For the movie — about a group of high school teachers who embrace a constant state of intoxication — actor Mads Mikkelson and his co-stars were shipped off to "drunk boot camp."
Mads Mikkelsen met Thomas Vinterberg on his first job as a working actor. Mikkelsen, still in drama school, was cast in The Glass House Prisoner, a 40-minute short film set in a Danish prison. Vinterberg was the assistant director.
"We shot in jail, most of the cast were real criminals, it was very intense," Mikkelsen recalls. "And there was this young guy — pretty blond hair" — it was Vinterberg, directing the inmates as extras — "I said: 'You can't talk to them like that. They'll rip your head off. And kill me, too.' "
Both got out alive. But it would be 15 years before two of the biggest stars in European cinema would work together again — on Vinterberg's Oscar-nominated drama The Hunt (2012), with Mikkelsen playing a schoolteacher falsely accused of abuse.
For his third collaboration with Vinterberg, the Danish actor — famous for playing James Bond's nemesis Le Chiffre in Casino Royale, the suave serial killer Hannibal Lecter on NBC's Hannibal and soon as magical villain Gellert Grindelwald in the upcoming Fantastic Beasts sequel (replacing Johnny Depp, who played the character in the franchise's first two films) — would return to the classroom. But the abuse depicted in Another Round, Denmark's candidate for the 2021 international feature Oscar, is all self-inflicted.
Mikkelsen plays Martin, a high school history teacher who decides to fix a midlife crisis with a serious commitment to day drinking. Together with colleagues Nikolaj, Tommy and Peter — respectively played by Danish acting veterans Magnus Millang, Thomas Bo Larsen and Lars Ranthe — Martin begins to experiment with being drunk. At all times.
The four take inspiration from a Norwegian psychiatrist who has a theory: We are all born with too little alcohol in our blood and would all be better off — happier, more creative and more outgoing — if we maintained a constant level of intoxication.
"Thomas' pitch to me was this real theory that we'd be better off if we were a little drunk all the time," says Mikkelsen. "The psychiatrist [University of Oslo's Finn Skarderud] never tried it out; it was more his philosophical view of life. We took it to the next level and did the experiment for him. Obviously, it's based on the fact that great artists and a lot of big political leaders have done enormous and beautiful and fantastic things while intoxicated, right? Our theory is that maybe that will help our high school teachers as well."
With that setup, Another Round could have turned into a Hangover-style "men behaving badly" film. Instead, Vinterberg and co-writer Tobias Lindholm use the "Skarderud experiment" to tell a story about embracing life. Martin is in a deep rut — he's bored, and so are his students. At home, he and his wife are just going through the motions. With the first sips of daytime liquor, things start to pick up. Martin's classes become fun again — his pupils love his stories of Winston Churchill's boozing — and even his marriage regains its spark.
"Spirits don't only mean alcohol, you know, it's embedded in the word 'inspiration,' " says Vinterberg. "These four men have lost inspiration. They've lost curiosity. They've lost their way in life. They want to regain their lives and win their lives back. Our ambition was to make a life-affirming movie."
But when the four decide to go further, the experiment gets out of hand. The light comedy takes a turn toward the darker side of drinking.
"The fascination I have with alcohol is the fact that it can elevate people, but it can also kill people and destroy families," says Vinterberg.
For Mikkelsen, playing drunk while sober was no easy task.
"The classic thing for an actor to do when they play drunk is to pretend they aren't drunk, which is what drunk people do: try to look non-drunk," says Mikkelsen. "That's fine up to a certain limit — say 0.05 percent blood alcohol — but in our experiment, we blow past that limit. So we had to check out other approaches, like how do you walk, how do you speak when you're just completely wasted?"
In addition to online research — "mainly watching drunk Russians," he admits — Mikkelsen went to "drunk boot camp" with Ranthe and Millang, testing different levels of intoxication, with Vinterberg filming their decline. Larsen, a recovering alcoholic now seven years sober, sat out the extra training. "I had more than enough experience to draw on," he quips.
Says Mikkelsen, "This experiment idea was a challenge, but it was also a gift as an actor. Because when you throw alcohol into the equation, then your character is obviously capable of going in many directions. We're all different after two glasses of wine. And we are completely different after two bottles of wine. We knew what we wanted from each scene, but we could fine-tune it, turn the volume up or down. If Martin was like this with 0.05 percent, what would he be like at 0.5 percent or 1 percent?"
Vinterberg visualizes this fine-tuning by inserting onscreen a full-screen blood-alcohol meter that ticks up or down depending on the character's current level of drunkenness. Cinematographer Sturla Brandth Grovlen adds another level with his fluid camerawork. Initial (sober) scenes of Martin in the classroom are slightly shaky, awkward. After a few drinks, the camera starts floating around Mikkelsen, smoothing out the sharp edges of his life.
Another Round's entire premise — of embracing risk and thus embracing life — comes together in the movie's final scene. Martin, who we've been told once had ambitions to be a dancer, is prodded into giving in and cutting loose. Mikkelsen, who spent a decade as a professional dancer before becoming an actor, resisted the idea of a dance scene in an otherwise realistic movie.
"I was afraid it would be pretentious. I didn't know if we could pull it off without it being, 'This actor can dance, so let's do a dance,' " he recalls.
Vinterberg finally convinced him with choreography that mirrored Martin's story.
"He's nervous at first — he's scared to start dancing — then he starts, but after a few steps he retreats and sits on a bench," says Vinterberg. "Then he goes to his friends and starts again. Finally, he surrenders to the moment."
The result is two minutes of pure joy encapsulating Another Round's themes of danger, risk, excess and release. It ends, literally, with Martin suspended in midair.
"We don't know if he's about to fly or about to fall," says Mikkelsen. "It's beautiful."