Exclusive: Nikolaj Coster-Waldau versus real life
Nikolaj Coster-Waldau has been in Dubai for approximately 90 minutes. It’s midnight, he’s checking into the Sofitel Dubai Downtown and two women are having a debate as to if it’s really “him” or not. After a few moments, one of them walks over and asks if he is “that guy from the show”. Nikolaj politely tells them that, yes, he is indeed. She retreats to relay this information to her friend, who evidently remains unconvinced.
While the check-in process continues, the lady re-approaches with hastily Googled images of the actor on her iPhone, just to confirm that her instincts are right. “I didn’t care if she knew it was me or not,” he laughs, telling me the story the following morning. “I wasn’t going to try and convince her. It was just funny that she was comparing the images on her phone to my face.”
The 45-year-old Danish actor is certainly in an odd place in the world, a realm where encounters such as this are far from rare. This is mostly due to his participation in Game of Thrones, in which he plays Jaime Lannister, Lord Commander of the Kingsguard, or more unkindly referred to as the Kingslayer. This leading role in the HBO adaptation of A Song of Ice and Fire, George R. R. Martin’s series of fantasy novels, makes him one of the most famous faces on the planet. But if you’re not one of the 8.1 million people who have been hooked on one of the most popular TV shows to ever hit screens (and which began its sixth season late last month), then, yes, you might need convincing that the friendly, albeit handsomely chiselled, face in front of you is that of a superstar.
We’re on location for our cover shoot, at the plush, 2,615 sq ft royal suite of the same hotel in which he’s staying. He looks around admiringly at the expansive space, comparing it to his more modest room on a different floor and jokes that he’ll be having words with the hotel manager about an upgrade.
As we sort through different outfits for the morning, a stylist gets to work on a haircut; he’s been back-to-back with press and filming up until his arrival in Dubai for The Middle East Film & Comic Con and hasn’t had time. “Just make me look cool, man,” he answers when she asks what he’s after. “I’ve got really thick hair, so maybe we could thin it out a bit?” Certainly rare words to come from a man approaching his fifties.
Add that he has film-star looks, and has shot intimate scenes with some of Hollywood’s most sexy women, including Kate Upton and Cameron Diaz (in 2014 romcom, The Other Woman) as well as Lena Headey, his onscreen sister in GoT (which is another story), and it would be easy for Nikolaj to be, well, a bit of a diva about photoshoots, not having the biggest room in the hotel, or being approached by fans when it’s late and he just wants to go to bed. But the actor couldn’t be further from the Hollywood archetype.
Prior to the shoot, he’s dressed in grey jeans, white T-shirt and grey suede lace-ups (from “some Danish or Swedish brands, I haven’t a clue”) and his navy stripy H&M socks are as flashy as he gets. As he peers out of the floor-to-ceiling windows at the emerging city below, he asks the usual first-timer questions. “How tall is the Burj Khalifa?” “What’s that?” (It’s The Dubai Mall). “What’s this Friday brunch all about?” “What do people do here?” He’s naturally strapping, 6’1”, with board shoulders and impressive calves from playing lots of football over the years, but he’s not in the least bit intimidating. Package all that in a well-cut suit and you have the perfect Esquire cover.
The fashion industry is yet another strange world this actor seems to have been thrown into of late. He just did an editorial alongside supermodel Joan Smalls for US Vogue magazine, shot by the fashion photographers behind many iconic shots, Mert & Marcus. “It was fun, everyone was lovely but there was definitely a feeling of ‘Ooooh this is Vogue’, he laughs, with ‘Vogue’ said in a mock-scared whisper. “And there were, like, a million people on set; it was insane”.
Last year, Nikolaj also found himself invited to the MET Gala for the first time, an annual fundraiser for the benefit of the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Institute in New York, and undoubtedly one of fashion’s most prestigious events. He jokes about being baffled by the fact that he was the only person eating. “The lamb was incredible,” he says. He’s going again this year, held this month, and, for the record, he’ll be wearing Zegna and, yes, he will once again eat what’s put before him.
"Fame is not about you, even though you might feel it; it's about projection" - Nikolaj Coster-Waldau
The company he finds himself in these days is all a far cry from the small town Tybjerg, population of just 40 people, outside of Rudkøbing, Denmark, where he was born. Nikolaj and his two sisters were mainly brought up by their librarian mother, Hanne Søborg Coster, after her and Nikolaj’s father, Jørgen Oscar Fritzer Waldau, divorced when they were young. Nikolaj enrolled at the Danish National School of Theatre and Contemporary Dance in 1989, where he studied for four years, and his first role after graduating, in the 1994 Danish thriller Nightwatch, immediately threw the young actor into the limelight in his native land.
“It was a really big hit, so I immediately became well-known, which was not necessarily a good thing, because then you are known for that one thing,” he reminisces. Thankfully, he was self-aware enough to realise the dangers that this early flush of fame posed to his longer term prospects. “There’s nothing worse than a young kid who thinks he’s really successful, it’s infuriating, so I moved to London afterwards to pursue my career, just get other work and experience other stuff.” He says that years later he worked with Ewan McGregor, who starred in the 1997 Hollywood remake of Nightwatch. It didn’t have the same impact, or success that the Danish original had.
“Ewan asked me if I’d seen it. I hadn’t, so he made me promise to never watch it,” he grins. Nikolaj continued to book small roles — a supporting part in Enigma, Tom Stoppard’s 2001 screenplay starring Kate Winslet, and then a year later his first Hollywood role, in Ridley Scott’s Black Hawk Down, playing Gordon, a Medal of Honour recipient. In fact, ever since the actor got that first job in 1994, he’s added two or three movies to his CV every year, working with Ridley Scott again in 2005’s Kingdom of Heaven.
