Mads Mikkelsen talks losing his head in ‘A Royal Affair’ & following Anthony Hopkins’ bloody footsteps as TV’s ‘Hannibal’

The Reel Breakdown

Danish actor Mads Mikkelsen, 46, courts Oscar in the 18th-century romance "A Royal Affair," (opening today) the Danish entry for Best Foreign Film. In that sexy historical drama, Mikkelsen plays the German doctor and philosopher that charms crazy King Christian VII of Denmark (Mikkel Boe Folsgaard) and beds his young English queen (rising star Alicia Vikander).

"Mads? Of course, as a Scandinavian I had seen a lot of his films," Vikander told Yahoo! Movies this week. The Swedish actress, 24, who also has a major role opposite Keira Knightley in "Anna Karenina" continued: "He's one of our greatest actors. When I met Mads for the first time at a screen test in Copenhagen, it took me one second to realize he's one of the most down to earth men. He's funny, witty, brilliant and a real inspiration."

Despite his high profile in Scandinavia — and a standout role as the Bond villain Le Chiffre in "Casino Royale" — Mikkelsen's career has reached a new high this year. He won best actor honors at Cannes for "The Hunt," and he's currently filming "Hannibal" in Toronto opposite Hugh Dancy. The highly anticipated NBC series will premiere in 2013 with Mikkelsen in the title role made infamous by Sir Anthony Hopkins, Hannibal Lecter.

[Related: Get local tickets and showtimes for 'A Royal Affair']

When I met the tall, high-cheek-boned actor in Toronto last September, he struck me as a cross between Viggo Mortensen and Ciaran Hinds — intelligent, physical and grown-up sexy. And every bit as down-to-earth as Vikander says. As for his hot streak, he was philosophical: "I never really planned a career," Mikkelsen said. "I've tried to avoid it. I've tried to do this stuff I felt for, the stuff I like. So, I've just been meeting these fantastic directors who've offered me a variation of different parts and different films. And now it's landed here."

Directors like Nicolaz Arcel, the Dane responsible for "A Royal Affair," and the screenwriter of the Swedish version of "The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo" with Noomi Rapace. When Arcel cast Mikkelsen as Johann Friedrich Struensee, the German who becomes King Christian's personal physician, he rose to the challenge — physical and emotional. "There's no such thing as easy," said Mikkelsen, "but it's easier when a script is good. Even though the characters may go through hell, it's nice for an actor because it's there on the paper."

And, in "A Royal Affair," his character literally goes through hell. Despite becoming the King's closest confidante, the doctor's radical ideas and his intimacy with the queen become his undoing. It's not a spoiler to say that things don't end well for the good doctor. It's a matter of historical record. "Yeah," agreed Mikkelsen. "I mean it's a well known story. Let me put it this way. They're both dead today."

The most heart-wrenching moment is when the doctor arrives at the scaffolding outside of town, still believing King Christian will stay his execution. As an actor, Mikkelsen had to get inside the doctor's head — and then lose it. Is it hard to recreate such a traumatic scene? "It was quite," said Mikkelsen. "We as actors imagine things like that. It's what we have to do. But if it's there and there was the scaffolding. The axe was there. It was really cold. It was really a sad day. I'm walking up these stairs now. I'm saying goodbye to my whole life. Also, he realizes it's not just fifty people out there watching. It's the whole city and they hate him. He didn't see that coming. It's heartbreaking for him."

[Related: Indie Roundup -- 'A Royal Affair']

The doctor considered himself a man of the people, given his enlightened political ideas, and then even the people turn, is that right? "They didn't have any idea what his job was. They thought he was trying to kill the King and shag the queen."

Mikkelsen's co-star Vikander added insight to the historical relationship between royal and doctor that began as a meeting of the minds and deepened from there with tragic results. "Both of them ended up in Denmark, a country where they couldn't speak out or express themselves," she told Yahoo! Movies. "In that way both of them suddenly met someone with whom they were soul-mates. They found someone that they could open up to and actually be themselves with and that was why they had such a strong connection and why they had this love affair."

While in "A Royal Affair," Mikkelsen's plays a doomed hero; he's equally adept at playing villains. Enter Hannibal Lecter, the TV series. The NBC show is set in contemporary America. It takes place before the FBI arrests Lecter for his serial crimes. "That was a nice shift of gear for me," said Mikkelsen of being cast in an American TV series. "Like wow, why not stick with something for a long time and see how it goes?"

Certainly Anthony Hopkins, who won a Best Actor for playing Lecter in "The Silence of the Lambs," throws a big shadow over the character. "You can't avoid that," agreed Mikkelsen. "He made it iconic and for a good reason. He's absolutely outstanding in that character. We cannot move away totally from the fact that he is what he is, if not a little decadent then at least a man full of taste. But this takes place before he's captured. Before anyone knows what he is."

Mikkelsen offered a thumbnail of the plot, which is a prequel. "Lector is hired to help Will Graham [Dancy], who is a genius FBI profiler. But unfortunately Will suffers from too much empathy. It means he cannot deal with the cases. He's putting himself in the shoes of the killers and he cannot handle that situation. So, the FBI hires me to help him deal with his job."

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Big mistake, right? "Right," Mikkelsen continued, "I'm a psychiatrist. And all of a sudden I find myself in this candy store where I love being in the middle of every investigation that comes in. It means I can do pretty much what I want. I can manipulate the cases that Will's running. I can get away with anything."

Does this Lecter commit murders or just solve cases? "There's a lot of solving cases and I do eat stuff occasionally," Mikkelsen said. "A man's gotta eat."

Watch Mads Mikkelsen in a clip from 'A Royal Affair':

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