Obviously I love film. Obviously I’ve been inspired by films since I was a kid and still am. But I’m not trying to make it my life.
Danish director Thomas Vinterberg’s equally joyous and melancholic Another Round—scripted by Vinterberg with regular collaborator Tobias Lindholm—plays with a teasing idea: a riff on a theory once advanced by Norwegian psychiatrist Finn Skårderud, who suggested that humans are born with a 0.05% blood alcohol deficiency and should, therefore, drink steadily throughout the day to compensate. It’s like a drinking contest where nobody competes and everyone wins, until they lose.
Mads Mikkelsen—one of the world’s preeminent screen actors—finds the sweet spot between regret and rejoicing as Martin, a history teacher at a Copenhagen high school who’s on a downward spiral both at home and in the workplace. Once an academic superstar, he’s now a shadow of his former self, having long since lost his pedagogical mojo and any emotional connection to his wife, Anika (Maria Bonnevie), and their two kids. And so Martin and his similarly resurgent teacher pals—Tommy (Thomas Bo Larsen), Nikolaj (Magnus Millang), and Peter (Lars Ranthe)—decide to put Skårderud’s ideas to the test in the hopes of maximizing their social and professional performances. To that end, they drink not to lose themselves but to find themselves, violating occupational norms in pursuit of fresh vision and purpose—drinking all the time, and doing so not compulsively but knowingly. Their revelries are honest and true while still serving as covers for deeper misgivings and emotional rifts, where good times are had and those good times will always end. In the end, it is the hard lessons that life throws at them, which show the men the way forward.
With Another Round, Mikkelsen adds to his teeming gallery of unforgettable characters. Anthem reached out to the actor via Zoom this week to discuss one of the very best films of 2020.
Another Round is Denmark’s entry for International Feature Film for the 93rd Academy Awards.
Hi, Mads. So you’re in London.
I’m in London shooting [Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them 3], hopefully wrapping it up this week if everything goes right.
You were in quarantine for a little while, weren’t you?
Yeah, we were all in quarantine. Suddenly there was one person who got COVID and then a couple hundred people went straight into quarantine. They’re taking it very serious.
That sounds like a huge operation.
It is. I mean, you can only get away with this on a big blockbuster film. It’s obviously insanely expensive to have everyone tested every day. A small film wouldn’t be able to survive that.
I actually talked to your co-star Katherine Waterston not too long ago.
Oh yeah? I’ll say hi to her.
There are so many genuinely nice people in that ensemble.
It’s been wonderful. They’re very, very nice. All of them.
Congratulations on Another Round. I’ve seen it three times now.
It’s one of my favorite films of 2020. You’re my favorite performance from the past year. So we’re off to a great start.
That’s a good start. Let’s dive into that. [laughs]
I was looking at this interesting study that they’ve been conducting about how much drinking has spiked during the pandemic due to lockdowns, which is understandable.
Well, very significantly because we’re stuck at home with nothing to do. There’s stress. It’s how some people cope. The study speculates that a lot of people might come out of this with long-term alcohol dependency issues.
I’m sure they will. That’s obviously a danger. Then you have all the people who have a dependency where they control it until they get home late in the evening and all of a sudden they can stop at eight in the morning. But they keep it around so that’s obviously a tragedy as well.
That of course made me think about all the characters’ circumstances in Another Round. They’re obviously not all alcoholics, although it’s explicit that Tommy turns into one, right?
He probably was from the beginning, but because we have our heads up our bums, we just didn’t see it coming. We were not focused on each other. We were way too focused on ourselves. He’s someone who was probably dealing with an issue already and this just pushes him over the edge.
What are we to make of Martin’s situation? What was he like prior to the study?
I don’t think he was a big drinker. I think he was like an average person drinking in social situations. But he’s not that social anymore. It brings something out of him. It gives him some confidence. It retracts a few decades from his energy as well. He reinvents the teacher that he used to be, the husband that he used to be, and even the father.
