Halloween" and "The Shining." "I grew up basically trying to be Bruce Lee. I was just captivated by the man."
Recalling that first conversation, Derrickson said, "Mads was suddenly like a kid on the phone. He said, 'You mean I get to fight in this movie? I've always wanted to fight in a movie, and no one's ever let me!' He was so excited."
Until fairly recently, the idea of starring in big Hollywood movies was never on Mikkelsen's radar at all. "It was never something I was going for 100%," said the actor, who lives with his wife and two children in Copenhagen. "It was never a dream."
Even as the American film industry has come calling, the actor, who served on the jury at this year's Cannes Film Festival, has kept one foot firmly planted in the world of European cinema. Though a film like "Doctor Strange," with its CGI-drenched spectacle, couldn't be further removed from Danish cinema's often rigorous adherence to naturalism, Mikkelsen is happy to move back and forth between those extremes.
"We don't make films like these back home and I'm very fortunate to have the chance to do both," he said. "Being in the same kind of atmosphere for many years makes you worn out and uninspired. Doing this for five years, I might miss just sitting in a kitchen having a conversation [on-screen] that's very subtle and dramatic. And if I've done that for five years I might really miss swinging around with a sword in my hand."
Or a light saber, as the case may be.
For the moment, Mikkelsen is keeping his role in the next "Star Wars" film — the first in a series of planned standalone stories, this one set shortly before the events of 1977's "A New Hope" — under wraps. It has been revealed that Mikkelsen's character is the father of Felicity Jones' heroine, Jyn Erso, and it has been strongly hinted that he plays some kind of role in the development of the Death Star.
"He's not a classical villain but he does bad things — or does he?" Mikkelsen said coyly. "He's a brilliant man in a situation that's very, very difficult. It's a dilemma no one wants to be in. He's a very important piece in the puzzle of how the drama of the whole series can escalate."
Asked whether his character crosses paths with Darth Vader, Mikkelsen laughed and shook his head. "No, no, I can't tell you. We'll end up in a lake somewhere."
As Mikkelsen continues to gain traction in Hollywood blockbusters, it's easy to imagine him eventually landing the lead in some kind of action franchise, a la Liam Neeson in "Taken." "I wouldn't mind that at all," he said. "I was a big fan of 'Taken.' The trick is to find something that makes sense, that isn't just an excuse to do action but has a story that's worthwhile in itself."
Lest anyone worry that all this success will go to Mikkelsen's head, the actor is quick to point out that there are plenty of people back home in Denmark ready to pull him back down to earth. Vainglory isn't exactly in the Danish nature.
"Denmark is a funny place," he said. "We have what we call the Jante Law, which is an unwritten law that pretty much nails the personality of the Scandinavians generally. The law is just like, 'Don't fly higher than your wings can bear you. Stay on the ground. Don't think you're anyone.' That's strongly built into our nation's character. It's just an approach to life we have."
At least now when he comes to L.A., though, people know his name.