Danish actor Nikolaj Coster-Waldau made his name in the 1994 thriller Nightwatch before jumping Stateside and bouncing around small roles in Black Hawk Down, Kingdom Of Heaven, and Firewall before landing the lead on failed Fox series New Amsterdam. His real big break came as golden-boy knight Jaime Lannister, a.k.a. the Kingslayer, on HBO’s Game Of Thrones, where he was introduced to audiences as a preening, handsome villain who was a little (okay, a lot) too close to his twin sister Cersei. But few characters on Game Of Thrones are as one-note as they might initially seem, and Jaime has had a breakout year on the show’s third season as he suffered capture, maiming, and various other indignities while building a slow friendship with his stout, pious escort Brienne (Gwendoline Christie). Coster-Waldau also appeared in dual roles in 2013’s Mama with Jessica Chastain, the Tom Cruise vehicle Oblivion, and is currently filming a part in Nick Cassavetes’ upcoming The Other Woman with Leslie Mann and Cameron Diaz. The A.V. Club talked to him about his big step up in Thrones’ third season—and acting with a bear.
The A.V. Club: Are you filming the fourth season right now?
Nikolaj Coster-Waldau: No, I just got back to New York. I’m shooting a movie here now. I go back in July.
AVC: This has been your breakout year, Jaime’s gotten so much to do, and he’s developed so much as a character.
NCW: When I met the guys the first time and they told me about the show, they said I should know that he’s in season one and he’s barely in season two. But then, in three, that’s a big year. So I was just hoping we would get to season three. It’s obviously a great year, and as an actor, there were some amazing scenes I got to play. Jaime is so central, and even though he hasn’t been onscreen so much in the first two seasons, his actions have been so instrumental in determining what the rest of the characters have been doing. Everyone, including the audience, has had strong opinions about him. Obviously in the first year, it was very negative.
Because we’re used to seeing these stories, we like to put people in these boxes. Obviously, he was the baddie, not to be trusted. What’s true for many of the characters is that you learn more and more about them. And of course, it’s quite extreme with Jaime because he loses his identity in many ways.
AVC: It’s a spectacular challenge that they pose, where in the pilot episode you shove a child out of a window, and yet by the third season the audience is more or less on your side.
NCW: Yeah, and I’m having sex with my twin sister. It’s a lot to take in.
AVC: Even though you were signing up for something where it was going to take a long time to get to that development, were you intrigued by the challenge?
NCW: He’s a passionate man, but also knowing who he was, that what he did was based in some really, in my mind, sound values. He wants to protect his family; he loves his family. He’d do anything for them. That’s the core of everything. Later, when Tyrion is taken, when Catelyn takes him, he confronts Ned Stark, but again, it’s to protect his family and send a message to the Starks that you can’t do that. The only one you could argue was his cousin who he was unlucky enough to get thrown into a cell with, and he was sacrificed. But if Jaime hadn’t escaped without him, the Starks would have killed him no matter what. Might as well get a good scene out of it.
AVC: Everything the Lannisters do seems so motivated by Tywin, out of fear or respect.
NCW: It’s interesting, isn’t it? That’s also why I love this, because some characters—like if you look at Tyrion, who was, in many ways, the hero of season one, this guy who played by his own rules, and because he had so much to deal with he had to create his own way of dealing with life. But then when we see him dealing with his dad, and the same goes for Cersei, who’s such a powerful woman. When they’re in the same room as daddy, they do become two kids, and they’re not able to say no.
It tells you a lot about this family, and it tells a story that I think is interesting, how lonely an existence that is, being a Lannister, that they can’t even imagine going against daddy. Even when he’s saying you’re going to have to marry this gay guy, and you’re going to have to marry a little girl, and you’re going to break her heart again. It’s terrible, and they still can’t say no. Of course, Charles Dance is just phenomenal.
AVC: You had a wonderful scene with him in the first season, but have you acted with him since?
NCW: I can’t wait. I’m pretty sure we’re going to have some fun next year. We’ll have the whole family back together.
