Return of the Kingslayer: Nikolaj Coster-Waldau is Back in Action for Game of Thrones’ 7th Season

By: Laura Schreffler
Photography: David Needleman
Styling: Matt Bidgoli
Grooming: Erica Sauer
Shot on Location at One Hundred Barclay

Shirt: N27, Jeans: Dior Homme

After shooting seven consecutive seasons of television’s most popular show, Nikolaj Coster-Waldau knows his place within the Game of Thrones’ massive ensemble cast. “I’m just an old guy now!” the Danish actor laughs from a booth at the NoMad Hotel a day after our shoot at Tribeca’s One Hundred Barclay. Although it is happy hour on a Friday in Manhattan, he’s drinking a flat white—proving his point exactly. “The crazy stuff happens after I leave the party, unfortunately. I’m not a drinker… I mean, I can drink, but I don’t go all in. I stop. But if I want to go with the likes of Alfie Allen [Theon Greyjoy] and Kit Harrington [Jon Snow], well, I’m about 15 years too late for that party.” He can hang sometimes, though. Wherever co-creators David Benioff and D.B. Weiss bring the show—be it Malta, Morocco, Spain, Iceland, Croatia, the U.S. or, most commonly, Belfast, Ireland—they make sure it’s a good time for everyone. “We actually have a lot of fun off-set,” he maintains. “Dan and David are really good at throwing parties, and we travel a lot, so there’s quite a lot of fun happening.”

That said, for Coster-Waldau, who unbelievably turns 47 this month despite looking a good 20 years younger, ‘sometimes’ does not apply to the group tattoo that his GOT cast-mates are planning on getting to commemorate the show that completely changed their lives as its final season looms imminently. “Kit Harrington suggested that all who survive from the original cast should get tattoos. I’m sure some will get them—I know Maisie Williams [Arya Stark] and Sophie Turner [Sansa Stark] already have matching tattoos from the day they got the job,” he says,
also noting that Lena Headey, who plays his twin sister and lover (yup) Cersei Lannister, spends more than her fair share of time in the makeup chair because her entire back is covered in ink. “I should get something before I die though,” he says. “I’m going to get one when I turn 75.”

Now that sounds more like the cheekily charismatic bad boy that every GOT fan has (mostly) learned to love. It isn’t so hard to imagine the hand- some Dane with a twinkle in his eye is Sir Jaime Lannister in the flesh, knight of the Kingsguard and a member of House Lannister—one of the wealthiest and most powerful families in the fictional kingdom of West- eros. And although we could draw comparisons between Coster-Waldau and his character—who has transformed over the course of six seasons from an amoral, yet oh-so-attractive, swordsman to a man of some integrity, complexity and honor—we’re going to put it out there that, truthfully, would still love her even if I was told not to [like Jaime, who has been having a taboo, illicit affair with his sister since the series began]. I guess we’ve all been in love with someone or attracted to someone we shouldn’t be, so I build on that. The good thing is, it’s all make believe.”

Jacket: Salvatore Ferragamo, Sweater: Michael Kors, Jeans and Sneakers: Dior Homme, Watch: Hublot

The fantasy series is a very good thing for many—it averaged 23 million viewers per episode after DVR and streaming services were factored in—with 150,000 gathering to find out the Season 7 premiere date announced on Facebook Live in March (the date of July 16 was dramatically unveiled in a block of ice melted by flaming torches in a nod to A Song of Fire and Ice, the novels by George R.R. Martin on which the television series is based). In 2016, the show actually broke Frasier’s record for the most Emmy Awards ever won by a single series, topping out at 38.

Since Season 7’s premiere was pushed from April to July—delayed because the storyline required a longer period of shooting in the winter— the show is ineligible for any awards at the 69th Primetime Emmy Awards coming up on September 17. There is absolutely no doubt that GOT will resume its winning streak in 2018, however, as it approaches its finale.

If he’s being honest, Coster-Waldau never expected the show to take off the way it did—though he signed on anyway, despite the loathsomeness of his character (he has sex with his sister and paralyzes a little boy in the premiere episode), with the knowledge that Jaime would sing a redemption song come Season 3. “The beginning of Season 1 was a great start for a character. I spoke to [show creators David Benioff and D.B. Weiss] and they told me that, if we got to do the three seasons, the arc would end with [Jaime] telling his version of why he became the King Slayer and saving the whole city from annihilation. I thought, ‘Wow, this is so cool.’ He’s wrongfully known for something, which in any other context would be considered the most heroic thing anyone has ever done. He’s saved all these people and now he’s just being hated for it. Being known as the best fighter in the world and then losing that part of your body that defines you, that was interesting. Then, there was this whole idea of having a relationship with your sister, who is the queen, and you’re the father of her kids—but no one can ever know because it would mean their death—it was just interesting. I was drawn to the layers, to the secrets.”

