Nikolaj Coster-Waldau sits in the lobby of a quaint suburban movie theatre, but his mind is elsewhere.
It’s a draughty, worn-in cinema house that opened in the mid-20th century and seems to have been barely renovated since, though the overall effect feels less like neglect than the loving wear and tear of generations of use, like a favourite old couch. Today, in the theatre’s off-hours, the lobby doubles as the staging area for a photo shoot, and amid the wardrobe racks and bad carpeting is Coster-Waldau: camera-ready in a sharp black suit, with the kind of good looks that seem at once both familiar and impossible. He silently leans forward in a folding chair, brow-furrowed, deep in concentration. Perhaps he’s mulling over the finality of Game of Thrones. Or the transitional moment he now finds himself in. Or the path towards his second Emmy nomination. Or…
“What’s the name of the town where the friends from Dawson’s Creek grew up?”
He reads aloud the multiple choice options from his phone. “Cape Canaveral, Capeside, Cape Cod, Cape Town.”
“Capeside,” his baby-faced PR rep offers.
Another moment of silence.
“How would you get that? You look so much younger.”
Such is spending time with Nikolaj Coster-Waldau. For an international leading man who stands at 1.88m and is built like a footballer, his presence is casually disarming: Well, since we’re all here, let’s have a nice time, yeah? He’ll share his smartphone trivia game with you. He’ll even troubleshoot your home entertainment set-up. “When you get them, they’re already preprogrammed,” he advises the shoot’s stylist, railing against motion smoothing, a default TV manufacturer setting. “You need to turn it off. It’s primed for fast-moving sports.”
He’s down-to-earth in a way that makes even pointing it out feel forced and obligatory—the moment in a celebrity profile where we rejoice, for stars are just like us—but it’s genuine. When asked what he got up to the night before, he recounts how big plans to hit an LA Lakers game for a night on the town were blessedly negotiated down to just a low-key dinner with a few friends, and how taken aback he was to hear a patron at a nearby table be rude to their server. His vibe is so casual it catches you off-guard when a glimpse of that hard-to-define star power shines through. During another round of his trivia game app, a few crew members throw out the same incorrect guess. When I offer the right answer, he points at me and flashes a proud little smile, like your dad might on a road trip, only coming from Coster-Waldau the overall effect is like drinking from a charisma fire hose. The moment is alarmingly intoxicating. I’ve never felt so loved in my life. My heart swells. My depression evaporates. I’m pretty sure I grew four inches on the spot.
It’s that same spirit that leads him to describe the eight seasons he spent playing Jaime Lannister on Game of Thrones, the blockbuster HBO series heading into its final season this month, by noting fondly: “We really like each other. We had a cast and crew of, like, a thousand people.”
Since its 2011 premiere, this medieval fantasy tale of blood, sex and power has steadily transformed into a worldwide cultural phenomenon. By the season seven finale, American audiences grew to over 30 million viewers per episode across platforms. It’s won more Emmy awards than any scripted prime time show in history. It’s broadcast in 207 territories and countries, and appears in Guinness World Records as the largest simultaneous broadcast of a TV drama series.
Among Thrones’ less measurable but equally impressive triumphs, like somehow making everyone you’ve ever known care about fire-breathing dragons, is the way the series spent season after season stealthily moving Jaime Lannister into the audience’s heart. Jaime, who from the jump shows up in episode one a smug jock, is infamous for stabbing a king in the back, who rolls into Winterfell showing off his family’s gawdy wealth, engages in enthusiastic incest with his twin sister, and promptly throws a little kid out a four-storey window. But don’t worry, you’re gonna love this guy.
It’s a credit to the show’s creators for crafting such a compelling arc of course, but it’s Coster-Waldau who pulled off the Herculean task of making us buy it. He locked into the character’s humanity, breathing into Jaime not just an impossible level of charm, but something even more radical. Empathy. It’s a masterclass in one of life’s more frustrating truths: sometimes the worst person you know is also the most likeable. “I had friends who were the funniest and nicest guys, and they were the biggest liars and crooks. Didn’t make them less funny.
“Of course, you learn,” he laughs, “You’re not gonna lend them money.”
After the photo shoot, Coster-Waldau and I grab lunch at a no-frills Italian restaurant hidden in a Gardena, California strip mall. Like the cinema house, the establishment’s unassuming vibe only adds to its charm: kitschy fake flowers hanging from trellises throughout. He gets a kick out of the place and vice versa: it’s far enough outside of LA where the sudden lunchtime appearance of The Kingslayer in a T-shirt and jeans is an absolute mind-blower.
While waiting for our mozzarella sticks appetiser, our lovely older server rushes back over. “I just want to apologise, I’m the only person who doesn’t watch Game of Thrones so I didn’t realise.”
