An unconventional, saturnine sex symbol in his native Denmark, actor Mads Mikkelsen has become an adored presence in international productions both indie and blockbuster-sized. He wept blood as the villainous Le Chiffre in the 007 reboot “Casino Royale,” assassinated Nazis as the latter half of the Danish Resistance duo “Flame & Citron,” managed an Indian orphanage in the Oscar-nominated “After the Wedding,” survived two-thirds of the “Pusher” crime trilogy, and fought alongside mythic Greek hero Perseus in the recent “Clash of the Titans” remake.
But for now, he tickles the ivories. In director Jan Kounen’s stylish biopic “Coco Chanel & Igor Stravinsky,” Mikkelsen plays the titular Russian pianist and composer to the famed French fashionista (Anna Mouglalis) who became his benefactor. Inspired by the 1920 Parisian love affair between these two titans of 20th century artistry, the film kicks off with an impressive restaging of the 1913 premiere of Stravinsky’s “The Rite of Spring,” a commissioned modernist ballet that left audiences both raving and booing. This detail was important later when Mikkelsen called me from Denmark to discuss his musical inclinations, what he smells like, the film that has influenced his entire career, and the animal he channeled to play a mute, one-eyed Viking in next month’s “Valhalla Rising.”
What did you discover while researching one of the world’s most influential composers?
The most interesting thing was reading Stravinsky’s own biography, because he barely mentioned anybody else but himself. It just tells the story of a gigantic ego, and that was an important thing to bring to the table. He was a complex man in many ways. A very “held” man, approaching life in a stiff manner. Orthodox Russian, all classical virtues. He’s a patriarch as well, and then all of a sudden, he’s leading this flamboyant Paris life with Coco, who’s doing the exact opposite of what a woman should in his world.
I don’t think he was especially attracted to her physically, but he was mentally. There was something about her he did not understand that fascinated him. At the same time, he was very crazy in his music. The world was divided into his letting-go energy when he was composing, and he was almost like a clerk when he was not. [laughs] He wasn’t a cliché of an artist, sitting in an attic, getting drunk and inspired. He got up every morning at 7 o’clock, did push-ups, ate eggs, started working, then finished at 5 o’clock in the evening. Coco managing to open him up, and to put some of his music into his own life.
What was more challenging to learn: speaking Russian or playing the piano?
Somebody else has to be the judge of that one. [laughs] I had to learn French as well, which was difficult because I was surrounded by French people. Every time I did something in Russian, they thought it was fantastic. Every time I did something in French, which I actually could speak, they thought I sounded terrible! [laughs] Maybe the music was more difficult because I’m playing. It’s not my sound, but I did insist on being able to hit the right keys so we could feel free with a camera, not the classic “cut from face, cut to hands.” That was tough, because he was crazier than I remembered when I first listened to the music. His rhythms are all over the place, but once you get it, you don’t forget.
You were a professional dancer for years. Have you had other musical inclinations?
Dancing is the only experience I have. I always wanted to play some kind of instrument — piano, saxophone, whatever. I took it up for a while, then forgot about it because I didn’t have the time. All of a sudden, I had the chance here to pick up piano in a serious manner.
I think that my background as a dancer helped me a lot because trying to count and be specific with [Stravinsky’s] music is impossible. I couldn’t learn music from scratch, so I had to dig into it more emotionally, and you often do that as a dancer as well. You listen to the music, start understanding it, and know exactly what’s happening where and when. That was my approach with the piano lessons.
As depicted in the film, the premiere of Stravinsky’s “Rite of Spring” causes an uproar among the crowds. Have you ever been booed by an audience?
Yeah, I did a crazy version of “Romeo and Juliet” once, and I played Romeo. I liked it, but I can see why it didn’t work all the way. There was always a young crowd in there, and one day when we went out holding hands [for the curtain call], 40 actors, the whole back row in this enormous place started booing like crazy. We all looked at each other: “Oh man, who is it they hate?”