Jacket: Bottega Veneta, Shirt: Loro Piana, Pants: Club Monaco, Sneakers: VISVIM

He’s good at keeping them, too. Coster-Waldau effectively shies away from divulging about the coming direction of the show, instead wanting to know our take on what might happen come Season 7. The grin on his face guarantees that he’s having fun with said guesses (although he hasn’t realized from our conversation that he’s inadvertently given away a secret: that he may be the last man standing come Season 8).

Since he’s being recalcitrant, we decide to geek out and ask some hard- core burning fan questions about a possible love connection between Jaime and Brienne of Tarth [Gwendoline Christie]—and he indulges us. “I think there are a lot of feelings that he’s not aware of, that he’s not acting on,” he maintains. “There’s a definite connection between them, there’s no question about it. You can see that in the way they act together. He gave her a whole suit of armor!”

But, alas, for all of you Jaime/Brienne enthusiasts, he has bad news:

“I don’t think we’ve seen any proof of romantic love though.” Coster-Waldau adds, “He’s called her a lot of horrible things, and she’s also called him all the worst things you can call someone—I think she gave as good as she got. That’s how they connected, the fact that neither of them would stand down and that they were both very strong-willed. She’s physically strong and mentally strong. He couldn’t break her. He respects her a great deal.”

For those who aren’t up to date on the latest from GOT, by the end of Season 6, Jaime took up arms against the Faith Militant and, as punishment, has been removed from the Kingsguard. After fighting to oust Brynden ‘Blackfish’ Tully, he returned to King’s Landing to discover that the Great Sept—the center of religious worship for the Faith of the Seven— was destroyed because of his sister’s plotting. The wickedest of them all, she was then crowned Queen of the Seven Kingdoms. He realized she murdered the Faith Militant, the Tyrells and Grand Maester Pycelle in her bid for power and it may be up to him to save the world at the expense of the woman he loves most. It certainly brings ‘the struggle is real’ expression to a whole new level.

Coster- Waldau
Leather Trench: Brioni, Sweater: Michael Kors, Pants: Bruno Magli

So will Jaime support Cersei? “No comment,” Coster-Waldau says, sipping his coffee. He shakes his head when we persist in our line of questioning—wanting to know, had he written the show, if he would have his character stand by her side. “What’s interesting is that so many people are invested in this. So many people want to know about Brienne and Jaime, and [want him] to leave Cersei because she’s terrible. I think that… once you’re committed to someone for that long—they’ve been together since he was 16; that’s 25 years!—you don’t just throw that away. It’s always been dysfunctional, it’s al- ways been messed up and it’s always been tricky, but this is a couple that have had three kids together and have gone through pretty much hell. So whatever he does, whatever he chooses, is not going to be easy.”

Well, duh. We try one last time to beg for some juicy GOT gossip, but Coster-Waldau just folds his hands and smiles pleasantly. “Jaime won’t kill Cersei in Episode 1,” he says sweetly. Gee, thanks. Spoken like a true Lannister.

The best part about Nikolaj Coster-Waldau’s latest projects: none involve swords, prosthetics or body armor.

It’s not like chain metal has been his only costume throughout his career. In fact, aside from his stage debut as Laertes in Hamlet, a small role in Ridley Scott’s Kingdom of Heaven and the 2016 fantasy flick Gods of Egypt, Coster-Waldau has been able to wear proper clothing in every other film, thank you very much.

His métier kicked off in the early ’90s with the Danish film Nightwatch, followed shortly after by his British debut in the 1997 drama Bent, alongside Jude Law, Clive Owen and Mick Jagger. But it wasn’t until 2001 that he began to work in the States, making his debut in Ridley Scott’s war film Black Hawk Down as Medal of Honor recipient Gary Gordon. Ensuing projects included Michael Apted’s Enigma, the Quentin Tarantino-produced My Name is Modesty (based on the “Modesty Blaise” comic strip), Richard Loncraine’s tennis rom- com Wimbledon with Kirsten Dunst and the thriller Firewall with Harrison Ford. He briefly toyed with another TV series, Fox’s short- lived New Amsterdam, before accepting the role in Game of Thrones. Then, while on hiatus from playing Jaime Lannister, he filmed the 2013 horror film Mama alongside Jessica Chastain, Oblivion with Tom Cruise and Morgan Freeman and the romantic comedy The Other Woman with Cameron Diaz, Leslie Mann and Kate Upton.

