Playing the dark wizard Gellert Grindelwald in the Fantastic Beasts franchise has turned into a game of musical chairs among high-profile actors. In the first Fantastic Beasts, it’s revealed that Colin Farrell’s Percival Graves was actually a disguise for Grindelwald, who infiltrated the very organization intent on hunting him down. Essentially, Farrell was Grindelwald in everything but name before passing on the torch to Johnny Depp, who appears at the end of the film in the villain’s real form. But while Depp reprised the role in The Crimes of Grindelwald, Warner Bros. cut ties with the actor in 2020 after he lost a libel suit in the United Kingdom against The Sun, which had labeled him a “wife beater” in reference to reports of physical and verbal abuse from Depp’s ex-wife Amber Heard.
Grindelwald will now be played by a third actor in The Secrets of Dumbledore, inviting even more confusion among viewers—for a franchise-defining villain who’s supposed to have a close relationship to Albus Dumbledore, it might help if he wasn’t inadvertently moonlighting as the Wizarding World’s greatest shape-shifter. But assuming the Fantastic Beasts franchise does continue as planned—the studio is reportedly willing to pull the plug if The Secrets of Dumbledore fails to make a dent at the box office—there’s a good chance that the new and improved Grindelwald is here to stay. After all, he’s now being portrayed by one of Hollywood’s most prolific franchise actors: [checks notes] Mads Mikkelsen?
Mikkelsen isn’t the first name that comes to mind when thinking about movie stars headlining crowd-pleasing tentpoles. But while the Danish actor has received acclaim for his collaborations with auteurs from his home country like Thomas Vinterberg (The Hunt, Another Round) and Nicolas Winding Refn (Pusher, Pusher II, Valhalla Rising), he has quietly emerged as a go-to actor for some of Hollywood’s biggest blockbusters. With The Secrets of Dumbledore in the books, Mikkelsen can now add Harry Potter to the growing list of franchises he’s appeared in, which includes James Bond (Casino Royale), Star Wars (Rogue One), and the Marvel Cinematic Universe (Doctor Strange). The list gets even bigger when you include Mikkelsen’s contributions to the small screen: Perhaps the actor’s most iconic role came on the short-lived NBC series Hannibal, in which he played the eponymous serial killer with a taste for human flesh and a flair for fancy culinary presentations worthy of a Food Network special. And oh yeah, he’s also going to appear in the fifth (and still untitled) Indiana Jones movie that’s slated to come out in 2023. (He’s also very proud to admit that he was “the bitch” in Rihanna’s “Bitch Better Have My Money” music video.)
With the exception of Rogue One, in which Mikkelsen plays the wounded scientist responsible for creating the Death Star and its most exploitable weakness, the unifying theme here is that he’s been eyed as a franchise villain. (It won’t be the least bit surprising if it’s revealed that he’s playing the bad guy in the fifth Indiana Jones.) It’s a trend Mikkelsen has embraced with amusement, telling The Guardian in 2019 that it’s time for actors with the “funny Scandinavian accent” to reign as Hollywood’s villain du jour. But that theory might carry a bit more weight if so many of these roles weren’t falling into the lap of one person—maybe it’s less about the Scandinavian accent than the actor behind it.
Indeed, the most striking feature about Mikkelsen isn’t the accent, but his face. He’s handsome, as evinced by being named Denmark’s sexiest man on several occasions, but in a way that can be easily twisted to be off-putting. (Inverse ran an entire article in 2016 dedicated to how “fucking evil” he looks, which is just as applicable in 2022.) There is no greater endorsement of the power of Mikkelsen’s face than the fact that he doesn’t have any dialogue as a one-eyed viking in Refn’s Valhalla Rising, which leans entirely on his physicality and the expressiveness of just one of his eyes. Of course, major franchises won’t have the same art house sensibilities as Refn, but when Mikkelsen puts it all together—the accent, the charm, the menace—the results are consistently breathtaking.
For most American audiences, their introduction to Mikkelsen was through Casino Royale’s Le Chiffre, a private banker who manages the accounts for some of the world’s biggest criminals. Bond villains typically have some kind of unique physical characteristic, and Le Chiffre is no exception: He weeps blood from his left eye on account of a damaged blood vessel. (Clearly, Mikkelsen has a thing for roles where there’s something wrong with his eyes.) If Casino Royale has a defining scene, Mikkelsen plays a major role in it: After kidnapping Daniel Craig’s 007, Le Chiffre tortures him by stripping the spy naked, tying him to a chair, and whipping his testicles with a rope. It’s arguably the gnarliest moment ever put in a Bond film—Le Chiffre is so desperate to extract information out of him that you fear he’s going to permanently maim a character known for his infamous libido. And with Mikkelsen in control of the scene, you really believe it’ll happen—until Le Chiffre is summarily executed for mismanaging his dangerous clientele’s money. For the poker-loving Le Chiffre, it’s one gamble that didn’t pay off.
Mikkelsen doesn’t make nearly as memorable an impression in Doctor Strange as the villainous sorcerer Kaecilius; frankly, few villains stand out in the MCU. Nevertheless, Warner Bros. is betting on Mikkelsen to deliver in his second outing as an all-powerful wizard in The Secrets of Dumbledore. But the real secret (no pun intended) to Mikkelsen’s portrayal of Grindelwald may actually go back to Hannibal.
In the NBC series, Mikkelsen’s Hannibal Lecter had a complex, intimate relationship with FBI profiler Will Graham (Hugh Dancy), which many fans perceived to be romantic in nature. The cold, cruel detachment that Mikkelsen imbued his character with faded away in his adversary’s presence, evolving into something bordering closer to obsession. (Will harbored similar feelings for the monstrous Hannibal.) For better or for worse, Hannibal and Will were in love with one another, even if it wasn’t ever actually consummated. “A love relationship does not have to be a sexual relationship to be a powerful relationship,” showrunner Bryan Fuller explained to Vulture in 2015.
While Grindelwald’s relationship with Dumbledore (Jude Law) is more explicitly romantic—at least in the version of The Secrets of Dumbledore screening outside of China—it’s mostly brought to life in the quieter, more tender exchanges between the two. (A moment when the two wizards feel each other’s heartbeats will absolutely thrill the “Grindeldore” community.) Depp’s Grindelwald was more wacky in nature, all the way down to the atrocious bleach job that made him look like a wizard going through a midlife crisis. By contrast, Mikkelsen’s Grindelwald is a more understated figure; someone who has to reconcile the feelings he still holds for Dumbledore along with a desire to go to war against the Muggle world. He’s a bad guy, yes, but one with a tortured soul. As a result of Mikkelsen’s participation, Grindelwald 2.0 comes out feeling much more human.
The reason Hollywood keeps coming back to the Danish actor is that he never phones it in. Mikkelsen brings the same suave energy to big-budget tentpoles as he does to European art house films, leaving an indelible mark with his penchant for complex villainy defined by pathos, menace, and intrigue. Sixteen years after he cried tears of blood in Casino Royale, the world is still mad for Mads.