By Solvej Schou
Updated November 23, 2012 at 06:45 PM EST
Credit: Magnolia Pictures

As part of an early look at next year’s Oscars, Prize Fighter over the coming weeks will highlight several of the directors and official entries submitted by a whopping 71 countries competing for the Academy Award for best foreign language film.

Credit: Magnolia Pictures

Danish films over the past several years have earned some major love from the Academy Awards, from director Susanne Bier’s drama In a Better World snagging the best foreign film trophy in 2011, to her movie After the Wedding, starring Danish mega lead Mads Mikkelsen, earning a nomination in 2007.

Denmark’s official 2013 Oscar entry, Nikolaj Arcel’s hybrid political-romantic period drama A Royal Affair, also starring Mikkelsen, has been touted as a contender floated towards the top of the foreign film category’s pack. Denmark may be a small country, north of Germany, south of Sweden and Norway, but it packs a punch when it comes to filmmaking. Arcel, for instance, co-wrote the screenplay for the original 2009 The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, starring Swedish crossover knockout Noomi Rapace.

“It’s just an honor because there are great Danish films this year. You can feel your country behind you,” Arcel told EW. “I didn’t think we would be selected because these other directors have Oscar history. I have no idea what will happen. I have no illusions. If we get nominated, I’ll be extremely happy. It depends on what people like. It’s a tough competition.”

Based on a true story, A Royal Affair, set in 18th century Denmark, follows the entwined lives of Danish Queen Caroline Mathilde (Anna Karenina fresh-faced Swedish beauty Alicia Vikander), uprooted as a princess from her native England to be the wife of pompous, idiotic Danish King Christian VII (newcomer Mikkel Boe Folsgaard), who develops a close bond with his personal physician Johann Friedrich Struensee (a smart, sexy Mikkelsen wearing his hair in a long ponytail).

While Struensee influences the king with his progressive, Enlightenment steeped ideas – Denmark was not always the “happiest place on Earth” – he and the petticoat-wearing queen fall deeply in love, exchanging lofty thoughts and a whole lot more. It doesn’t end well for the lovebirds, and the movie explores the inner workings of political upheaval and illicit romantic yearnings. On top of that, it’s gorgeously and lushly shot (and interestingly, filmed over two months in the Czech Republic, not Denmark). Unlike past, more contemporary-based Danish Oscar entries, the movie is entrenched in Danish history, a time when poverty reigned, before the idealistic emphasis on equal rights for women and socially democratic principles gained steam.

“It’s a very well known story in Denmark. People have been trying to make this film for so many years, earlier generations, 25, 30 years ago,” said Arcel. “Mostly they failed mostly because of financing. We were at a point where we had success with some screenwriters, and foreign financing, and at a time with the visuals, computer graphics, technical aspects. We had 150 computer shots. They’re quite invisible. Any big shot of the town is computer graphics. Thirty years ago you couldn’t do that. They couldn’t build the entire castle.”

Mikkelsen, best known in the U.S. for playing villains such as the crusty, one-eyed baddie in 2006 Bond flick Casino Royale, and filming now as cannibal lead Dr. Hannibal Lecter in the upcoming NBC series Hannibal, is a straight-up heartthrob in Denmark.

“This is the first time, though, I’ve played a character this romantic. He finds himself sitting next to the queen, next to a lake,” Mikkelsen told EW over the phone while filming Hannibal in Toronto. “It became a romantic film as part of the story, but not taking over the story. Alicia Vikander was great to work with. When she auditioned to the part, I was luckily in Copenhagen. She insisted on doing it in Danish. When we saw the tape, the camera loves her so much. There was no doubt in our minds she was the right person for the part. She’s very dedicated, and the young man who plays the king, we spent a lot of time together. It was like summer camp. It’s a love story between three characters.”

Mikkelsen insisted on not wearing a period-era wig, he said, since they fall off, and instead let his hair grow long, and added four or fives inches of extensions. “It’s like having a false mustache,” he said, laughing.

As for working with Arcel, Mikkelsen praised him as “a strong master of the camera and a very strong character director,” who separately praised Mikkelsen back as “the perfect team leader for the actors.”

“As soon as I finished the script, I sent it to Mads, and he said yes in the matter of a week. I was nervous about working with him since he’s one of the biggest stars in Denmark,” said Arcel. “He’s professional, and one of the most down-the-earth, nicest guys I’ve ever met. It was like hanging out with your best friend or brother. He was very collaborative. I know it’s a cliché. We had fun in the evenings, had dinner and talked. It was like a little family.”

Still, when it comes to playing the Oscar campaigning game, and the possibility of A Royal Affair picking up a nomination, both Arcel and Mikkelsen are taking a laid back approach.

In Scandinavian culture, the concept of “Jante’s law,” to be modest, self-effacing, non-competitive, basically the opposite of Hollywood, is paramount. Arcel mentioned being in Los Angeles for the past few months and going to meetings with studio reps and others.

“They always say, ‘What a marvelous masterpiece you made.” And I say, ‘Oh, you know, uh, ok.’ They don’t know if I’m kidding. We’re brought up to very modest, and that’s a funny mix when you come to Hollywood. People here certainly don’t hesitate to tell you about their success,” said Arcel. “What I do is I don’t play the game at all. I still am a bit of an idealist when it comes to the Oscars. It’s about talented people in the business who look at your films and choose which ones they want. We’re not doing a lot of parties, or pushing. It’s about which films deserve to be nominated. I think a lot of people are quite humble about their work, especially coming from Europe. In Europe, you’re just a working guy.”

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