This movie resonated with me even more because my father is actually a lifelong alcoholic who ended up in a hospice some years ago.
I kept looking for pieces of him in there because it’s a natural thing to do I suppose. You must get a lot of people coming up to you with their personal stories.
Sure, there is that. We’ve showed it quite a few times and you could just tell that it’s appealing to different people for different reasons. You have the youngsters who identify with the situation of graduating and remembering that time. They would come and watch the film with a few beers under their arms. Then you will see anonymous alcoholics watching the film and thinking it’s about them. Obviously you have other people watching it for other reasons. It’s an interesting dynamic. It’s appealing on different levels and it does touch upon different things.
Our mission was never to moralize about this and I don’t think we do at all. There have been a lot of powerful films that deal with the downside of drinking. That was never our mission. It was actually a tribute to alcohol and what alcohol can do—the opposite side. The way it lifts conversations. The way you can become more creative. It’s been around for thousands of years and we’ve used it for the exact same thing: getting closer to the spirits. And we can’t close our eyes to the other side of the coin. There is a distinction between two glasses of wine and bottles.
Thomas [Vinterberg] has remained consistent in saying that the film is first and foremost about celebrating life. Did you see it in this same way from the very beginning?
Yeah, I think so. It was always on the paper. There might’ve been places where I would have doubt about certain things so it was a delicate balance. We tried little things out, but we always knew that we wanted to end on some kind of a high note, even though the character himself is unable to decide whether he wants to fly or to drown because he has not made up his mind. But in that specific moment [at the end of the film], he’s flying. So we knew that’s how we wanted to end it. It’s a life-affirming film about ceasing the present—the now—as opposed to always blaming yourself for the past or relying on the future because that’s not yours yet.
The last time we spoke, I had asked you how you go about choosing projects nowadays and you told me that very simply something has to catch you. I wonder if there was any one thing that hooked you at the beginning of this, perhaps wanting to work with Thomas again.
There were many things. We worked together eight years ago [on The Hunt] and that was kind of a game changer, at least for me. I loved working with him so, yes, that was the first attention obviously. I wanted to work with him again. Then I read it and I really, really enjoyed it. I mean, he pitched it to me six, seven years ago, but that was only on the level of an idea about alcohol and celebrating it, and lots of funny and crazy ideas. But I also knew that he would make a film about life, which is his primary goal always. And that’s what it became. I just loved what I was reading. I thought there were a lot of brave and interesting things. In fact, one detail, which is kind of unheard of, is that within 19 minutes of the film, my character has a small breakdown. Normally you’re with a character for an hour and a half and then you will get the breakdown, right? So it’s a bold move. It was described as the camera zooming in where everybody is not there anymore and we’re inside the character. I was curious how he’d do it. Because of the camerawork, it worked really well. Getting to know the character through a breakdown as opposed to knowing the character and then have him breakdown I suppose is a bold move.
I have this quote from Thomas: “you don’t have to have lived the movie you’re making.” How do you feel about that from an actor’s perspective? Is it always important to see parts of yourself in the character you’ll be playing? At the very least, you’re a family man yourself. You’re a father. What kind of connection do you require in a role such as this?
I don’t necessarily think that it’s always necessary, but I think that we always try to find ourselves in it. Let me put it this way: if I were to play Hitler, who I don’t see anything in common with, I would have to somehow go in and find his logic through my logic. What’s driving me? What is it? It might not be as catastrophic an outcome as his, but you can find something else maybe that you will plant in that character. There’s always a bit of you in every character. Sometimes there’s more, sometimes there’s less. That’s just the way it is because it is you who’s doing it. I think for a director maybe it’s a different story where you can definitely leave everything about him out of it. But then again, you’ll always kind of drag something recognizable out of the situation.
You once told me that gut feelings are the biggest instrument in film.
