By Eric Kelsey
LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - Danish drama "The Hunt" has at least one advantage over its rivals in its bid to win the best foreign-language picture Oscar: the familiar face of Mads Mikkelsen.
Mikkelsen, the 48-year-old star of NBC television thriller "Hannibal," is no unknown to Oscar voters. The Danish actor has starred in three Oscar-nominated films over the last decade from the nation of about 5.6 million people.
Mikkelsen's work in Hollywood and his association with the upper echelon of the Danish film industry underscore his ability to maintain a high profile in both the United States and his home country.
But any mention of his global recognition may be greeted with a shrug from the tall Dane known for his steely countenance.
"Denmark is a small country and if I can make two films a year (here), people start getting sick and tired of you," Mikkelsen said wryly. "So this is kind of nice. I can do more than one (film) per year."
Director Thomas Vinterberg's "The Hunt" ("Jagten") is the fourth Danish film to pick up an Oscar nomination since 2006. It is the third Oscar-nominated film from Denmark to star Mikkelsen, who was in the 2012 period film "A Royal Affair" and the 2006 drama "After the Wedding."
Danish drama "In a Better World," by director Susanne Bier, won the best-foreign language Oscar in 2011, but did not feature Mikkelsen.
In "The Hunt," Mikkelsen plays Lucas, a village kindergarten teacher who is wrongly accused of sexually abusing children at the school, after a friend's young daughter falsely claims he exposed himself to her.
The accusations unite the tight-knit community against Lucas, who is ostracized, arrested, loses nearly all his friends and is forbidden from the local grocery store.
"When I read the script, without question, it touched me a lot, and I was frustrated in the same way reading it as the audience is watching the film," Mikkelsen said.
"The Hunt" will compete against Italy's "The Great Beauty," Belgium's "The Broken Circle Breakdown," Cambodia's "The Missing Picture" and Palestine's "Omar" for the best foreign-language Oscar on March 2 in Los Angeles.
Mikkelsen's portrayal earned acclaim from critics, who lauded his ability to evoke subtle emotions from a character at the center of a witch hunt.
Washington Post critic Ann Hornaday called his performance "astonishingly restrained and expressive," while the Wall Street Journal's Joe Morgenstern praised his "intelligence and formidable intensity."
Mikkelsen, also known for his role as James Bond villain Le Chiffre in 2006's "Casino Royale," is part of a generation of Danish actors and filmmakers like Vinterberg and director Lars Von Trier that helped reshape Denmark's image as a hotbed for cutting-edge film.
"Danish film was way behind at that time, and I think that little groups started springing out and really wanted to make a change," Mikkelsen said, noting that actors and filmmakers of this generation worked closely together.
"We are like a united team, and not as classical as one director and (actors) just doing what we've been told -- instead, really collaborating," he added.
Vinterberg said that Von Trier sat in on about 10 days of editing "The Hunt." The two directors gained international attention together in 1995 by establishing the now-defunct "Dogme" ("Dogma") avant-garde film movement, which emphasized the bare basics of filmmaking.
"There's a very strong sense of community here, which means a lot," the 44-year-old director said, adding that he and Mikkelsen talked through the role for "hours and hours and hours" at Vinterberg's summer house.
The film, to Vinterberg's surprise, was a box office hit in Denmark, touching a social nerve as well.
"There's a lot of debate on the film ... it moved from the cultural pages of the newspapers into the debate pages, which is a great satisfaction," the director said. "It was a profound success, but, hey, I needed that."
Mikkelsen won the top actor award for the role at the Cannes Film Festival in 2012 ahead of the film's January 2013 release in Denmark. He hopes his third try will be the one to win his homeland another Oscar statuette.
"It's just a funny dream, and we're just eating up every second of it and enjoying it," he said. "What way it goes we cannot know."
(Editing by Mary Milliken and Amanda Kwan)