Coster-Waldau grins widely and tries to talk her down. “No, you shouldn’t apologise! That’s good, that’s good.”
“My cook in the kitchen is freaking out.”
The fact that it’s been nearly two years since the previous season of GoT aired has hardly put a dent in the show’s popularity. Speculation about how it will all end remains at a fever pitch; the Internet is ablaze with theories. Pick a workplace at random and you’ll likely find more than a few folks ready to trade guesses. So does the same apply to a workplace like, let’s say, the set of GoT? After years of being kept in the dark about where it’s all going, did Coster-Waldau guess the ending correctly? Did anyone nail it? Was there, like, an office pool?
“I actually got half of it right,” Coster-Waldau remarks. “I still haven’t seen anyone online get it right. I mean, the whole thing.”
He describes his last day on set; the exact moment when someone yelled “cut” and he had suddenly played Jaime Lannister for the final time. “It was the perfect ending. I shot in this beautiful location. Obviously, I have to be careful here,” he says, catching himself. You would think it exhausting, having to spend years of your life redacting any names or identifying details that might result in spoilers. “It was the most beautiful place in northern Ireland. We had this amazing scene we’d been shooting for a couple of days. It ended. The sun was setting. It was really spectacular.”
While making the first seven seasons, there were up to four production units in four countries shooting pieces of the show simultaneously. But principal photography on the final season brought the entire cast home to Belfast, the show’s home base, for the first time. “Even if you weren’t in the same scenes you got to spend time, hang out.” In other words, he didn’t meet any assholes.
With everyone in the same place, creators DB Weiss and David Benioff got to bid farewell to cast members with a bit more fanfare than usual. The moment Coster-Waldau played Jaime Lannister for the final time, Weiss and Benioff came out. “They said a few words and they gave you a little thing. I’d seen it before because at this point the whole last year you have everybody coming. It felt like this continuous farewell tour of characters and actors.”
Twenty-five years into a career that necessitates constantly jumping from gig to gig, spending months in close quarters with a group of people then starting all over again somewhere else just as quickly, you build up a bit of an emotional immunity to goodbyes. And yet, the last day on the set of GoT still got the best of him. “I kept telling myself, listen, don’t start getting all teary eyed. It’s just a job, it’s just a job, move on. And then they started talking and, I don’t know,” he says sweetly. “I think it’s something… I got a bit of sand in my eye.”
His wrap gift was not Jaime’s golden hand nor did he attempt to discreetly stuff it into his bag on the way out. The prop is surely destined for some sort of exhibit so, as much as he wanted it, he didn’t even ask. “I didn’t want the ‘No’.” But as part of each series regular’s wrap ceremony, Weiss and Benioff gave them a framed storyboard from one of their most pivotal scenes. For Coster-Waldau, it was the sequence where Jaime loses his hand. “And then on the back, they wrote…” he pauses, appearing to choose his next words very carefully. “Something very nice to us.”
Whenever there’s a pause, it’s tough to not wonder if he’s carefully omitting any revealing details. Sure, maybe whatever is scribbled on the back of the frame is just a heartfelt inscription, or maybe it’s a message rife with spoilers: Dear Nikolaj, Thanks for playing Jaime Lannister, who killed all the dragons and White Walkers and Starks and totally won the game of thrones.
Perhaps this curiosity speaks to why, for the final season, in order to protect the production’s secrets, security was heightened to an almost comical degree. Scripts could no longer be printed. Instead, they were exclusively accessed via a secure app, and once pages were shot they were automatically deleted. This made the typically simple steps of preparing for a scene, like scribbling notes on the script, impossible. It drove him crazy. “I was just like the old guy, ‘This is ridiculous,’” he throws his hand up in mock frustration. “Jerome [Flynn, who plays Bronn] would basically just handwrite all the scenes.”
He likens getting into GoT’s studios to entering Fort Knox. When paparazzi weren’t trying to sneak onto the set, they were staking out the surrounding areas. Once, a drone made its way over the production, sending crew members scrambling. Someone pitched the idea of stacking massive shipping containers around the property to secure the perimeter. Coster-Waldau tends to think these measures are a bit overblown; that most fans just want to watch the show, and only a tiny fraction of the audience pays attention to the leaked set photos that are, ultimately, completely useless. “I’ve never understood why people get so upset about it,” he shrugs. “Okay, so they’re going to take a picture of Tyrion in costume talking to Lena [Headey, who plays Cersei],” he pauses for dramatic effect, “outside a trailer.”
Whenever there’s a pause, it’s tough to not wonder if he’s carefully omitting any revealing details. Sure, maybe whatever is scribbled on the back of the frame is just a heartfelt inscription, or maybe it’s a message rife with spoilers.
