Sometimes you have to act like you’re crazy, like you could explode at any moment, because you have to do it. My life was at stake sometimes. You have to make it believable.

An obscure and fraught chapter set in the immediate aftermath of World War II, Martin Zandvliet’s third feature, Land of Mine, is a nerve-shredding nail-biter filled with bountiful emotional rewards. The Danish film is competing for the Best Foreign Language Film title at the Academy Awards.

It’s Denmark 1945, after the war’s end. A dozen German POWs—practically all of them in their teens—have the unenviable task of dismantling 45,000 landmines, among the other two million that was riddled along Denmark’s coastline by the Reich in anticipation of an Allied invasion that never came. It soon becomes clear that these boys are clueless in the ways of war. With little more than a single practice run at disarming lethal explosives, and with only driftwood to probe the sand, things couldn’t get more onerous or perilous. The makeshift bomb squad is crudely promised that, once the mines are dismantled, they can return home. It’s this promise that the boys cling to.

The POWs are under the command of Sgt. Rassmussen (Roland Møller), a real hard-ass who makes no secret of his indifference to their fate after five years of Nazi occupation. The boys are starved and penned indoors at night to inhumane conditions. It’s over time—after many detonations—that the sergeant softens. He begins to see that the terrified and homesick charges are also casualties of war, and the unforgiving martinet becomes more like a father figure to them. By having Rasmussen portrayed as one of the fiercest of German haters at the outset who ultimately sympathizes with the boys, Land of Mine conveys that, at least here, mercy must overrule hatred.

Møller is that rare kind of performer with a towering presence untouched by most cinema and Hollywood is already knocking at his door. The 45-year-old Dane will next appear in The Coldest City with James McAvoy, The Commuter with Liam Neeson, and a remake of the 1973 crime drama Papillon, also starring Charlie Hunnam and Rami Malek. Møller is on the cusp of stardom.

Land of Mine opens in New York City and Los Angeles on February 10.

Land of Mine is one of those films that begs to be seen on the big screen with an audience. I’ll never forget this: The woman next to me wrapped a scarf around her head. It’s a hard watch.

Oh my god, that poor thing. I kind of feel sorry for these people because it’s so edge-of-your-seat and a lot of looking down at your feet. There was this one woman who came up to me after a screening and said, “What a horrible, great movie!” and she was crying. I’m sorry that you’re crying, but I’m happy it moved you. Then there was another funny incident where, when the dog gets blown up in the movie, this woman went, “Oh no! Not the dog!” Wait… What about all the guys? There’s just something about animals. Who cares about all the kids? [Laughs]

You’re definitely known more for your intense roles, but you seem quite the opposite from what I can gather on social media. Do you feel more at home on a comedy like Undercover?

I like it all! I’m the kind of guy who needs to do something different all the time or I’ll get bored. With that said, I do like to play dark characters. We all have good and bad sides to ourselves. But I’ve noticed that, when I see the bad side of myself in a movie, I’m more aware when I become a bad person in real life once in a while. I become a better person when I play a bad character.

Land of Mine explores a moment in history that’s rather shameful for Denmark and a subject that many historians have so far avoided. How have Danish audiences received it?

Well, most of them are like, “We didn’t know this happened.” Danish people have a tendency to think of themselves as the good Samaritans who helped the Jews escape to Sweden. War brings out the worst in people. My grandparents, who experienced the Second World War, were called “The Silent Generation” and I never understood why. Every time I would ask them about the war, their answers were really short. I’ve come to realize now why and it’s because you do things that you’re not proud of. I think it’s important we know what we did. If we don’t talk about it, how are we going to learn from the past? The film brought up a lot of stuff that people aren’t proud of, but the facts are there. If you go to the churches on the west coast in Denmark where the events took place, you will find all these German names of the boys who died there. Somehow, it never made it into the history books. It’s like building our identity on false grounds, if you ask me. We’ve been fighting ever since we could pick up a stone and hit each other over the head with it. Nothing good ever came out of that. Eye for eye, tooth for tooth—it will leave us all blind and toothless.

There’s a lot of anger right now with what’s happening in the world. Land of Mine feels incredibly timely because it is anti-war and ultimately uplifting, despite the harsh truths. Has the framework in which you view the film changed over the years? You shot this in 2014.