There’s always a gut feeling about everything. There is the mind, there are the words, we communicate, we take it apart, and we agree or we disagree. Then there’s also something you can’t let go. You can’t let it go and you get a little obsessed about it. That’s a gut feeling. It’s like “I can’t explain to you why, but we have to give it another try. Let’s try a different version. Let’s just see what it is. Let’s have another look at it.” I think everyone has a gut feeling, some obviously more than others. Some of us are naturally listening to it without knowing it. It will definitely always be a part of this process.
Are you very opinionated on set?
I’ve always been stubborn. I don’t think that’s changed in my life or in my career. [laughs] But I’m not stubborn to the degree that I won’t give in. I might just want to insist like “I hear you. Let’s do it that way. But please give me a couple of takes with different directions so we have it and we can discuss later. Then you can see it and you can throw it out or whatever.” Stubbornness is definitely one of my strong and weak sides.
There has been rapturous response to your dancing in the movie and I do remember reading somewhere that you weren’t totally sold on the idea initially. I wonder if that was because it mirrored your own background in dance too closely.
There is that. In other countries probably, nobody would’ve been aware of that anyways, but back home everybody knows I guess. There was risk of it being like “Mads is gonna dance. Not the character but Mads.” We don’t want to go there of course. But the biggest risk was actually that it could just come across as pretentious. It is a big thing to dance. It is a big statement. How many people start dancing in the middle of a street? You could get away with it in a musical. You could lift it so it becomes magical or you can make it a drunken man’s fantasy—all of these things I proposed to Thomas and he wouldn’t have it. He’s like “no, you’re just dancing, Mads. You’re just dancing.” [laughs] So I gave in. And I think that was great because he was absolutely right and I was wrong. It’s a beautiful, beautiful ending and it works. Especially when you have all the youngsters who are happy and free and immortal and drunk. Then we could get away with it.
Is stubbornness a wanted trait in the directors you work with?
Yeah, unless it’s complete insanity what they want. [laughs] Then it’s not good. But if they’re burning for it? That’s their baby. They see it. They know what this is. Of course they have to hang in there. You get nervous when you can convince your director like [Mads snaps his fingers]. That means anyone can come over and say “don’t you think pink?” “Yes.” “Black?” “Yes, black.” And obviously they have to have a calm feeling that lets you know he is the captain and he knows it. So stubbornness for a director? Absolutely, it’s a must. I mean, they don’t have to be stubborn. They just have to be persuasive. If you’re a good director, that’s what you are.
I believe it was Lars von Trier who said that you should always save your best idea for the last moment in a movie. Do you think there’s some validity to that?
I think there is some merit to that. It’s a little like a boxer who’s not been doing well for 12 rounds, but then in the last round he just shows the world. That impression is lasting. There’s another point to this: an ending is one of the most difficult things for a writer or a director to nail. There’s a saying that if you have your ending, then you have your film. If you can find your ending, then you can build your film. I think there’s some truth in that because people can struggle and struggle and they won’t know exactly where it’s going unless they know what they want right there [at the end]. It doesn’t have to be a moral thing. It could just be a feeling in a visual—something they want to see at the end. They want to feel this at the end.
I have a tendency to like dark, dark endings. I’m a big fan of dark endings. If you ask me, everything should be darker always. [laughs] I don’t mind an open ending, but when it’s drama, I’m always the one pushing for an edgier ending. I must also admit that it would’ve been a disaster for this film. It would’ve been a disaster if people were listening to me because this is so much more beautiful and life-affirming than what I would’ve come up with.
I was surprised to learn that Martin was originally written to be an air traffic controller. That obviously would’ve been something quite different. Eight years ago when this was first pitched to you, was that the idea Thomas was working with?
