How big is Game of Thrones, the fantasy drama based on George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire novels? This grand undertaking, which is fast-becoming HBO’s most successful show ever, drew 18.6 million viewers an episode last season.
Filmed primarily around Belfast, along with Spain and Croatia, the series boasts an international cast of thousands, and uses two completely separate film crews to document the multiple storylines around the struggle to control fictional Westeros. Packing swords, sorcery, direwolves, hot chicks, incestuous families and realistic fiery dragons, GoT has got it all.
So as Season 5 begins (Sunday at 9/8c), we tracked down the worldly-wise Danish-born Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, who plays Jaime “Kingslayer” Lannister, to get the dirt on why he doesn’t live in LA, his complicated character and the ongoing battle for the Iron Throne…
“This whole celebrity crap is not real, it’s smoke and mirrors. I don’t think it’s any more prestigious to be an actor than it is to be carpenter or doctor or writer… we all have our own paths and should be respectful to one another.”
You star in an international TV juggernaut, have worked with Cameron Diaz (The Other Woman) and Tom Cruise (Oblivion) and will appear in a blockbuster, Gods of Egypt next year. How do you keep your feet on the ground?
For me, in telling stories in movies and television, the idea is that we should kind of reflect life as it is. If you get too carried away, feeling that being in a successful show somehow makes you different, then you’ve lost the plot because you’re moving away from what you should be doing, trying to observe and be part of life overall as it is. Personally, I like the simple things because they are so profound—my life, my family, my children. You have to be grateful for life because when you think about it, it is an amazing gift.
Why do you still live in your native Denmark and eschew living in LA?
I work out of here but always end up shooting somewhere else. Home is Denmark. Maybe there are things I miss out on, but any choice will have consequences. There are a lot of positives to not living in Hollywood. It’s great when you’re working here but understandably, everything tends to be about this industry. Yes, there is a special energy here. So it’s great to come in for a few days, feel the sun, dip in the ocean, maybe go skiing but then nice to leave again.
How do you deal with being recognized around world?
I’m not judging anyone else. But this whole celebrity crap is not real, it’s smoke and mirrors. For me it has no real value. I don’t think it’s any more prestigious to be an actor than it is to be carpenter or doctor or writer… we all have our own paths and should be respectful to one another. I’m not sitting here with some halo, that’s just how I conduct my life. It’s a lot more fun if you don’t put yourself on a pedestal. There’s a Danish saying that goes, “Don’t fly any higher than your ears will carry you,” which basically means keep your feet on ground. Don’t think you’re better than anyone else—that’s not a good place to be for anyone.
As opposed to your own family, the Lannister clan is something else. Jaime has an incestuous relationship with his sister Cersei who wanted to execute your mutual brother Tyrion for allegedly poisoning her son King Joffrey, the product of your interbred liaison. Hello?!?
[Laughs] A dysfunctional family is one way to describe it! But that very dysfunction may attract viewers because we all have some element of that in our lives. There aren’t many who’d say their families are just perfect, right, without any troubles. It comes with the territory. This being a television show, that conflict is extreme. The Lannisters are a ruling family in very extreme circumstances, because of the power they yield. The fact that the three children (Tyrion, Cersei and Jaime) have grown up without a mother and had a very controlling, demanding father has turned them into what they are. It’s complicated!
Jaime has ruthlessly killed many people and once said, “There are no men like me, only me.” What are the motivations for his behavior?
He can come across as horrific—as a soldier, of course, he’s killed many—but he was defending the throne and family, and you have to do horrible things. But he’s not a psychopath, enjoying killing for the sake of it. He’s fascinating to me as an actor. One of the first telltale quotes is him saying, “the things I do for love,” before pushing the kid [who spied Jaime and Cersei’s illicit love] out the window. Even though he may do horrible things, he’s very much motivated by love.
Looks like a happy family to us!
So why is he so much fun to play?
What’s interesting, not just Jaime’s character, but since you have so much time to develop the characters, no one is black and white. When I started out, I really looked forward to doing those scenes with Brienne (of Tarth) that would open Jaime up and allow us to learn what made him tick. I knew he was a great character, because he begins appearing as one thing, but as things develop, he turns out to be something quite the opposite. That’s not only a great character, that’s great writing, and it’s what makes being an actor such a pleasure.
How will the former best swordsman in Westeros deal without his sword hand as threats to the kingdom increase?
I’m using my left hand a lot more now in the show, because there are things I have to be able to do now as Jaime. If he gets to fight, he will have to do it with his left hand.
What’s behind the show’s worldwide success, and what should we expect from this season?
The fact it’s set in a parallel world to ours without a specific location, that helps the show in traveling. Then it’s a show that’s difficult to guess what’s going to happen next. They’re very good at not giving you what you might anticipate, and that’s kind of addictive. As for what to expect—I don’t know, some more light-hearted comedy?! [Laughs] Yeah, more of the same! Actually, all I’ll say is that it’s going to be pretty intense, you’ll just have to watch.
Tell us about your charity for at-risk kids back in Denmark.
The Oroestrand School is an amazing home for kids who’ve had really bad childhoods and have nowhere else to go. It’s not only a school but they also have all these animals that the kids look after. Overall, they do a tremendous and much-needed job. I’m also an ambassador for another group of kids in Greenland—my wife’s a former Miss Greenland—and I spend a lot of time there.
What’s the key to staying happily married?
Let’s face it, a good start is that you like each other. But you also have to be able to laugh. If you can’t have a laugh, what’s the point?
You’ve done close to 40 projects, TV and movies in Europe and in the US, from comedy to drama, so what has the long road taught you?
The funny thing I learned a long time ago is, you can’t be basing it all on whether a project is successful or not. Often, things that have shown my best work maybe didn’t reach the audience we’d hoped for. Others didn’t turn out to be as great as we thought they would. But you can’t allow that to take away from the joy of the work. I love going to work, I take it very seriously and do the best job I can. But when you’re done, you have to just let it go, and then hope for the best. That’s what I’ve learned. As in life, the journey is the key, right?