A Royal Affair (Mads Mikkelsen in "A Royal Affair." Jiri Hanz, Magnolia Pictures, courtesy Everett Collection)

Danish actor Mads Mikkelsen has no qualms about admitting the shortcomings of the character he plays in the upcoming historical drama A Royal Affair.

“He was a brave man, but he was a really sh**ty politician!” he says, laughing.

A sumptuous costume drama set in 18th century Denmark, A Royal Affair casts Mikkelsen as real-life historical figure Johann Friedrich Struensee. A German doctor with controversial political ideas, he was chosen as the physician for the “mad” King Christian VII (Mikkel Følsgaard). Struensee had a calming influence on the King, whose penchant for wine and women marked him as a less-than-ideal monarch by his fellow royals. The German soon becomes a trusted advisor to His Royal Highness, helping to bring democratic, Enlightenment-era ideas to Denmark – ideas that threatened the country’s aristocracy. It is no spoiler to say that it was Struensee’s ambitions, his foreignness, and, most of all, his affair with Queen Caroline Mathilde (Alicia Vikander), Christian’s wife, that helped send him to the guillotine in 1772.

While he acknowledges the political dimensions of the story, it was the human tragedy – especially the corruption of Struensee’s ideals – that most appealed to Mikkelsen.

“I think that the human drama of history repeating itself, or when you’re doing something you believe in when you are an idealist that power corrupts you totally in the end, I think that is a human story. It’s not really a political story, and I think that is proven again and again to be true. And I did love the love story, between all three of them. I thought it was beautiful.”

Best known to North Americans for playing the villain Le Chiffre in the James Bond film Casino Royale (2006), Mikkelsen made his name among cineastes and foreign film fans with his acclaimed debut performance in director Nicolas Winding Refn’s Pusher (1996). Since Casino Royale, however, Mikkelsen has resisted the urge to “go Hollywood.” Instead he has taken on supporting roles in the occasional big-budget American film (including Clash of the Titans and The Three Musketeers) while playing leads in smaller international productions, including the French film Coco Chanel & Igor Stravinsky, the Viking drama Valhalla (with Winding Refn again), and Danish productions like last year’s The Hunt for which he won Best Actor at the Cannes Film Festival.

“I think my claim to fame has been my Danish stuff,” Mikkelsen says. “And if I caught that branch [going to Hollywood], my career would have been short. Maybe the best parts I have done [are] maybe in English productions, but I also get offered some very interesting things in Germany, France, and occasionally America. And now I am doing this Hannibal thing.

“I’ve never really thought of it as ‘oh, I have to make a choice. I will now do this as a career choice.’ I haven’t done that. I mean, if I get offered something I find interesting, I do it; if not, I don’t do it. And it doesn’t matter where it comes from.”

“This Hannibal thing” to which Mikkelsen refers is the upcoming NBC thriller series of the same name. Inspired by the books by author Thomas Harris, including Red Dragon and TheSilence of the Lambs, Hannibal casts Mikkelsen as forensic psychiatrist Hannibal “the Cannibal” Lecter, before his crimes had come to light. Hugh Dancy (Martha Marcy May Marlene) will play Will Graham, the FBI profiler with whom Lecter develops a close personal and professional relationship.

Mikkelsen was attracted to the idea of working on a TV show for a few reasons, including putting down roots in one place for the benefit of his family. (Hannibal’s 13-episode first season began shooting this past August in Toronto and wraps this coming February). He was also amazed by the audaciousness of the scripts.

“I was like, ‘Are we allowed to do this on American television?’ And I thought that was interesting. ‘Can we do this?’”

Stepping into the shoes of what he admits is “an iconic character” has not been easy, but Mikkelsen welcomes the challenge.

“We can’t separate totally from what Anthony Hopkins did,” referencing Hopkins’ take on the character in three films. “At the same time we have to step away some because this is before he is captured. That means I can’t be a complete psycho from the beginning because I have to make friends around the community.

“But what he did was so brilliant, so it’s still there haunting us, but we can’t think about that. We have to do our own thing.”

And has Mikkelsen and his family had a chance to explore Toronto?

“Oh yeah. A lot,” he says. “We’ve been here since August now. I really love it, and I know it’s a cliché to say, but especially if you are a Scandinavian, it is the bridge to North America to us. We can recognize it, but it’s still North America. It’s different, but we recognize it.”

Plus, I note, we have bike lanes, like in his native Copenhagen.

“You do,” Mikkelsen acknowledges. “And you have sarcasm and irony as well, which we embrace.”

A Royal Affair opens February 1.