At what point in an interview do you confess to the subject that you named your dog after them? For me? Right at the end, which is when I tell Mads Mikkelsen that my wife and I named our puppy in his honor. (We were binge-watching Hannibal at the time, and our nippy puppy—like Hannibal Lecter—had a taste for human flesh.) "I love that story! More stories like that," the 53-year-old actor says with a laugh.
As much as I’d love to swap dog stories with Mikkelsen all day, we’re here to connect over a different project: Death Stranding, the mysterious and highly-anticipated new PlayStation 4 title from video game auteur Hideo Kojima.
Death Stranding features an accomplished cast of actors, but Mads Mikkelsen’s Cliff Unger ends up stealing the show—first appearing in a series of enigmatic flashbacks seen from the perspective of a baby in a tank, and later emerging as the richest and most complicated character in a plot I wouldn’t dream of spoiling. What’s it like to star in a video game via technology this cutting-edge, and with a story this complicated, in 2019? Mads Mikkelsen took us inside Death Stranding
GQ: When and how did you end up being cast in Death Stranding?
Mads Mikkelsen: I’m not a big gamer. The last thing I did was Pac-Man, but that’s a few years ago. My son is a big gamer, and when he heard I was having a meeting with Hideo, he was like, "Daaaaaaaad!" It was like the coolest thing he’d ever heard. Never mind all the films that I’ve done that I thought he’d find cool. This was the coolest thing.
The first time I met [Hideo Kojima] was on Skype, where he pitched me the entire game. Or as much as he wanted to pitch. He showed me the giant storyboard he’d made, and it was insanely impressive. And Nicolas [Winding Refn, who also appears in the game]—my good friend, with whom I’m done five films—highly recommended him. When Nicolas does that, he means it. He was very, very impressed with Hideo.
So I decided, on the Skype call, Let’s do it. I’m not sure what it is, but it sounds as if it’s going to be fun. And then we started working, and I found myself in a green room in a helmet.
Your voice and likeness also appeared in the Quantum of Solace video game, but I assume the process of acting for a video game has changed dramatically over the past decade. Did you find that playing Cliff pushed you into any kind of new territory as an actor?
Once, very early in my career, I said yes to a project without reading a script. And that I wholeheartedly regretted. Normally, I would read the entire script, and be inspired by it, and have questions, or be intrigued—whatever it is that makes you say yes. But you know the story, from A to Z. You know the character, and the journey is character is on. Normally, that’s how I would work.
The difference here was that I did not have the script. I had Hideo. And some pictures—that enormous storyboard I told you about, which was almost like a graphic novel. And [Death Stranding] was so enormous: 52 to 55 hours of material. There’s no way to pitch that just by talking to someone for a couple of hours. It was almost an impossible task to explain the entire game.
It was like [the other actors and I] had different pieces of the puzzle. This was new to me, to act out entire scenes in mo-cap—sometimes with fellow actors, and sometimes all by yourself. That was part of the challenge. You keep a whole situation in your mind, and it’s your job to bring life to it.
You’ve been a James Bond villain, and you’ve been a Marvel villain, and now you’re in Death Stranding. On a performance level, is there a difference between playing the antagonist in a blockbuster movie and playing the villain in a blockbuster video game?
First of all, I’m not the villain in this game. I always try to make my villains heroes, to try to see the world from his perspective. That’s important, that you justify him somehow, or at least humanize him to the degree that you can recognize what his motives are.
[For Death Stranding], we just approached it as a man in a certain situation. There are different reasons for the way [Cliff] is acting out the way he is. He’s fighting for his life, or his child’s life. And that’s how I approached it from the very beginning.
Cliff’s arc did end up being much more complicated than I originally expected.
It is complicated. I think, as a player—I only played two hours—but I think the player, even if they’re used to playing games like this, will find that things will dawn on them as they’re playing. They will learn more about what’s happening. And hopefully that will keep them going until the very end of the game.
Long before you were cast in Death Stranding, Hideo Kojima was a vocal fan of you and your work. How did your relationship change over the course of making a game together?
It’s been mostly a working relationship so far, but every time we’re in the same city, we’ll meet. We just met up in Russia not that long ago, at a con, where he was launching the game and I was doing PR for a film. That is going to be tricky, to see if we can keep it up. I hope we will.
Having gambled on a project without a script—is the final version of Death Stranding what you expected when you originally signed on?