After years of dealing with media outlets desperate for scoops on upcoming GoT storylines, Coster-Waldau did what he always does: he had fun with it. More specifically, he just started making things up. During a press junket in Stockholm a few years back, he grabbed a random toy duck off a nearby table, mid-TV interview, and put on a serious air. “I was like, ‘Ahm, I shouldn’t be doing this. But I think most real fans will know what I mean. Episode three of next season…’” and he held the duck up, knowingly. Then he sat back and watched Internet sleuths spin out about what this major duck clue could possibly mean.
Once, while on his way to a huge San Diego Comic Con panel, a friend asked him to do a little something, anything, to boost morale around their favourite English football club, Leeds United, and its new coach Dave Hockaday. Coster-Waldau didn’t have a plan for how to squeeze it into the panel until a fan asked a question about sword training. Coster-Waldau describes his straight-faced response: “‘Thank you for that question. Well, actually we do do a lot of sword training, but I am very lucky. I’ve for years trained with the swordmaster Dave Hockaday from Leeds and he has taught me everything I know.’ And within like three hours it was on Wikipedia.”
When I ask him if he had his own version of GoT super fandom growing up, perhaps a book or band or movie he would spend countless hours obsessing over, he smiles.
“I didn’t have any money to spend on things like that.”
Coster-Waldau grew up in Tybjerg, a small village in Denmark that at the time had a population of—not kidding—40 people. His home life was not easy. Throughout his childhood, his parents divorced, remarried each other, then divorced again. Money was always tight. “Every two years my mom would come home and say ‘Ohhhh, wouldn’t it be fun to move?’ And that was because she missed so many payments that the house was about to, ehm…”
He kept his acting ambitions private until getting accepted to theatre school and his first brush with success came shortly after graduation when he landed the lead role in the 1994 Danish thriller Nightwatch (Nattevagten). Suddenly, at the age of 23, he had the sort of fame in Denmark where everyone recognised him. It wasn’t a massive payday, but it was exciting. It made meeting women easier. It maybe even went to his head a bit. But it was a victory that ultimately proved a little hollow. He realised shortly thereafter: “I’m still struggling with the same anxieties and problems. I’m not really any happier.”
He worked consistently in theatre and film for the next 15 years, but despite a few close calls with potentially life-changing career opportunities, nothing broke through in the way Nightwatch had. So he simply dug in and did his job, making enough of a living to support his young family. He spent frugally. He stayed humble and approached his career in the arts pragmatically. GoT would not come around until he was 39.
Even as the show grew bigger and bigger, its success would not change his practicality. I ask him if it’s tricky to plan financially when you work on a show where the tagline is literally ‘All Men Must Die’—if there was ever a moment when you have to wait and see if your character survives this season before pulling the trigger on, say, a bathroom remodel—but he waves it off. He simply stuck to his early career philosophy. “You never know if you’re gonna get the next job, especially when you’re starting out. So I made this rule for myself. I always have to have a two-year financial buffer”, just in case the jobs suddenly dried up.
Rather than uprooting his family to Hollywood, they decided to stay in Denmark. When the cast renegotiated for bigger raises around season five, he paid off the mortgage and helped some family members out. “It feels great, but it didn’t change anything about how we ran our domestic life,” he notes. “I haven’t done anything crazy. I’m just buying a new car for the first time since 2006.”
Yes, 2006. A full five years before GoT premiered. “There’s nothing wrong. It was still running.” So it’s not that much of a leap when his 2018 Emmy nomination for Best Supporting Actor In A Drama comes up and the first thing he says is: “That was a big surprise and, you know, finally I got to bring my wife to the Emmys because you get a plus one when
The award would ultimately go to his onscreen sibling, Peter Dinklage, for his portrayal of Tyrion Lannister. “Thank you to my brother from another mother, Nikolaj Coster-Waldau,” Dinklage said during his acceptance speech. “I love you and I share this with you because you are an amazing, handsome brother.”
Coster-Waldau’s humility certainly extends to the show itself. When I wonder aloud if, with the media landscape changing so rapidly every day, another television phenomenon of this magnitude is even possible, he shrugs. “Until the next one,” he says. “I’m sure there’s gonna be another show. There have [always] been these shows that stood out over time.”
He’s proud of GoT, of course, but still considers its massive success something of a random occurrence. “It was one of those things where everything just fit into place, and then it was the right timing. If it [had] been five years before or five years after, it probably wouldn’t have… I mean, who knows?”
