‘Game Of Thrones’ star Nikolaj Coster-Waldau: “I’m too old to play knights anymore”
More than a year since King’s Landing fell, the man behind Jaime Lannister is back on our screens again
“I had to go to his studio to sing,” says the Danish hearthrob, bearded and becapped as he speaks to NME via Zoom. He’s recounting the time he and the rest of the cast were asked to record some comedy songs for Red Nose Day in 2015. Martin had penned an entire comedy musical around the show, including Coster-Waldau’s ‘Closer to Home’ – a romantic ballad about Jaime’s incestuous relationship with sister Cersei.
“I got the song in the car and it was very high-pitched. I don’t really sing – and definitely not high-pitched! But I was like, ‘Fuck it!’” remembers Nikolaj. “But then I put the earphones on and I had to sing in front of Chris Martin – and that really made me shit myself. They kept saying, ‘Just sing as loud as you can’, which made it worse. I could see him grimacing, obviously thinking, ‘Oh this is painful!’”
At the time, Game Of Thrones was already the biggest show on TV, but it had only just begun to change pop culture forever. Averaging 25 million global viewers per episode, Jaime and the gang turned fantasy into Hollywood’s favourite genre. Unfortunately, in its eighth and final lap last year, it experienced a critical fall from grace – to the staggering point where more than a million entitled fans signed a petition to reshoot the season in its entirety.
Now, Coster-Waldau is looking to move on, but how do you follow one of the most-watched and lavishly-budgeted productions of all time? He decided to go back to basics with The Silencing, a shoestring, twisty thriller that was shot in Sudbury, northern Canada, last year.
Nikolaj plays Rayburn Swanson, a grizzled, former-alcoholic hunter who runs a nature preserve. Recently, his main pursuit has been grieving his daughter who disappeared at the age of 14. But when the body of a dead teenager surfaces, he’s jolted out of his guilt-wracked stupor and a deadly game of cat-and-mouse with the killer ensues.
“After Game Of Thrones, I was attracted to getting to do smaller things where it’s just two people in a room talking so – and this sounds silly – I could just focus on the acting,” says Coster-Waldau. “In its last year, Thrones was so big on every level, it was crazy,”
There were other things that he liked about the part, too. Raised in Tybjerg, a small farming village in southern Denmark, Coster-Waldau has talked openly in interviews about his father’s alcoholism – and how it inspired his love of acting as a child. To escape that painful situation, he would invent alter-egos and retreat into a world of make-believe.
“I think that when you’re directly exposed to addiction as a child, it does influence your life,” he says. “I, myself, don’t have an addictive personality – thank God! – but what is so heartbreaking for the addict and their family is that their love for the child is overruled by the needs of the addiction. They wake up and their first thought is not: ‘How is my kid today?’ it’s, ‘I need whatever I can get and once I have that, I can be a dad.’”
Despite the dark subjects we tackle during our half hour with him, there’s a pleasing, Scandinavian matter-of-factness to Coster-Waldau. He’s funny company, swatting away questions about whether he’s likely to guest star in the forthcoming Game of Thrones prequel, House of the Dragon (“I put myself on tape – but I haven’t heard back yet.”) Halfway through explaining his acting process, he self-deprecatingly references the poor internet connection – and the long-winded answer: “Sorry, I can’t tell if the screen’s frozen or if you’ve just fallen asleep.”
Although he already had an extensive IMDb history (Bent, Black Hawk Down, Wimbledon), it was Game of Thrones that sent Nikolaj supernova. Before the sex, blood and guts of Westeros, people tended to stigmatise fantasy fans as herberts who you averted your eyes from as you walked past Games Workshop windows. When he shot the unaired 2009 pilot, Coster-Waldau was met with similar bafflement and derision.
“I had no idea I would end up a phenomenon,” he says. “After we shot the pilot, most of us thought it probably wasn’t going to go anywhere. We had a great time shooting, but it seemed weird.” He remembers his friends’ reactions too. “First, I said I’ve got an HBO show and they were very impressed. And then I said it’s a fantasy about dragons and they balked: ‘Jesus Christ! That sounds so stupid!’ Even now, I feel a little ashamed to say it out loud,” he laughs. “But that’s what it is – a fantasy with dragons.”
Even 17 months after the final episode aired, the cast remain close – and Coster-Waldau confirms their WhatsApp group is still active (“Although what happens in it is top secret!”) Last month, they were all brought together (if only virtually) by the sad news that legendary actress Diana Rigg had died at the age of 82. The ’60s pin-up and screen icon played the tart-tongued Queen of Thorns, Olenna Tyrell, in the series.
Memorably, her last appearance on the show was with Coster-Waldau in a standout episode from season three, ‘The Queen’s Justice’. Her armies vanquished by the Lannisters’ superior force, Olenna is accosted by Jaime in her chambers. The pair verbally spar, and the sinister knight poisons her – but not before Tyrell reveals the shocking truth that she was the one who murdered King Joffrey, Westeros’ vile boy king. It was the perfect way to go out.
“She was always funny and the sharpest knife in the drawer,” says Coster-Waldau. “The older gentlemen actors would complain somewhat about something like” – he adopts a disgruntled posh English bloke accent – “‘It’s too bloody hot in here!’ and she would say something biting and funny to them and that would settle it. She was always professional, but she was a joy to work with. That final scene was the only two-hander we had and it was so beautifully written. She ends the scene with such dignity, wit and triumph – no one else could have nailed it like her.”
During Game of Thrones, Nikolaj was offered “a lot of parts that were knights or villains”. Despite that, he’s not worried about typecasting. “I think I’m too old for that now,” he says. “Obviously most people will think, ‘Jamie Lanister’, [when they see me] – and that’s great because it was such a big show. But there’s another 60 films that I’ve done that you might not have watched. It would be weird if you had! There are some that you shouldn’t – I’d feel sorry for you!
“I just try to do stuff that interests and inspires me. You never know if it will turn out as good as you’d hoped. I agree with Michael Caine, who once said: ‘One in nine [successful films]’ is good if you’re working. But that doesn’t mean I didn’t enjoy working on those other eight just as much as Game of Thrones.”
‘The Silencing’ is available on demand now