“My character isn’t prepared for what awaits him in the movie, so I made the choice not to do to preparation,” Danish actor Mads Mikkelsen recently told Men’s Journal, speaking about his highly-anticipated survival epic Arctic. “I signed on and two months later I was dropped into this remote tundra landscape.”
It’s doubtful that there was any way for Mikkelsen to really “prepare” to shoot for 19 consecutive days—sometimes for 15 hours a day—in the snow-covered mountains of Iceland. The conditions were constantly changing, and brutal: One day, powerful winds ripped the door off of one of the team’s vehicles. Understandably, the film crew decided to take that day off. Luckily, thanks to his gymnast past and athletic hobbies, Mikkelsen pushed through, though he estimates losing somewhere around 14 pounds during the arduous shoot.
According to director Joe Penna, the strain of working in such elements only added impactful authenticity to each take. The charismatic Danish actor plays a rugged researcher who is stranded in the icy wilderness after his plane crashes, and he’s forced to set out on foot after it becomes apparent that there’s no hope for rescue. Because the only other human in the script is an injured and mostly unconscious woman, Mikkelsen had to quietly convey the desperate nature of his struggle against the environment.
The role provided a nuanced counterpoint to his upcoming Netflix release Polar, a high-octane action flick where he plays an assassin forced to come out of retirement for one last killing spree. We spoke with him about his survival secrets for Arctic, his epic gun stunts in Polar, and how he almost sabotaged his role as the blood-crying villain Le Chiffre in Casino Royale.
How did you deal with shooting out in Iceland?
“The cold was a constant cold. The only thing that saved me was the fact that I was constantly moving. You don’t really feel the chill so much if you are staying active.”
What was it like to be on set, sometimes shot from a great distance, alone?
“I have to say eventually it starts to get to you. For an actor, you like to have someone to toss the ball around with, and I didn’t really have that. The director, Joe, wanted to shoot a lot of the footage at 360 degrees, which meant that the crew had to be even farther out than usual. That meant I was spending a lot of time walking by myself doing mundane tasks or dragging a toboggan.”
How did you deal with it physically?
“It was rough. I was completely spent at the end of every day, and they were pretty long days often. I took a few painkillers when I needed. I don’t think you realize how hard it is to walk through deep snow when you are carrying all of that gear on your back. It was the most difficult movie I have ever done.”
Did you find yourself surprised by the weather?
“They have a saying in Iceland which is, ‘If you don’t like the weather just wait five minutes.’ That was pretty true to our experience. During the early part of the shoot we were feeling the pressure because every scene we wanted to shoot required different weather than what we were given. But in the end we decided to take what was offered to us and make the best product we could with it. We ended up getting everything that we had wanted.”
I heard there was also a polar bear on set?
“I wasn’t allowed to be anywhere near the polar bear. Her name is Agee. She had a trainer there who helped instruct her during the action. I heard that Agee actually gets jealous if anyone is speaking with her trainer, so they have to first tell his wife who then passes it onto him, who then instructs the bear. The scenes with her are amazing, though.”
Do you think it was worth it?
“I had a great experience working with the whole Iceland crew, and the country is one of my favorites in the world. In the end, that landscape is the major character in our movie so it was absolutely worth it.”
Did you adventure a lot when you were growing up?
“I remember running through the forest in Denmark when I was a boy. I had a little knife that I learned to throw and would throw it into trees when I was by myself. I would play pretend that I was being chased by bad guys and fight them off.”
How else did you escape when you were young?
“I was actually a very big comic book reader. I would go to the library and take them out, and before I could even read I would have comic books read to me. That is one of the reasons I am so excited to do Polar, which is based on a graphic novel.”
There is quite a bit of gunplay in Polar. How did you prepare for those scenes?
“There was a great group of guys who worked with guns on the set. They knew a lot, and were very excited to go out shooting and teach me. I have worked with guns in the past, so it wasn’t a completely new experience, but I haven’t done anything like some of the scenes we do here.”
Speaking of that, there is an epic gun battle where you are naked while you take bad guys out. What was it like filming that?
“Cold. It was a different kind of cold than Arctic, but a little more intense because we were in Canada and I was running around with no shoes on. The scene took about a whole week to shoot, and even though we had some stunt doubles ready to go I wanted to do everything. I didn’t think it would look right if I didn’t.”
Did you do any physical training to prepare for that scene?
“My character Duncan is a retired assassin and on his way out. So we wanted him to seem almost on the verge of passing out the whole time. That is why it had to be me the whole time. I trained so that I would be able to pull it off.”
Stateside, people probably first saw you as Le Chiffre in Casino Royale. How did you get that role?
“Barbara Broccoli had seen me in one of my other movies, Open Heart, and got it into her head that I would be a good Bond villain. It was a tremendous experience, but there was a point when I thought I was going to lose it early on.”
How is that?
“They sent me the script to read, and it was the first script I ever got where I had my name printed on every page so they could tell if it leaked. I was reading it on the plane, took a nap, and then forgot that I had left the script on the plane. I didn’t realize until I was outside of the doors and they wouldn’t let me back onboard. I thought for sure that I would get in trouble and lose the role, but luckily it didn’t get out!”
Arctic is now playing in theaters and on VOD.
Polar is now available on Netflix.
This interview has been edited for clarity.