Nikolaj Coster-Waldau on ‘Game of Thrones,’ That Cersei Look, and His Darkest Role Yet
The Danish actor best known as Jaime Lannister discusses his new Netflix film ‘Small Crimes,’ where his character is going on ‘Thrones,’ and that melting ice debacle.
“I love the idea of playing with your expectations,” offers Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, unleashing a naughty grin.
We’re huddled together at a hotel suite in downtown Austin, Texas, where his latest film, the pitch-black noir Small Crimes, is making its premiere during SXSW. The handsome Dane is guzzling coffee out of a chalice-shaped water glass, swinging it to-and-fro with every wild gesticulation like a true Lannister (the room apparently ran out of clean coffee cups).
Evan Katz’s sophomore film features Coster-Waldau as Joe, an ex-cop fresh out of prison after a six-year bid for attempted murder. Joe, ever the colossal fuck-up, moves in with his parents (Jacki Weaver, Robert Forster) while dodging a dirty cop with a grudge, a DA out for revenge, and a cabal of ticked-off criminals. To make matters worse, his ex-wife and their two children want nothing to do with him, and he can’t seem to get out of his own way. Can a budding romance with a kindhearted nurse (Molly Parker) make him overcome being persona non grata?
The 46-year-old says it is not only his “most American role yet,” but one of the darkest—and this coming from a guy who’s spent the last six years playing a sister-sexing Kingslayer on the HBO megahit Game of Thrones.
The Daily Beast spoke with Coster-Waldau about his dark, violent new film and all things Thrones, including the meaning of that look his Jaime delivered to Cersei at the end of Season 6.
The great thing about Small Crimes is that it disrupts your expectations. Every time you think the movie is going to zig it zags.
It really does. In the beginning, you think it’s a movie you’ve seen before about a guy who’s done something horrible and wants to reconnect with his children, and now we’ll follow this guy as he goes on a redemption tour and at the very end there will be this beautiful moment where he runs towards his kids and they’ll go, “Daddy, we missed you.” I love that the movie says, Oh, that’s not going to happen.
There’s a scene early on in the film that really sells that point. A beautiful woman approaches him at a bar and you think they’re going to have sex or strike up some sort of romantic relationship, and it goes down very differently.
It would happen in a traditional film, which is horseshit! You see a movie and you accept that there’s a forty-something guy sitting at a bar drinking on his own, and some beautiful 22-year-old girl sidles up to him and just wants it. We’re supposed to accept that, because of course she wants to fuck the old guy, but that’s ridiculous. I like that the film preys on your expectations and just twists it.
You have, it seems, mastered the art of playing the narcissistic scoundrel.
We’re all selfish, to a certain degree. And it’s always going to catch up with you at some point. We are pretty laughable, as human beings. We are so full of ourselves all the time, and there’s something tragic about how we mess up things on a global level, on a personal level. We screw up all the time.
But have you thought about why you’re so good at playing these types of characters?
[Laughs] There’s definitely a part of me in there and I recognize parts of myself in Joe. But I think we are all ultimately selfish. “Being” is, by default, a very subjective experience. Your life is your life, and I have no idea what it’s like to be inside of your head. But I embrace it. I think it’s funny. There are no people that are just “good.” There are various degrees of trying to make good choices and making bad choices, and we’re all somewhere in the middle.
Is it difficult to occupy the headspace of such a dark, troubled character like Joe for weeks and weeks? Or does that sort of thing not get to you?
I don’t carry the character after-hours. October 3rd will be my 25th anniversary as a professional actor. I’ve done it a long time, and I love my job, and sometimes you’ll do it and it will inspire you and you’ll think about it for a while. I have worked with actors that seem to not be able to let go of their characters and in my head, to be honest, I think, “That is bullshit.” It’s just ridiculous. Because if that is true, then you are sick. But that’s just me being me.
We’ve gotta talk about Thrones. The political climate it’s being released into now is very different than when it debuted in 2011. All the backroom dealing and machinations seem, well, timelier than ever.
There seems to be so much more out in the open now. Right now you have a president who’s not afraid of communicating very directly, and talking about his thoughts, likes, and dislikes, which is very unusual. I love politics and the primaries were so entertaining. It was just a different level—you couldn’t make it up. Two years ago, you wouldn’t have believed this for a second. It reminds me of England with Brexit, where the day after they reported that the most Googled entries were, “What is Brexit?” “What does EU mean?” And I think there were more than a few people here who woke up the day after the election like, “What?” “Huh?!”
I have a theory about what’s going to happen to Jaime. I believe Jaime is going to fulfill the prophecy and kill Cersei—while defending Brienne.
[Grins] That’s a great theory.
The Jaime/Brienne relationship is so great, though. It might be the most mutually loving relationship on Thrones.
It’s built out of contempt, which has turned into real respect, and love—not that they would ever use that word. I think they feel very strongly for each other. I have no idea if they would ever be able to act on it, and I don’t think they would. It’s all been about Cersei his whole life.
One of my favorite moments from Season 6 was Jaime’s speech to Edmure Tully where he confessed his love for Cersei in an effort to manipulate him. It was a mic drop scene.
I loved that. I’ve been lucky enough over the years to have a couple of those, and you think, “Oh, this is a really nice meal.” That’s what I like about Jaime: he’s lost his arm and just his presence used to be enough to sway people, and he doesn’t have that anymore—but he’s still got his mind. He’s not like his sister and brother, but he’s been on the battlefield his whole life, and knows about people’s weaknesses and loving someone unconditionally—because he loves his sister unconditionally. Plus, there are no other suitors. Well, that’s not true… but he has to step up and take his father’s place. Wow, I was about to reveal something from Season 7 and thought, “What am I doing?”
Speaking of relationships on Thrones, the Jaime/Cersei bond is one of the most complicated in all of television. It’s one big mindfuck. How do you and Lena [Headey] manage it?
We were talking a lot this coming season. There was a lot of discussion and I was driving everyone crazy with all kinds of questions to where the writers must have been like, “Let’s kill him off now! This is getting to be too much.” But it is very complex, and the more you dig into it, the more complex it gets. We’re so deep into this story and getting into the endgame now so for all of us who have been on the whole journey, you really want to get it right. Every scene and every moment feels ridiculously important. Early on in Season 7 I just had to let it go because I was trying to understand way too much.
Jaime had such a rich arc last season, starting with the Cersei prophecy and ending with that look he gave to her as she’s being crowned. That look seemed to say, “I’ve created a monster.”
It did, didn’t it? Jaime’s addicted to something—almost institutionalized by a situation to where there is no other way. For Jaime, there is no other way. He’s been groomed since he was 15 that, whatever his life is, it starts and ends with Cersei. He has to accommodate her. He’s done that his whole life, and he’s reached a moment now where he suddenly has to address it. What’s interesting about that is people will read into it and there was no line—it’s just a look.”
The Game of Thrones Season 7 date announcement was sort of a disaster. Although I suppose it is a testament to the show’s popularity that there were hundreds of thousands of people tuning in online to watch a block of ice melting.
I spoke to Dan [Weiss] and David [Benioff] about that and they were like, “Oh god… That’s embarrassing.” Everyone was like, “What’s going to happen?” “What’s going to happen?!” “It’s melting!” “It crashed!” “Oh my god!” It’s like, just walk away… just walk away. It’s just a date! You know, I was actually thinking, “Is there going to be a backlash and people will think, ‘Fuck you guys for that!’” but that’s really happened with every time the show kills off a major character: Never again! Fuck you! I’m never going to watch this show! and, you know, they keep coming back.