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SYFY WIRE Interviews

Polar star Mads Mikkelsen says being tortured was 'brutal,' much less fun than Hannibal

By Tony Timpone
Polar, Mads Mikkelsen

When SYFY WIRE asked Polar director Jonas Åkerlund if any other person but Mads Mikkelsen could have played professional assassin Duncan Vizla (aka The Black Kaiser), the answer was a resounding “No!”

As a veteran hit man marked for death by his former employer, the 53-year-old Danish actor, best known for his villainous turns in Doctor Strange, Casino Royale, and TV’s Hannibal, commands the screen. The hyperviolent saga, based on Victor Santos’ Dark Horse graphic novel Polar: Came From the Cold, offers Mikkelsen his first English-language leading role, and he nails it.

In this new interview, Mikkelsen talks about what drew him to Polar, which drops on Netflix on January 25.

What attracted you to the character of Duncan Vizla?

There’s always this attraction to characters who are very good at their job, but very much so less skillful when it comes to real life. There’s something interesting about that. You see the two sides of a coin, right? We get fascinated with the evil, the dark side, for some reason. We invent God, and then five minutes later, we invent Satan because we need that balance.

But this guy is fascinating because it’s a job. There is not necessarily something evil in this guy. It’s his job. On the other hand, he has no idea how to behave in the real world because these are real people. He can spot one of his allies or enemies miles away. Real people are real tricky for him to figure out what they’re up to. So that’s just a fascinating character. Somebody who’s so on the surface, so strong and so skillful, but doesn’t have a mirror reflection, he has no idea who he is himself.

This is your first film as a producer. What did that involve?

I was quite surprised when my agent said, “Oh, by the way, you’re a producer now.” I said, “Whoa. What’s this?!” It involved quite a lot of cooperation between the writer, producer and the director. I always do that, but this time, it was more sitting together and brainstorming for weeks during the scripting. So, I was invited in there. Luckily, I wasn’t a guy with the annoying phone calls raising money and hearing the screaming and yelling. I was not that one. I was only part of the creative program.

Åkerlund said you came in with a backpack full of notes. Was that part of your producer’s job or is that something you do on every movie?

I always do that. In this case, it was a necessity because we had the graphic novel that we loved. Then we had the actor we wanted to have in the film, who was me, and then we had the director who we wanted to bring this to life based on what he’s previously done, and we had the writer [Jayson Rothwell]. And from there we just had to morph this graphic novel into something we could shoot.

The graphic novel, if you read it, you’ll see that it’s quite extreme. It’s only three colors: black, white and red. And some of the characters are [drawn] 10 times bigger than other characters, obviously indicating certain things. We needed to do the characters with that kind of feel. What would a character look like who is normal size but feels 10 times bigger?

So, we had to go extreme on that. There was a lot of work on that. And then at the same time as that crazy world, we were creating a much smaller Woody Allen world, with chitchat dialogue that is so awkward and it’s just going nowhere and it’s embarrassing to watch. So, we needed those two different energies in the film. That was our main work.

After playing Hannibal for three seasons, what was it like being on the other side of the torture scenario?

Oh, yeah. That was pretty brutal, to be honest.

We had two or three long, long days in that dungeon there. It was freezing cold, of course, which is always the case. Even though they had something hidden to take the weight off my shoulders, it was brutally tough to make it look right. It was quite brutal. It took me quite a few weeks to recover from that. But it looks good. It was worth it.

Was it tough to make this ruthless killer sympathetic?

I’m not sure we managed to make him sympathetic. We managed to at least understand him a little. He’s a sympathetic guy in a sense that little things, little details, are very important to him.

And there’s certainly loneliness and loss to Duncan. He’s kind of lost in the world. That by itself is somehow sympathetic. And then most of the people he takes out we don’t like [laughs], so that would kind of make him sympathetic.

Polar has welcome moments of humor, like Duncan with the kids in the classroom.

We didn’t start there. We wanted the base to be there, but then we also realized that we had some opportunities with this character [to lighten things up], not only with the kids. He obviously has no idea that kids who are 10 years old do not behave and think like people who are killers.

Same with the young girl [Vanessa Hudgens] he meets; he thinks it’s a wonderful idea to give her a present that he would love. We had some opportunities to open up not only the Duncan character, but also some of the other characters. We weren’t going for the big laugh, but little ones. Like in the dialogue when they’re saying the same stuff and repeating each other because they’re awkward people. I like to watch things like that. It makes my toes curl, and it makes the characters sweet in a crazy world.

Polar, Mads Mikkelsen, Vanessa Hudgens

How does Jonas compare to some of the great directors you’ve worked for, like Nicolas Winding Refn on Pusher, Bleeder, and Valhalla Rising?

No one compares to anyone. Everybody is individual. Everybody has their own trademark. Nic and I started out together, so I didn’t even have anything to compare when I started out with him. That was a natural process for us working together. Same with Jonas; he’s very direct, knows what he wants. He’s in the midst of an entire scene, and he sees stuff nobody else sees, and he can say stuff that I hadn’t thought about. It’s an interesting process. He looks through a different visual lens than I do. I can’t say these guys fit into any box; they’re both crazy dudes.

The ending screams sequel. Did you always see Polar as a franchise starter and that you might be known for this character for the rest of your career?

No, no, no, I didn’t. I didn’t. I knew that there were five books, so there was always an opportunity. We ended up not making [the ending] too subtle, and I didn’t mind that. With the ending, it’s obvious we open up a new door now [with Camille], and she might not be too happy to see what’s on the other side.

Where would you like to take Duncan?

It’s hard to say exactly without giving everything away here, but obviously, there’s a clear mission right in front of him, and that could be darker than we think.

What can you say about your upcoming sci-fi movie, Chaos Walking?

I can’t tell you a lot. It’s still in the working process. There’s still a little work to do. It is based on some books, and the theme is not secret. It’s about a young woman crashing on a planet somewhere in the near future. It looks like our Earth, but it’s only inhabited by men. All the women are gone for a reason. It’s quite a heartbreaking story.