It was because of Thrones, however, that these more substantial roles became possible. And while he’s grateful for all of the opportunities the series has brought him, sometimes—just sometimes—he’d like to talk about something else for a while.

“I enjoy my job, including talking about it, but almost all of the time you can’t really talk about what’s happening on Game of Thrones. And then, once it’s done, people want to know what happens next,” he laments. That said, there’s a silver lining: the show is so popular that it affords him the opportunity to talk about smaller, more independent work. “We’re lucky [to have it] shine the spotlight on other projects.”

Blazer: Canali, T-shirt: Brunello Cucinelli, Pants: Salvatore Ferragamo
Blazer: Canali, T-shirt: Brunello Cucinelli, Pants: Salvatore Ferragamo

Such is the case with Small Crimes, a crime drama that premiered at SXSW in April about a disgraced former cop, who returns home fresh off a prison sentence for attempted murder, looking for redemption but finding himself trapped in the horror he left behind. He also starred in the Saban Films-produced Shot Caller, which premiered at the Los Angeles Film Festival in June and will be widely distributed in theaters on August 18. In the gritty drama co-starring Lake Bell and Benjamin Bratt, set in Southern California, Coster-Waldau plays a newly released prison gangster forced to orchestrate a major crime with a rival gang.

It isn’t that he has a penchant for playing criminals—Coster-Waldau is simply drawn to the flaws, the story, the idea that no human being is one thing and no situation black and white. “The whole good/bad thing is boring,” he confides. “I don’t think that you can play anyone using those parameters because they’re so shallow. I think that it’s that old trip about ‘one man’s freedom fire is another’s terrorist.’ You have to go a little deeper than that to understand motivations and reasons for behaving the way [that kind of ] character does.”

This is what drew him to play Jacob Harlon in Shot Caller. “This is… a good guy. He goes out one night and has a couple of glasses of wine and he gets in the car in L.A. He crashes the car, commits involuntary manslaughter and he’s put away. Then he becomes a criminal inside, and [the film] is about how being exposed to that kind of extreme cir- cumstance affects us. I think that any of us are capable of so many great things, but we’re also capable of a lot of bad things.”

And now we also understand why he couldn’t resist his GOT role— playing a quintessentially flawed human being who finds redemption in loyalty and compassion. “I think that, in many ways for me, Jaime Lannister is a hero and he’s a good guy. He tries to do good, but there are scenes where his actions are horrific and he causes a lot of pain to a lot of people. But that’s interesting. I don’t think I know anyone who is just good or just bad.” He adds, “It has to be written really well. You can only do so much as an actor—if it’s not in the page, it’s not going to work. [Jaime is] not a saint, that’s for sure.”

Playing Jaime Lannister—a sinner with layers—is one thing, but even Coster-Waldau has his limits. “I’ve found things that I couldn’t do,” he admits, acknowledging that he turned down a role in an upcoming film that had very distinctive whiffs of former Penn State football coach Jerry Sandusky’s sexual abuse scandal of the 1970s. “I was offered a script that was very similar to that case to play a version of him, and I just couldn’t do that. Pedophiles, stuff like that, I cannot do. Even though I acknowledge that those stories are also important to be told, I cannot be the one to do them.”

So he’ll stick to interesting fare that he doesn’t find somewhat off- putting, like his newly announced role in Brian De Palma’s latest thrill- er, Domino. In the film, which starts shooting this summer, Coster- Waldau plays a Danish cop who goes rogue with the help of his fellow officer (former Mad Men star Christina Hendricks) to track down the person who killed his partner while Europe is under a terrorist attack. Unbeknownst to the attractive twosome, the assailant they’re chasing is working for a CIA operative who’s trailing an ISIS cell responsible for the attacks.

