Games, Gods & Morals
He’s a star on arguably the biggest show on the planet. But Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, who plays swarthy Jaime Lannister in HBO’s Game of Thrones, will never let success rest easy and fears the day the phone stops calling. “I was an actor for twenty years before I landed Thrones, so I’m under no illusion that I’m safe in my current situation,” he laughs, casually handsome in a navy sweater and jeans while chatting about the monster series phenomenon. “Success in this business rests uneasily on a house of cards, so you better enjoy it while it lasts. And look back fondly when it’s over.”
The rugged 44-year-old, who lives in his native Denmark with wife, former Miss Greenland, Nukaka Motzfeldt, and their young daughters, Saffina (14) and Phillipa (11), was a jobbing actor who landed supporting fare in Black Hawk Down and Wimbledon, and leads in failed U.S. pilots, Virtuality and Fox’s cop drama, New Amsterdam, before finding overnight international fame as the fiendish Lannister.
Based on the novels of George R.R. Martin, the medieval fantasy returned last spring with Season 5 exploding with more action, bloodshed and saucy nudity than ever, as fans scratched their heads wondering, ‘Was that even possible?’
Meanwhile, the great Dane who starred with Cameron Diaz in last year’s romantic comedy, The Other Woman, and will soon feature opposite Gerard Butler in action/adventure, Gods of Egypt, this February, is clear when he speaks about the show’s future, giving his inside opinion on how much juice is left in the fables of Westeros.
Nikolaj talks secrets of the show’s success, his hopes for Jaime, family commitments, the support of his mother and never caring what anyone thinks.
SMARTY: I’d imagine the weeks running up to your Season 5 premiere of Thrones were like Christmas? Or am I wrong?
COSTER-WALDAU: Ehh, not quite Christmas. [laughs] I like to think of that time as the quiet before the storm.
SMARTY: Sounds ominous.
COSTER-WALDAU: Because there’s such chaos when it begins, airs on TV. Good chaos. I love the premieres, which are over the top. We have the London one and I loved that, I enjoyed it immensely, especially as you get a chance to meet the whole cast for once. We’re all so spread out all the time, all over the world. You sometimes meet actors for the first time. I met one guy at a premiere last year and said: “What are you doing here?” And he said, ‘I’m on the show.’ That’s how big the cast is. But when it comes to home, I like quiet, and I like to keep the two separate. I can’t mesh the two together, that would be overwhelming to a degree.
SMARTY: Some of the fans must be crazy to deal with.
COSTER-WALDAU: I just don’t think about it. [laughs] It’s fine. Normally when I’m at home in Denmark it’s fine, but once one person comes over in the restaurant, it’s like [motions another and another] ...and I get it, it’s fine, it’s fine, but it’s weird. Someone asked me earlier: ‘What are the fans like?’ and I say: “I don’t know, because it seems to be everyone.” If you start trying to put people in boxes, if you think you know what a person is like, and define them by the television they watch, then you are mistaken, you know what I mean? Because everybody, so many people, watch our show, or any show for that matter.
SMARTY: There were some huge shockers in this season. Can you allude to this spring’s Season 6? Will there be even bigger shocks in store?
COSTER-WALDAU: [laughs] I can’t tell you what happens. That would be boring for you and for your readers—and totally unfair.
SMARTY: What would you like to see happen to Jamie?
COSTER-WALDAU: I’d like him to definitely have more dialogue with Tyrion [now in charge of Meereen]. Delve even deeper. I think their dynamic and relationship is fascinating. They engage in a way that’s gripping. It grips me. And I’d like to see more interaction with Brienne [who finally got her revenge], simply because I miss Gwendoline Christie. We spent so much time together, I feel she’s been wrenched from my life.
SMARTY: I interviewed Kit Harington, and he’s just as secretive as you.
COSTER-WALDAU: We sign contracts... It’s not like I’m having fun not telling anything.
SMARTY: He told us that Season 5 was going to be bloodier than ever—like a horror movie—and was he ever right!
COSTER-WALDAU: There were certainly some shocks that, you know, you feel like: ‘Whoa, are they really going to go that far?’ But it’s the beauty of the series.
SMARTY: Are we going to be saying goodbye to even more fan favorites in 2016’s Season 6? Is your own head on the chopping block, so to speak?
COSTER-WALDAU: Everyone’s is. That’s the fun of it.
SMARTY: Who are you closest with on set?
