Q&A: Mads Mikkelsen confronts child abuse in ‘The Hunt’

Thelma Adams
The Reel Breakdown

Sexy Danish star Mads Mikkelson, 47, bit into international fame this year: he had the title role in NBC TV’s hit "Hannibal," and literally lost his head in the Oscar-nominated historical romance "A Royal Affair."

Mikkelsen saved the best for last with Thomas Vinterberg’s "The Hunt" (opening Friday), a devastating Danish drama for which he won best actor honors at Cannes in 2012. He plays a divorced schoolteacher who becomes a pariah in his small town when his best friend’s kindergartner accuses him of abuse.

Audiences exit the theater embroiled in debates about child abuse and society and divided in their reactions to what they saw on the screen: but no one is divided on Mikkelsen’s understated performance. He is a major star.

Did this trifecta of successes on big and small screen surprise you?

I never planned a career. I’ve tried to avoid it. 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.

In "The Hunt," you play an ordinary man changed by extraordinary circumstances and local hysteria.

Lucas is a traditional average of a Scandinavian man, what Vinterberg called a "castrated man." The man that believes in society will take care of the problems and that we are civilized people and we will behave civilized through any problems we might face.

And then Lucas finds himself accused of the unthinkable – and his social position crumbles.

Yes. In this crisis, it turns out to be so much more complicated than he thought it would be. He’s divorced. He used to work at a school and the school closed. Now he’s working in a kindergarten and he’s trying to get his feet back on the ground. And he has a teenage son. And he’s doing pretty well. He’s climbed up the ladder again.

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And then there is that kiss in the kindergarten, where his best friend’s daughter plants her lips on his.

It’s not a grownup love. But it’s the girl’s fascination with this person, her father’s friend, her teacher. After she kisses him, he does the right thing. She should know that she shouldn’t kiss him on the mouth. But she didn’t. I mean we’re living in Scandinavia. It’s not a big deal. But he just tells her: listen, you’re not supposed to kiss a grown man in the mouth. And then her whole world just falls apart. And before he gets the chance to sort out the misunderstanding, there’s another kid who wants to fight with the pillows. Then it’s too late and she’s already gone. So, it’s this thing that happens every day everywhere.

The misunderstanding breeds chaos in the school and poisons the community.

All of a sudden a little lie becomes a giant snowball. And he ends up finding himself in this situation where he’s actually doing those things he believes are right. And so, he sees the problem and goes straight to the headmaster at the kindergarten and confronts her. That doesn’t work out. So, he goes straight to his friend to confront him. And that doesn’t work out. And then all of a sudden the doors are closing. And there he is. And he can’t believe what’s happening because this is not the civilized way to deal with this problem. And the more he is waiting for the right thing to happen because that’s what he’s supposed to do, the worse it gets.

And the worse it gets, the more frustrated this mild-mannered man becomes.

His anger is building. His civilized man has evaporated. He gets smaller and smaller. He becomes more and more like the original man that just reacts. There’s a transformation. His inner anger is growing, but he doesn’t know what to do with it. And he can’t hit. He obviously can’t hit the kid. The kid is just a kid. He can’t blame his best friend because he understands him. He understands everyone. So, he can’t really get rid of his anger. Eventually he does hit out at somebody he doesn’t really know at the grocery store. But that’s just a random way of getting rid of the anger. If he screams out loud, he’s guilty. If he doesn’t say anything, he’s guilty. It’s a lose-lose situation.

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What complicates this story is that the audience knows what the town doesn’t: Lucas didn’t initiate an unwanted intimacy. From there, it goes into very grey territory.

It is very, very difficult. We have to remember, of course, even after seeing this film that way too many kids are being abused all over the world constantly. That’s a fact. We’re not questioning that. That’s the truth but rarely -- or maybe not as rare as we think -- this happens as well. And it’s not really what caused the crisis that’s significant. It’s not really about child molesting. It’s more about how enormous love can be turned into enormous fear and eventually enormous hate.

Because of the alleged crime, the character is guilty by accusation alone

That’s what the film is about. Let’s say that he’d been accused of robbing a bank. Fair enough. That’s not good. But when his friends and neighbors realize he didn’t rob the bank. It’s all good, right? But this is branding. There is a level of stigma that goes with this particular crime whether committed or not. And, so, when I read the script, it was very frustrating because like the character, I didn’t know what to do with my anger and my frustration. I couldn’t blame anyone. And that’s the beauty of the film as well.