The thing to pick up is, sit down and talk to your enemy. We have more in common than you realize. Why are we fighting? We all have the same ambitions, same dreams, same goals, same need for love and affection and connection… I know this is so cliché, but we are all one species. We have a tendency to focus on the small differences and then fight over it. It’s stupid in my eyes.

Denmark has conscription.

Yes, you have to go to the military in Denmark.

What was your experience like in the military?

I didn’t go. I picked a high number. I actually think it would’ve been good for me. [Laughs]

I didn’t realize it was a lottery system. In South Korea, all men have to serve no matter what.

In Denmark, you draw numbers. We don’t have a big military. We don’t need that many soldiers.

What was the experience like working with a group of untrained actors on Land of Mine that are, I guess, boys? Did your relationships off-camera inform how you connected on set?

Boys will be boys! They were away from home without their moms and dads, so they were pretty out of control at the beginning. I had to put my foot down. At the beginning, I was like their play-uncle and they wouldn’t deliver on set. They would get drunk at nighttimes and come to set not really prepared the next day. Martin [Zandvliet] actually did a genius thing: He wouldn’t tell them who would get blown up next. He said to one of the boys, “If you don’t deliver tomorrow, I’m going to blow you up.” [Laughs] That kid wound up being one of the four survivors, so it worked.

Do people think they have you figured out by the kind of characters you play in the movies?

Some people have a hard time separating these things, but most of the time, I only get positive reactions. My colleagues are the ones who will joke and say things like, “Well, he’s not a trained actor.” If I’m in a room with a bunch of actors, the room goes completely silent.

I was surprised to learn that you found your way into acting somewhat accidentally. I also read that you don’t watch a lot of movies. How did you get involved with your first film R?

I served time in a notorious prison in Denmark, and while I was there, I started writing down all the different things I saw. There was a lot of injustice going on between the prisoners and the guards. I was writing about myself and my thoughts—it was like self-therapy. When you have all these things inside your head, it’s hard to get an overview. When I wrote it down and read it the next day, I was able to analyze myself all of a sudden. I could figure out why I was thinking like this and why I was feeling like that. Then Tobias Lindholm, who made R with Michael Noer, approached me one day and said, “I hear that you spent time in prison and wrote about it. Can I read it?” I thought, “Why not?” I originally wanted to make a book out of it. Then Tobias came back and asked me to help him with his script. When the script got financed, he asked me to help him with casting. I was telling actors not to sit with their legs crossed, and to talk and walk a certain way, like in prison. All of a sudden, they were looking at me like, “You’re going to play this part.” I hesitated, but went home and thought, “Quentin Tarantino and Alfred Hitchcock are in their own movies. Maybe I can get lucky with the girls if I have a small part in this…” That was my motivation! So he gave me a small part. When some of the extras weren’t believable enough, I filmed extra scenes in their place. After the shoot, we said our goodbyes, and eight months later, they called me to see if I wanted to see the finished movie. I ended up having the second biggest part. I got nominated for a Best Supporting Actor award and was offered another movie. I got nominated again and was offered a third movie that I won a prize for. This is when I thought it was something I was maybe good at. It was never my ambition to be an actor. It wasn’t my dream when I was a kid. I wanted to be a fireman! It just fell into my lap. Now I’m here, headed for the Oscars.

What you decided to spend your time doing in prison paid off, big time.

I give lectures to young kids now who are heading towards gangs and I tell them to sit down and be honest with themselves about what they have going on inside their heads. When you have all these things inside your head, it’s really hard to get an overview on it. It helps to write it down.

What were you planning to do, prior to film sort of bulldozing its way into your life?

I’ve always had a creative side, along with my criminal career. I started writing raps when I was 12 years old, and my dad is a musician. That’s what saved me in the end. I was actually in the music industry. I was in A&R at a record company, but didn’t make any money. So when Tobias offered me some money to help him, I went for it. I realized I’ve always been a storyteller. I don’t call myself an actor because I don’t feel like I act—I project feelings. I don’t have acting techniques. I feel honest and present when I do it. I don’t take parts that are offered to me if I don’t think I’ll contribute something to it. I listen to my gut and I follow my heart. I see myself as a raconteur.

There’s a lot of mystique about actors who are so good at what they do, but they don’t come from a lot of training or professional experience. What do you think your secret is?