Considering the turbulent moment in history we all find ourselves in, it is something worth considering. At a time when our collective attention has never been more fractured—more shows, more channels, more streaming platforms, more social media—and our cultural, social and political divisions grow increasingly severe, this series’ ascent remains unstoppable. Is GoT the last thing we can all agree on? Why this show and why now? Looking back, what is the show about?
He considers this. “Well, it’s about…”
“Well, it’s about…”
“Well, it depends on how you look, but…”
On the first approach, he gives a summary of the plot as if by routine: it’s the story of the Stark children, born into a world of politics and suddenly grappling with forces beyond their control. Oh, and there’s a fight between the living and the dead.
Another shot. “It’s about human behaviour, you know. Greed. Lust. All of the basics.” He keeps going, coming at it from different angles. Maybe it’s the climate change metaphor, how the cold from north of the wall threatens to envelope everything the world over, posing an existential crisis for every nation: stand together or die. It feels closer.
“You never know if you’re gonna get the next job, especially when you’re starting out. So I made this rule for myself. I always have to have a two-year financial buffer.”
Then he touches on one of the final scenes of the last season, where Cersei reveals she lied about agreeing to a truce and joining the battle against the dead. Instead, she will still carry out her vendettas as planned.
Jaime pleads with her, the woman he loves, rightly insisting her decision is a death sentence. But Cersei doesn’t budge. Her enemies will only ever be her enemies. She’s too consumed by grudges, by her own pain to care about what’s really at stake. So, the facts are irrelevant. This argument breaks their relationship in half.
What could be more 2019 than that?
“It seems like we are in a very strange time where we have very little empathy towards people who are not like us, who think differently, who act in a way that we wouldn’t have.” He dives into the rigidity with which we all approach our social and political differences. “Either you are this sort of person who is completely perfect—and usually what they’re describing is their own reflection, how they see themselves—or you’re not, and then you’re just horrible.”
He grows more impassioned. “There’s no forgiveness left.”
It’s surreal, listening to Jaime diagnose the volatile times we live in and realising, oh god, maybe that’s it: these days, it feels like there’s more room for nuance in Westeros than there is on planet Earth. On GoT, redemption is possible. Every character has their own traumas and, sure, someone to blame for it. The thing that separates the good ones from the bad is a willingness to grow, to set it aside and be part of something bigger.
He grabs my notebook and scribbles down a name, Özlem Cekic. Cekic is a former member of the Danish parliament and a Muslim immigrant from Turkey. While in office, she was routinely inundated with racist and xenophobic hate mail. Initially, she simply ignored or deleted those messages, but in a recent TED Talk, Cekic describes her decision to not only reply to one of her frequent harassers, but to ask if he would have her over to his house for a cup of coffee. Crazier still, the harasser obliged.
The coffee meeting was surprisingly pleasant. They had a dialogue without vitriol, found some common ground, maybe even connected a little. Soon, Cekic did this hundreds of times. This, Coster-Waldau believes, is the only way forward. “We have to talk. We especially have to talk to the ones we disagree with.”
Our server stops by the table once more with a sweetly nervous energy. She apologises for interrupting and asks Coster-Waldau if, before he leaves, her co-workers could possibly get a photo with him. “Sure, absolutely.” As she walks away, I double check with him to make sure he’s cool with that arrangement, but of course he is.
As for life after GoT, Coster-Waldau has much to look forward to. He hopes to put up a production of Cardamom, a play he co-wrote with friend Joe Wright. They staged a reading in New York last year and he was really happy with it,” he laughs. “Obviously, I think it’s a great play.” His eyes light up when he describes working with legendary filmmaker Brian De Palma on Domino, which he hopes sees distribution sometime soon. When the GoT finale airs in May, he expects to be somewhere outside Toronto making a film called The Silencing. Next autumn, he’ll reunite with GoT director Matt Shakman for a production of Macbeth at Geffen Playhouse in Los Angeles, a collaboration that was born thusly. “He asked me to do this play and I was like ‘You’re asking me?’ And he’s like ‘Yeah!’ I said ‘hell yeah’.”
But before all that, he still has one last thing to take care of. When our lunch comes to an end, he stands up and beelines straight for the restaurant’s kitchen. The staff are all smiles and laughter. Coster-Waldau throws his arm around them for pictures. He autographs newly printed photos of himself. He keeps the No Assholes policy alive and well.
The eighth and final season of GAME OF THRONES will debut in Asia same time as the U.S. on Monday, 15 April at 9am, with a same day encore at 10pm, exclusively on HBO GO and HBO. The series will also be available on HBO On Demand. New episodes will premiere every Monday at the same time.
Photographs by Lenne Chai / ADB Agency.
Styling by Evet Sanchez / The Wall Group.
Enjoyed the story? Subscribe to Esquire Singapore for more.