Even now, when he’s not working on GoT (which occupies him up to five months a year), he’s managed to squeeze in a movie or two to keep his creative juices flowing. Earlier this year he starred alongside Gerard Butler in action fantasy movie, Gods of Egypt. It got panned, but that was probably more the studio’s lack of foresight rather than Nikolaj’s performance. The story hadn’t come from a series of books that already had a strong teen following, which was key to the success of Lionsgate’s other franchises, The Hunger Games and Divergent.
People who have never watched Game of Thrones, tend to dismiss the show because it belongs to the fantasy genre. So just to clear up a few misconceptions, yes, the series does contain dragons, witches and magic, but it has received enormous critical praise, not least for the quality of the cast and the hard truths it reveals about human nature. Nikolaj’s performances have also been applauded.
His character is extremely complex and it has taken a deft hand to play the role. While he initially comes across as villainous and immoral, having done some pretty despicable things (murder, rape and incest to name but a few), he’s somehow become likeable as the seasons have progressed. For a character who was first seen attempting to murder a child who had just seen him in flagrante with his own sister, he is now seen more as a tragic hero with a good heart.
This, of course, is largely thanks to Nikolaj’s sensitive portrayal of Jaime Lannister, and his ability to spark off fellow cast members, which frequently leads to some of the most humorous, emotional and exciting scenes in the show — and that’s up against some pretty strong competition.
Unbelievably, his wife of 18 years, Greenlandic star Nukâka, has still yet to watch an episode. “She’s like, ‘Oh I don’t know if it’s for me!’ he laughs. “I’m not going to force her to watch it. I don’t really care, it’s just my job. And to be honest, if I hadn’t been in it, maybe I wouldn’t have watched it. I mean, I probably would have done, but I would have had that same ‘Erm, I’m not sure if this is for me…’”
The couple are still based in Denmark, just north of Copenhagen in a house they share with their two teenage daughters, 16-yearold Filippa and 13-year-old Safina. He’s thought of moving the family to LA, but says he loves his home country, plus “the schools are really good”. He jokes that it’s his daughters who keep him in the loop when a fake Facebook or Instagram page pops up pretending to be him. He’s on Twitter, but that’s it.
At this point in his career, there’s not a lot more he needs to do to boost his profile. Nevertheless, he does have publicity commitments to Game of Thrones, hence the appearance at Comic Con. We’re backstage at the event now, just the two of us sitting in the private Royal Green Room, along with a policeman (the royal treatment wasn’t planned, but it’s a welcome reprieve from the melée).
Having run out of time earlier, Nikolaj has given us his only free hour in the day to come and chat while he eats his lunch. There are swarms of fans outside, each wanting a selfie that will no doubt pop up on social media. It’s unrelenting and repetitive, but when Nikolaj does re-emerge, he’ll be as accommodating as possible.
“I always feel for the younger cast members in Game of Thrones,” he says of the pressures that come with being in such a popular show. “They’re really clever and smart. If you look at Sophie Turner [aged 20, plays Sansa Stark] and Maisie Williams [19, plays Arya Stark], they were kids when they started [in 2011] and now they’re these international celebrities and stars,” he says between bites of raw salmon. “They have a lot of social media followers and they’re living that life… For anyone who’s very young, and gets a lot of attention and a lot of money, it must not be an easy thing to navigate… I’m not sure I would have been able to cope with it like they have done.”
If everything goes according to plan, they’ll all have to cope for a while longer yet. The show is expected to run through to an eighth season at the very least, meaning it won’t bow out until 2018 at the earliest, though Jaime Lannister, like many other characters in the show, could be written out before then. He’s not allowed to give us any spoilers about his fate in the current season, so we don’t know when his post-Game of Thrones life will begin. But he has been dabbling in writing and producing small projects and hopes to step behind the camera a bit more in the future.
When the series first aired, Nikolaj found himself being offered a lot of parts playing knights. Now, as the world has become more familiar with his acting skills, he’s being offered more interesting scripts.
He just starred in and produced a small film over the Christmas holidays called 3 Things, shot in Denmark, and he has a writing partner in the UK. They’re working on a script and looking for financing. “I’ve done a lot of movies, I’ve learned from a lot of great people, and I like to tell stories,” he says of his wish to develop his career beyond acting. Is there any key advice he’s been given over the years that has helped? “I think advice is cheap,” he replies. “You can only really learn by doing and making mistakes.” So, any mistakes? “Sometimes you can work with someone who really [messes] up and you are like, ‘Oh right, I’ll remember that. I shouldn’t do that, ever!’” He gives an example of a film he shot in England. “The producer came to the trailer and was like, ‘Does anyone need anything? Sniff, sniff, sniff… anyone?’ He was fired from the job, of course, and that’s the only time I’ve heard of the producer being let go because he was so high all the time.”
It’s approaching 4pm and he’s got a signing session where 200plus people have turned up to meet him. He’s told that this allows for 20 seconds with each fan, which means the encounter goes something like this: ‘Hi, it’s really nice to mee… CLICK… okay, bye!” It’s another bizarre situation that he regularly finds himself in these days, but one that he takes in his stride. As he prepares to face the crowds outside, I think back to the beginning of our day, when we were talking about his first taste of fame after Nightwatch. He said the experience made him quickly realise that “fame is not about you, even though you might feel it; it’s about projection.” So he knows that, while he should respect the fans for whom the encounter will mean a lot, it doesn’t make him any better or any different.
It is, as he says, not about him. And with that, he walks out of the peaceful haven of his green room and back into the madness that is Game of Thrones mania. Like the fantasy world the show portrays, and the devotion his character inspires, it might not be based on anything real, but it really does feel that way sometimes.
Game of Thrones, season six, is out now on OSN
Photographs by Mazen Abusrour