In The Promised Land, Mads Mikkelsen stars as Captain Ludvig von Kahlena, a retired officer of the German Army who sets out to secure a noble title by becoming the first man to successfully tame the notoriously inhospitable Danish heath. His hopes and dreams rest on several sacks' worth of German potatoes, which he hopes will lead his fledgling farm to prosperity.
As for what appealed to Mikkelsen about the film? "It wasn't the part about the potatoes!" he quips. Instead, it was the immense scope of the project, which reunites the actor with Danish filmmaker Nikolaj Arcel, who directed Mikkelsen in the Oscar-nominated 2012 period drama, A Royal Affair. With The Promised Land, Mikkelsen saw the rare opportunity to make a full-fledged historical epic about his native Denmark.
"I knew Nikolaj was going to make an epic film, and I really embraced that because nobody does that in Denmark — for a lot of good reasons, especially the economic ones," he explains. "I knew he could pull it off." Meanwhile, Mikkelsen found himself drawn to the contradictions within his character. "I found it very interesting to play a man who wants desperately to be something he hates. Ludvig hates nobility, and yet he wants to be part of it."
"He ends up being the hero of the film, I guess, but you don't see that when you're halfway into it, because he's constantly making the wrong decisions," Mikkelsen points out. "He's so stubborn. He would rather burn down the world to get what he wants than see what's right in front of him is what he needs."
The complexity of the character may be what drew Mikkelsen to the role, but it's also what made the part difficult to portray. Neither the actor nor Arcel wanted to make it too easy for the audience to sympathize with Ludvig von Kahlen.
"It was a challenge to play him the right way," Mikkelsen tells A.frame. "We always said that Page 68 is when the sky opens up a little for Ludvig and he starts changing as a person. Nikolaj and I had to trust that we'd wait to let that happen — that we'd actually go through with making him as annoying and unlikable as possible in the minutes leading up to that."
A.frame: The Promised Land comes about 10 years after you and Nikolaj made A Royal Affair together. What was it like reuniting with him after such a long time?
It was easy. It was like we took off right from where we ended last time. We didn't know each other that well when we did A Royal Affair — it was only a couple of weeks — so we had to find our footing, and I had to figure out how he worked, and he had to figure out how I work. After that, it was just a rollercoaster of fun for both of us. We started The Promised Land from that point. We dove into the material right away, discussing it scene by scene as well as the overarching story of the film. We did everything like we did last time, but it was like we never left each other.
Your character is someone who is simultaneously very confident and immensely insecure. As an actor who knows what it's like to try to break into an exclusive industry, is that something that you related to?
No. I've always had a kind of strange ability to just walk in anywhere and not care too much. I've actually met our now-former queen a couple of times, and that's always a little awkward, because you're wearing clothes that you'll never wear again and you're making sure to bow in certain ways. But I don't recognize that part of Ludvig too much. I just know that people are people, and everyone uses the toilet, you know? [Laughs] I don't have heroes or idols that I look up to in the same sense that the character does.
What I could relate to is his stubbornness and his sense of righteousness, which is always creating a lot of problems for me. If he could bend his morals just a little, life would be so much easier for him, but he won't do it. He just won't do it, and that's what I find fascinating about him. The little girl he meets, Anmai Mus, does a lot of things to change his life completely, but he doesn't see that until it's too late. That I can relate to. I think that's a very typical human trait. I'd say the desire to want something that you hate is also a very common impulse.
Ludvig is a character of few words. He isn't prone to a lot of talking. Do you enjoy the challenge of playing a character who doesn't have a lot of dialogue?
I've done quite a few films where I had even fewer words to say than I do in this one. I'm actually babbling on in the German language for a while at certain points. [Laughs] It's never an issue either way for me. I've done a lot of very dialogue-driven films, which I love, and there's a good reason why they exist, because we speak as human beings. But if you live in the 1750s, you don't come in from a hard day's work and talk about your day. That kind of behavior belongs to now. It doesn't belong to then. "How was my day? I was just surviving!" What does that question even mean? Everybody's just surviving in our film. We figured that talking a lot and gossiping wasn't really a big thing in the time that the movie is set.
The epic sense of this film is something that I cherish a lot. I often compare it to the Buster Keaton era of filmmaking, where the moving picture itself was doing a much larger job than it is in the world of contemporary film. I mean that in the sense that the camera and the face and the emotions present are enough to do the trick. We don't always need to tell the audience what's going on.
How easy was it for you to get lost in the period world of the film while you were on set?
Well, everything outside was as brutal as it looks, because the wind was insane out there! The season we were shooting in also meant that it could go from very cold to warm really fast, so that was really brutal. That was a gift in a sense, though, because we didn't have to act that. It was real. We just had to lean into it. Unlike some other films I've done where I've been in the elements, this time we actually had a trailer that wasn't parked too far away, so we could always run to it. For that reason, making it wasn't as brutal as some other films I've made. And it's always a gift when you're actually working in the middle of nature.
The film is, among other things, about how families can grow in even the most unforgiving of places. How quickly did you and your co-stars bond and create that kind of dynamic together?
It was super easy. They're all wonderful people and wonderful actors. It's always about creating bonds and making everybody comfortable in the room so that we can work together, and when you're working with a child actor, one of your tasks is to make sure that she's extra comfortable. While we all knew that some kind of family would form by the end of the film, that isn't the case for the majority of it. My character's behavior toward the little girl, Anmai, isn't something that's designed to spread confidence in her, either, so there were always a lot of conversations between us whenever we did some of the more emotionally brutal scenes where I hit her or talk very harshly to her. I'd always explain that it's just acting, so that she knows that right when they'd say cut, I'd be back to normal again. Melina [Hagberg], who plays Anmai, understood that, but it's still important to go over it again and again. Otherwise, it'd rub off on her when you start screaming at her, because she's still just a kid.
You’ve done so much throughout your career already. Is there anything you're still longing to do, or any filmmakers you're dying to work with?
There are tons of filmmakers I'd love to work with still. A lot of them are, obviously, the ones whose work I grew up watching in my youth: Directors like Scorsese and Coppola. In terms of my goals and dreams, though, I always say that my dreams are the ones that the director presents to me. When Nikolaj calls me and says, "I have an idea," then I start slowly getting into it myself, and once everything clicks, it becomes my dream, too. I'm in a lucky position where I can have a lot of dreams myself, but other people's dreams can also feel just as big within me as they do within them.
By Alex Welch