Yeah, that was an idea that came up. But I don’t think [Thomas and co-writer Tobias Lindholm] settled too much on that. It was obviously a basis for a lot of fun scenes. If you’re an airline trafficker and you’re bored and a little nervous and you start drinking, that makes for some crazy, fun scenes, right? He changed it for a few reasons. One, he wanted the film to be more about the friendships. So instead of always having them leave their jobs in order to see each other, we could have them both at their jobs and outside their jobs. That was a good move. Then there is the mirror image: their own youths that they’re confronted with every day just being high school teachers. You’re constantly in the middle of this midlife crisis and you’re befriending these immortal youngster so every day will be tougher and tougher for them. That was a smart move as well. The film starts with the youngsters and finishes with the youngsters. He wanted life’s different stages to be coming out of the film.
Where do you think Martin is in his life having gone through all of this?
He’s a little like the lyrics of the song [“What A Life” by Scarlet Pleasure], which is spot-on as the main theme, right? It’s basically like “I don’t care where I am, I don’t care how old I am. Right now, I’m alive.” Even though Martin hangs in the air [in the film’s final frame], me and Thomas agree that he’s flying. We believe that he can regain his life, his marriage, and he can definitely do his job without alcohol. That’s definitely how I’m feeling.
I checked out your recent profile in the The Wall Street Journal where you’re quoted as saying that you don’t really talk about movies in your daily life. You don’t watch tons of movies. It’s not precious to you in that way. Maybe that’s healthier in your profession.
Maybe it’s healthy. Maybe it’s also wrong. I mean, most of my colleagues are very interested and there are others also who aren’t so interested. Obviously I love film. Obviously I’ve been inspired by films since I was a kid and still am. But I’m not trying to make it my life. This can sound pretentious, but I don’t mean it in a pretentious way: I always wanted to be someone who got paid for doing sports. I always wanted to be a sportsman—somehow. I just love sports. If I could spend ten hours a day playing tennis or riding a bike or playing basketball, I would do it. Obviously I’m 55 so I can’t anymore. [laughs] So that is my interest. When I sit down to relax or whenever I get excited, it’s often for sports. But I also like to get something recommended to me and sit down and take my time and go into the magical world of moviemaking. Absolutely.
Maybe that gives you a different approach. Maybe you’re bolder in the choices you make.
It’s hard to say. I’ll say this: there’s always a risk. I hear from a lot of my colleagues or maybe even directors or friends of mine—conversations about how you can stop yourself from doing something because “that’s already been done” or “we don’t want to look like that.” So it’s this stop and go motion, right? If this happens to you that much, you can just come up with ideas and then somebody can come later and say “that’s been done before.” Maybe you won’t care: “I don’t care. I don’t care because it serves my story.” There is a risk in trying to be super original with everything. When you don’t have that many references, it becomes easier obviously.
Do you see a common thread between sports and acting?
Maybe there is. A lot of my friends have done sports their entire lives. This can come across banal when you say it, but one of the beauty of sports is that it’s super dramatic, right? It is right there. Somebody wins, somebody loses. It’s extreme drama right in front of you every time, which is what we deal with in films as well. And when people are extremely skillful at certain things, it is art. It is completely free. It is completely effortless. Things are happening that they would never think of, that they never planned to do, but it just happens because the intuition is so strong. They do the right thing. Maybe this is just an excuse for me to watch a lot of sports, but there is art in sports. I very firmly believe that.
Where acting is concerned, you’re so skilled at it that everyone thinks it’s effortless.
That’s very sweet of you. I think effortlessness is nice. It’s nice to watch because it makes us forget that we’re watching an actor sometimes. We can relax a little. I’ve done things where it wasn’t effortless and maybe it comes across as spectacular sometimes because it looks difficult. But that doesn’t make you comfortable. It doesn’t suck you into the film. You’re kind of just looking at a performance as opposed to forgetting it and being a part of it. I think we’re all striving to get that: “the zone.” It’s what happens in the film too, right? You hit the zone after two glasses of wine. [laughs] You try to make it look effortless, but it rarely is effortless. Obviously there’s a lot of hard work and other things behind it. If you’re lucky, you can make it look like it is.