WHEN THE GOING GETS RUFF
Having scored international hits with Sherlock, House Of Cards and The Witcher, LARS MIKKELSEN has brought it all back home with ecclesiastical bonkbuster, Ride Upon The Storm. Words: Stuart Clark.
“I’m still drinking beer, and having sex; it’s all good.”
“The church is exactly like the theatre in that it needs to adapt to its audience.”
Lars Mikkelsen is reassuring me that being baptised into the National Church of Denmark two years ago at the age of 53 has done nothing to dampen his baser desires.
“Some people are really angry with me about it,” the affable Dane laughs. “There’s a belief in modern society that as an actor you should be atheist or otherwise your art is compromised. Religion is part of my life, yeah, but if a really good role as a devil worshipper comes along I’ll still take it!”
Mikklesen has already proved that point by playing Stregobor, the Kovirian sorcerer and adherer to the Curse of the Black Sun in The Witcher, more of which anon.
Making his spiritual awakening even more newsworthy – “It’s received a lot of coverage in Denmark,” he notes – is the fact it happened while Lars was shooting the first series of Ride Upon The Storm, a drama about a family of priests who can trace their roots back 250 years. He plays Johannes Krogh, a patriarch pastor prone to boozing, fornicating and fucking up.
“My wife says I take something away from all of my roles,” he laughs again. “To play such a flawed character has been an immense joy. The moral and ethical dilemmas within him are such good material for an actor. Johannes just keeps crossing the fucking line in terms of his behavior. You’ve got to hand it to the writer, Adam Price, who I worked with previously on Borgen. Coming up with a series about priests in Denmark and expecting it to be a hit; that is daring. Ride Upon The Storm is not easy watching. There’s no crime story.” Asked to sum up the National Church of Denmark for Hot Press readers who might have one or two issues with organised religion here – if that doesn’t win us the 2020 Major Understatement of the Year Award, nothing will – Lars pauses a moment and then proffers: “It’s fairly progressive but with a few conservative elements still. They’ve been ordaining women since 1948 – I think the membership is currently 53% female to 47% male. There are gay clergy and the church has performed same-sex marriages since 2012.
“The church is exactly like the theatre in that it needs to adapt to its audience, but at the same time it can’t lose the core of what it is,” he continues. “Which rituals do you draw back on and which ones do you stick to no matter what? One of the things that’s survived from the very beginning is that priests still wear ruffs in church. It’s an on-going discussion that Ride Upon The Storm has really fed into.”
One of the most vociferous participants in that debate has been the Danish Athesist Society who during a recent advertising campaign persuaded 10,000 people to officially quit the church.
“Yeah, it’s a significant number,” he admits. “They’re definitely part of the discussion. A lot of people nowadays are very secular but most of us will, at some point, experience things that make us question aspects of our existence. You will have the urge to address something bigger than yourself. I just lost my mother and father last year, which has made me dig a lot deeper.”
Ride Upon The Storm isn’t all ecclesiastical intrigue, though, with a parallel plot that takes Johannes’ youngest son, August, to Afghanistan where 250 Danish soldiers have either been killed or wounded since being deployed there in 2003.
Returning home with extreme PTSD, August jumps out in front of a lorry in a season one climax that had Mikkelsen shedding tears.
“We spent three-quarters of a year shooting that first series, during which time we all became good friends and very emotionally invested in what we were doing,” he explains. “You become a sort of father to these young actors, and they a son to you. They phone me up asking for my advice, which usually is: ‘You know what I did when I was your age? Well, do the exact opposite!’
“Series two is all about the consequences of August dying. What sort of impact does it have on the relationships between the people, and what impact does it have on their faith? Does anybody learn anything from this?”
During the few months that he wasn’t filming Ride Upon The Storm, Mikkelsen managed to link up with Henry Cavill, Freya Allan and the other heavy hitters appearing in The Witcher, which has now officially replaced The Mandalorian as the most indemand streaming show in the world.
“It was such a big shoot,” he reflects. “I haven’t been out of Denmark much since it aired on Netflix, but I’m starting to feel the impact of it now.”
Which of his characters is he recognised as most?
“Here, it could be Troels from The Killing or Søren from Borgen. Internationally,
Viktor Petrov from House Of Cards has an incredible resonance. I was walking in Manhattan and these Russian guys swarmed around me going, ‘Woooooarrrrrgh, Viktor, Viktor!’“
Did he realise whilst filming The Witcher
that it was going to be such a gargantuan hit?
“You don’t ever really know how successful it’s going to be The Killing had a good crowd of viewers here, but no one thought it was going to be an international phenomenon and have people joking about Sarah’s jumpers. We were sort of, ‘The English like it? Why?”
Lars’ first foreign language gig was playing Jack Reynor’s dad in Lenny Abrahamson’s What Richard Did.
“It was a happy shoot for me but maybe not Lenny because my Irish accent was terrible,” he recalls. “After 20 minutes he was like, ‘Drop it!’ So I’m the most Danish sounding Dubliner ever!” • Ride Upon The Storm S2 premieres on Channel 4 at 11am on April 5. The box-set will be available immediately after viaWalter Presents on Channel4.com, which also has the whole of S1 on catch-up.
“The Killing had a good crowd of viewers here, but no one thought it was going to be an international phenomenon.”