AVC: It sounds like you’re a fan of the show. It feels like everyone on this show is a little piece of a huge machine.
NCW: I’ve never done anything where you can actually sit down and watch it like everyone else. Of course, I’ve read the scripts, I know what’s happening, but to see that whole Daenerys storyline, I’ve never been to that set. It’s all new. North of the wall and the Jon Snow stuff, it’s all new.
AVC: Do you know the rest of the cast, or do you just see them at the parties?
NCW: Emilia [Clarke], for example, or Kit [Harington], if we’re lucky to get to the read-through in late June, early July, I might see them, and sometimes in Belfast—because we shoot in a studio, you might meet someone. But it’s just by chance. We had a première in L.A. this year, and the night before there was a dinner, and I met people I’ve never met before. I went up to one, and I’m not going to say the name, and said, “Hey, so, my name’s Nikolaj,” and he said his name, and I said, “So what do you do?” and he said “Well, I play this guy,” and it was so embarrassing. I mean, he joined the cast recently, but still, I should have known. You walk into the assistant director’s trailer, and you look at the walls, they have all these pictures of actors, it’s crazy.
AVC: You spent most of this season with Brienne. It’s like a buddy-cop movie with the two of you.
NCW: We have a lot of fun together, I wish it could go on forever—we have a little separate show going. She’s a lot of fun to be around. Sometimes, people ask us why we fight so much. We don’t really, but it sounds like that to everyone else. I think it started out because the first scenes we did had me talking to her about how… I had all these scenes where I was being nasty to her. I think it was about how she’d never been with a man. And it’s a horrible thing to say to a woman, so that was the only time after that I said, “I just want to apologize.” And then she said something cheeky, and we kind of just kept going at it. It makes what you see very tame compared to how we are off camera. But it’s fun, she’s very smart, and she’s a very good actress.
AVC: Who’s the better scene partner, her or the bear?
NCW: Well, the bear was by far the biggest diva. I’ve never seen a bigger one. To get the bear just to walk on set, the whole crew had to stand in a circle and applaud, and shout, “Yay!” In between takes, whenever they said “cut,” everyone just had to go crazy with applause and cheer to make him happy.
AVC: Are you looking forward to acting without a hand for the rest of the series?
NCW: Well, it’s an obstacle, and obstacles are great. There’s been a lot of that this season, being tied down, and pushed around in mud. But these are all little gifts you get as an actor. That’s the way I look at it. Especially those physical scenes where you have to fight something. It makes it very easy not to act. Of course, difficult scenes like the bath scene, I was lucky to have Gwen [Christie] there, which makes it easier. But I like obstacles. I think something happens, and he’ll get some kind of Captain Hook thing.
AVC: You were on SNL recently.
NCW: That was a blast, it was bizarre. They called Friday with this idea for the sketch, and I’d done a skit for Jimmy Kimmel’s show, so I didn’t want to come on as Jaime Lannister again. But when they explained it to me I thought it was fun, and when you get there you realize all these writers are just huge Game Of Thrones fans, and they’re making fun of themselves in a way. I had a great time.
AVC: It’s such an intense fandom. Do you ever encounter anything weird in that regard?
NCW: Mostly people will just come up to you and be excited—they really love the show. That’s such a great experience. The weirdest thing? I was in Toronto doing a talk show, and I left the studio, and a lady in her mid-50s just fell to her knees and shouted, “Hail the Kingslayer, hail the Kingslayer!” But she kept doing it. She wouldn’t come up. I walked down the hallway, and she kept shouting, It was weird. I didn’t know if I was supposed to go and help her. I just ran for the car.
AVC: You probably made the right move.
NCW: I think so.
AVC: What do you have coming up?
NCW: I’m shooting a comedy in New York called The Other Woman. It’s something very very different, which is great. And then, for me the best part of the year is coming up when the new scripts for the new season arrive.
AVC: Have you read the books? Do you read ahead to see what happens to Jaime?
NCW: I’ve read book three, so I know what happens, but it’s an adaptation, so there’s always surprises and things. I’m mostly excited to see what happens in books six and seven.