If it sounds like he’s gravitating more towards film than television, you’d be right. But after eight years on the same series, who could blame him? “I want to do movies,” he says. “I’ve started developing and producing; I find that really interesting. Also, these things take so much time—sometimes it’s just easier to be more involved once you’ve dedicated yourself to something for six months only. I can’t imagine doing [another] long-running series for a while, but who knows?”

T-shirt and swim trunks: NANAMICA
T-shirt and swim trunks:

We can only guess why Nikolaj Coster-Waldau is so unaffected. Is it because he grew up in the Danish countryside? Is it because he doesn’t live in Hollywood and, in fact, didn’t start his career in America until later in life? We can’t say for sure. What we do know: despite being the youngest actor to enter the Danish National School of Theatre and Contemporary Dance, and despite his success on Game of Thrones, the actor remains utterly and completely down-to-earth.

It’s rare to find someone like this who’s part of the successful Hollywood wheel. When we say as much, he waves us away. “Of course I have an ego,” he disagrees. “As soon as I sit down here and accept that it’s interesting for you to spend time to talk to me about me, then already here I have an ego!” he says with a laugh.

But despite the millions he’s made, his biggest extravagances are paying off his mortgage, buying a small house in Greenland (where his wife, Nukâka, a Greenlandic actress and singer, and father-in-law Josef Motzfeldt, a member of the Parliament of Greenland and former leader of the Community of the People party, are from), and maybe buying a mountain bike.

And while he’s happy to be in Los Angeles—a necessary obligation for most actors—he’s even happier to leave it. “The whole ego thing [in L.A.] is absolutely out of control. I look at that whole celebrity culture that they have out there, and it’s almost this pocket in the rest of the world where you go inside Hollywood and suddenly the crazy becomes normal. You go out there and you go to these [celebrity] things and all the surface surrounding is so bizarre, but it’s a normal thing. Sometimes you go, ‘Oh my God, this is so weird and so crazy. Why isn’t anyone laughing about this? Why are they taking this so seriously?’ Thankfully, I can come in and just taste it and I’ll leave again.”

At least he has the right attitude, stating, “I just try to have fun when I go to any of these things. But you observe it and learn something from it and it’s fun.”

You’ll definitely never find him in a Bel Air mega-mansion with a staff waiting on him hand and foot. He just doesn’t understand it. “People will have a chef with them, or that whole thing about having staff do stuff for you all the time. I always think, ‘What do you do then? If you have someone to cook for you, someone to clean for you, someone to care of your kids, someone to drive you, then what do you do?’ There’s nothing to do.”

Possibly because of this anti-silver spoon mentality, Coster-Waldau takes ‘DIY’ to a whole new level. When he gets home to Kongens Lyngby, where he lives with his wife and two teenage daughters, he’ll actually be hand-fixing his 16-year-old’s iPhone. “I’ve ordered online a new button and a new battery and a charger, so I’m changing that. I’m so excited to save so much money doing it myself. I’m spending like, $28 to get all the parts. I like to repair stuff.”

And while we would describe the actor as ‘refreshing,’ he is very clear about how he’d describe himself: “The fact that I’m a father is very important, and I’m a husband. And an optimist… I’m more often in a good mood than not. I think that I don’t get too down about the hardships of life. We all go through the same shit, we all have sickness in our lives and lose people we love, and we all have our hearts broken in one way or the other, whether [from] relationships or it could also be friends you fall out with. All of these situations happen to all of us, but I think the way you handle those situations says a lot about your character.” He pauses, and flashes that charming, normal-guy-hidden-in-a- movie-star smile and says, “I guess I kind of believe in happy endings.”

We can only hope for one on Game of Thrones when the show wraps up next year, but it sounds like Coster-Waldau will be enjoying life regardless. Despite noting that shooting the series has been “amazing” and “successful”—we’ll say, given that he’s now one of the highest paid actors on television, earning a reported $2.6 million per episode—he laments, “It’s not necessarily healthy… to be in the eye of the storm for too long.”

That said, he’s not concerned that this is the beginning of the end of his Game. He’s been there, done that, got the T-shirt (many of them, in fact, as gifts from fans) and while he’s enjoyed the ride, he’s ready to see what comes next. “I’m not sentimental about it. I’m probably going to be the last [person] they shoot, and it’s probably going to be pretty weird. I’m obviously going to miss going back to Belfast to see the crew because everyone’s been coming back every year.” But whether he means the cast and crew, or the show itself, fans can find some comfort here: “There’s probably going to be some kind of five-year reunion thing, right?”