COSTER-WALDAU: The ones I work with the most: Lena, Peter, Gwendoline. It’s this family, you really are connected to everyone is some way, but some you never meet until the premieres, which is why I’ve always loved those events. You finally get together as one cast, which is a big cast for Game of Thrones.
SMARTY: Who do you miss from the departed cast members?
COSTER-WALDAU: Jack Gleeson, we got on very well, and it was sad to lose Michelle Fairley, Richard [Madden] and Oona [Chaplin], because we’d worked together for so long. That’s the nature of the show. You lose your friends quite easily, and it’s never pleasant to say goodbye.
SMARTY: You’ve been on Thrones since the beginning. Could you ever have predicted this success?
COSTER-WALDAU: I kind of felt that from the beginning. Not that this was going to be successful, you can’t ever know that, but from reading the script, from all the characters involved, from the set-ups and dialogue, fundamentally, it was more than just a television show. But why it’s so successful, I don’t know why. I really don’t know why. I don’t think anyone understands why. I remember when I first got the job, friends of mine thought the concept was terrible and now they’re the ones shouting at the screen, shocked by who’s just been killed. [laughs] I can’t believe you killed them off!
SMARTY: How much longer can we expect to enjoy this show?
COSTER-WALDAU: Probably two more seasons. I think that’s what the writers are working towards. Most shows get seven seasons. The interest might start to peter out at that point.
SMARTY: You mention talking to your friends about roles. Is there one person in particular you run everything past?
COSTER-WALDAU: My best friend, a writer who’s not in the machinery, not invested in me, I bounce everything off him. And then I have a wonderful wife. I run most things, everything by her. I don’t run scripts with her, I don’t think she’s that interested, but we’ll talk about things because we have a family, so there are considerations, [for instance] you know, ‘this script is shooting where? On the moon?’ I love the script, but is it going to be good for the family, but if I really believe it’s OK, she supports me. She doesn’t want to stop me from doing things, because she knows I never saw acting as a viable career before I started out. So to be getting these opportunities now, you don’t want to say no sometimes.
SMARTY: Why not?
COSTER-WALDAU: Well, not that it wasn’t a viable career for anyone, just for me, I thought I couldn’t do it.
SMARTY: Was your family against it?
COSTER-WALDAU: My sweet mother has always supported what me and my sisters do. I mean, they were shocked I wanted to be an actor, because I didn’t tell anyone. I didn’t tell anyone until I was accepted at the National Theatre School. I was very lucky with the mother I got.
SMARTY: You’ve worked on distinctly different fare from Thrones, like 2014’s The Other Woman, and we are looking forward to Gods of Egypt. Is it important for you to play characters a world away from your Thrones role of Jamie?
COSTER-WALDAU: I like to do something so, so different from the last, otherwise I’ll be typecast in medieval roles. If I wanted, I could be running around with the knights and horses for the rest of my career. But that’s how it works in the industry, all the cast have had the same offers. If you’re seen as a success in one genre, why break the wheel? But let’s be honest, some of those scripts are terrible, awful. We see them in the cinema all the time, that’s what it’s based on more than anything.
SMARTY: What was it like working on The Other Woman for you, juggling three beautiful women like Cameron Diaz, Leslie Mann and Kate Upton?
COSTER-WALDAU: Awful [laughs] as you can imagine. I had so much fun on that film, working with Cameron and Kate and Leslie—a real fantasy. I had a lot of fun shooting that, and when I read the script, I thought: ‘This is ridiculous.’ It’s so out there, but it’s not going to change the world.
SMARTY: Do you worry whether a script will change the world or not?
COSTER-WALDAU: I never care what people are going to think. And actors can be very consumed by that. It feeds and drains them at the same time. With Game of Thrones, on paper, on first read...
“ I thought: ‘Everybody is going to hate Jaime.’ He sounds like a terrible person in this relationship with his sister. How are people going to relate or even like that? Won’t they be completely turned off? But I thought it was such a cool way to start off a character. Morals… The whole thing about morals is interesting. Everyone has them, there’s always the gap between the morals you have and what did you do? And the morals you have and how you think—it’s never just the same. The way we want to be, the way we are. We’ll do stuff some days, really stupid things, embarrassing things, and the next day, you think: ‘I would never normally do anything like that.’ Like flipping off a guy or screaming at someone who drives dangerously in front of me—I would never do that normally. But you do it.”
SMARTY: When was the last time you flipped someone off?
COSTER-WALDAU: Probably yesterday. [laughter]