No. And yes. The inspiration from the storyboard is absolutely there. But having the characters come to life, and my colleagues’ acting, some people that I know that are not actors, but are strong characters I know... it’s incredible to watch. It’s much more than I anticipated, to be honest with you.
I was just flabbergasted for those two hours I played. You wanted to just sit there forever and see what’s behind that next mountain. You just get really hooked on it. The whole thing is just insane. I have nothing to compare it to in the gaming world, but I am in the movie world, and the graphic novel world. And this is one of the closest things I’ve ever seen to a graphic book coming to life.
Kojima put out an interesting statement about the game—about how he made it to demonstrate "the importance of forging connections with others." That’s obviously a topic of much conversation in the culture and political climate of 2019. Does it resonate with you?
Yeah. We cannot be more connected than we are, with all the methods of connecting digitally. And yet it seems as if we are more disconnected than ever, which I find really interesting. But I’m sure you would have the same urge to connect people after the Russian Revolution, or any situation in the world where it feels like… "What is happening that [making things] fall apart?"
But in 2019, what I find interesting is not so much, "What it causing it?" It’s more like, "What do you do about it?" It’s beautiful how you can play this game, and someone might be assisted by you—without you even knowing it—because you left something for them. You don’t know even know that person, but you did it anyway.
This project has been shrouded in so much mystery from the start. What kind of reaction do you expect when gamers actually get their hands on it?
Honestly, I don’t know. There’s been huge anticipation, and it’s been clouded in mystery for a good reason. I cross my fingers and hope it’s everything people are hoping for and more. As far as I can tell, it’s not something that we have seen before. It’s a different approach. It does have the elements of classical adventure games, and dystopian games, and the one-person shooter. But it also has the element of working together to get through the world. For me, I’ve never seen anything like it.
Has your experience on Death Stranding made you want to work more in video games?
If Hideo calls me, I’ll be there again. Absolutely. Whether he does so or not, I don’t know. Maybe he’s got a couple more in him!
One of the game’s first trailers opened with you singing a lullaby, which becomes one of Death Stranding’s key motifs. What was it like to sing for the game?
It was surprising, for one! That’s the type of thing where normally I would liked to have learned [I was required to sing] a few days before. But I came in, and they said, "Okay, you’re doing the lullaby." "What lullaby?" "Oh. Didn’t you get the memo?" [Laughs.] But it’s a beautiful little melody. And I think I hit some of the notes, most of the time.
Normally that would have scared me a little, because… people don’t line up to hear me sing, let’s put it that way. But it felt like another natural step into the world of Hideo Kojima and his beautiful scenes. I might not have been comfortable in another situation, but in this case [Cliff singing to the B.B.] was part of the world Hideo was creating, so I said, "Let’s do it."
Has the reaction been positive enough that you’d consider doing more singing?
I don’t think you could find any people that would pay for that.
It sounds like a lot of Death Stranding fans would!
[Laughs.] That’s good, that’s good. Maybe something in the blues area? Where it’s okay to hit the keys a little on the wrong side.
Are you familiar with the Twitter account "Mads Mikkelsen Doing Things"?
"Mads Mikkelsen Doing Things"?
Yes. They post pictures and videos of you doing things.
It has more than 30,000 followers.
I ask because Death Stranding has been a real boon to people who love to see Mads Mikkelsen doing things. Hideo Kojima even tweeted about it, promising that Death Stranding would give fans "Mads covered in blood, Mads tied, smoking Mads, variations with Mads’ eyes, Mads with glasses, singing Mads, and Mads in battledress."
I have a Twitter feed and a Facebook feed I go on, but unfortunately, I’m not one of those people who spend a lot of time on it. I have someone running it for me, and once in a while I go on and answer some questions. But that one I’m not aware of, "Mads Mikkelsen Doing Things." As long as he’s doing things, he’s still breathing! That’s good.
I’m assuming no news is bad news, but I have to ask: Is there any word on a revival of Hannibal?
None. So far, none. I get text messages from colleagues, and [show runner] Bryan Fuller. The truth of the matter is that they have to find a home for it. And if they find a home, I wouldn’t hesitate to come back and join that world again. You know, I loved it. And we could easily pick up the story after two or three years, because that’s exactly when the story would take off. If it does happen, it would be great. And if not, we had a fantastic ride.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
The long-awaited PlayStation 4 game is sometimes brilliant, sometimes clunky, and always something special.
Originally Appeared on GQ