Looming large and white just around the corner from London’s Embankment tube station, the Corinthia Hotel is an imposing sort of place. Which is apt really because inside is an imposing sort of actor. Well over six feet tall and with shoulders that would do a Viking proud, Nikolaj Coster-Waldau belies the old cliché that actors always look smaller off screen. And he’s having a similarly large impact on both big and small screens. Currently starring in the creepy thriller ‘MAMA’ alongside Hollywood favourite Jessica Chastain, he’s got the Tom Cruise vehicle ‘Oblivion’ coming down the track, followed by schmaltzy romcom, ‘A Thousand Times Goodnight’, in which he plays the harassed husband of Juliette Binoche’s conflict correspondent, Rebecca. But for now, his mind is on ‘Game of Thrones’, which returns to the small screen in the US this coming Sunday, and to selected European cable channels, including Canal Plus, on Monday.
Not an archetypal villain
Having spent most of season two tied to a post, Coster-Waldau’s eminently dislikeable character, Jaime Lannister, is now on the run. Lannister, a well-bred villain with a cut-glass English accent, is a classic baddie on the surface, although Coster-Waldau can’t resist coming to his defence. “You are given one fact, one side of the story, and usually in movies you go with that and that’s what you get,” he argues. “So for Jaime, it would be: ‘Well, he’s the bad guy, he’s a horrible person …’ Which is true when you first meet him in season one, but slowly as the story progresses, you find out that it’s a little more complicated than that and I love that about it.”
Comfortable as the bad guy
Coster-Waldau of course, like his compatriots Mads Mikklesen and Nicolaj Lie Kaas, is no stranger to playing the bad guy for Hollywood. There was the murderous Clas Greve in 2012’s ‘Headhunters’ and a Sheriff of Nottingham-style village official in Ridley Scott’s 2005 Orlando Bloom vehicle ‘Kingdom of Heaven’. He’s even, if the rumours are to be believed, in the running to play the nefarious Baron Strucker in ‘Captain America: The Winter Soldier’. “It’s wonderful,” he adds, dodging all talk of Captain America. “Because [there are] two sides to Jaime where you have a man who is very articulate, a guy capable of having empathy, who understands human nature, but also a man of action, and if he has to go through you to get to where he wants to go, he will, without any second thoughts.”
It’s not too bad in Belfast!
While Coster-Waldau himself won’t go to quite the same lengths as Lannister to get what he wants, he’s certainly proved willing to go the extra mile for his job, not least signing up to spend five months of every year shooting in the rainy Northern Irish capital Belfast for his ‘Game of Thrones’ role. Not that he’s complaining. “It’s not bad,” he smiles. “I once did a network TV show in the States called ‘New Amsterdam’ and it was constant – that was very hard, and it took up a lot of time.” What’s more, he adds, the UK city is close enough to home to make spending time with his family, wife Nukaaka and daughters Phillipa and Safina, possible. “One of the good things about this is that I’m only two hours or so away from home,” he says. “I live in Copenhagen so they can come and visit.”
Happier taking direction
He might not be far away in terms of distance, but his current career is a very long way from his breakthrough role, which arrived in 1994 in the shape of Danish film ‘Nattevagten’ (‘Nightwatch’), in which he starred alongside Sofie Gråbøl. He has also directed, although he’s bashful when you mention it: self-depreciatingly referring to it as “a little television thing”. So would he want to have another go? “Oh no!” he laughs. “The directors who come in and are successful are the ones who come in and know how to move the cameras around. I’ll concentrate on the acting – that’s enough and I love it.”
He’s certainly had some luck to go with his talent, as he’ll happily admit. “I grew up in a tiny village of 45 people and the idea of becoming an actor seemed like an impossible dream,” he remembers. “I left home when I was 17 and moved to Copenhagen, and I went on a theatre course and a teacher there suggested I audition for drama school, which I did, and then I was accepted, which was amazing. And that was it.”
Lannisters vs Starks
‘It’ of course now means juggling HBO with Hollywood, stints in Belfast interspersed with holidays at home, red carpet appearances in Los Angeles (at the Grammys and the ‘Game of Thrones’ season three premiere in recent weeks), and more time than he’d probably like on the press trail. For now Coster-Waldau is off for a well-earned respite before the shooting for ‘Game of Thrones’ season four begins. Does he miss it? “I do get very attached to my ‘family’,” he says, rather sweetly. “But the Lannisters are the Manchester United of ‘Game of Thrones’. Unless you are on their team, everybody else hates them. That’s the way it is. Even when HBO comes out with posters, I’m like: ‘What? Another Stark poster! Bastards!’”
And with that, he’s off. But with so much to come, I doubt it’ll be long before we see him again.
‘Game of Thrones’ season three starts at 20:00 on Canal Plus on Monday April 1.