I like a good challenge. I think that brings out the best in me. I’m not afraid to get out of my comfort zone and that’s where you grow as a human being. That’s where your charisma comes from. That’s how I learn things about life and about myself. If you want to be a good actor, you have to go out there, meet people, be open-minded, challenge yourself, and really live your life. Reality rules. Reality will always override your fantasy. That’s how you become a great storyteller.

You’ve said before that it takes a lot to impress you and maybe that’s an asset. You don’t get bogged down by celebrity or the prestige of directors. Is that just your personality?

Ever since I was a little kid, I was good at calling people’s bluff. Maybe that’s a gift that I have. I used it in the wrong way for many years to control people and now I use it to develop my characters. I do get starstruck and impressed by actors around me when they do certain things, but when it all comes down to it, we’re all human beings and full of flaws. If I can feel them and there’s a chemistry there, I don’t care who they are or where they come from. That’s the most important thing you have with a director because, when you agree to do a part, you have to put yourself in his hands and trust him and believe what he’s saying. I’ve done a couple of movies where they spent a lot of time discussing. I listen to everything, but I have to let it all go and listen to my gut in the end. Sometimes I can just feel that something is wrong in a scene. I couldn’t tell you what it is, but I can feel that it’s wrong. It’s hard to explain, but my gut feeling is never wrong.

You haven’t been acting that long and your body of work is tidy, and it seems like you’re going at the speed of light. I can’t step into your skin, obviously, so does it feel fast to you?

No. [Laughs] I think it’s going too slow, if you ask me! But when I step back and look at it, I can see that I’ve been doing this for seven years, I came from nothing, and I’m going to the Oscars. That’s pretty amazing. I don’t like to jinx things. I always thought I could do anything I wanted to do in life, ever since I was a little kid. If they give me a chance, I grab it and I’m going all in.

You’ve been nominated for a Bodil four times and won two. Is there perceptible change?

No. [Laughs] It’s not like that. I still have to work hard. In Denmark, they only want me to play villains. Denmark is a small country, so if I keep playing villains, people would get tired of me. I turned down a lot of parts because they were too similar to what I already did, even though I didn’t have any money. I needed to follow my plans and challenge myself. If you do the same things, your audience won’t feel you anymore. You can’t cheat them. You have to be honest. I would say it’s a different thing with American movies because it’s a bigger market. But I like playing villains. I don’t know how you feel about this, but villains are the most memorable. When I was in a criminal environment, I was actually acting because I had never been a bad guy. I’d only been a good guy. Sometimes you have to act like you’re crazy, like you could explode at any moment, because you have to do it. My life was at stake sometimes. You have to make it believable.

You’re right on the cusp of becoming a “thing” in Hollywood. You have The Coldest City, The Commuter, and the Papillon remake coming out this year. Are you unfazed by this?

I think I’ve been lucky with directors. David Leitch, the director of The Coldest City, and I had chemistry right away. We had a Skype meeting and I felt him right away. It’s the same with the other movies. It’s important that I feel safe with directors because, sometimes, it can feel like I was hired to do a job. That’s not me. I have to be friends with the directors and trust them, and that’s really important to me. I’ve been close to doing a couple of parts because they were big movies with famous people, but I turned them down because I didn’t feel it. That’s actually my secret.

Have you ever accepted a role without reading the script? Does your trust extend that far?

No. I have to read it first and know that I can contribute something. I can feel that right away when I read it. Sometimes I’ll see if I can change the part. I did that with The Commuter. It was a really small part, but the director and I had good chemistry. Three days turned into eighteen days.

That’s a huge jump.

It is. But I know my place. People think I want to control everything, but I don’t. I need a good general. If he’s not a good general, I will challenge him. If he’s good, I’ll do what we agreed to do.

About R: If you found that you didn’t enjoy the experience, that would’ve spelled the end?

Of course. It made me grow as a person. It was pretty intimidating to stand in front of the camera, after moving around in silence in my previous life for the things that I did. I realized that I had a lot to offer. I think it’s nice to do movies where you can change people’s perception about something. I like to tell stories that make people rethink what they think they have all figured out.

What are you going to do after the Oscars? Win or lose, how are you going to celebrate?

You know we already celebrated the nomination. We opened a bunch of champagne. We’re probably going to do the same thing if we win. I think we have a fair chance at winning. But I heard that they’re maybe going to give the prize to the Iranian movie to show Mr. Trump that he’s not in charge of everything. If that were to happen, it would be okay with me.

It’s a crazy world we’re living in.

It is, my man. It is.

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