Text by Pierre De Villiers
When Lars Mikkelsen takes my call midway through a shopping trip in central Copenhagen, he sounds so English I think I’ve dialled the wrong number. How is it that a Dane who grew up in the city’s working class area of Nørrebro has the clipped accent of someone who frequents private members’ clubs in London? Elocution lessons, perhaps? A studio-appointed vocal coach?
“No, it was Monty Python,” he laughs. “That’s how I learnt English. My brother Mads [of Pusher, Casino Royale and Hannibal fame] and me watched Monty Python and listened to all the records. We could reel off the whole thing by heart when we were 14, so the accent came naturally.”
Now Lars is about to get his break in a more modern British TV classic, Sherlock, the phenomenon that has raked in awards, garnered an obsessive fanbase and caused a spike in the sale of trench coats. He’ll be starring opposite Benedict Cumberbatch’s Sherlock Holmes as Charles Augustus Magnussen, the ruthless “king of all blackmailers”.
The fervid anticipation is such that Mikkelsen can’t give much away, except to say, “The writing in Sherlock is beyond anything I’ve experienced before.” That’s saying something, given he’s been in two of the shows that have made Nordic Noir the TV phenomenon of the last few years. He played smouldering but slippery mayoral candidate Troels Hartmann in Forbrydelsen (The Killing) and was in five episodes of Borgen as economist Søren Ravn.
Mikkelsen readily admits he is something of an Anglophile – he’s a fan of such English crime dramas as Inspector Morse and A Touch of Frost, and an early childhood hero was Lord Peter Wimsey, the gentleman detective and bon vivant at the heart of Dorothy L Sayers’ crime novels.
However, there’s not much of the gentleman detective about Mikkelsen. He has the same scheming blue eyes and angular features as brother Mads – one British newspaper called them “the pin-ups of evil”.
So is there competition between the two? “No, I don’t think there has ever been much competition between me and Mads, no more than with other kids,” he says. “We actually talk and share advice. We catch up maybe four, five times a year in different parts of the world. We use each other whenever in doubt about certain things and we usually talk about the roles we play.”
The Mikkelsen brothers had an unlikely road to stardom. Growing up in Nørrebro, Lars says, was tough enough that “you had to stand your ground there. I had a rebellious phase, I got in fights – all that crap.” They certainly moved on. Mads eventually became a gymnast and dancer before turning to acting, while Lars took an even more circuitous route, studying biology after his military service.
“I sort of knew when I was half a year into the studying that things weren’t going to work out,” he recalls. “I came down to the canteen one day and there was this guy having his meal and reading a book at the same time. His whole body was just shaped into reading and studying. It just wasn’t me. I said – that’s it, I’m not going to do this.”
Instead, Mikkelsen became a street juggler, performing all over Europe for several years. “Those were lovely days because you had all the decisions in your hands,” he says. “It was nice but everything has its time and it ultimately led to acting. When you are a street performer, you need a new joke every 10 seconds or else the audience just scrams. By keeping people interested it sort of showed what was possible. I had the notion that I wanted to do something more.”
In 1991, he enrolled in the Statens Teaterskole in Copenhagen and after five years of studying landed his first theatre role. As his career took off, Mikkelsen became a staple on Danish TV, starring in shows like Edderkoppen before his breakout role in The Killing. “We didn’t realise we were making something that would be that big while we were filming it,” he says. “We had a notion we were pushing the boundaries of what we could do. I mean, could one murder stretch out over 20 episodes? It was different to what we had done before and Danes hadn’t done loads of crime stories at that point. And then it became this great success.”
In the UK, The Killing drew more viewers than Mad Men and sparked a Scandi TV love-in that led viewers to the likes of Borgen and The Bridge. “It is very nice to know the British actually can watch subtitled stuff,” he says. “The fact The Killing played a part in that is something I’m immensely proud of.”
Locally, Mikkelsen hopes the pioneering spirit that drove the show continues to rub off on a new generation of Danish film-makers. “I think some of the young Danish directors are trying to make genre movies, which is fairly new to us,” he says. “But we shouldn’t lose what we are. For instance, The Hunt [the harrowing 2012 film about a man wrongfully accused of being a sexual predator] with Mads is a nice example of what we are good at doing.”
Mikkelsen will certainly continue to seek out Danish projects even if, as expected, doors starts opening for him in the UK and America once Sherlock is screened. There’s little chance of the actor, who is based in Copenhagen with actress wife Anette Støvelbaek and sons Lue and Thor, relocating permanently for work.
“I don’t think I could live in an industry town like LA,” he says. “I really need a small community like we have here, where the friendships are built over the years.” That’s not to say he’s afraid of fame, though he says so with the kind of understatement that you don’t find much of in LA. “With Sherlock, I just want to put my foot down and make a mark and say: I’m here. It would be nice if it did well, I wouldn’t mind that at all.”
Season three of Sherlock with Mikkelsen begins in January 2014