If you’ve been keeping up with HBO’s megahit fantasy drama Game of Thrones, the man pictured above will be immediately recognizable. Nikolaj Coster-Waldau plays Jaime Lannister, the master swordsman who fathered an illegitimate boy-king with his own sister and began a long journey of redemption over the course of four seasons. As the premiere of season five approaches, we spoke with Coster-Waldau about Jaime Lannister’s transition from villain to conflicted man of honor and what his friends thought when he first landed the role. But first, here are his Five Favorite Films:
I would start with Last Tango in Paris by Bernardo Bertolucci, which I think is amazing. Marlon Brando’s performance is just out of this world. It’s funny; today, I don’t think it would get the same kind of debate because of the sexual nature of some of the scenes, but for me, what was shocking was more the emotional intensity that he brought to the role. There’s a scene he has where he’s sitting at the bedside of his dead wife, and it’s just the most amazing scene of grief. And later, there’s a scene at the end where he’s in this dance hall, and he’s drunk. It’s just a beautiful performance. I think it was just unbelievable.And, of course, there’s also the romantic idea of Last Tango in Paris. I think everyone loves the idea of just him having an affair with a stranger and insisting on staying strangers. It’s a very simple idea, and the beauty of it is that they swap. She wants to know his name in the beginning; he refuses. And then slowly he needs her, he falls for her, and they change roles, and now she doesn’t need him any more.
Another would be Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in America. I know they finally did a new complete version; they restored it back to the original as close as they could. I think Scorsese was involved with that. I haven’t seen that. I think there’s another 12 minutes added; that’s what I’ve heard. Anyway, that’s been one of my favorite movies forever.I think it’s one of the most important movies I’ve ever seen, because I was like a young teenager when I saw it the first time, and I was so… I mean, I grew up in the countryside in a small village in Denmark, as far from the Lower East Side of New York as you can possibly get, and still I remember just identifying 100 percent with Noodles, the main character. I was feeling everything. I was going through his heartbreak. And I do remember at the time feeling like, “I want to do that. Imagine if I could be in something where someone else could have the experience I just had watching this movie.” So that was a very important film for me. I’ve seen it many times, and it’s just beautiful.
RT: When you saw that film, at that time, did you already know that acting was something you wanted to do?
Well, I mean, I was young. It was something I wanted to do. I think it was the first time it really struck home how deep you can get, how profound the work of an actor can be if it’s done right, like De Niro did in that movie. How you can actually impact people on an emotional level. I’m a kid in a rural town in Denmark, but I’m 100 percent involved with this New York kid at the turn of the century. It doesn’t make sense, but, of course, it makes sense on a human level, and that is what acting is. It’s digging into “What does this human experience mean?” It was a huge eye-opener and motivator for me.
There’s a recent film, the Swedish movie Force Majeure. I just thought it was brilliant. I’ve been married for 17 years myself, and I thought the way he captured this relationship, all the tension, I thought it was amazing. And what I also loved about it in a cinematic sense was the way he shot it. The fact that he stays wide; he doesn’t do any coverage in the scenes. It took me a long time to realize that that was what he was doing. The way he blocked the scenes was so exquisite and so organic, if you will. If you go back, suddenly you go, “Oh my god, he’s just letting the scene roll.” There are very few cuts within the scene. It’s beautiful. I thought it was a great movie, and I thought I should put something recent in there. [laughs]
RT: It’s a terrific film. I know it was submitted for the Oscars, but it didn’t make the shortlist.
No, no it didn’t. They lost out. The director actually made quite a funny YouTube video on the morning of the nominations. If you’ve seen the movie, it made sense, and if you hadn’t seen the movie, you’d think, “What a nutjob.” [laughs] He’s crying like the male character in the movie cries.
I’m a fan of Ed Norton. He had quite an amazing double act this year with Birdman and The Grand Budapest Hotel. I remember I read the script of Birdman at one point and I thought it was brilliant, but then when I saw his performance… I mean, it’s wonderful when you’ve read something and when you then see the performance, you go, “There’s no way anyone else could have done that but Ed Norton.” I thought he was very, very good.What I love about Birdman is that most movies — when I see movies and television shows — dramatic things happen, and then people act dramatically, and sometimes you go, “Would you really do that?” Horrible things happen all our lives; we all experience loss and death and trauma. Usually, most people, I think, we just get on with it. We don’t have a whole soliloquy in the middle of something. [laughs] You just deal with life, right? But then when you see Birdman, one of the places where it actually works is in the theater, because people are so dramatic. That’s just the way it is. So it was very true in that movie. Of course, on a technical level, that movie was just insane.
RT: There’s a reason I’m asking this, but before you started Game of Thrones, were you familiar with the source material?
Coster-Waldau: No, no. I didn’t know they existed. I’d never heard of the books.
RT: That sort of answers my next question, but even in preparation for the series, were you aware of the kind of character turnaround that Jaime Lannister was eventually going to have?
Coster-Waldau: No, I didn’t, but, that was one of the things that, when I had my first meeting with [executive producers] Carolyn Strauss, Dan Weiss, and David Benioff, they told me about the character. They also told me what would happen the first three seasons, that if we were lucky enough to get three seasons, I would be very happy. I would have a very quiet season two, but then come back in season three. So I knew what was in store, and I thought that arc was really interesting and exciting.
I read the script for the pilot and I thought it was brilliant, but I also thought it was impossible to shoot, with so many characters and so many huge setups, that you kind of go, “How the hell are you going to do that?” But of course, now it seems like obviously they’d be able to do it. At the time, it was a different story.
RT: You said, “if we were lucky enough to get three seasons.” You guys were never sure this was going to be a hit.
Coster-Waldau: Oh, no. No, are you kidding me? I remember telling friends about this show. At first I would say I got this show with HBO and they would be like, “Wow! My god, that’s amazing!” And also, you could tell they were a little envious, but in a good way, like, “Yeah, great for you, you bastard.” And then they would say, “Well, what is it? Is it like Entourage? Is it a gangster story? Is it current? What is it?” And then I’d say, “No no, it’s like a fantasy with dragons and sh-t.” And they would go, “Oh… That’s… Wow, that’s cool. Great, man. So it’s like, what, Highlander or something?” Because that’s the reference you have, right? [laughs]
RT: It’s common for actors who have played both protagonists and villains to say that playing the bad guy is more fun. Game of Thrones is full of characters that inhabit sort of a grey area, and Jaime Lannister is probably the best example of that. So is it more satisfying to you to play the version of Jaime Lannister that threw Bran out the window or the version that saved Brienne from the bear?
Coster-Waldau: I mean, both. I think it’s the same guy. What’s interesting with this show is that the characters are consistent, and what changes a lot is the audience’s point of view. How much information do we get, and when do we get it? I’ve said this before, but if you told the story of your life, and there must have been one time in your whole life when you did something really horrible, and then you start the movie about you at that exact moment, it might take a while before the audience goes, “Well, hang on, he’s actually a nice guy.” We define people by their actions.
What I’ve also loved about Jaime from the beginning is that he’s been smart and he’s also been very honest about everything. Even when he’s been under extreme pressure, when he was captive, he would still refuse to bow down; he would still use his honesty and his wit to target his enemies. Those scenes were the most fun. And all the scenes with Gwendoline Christie as Brienne were brilliant because they had that whole dynamic. He has to get out of this situation, and he only has his words, his mind.
RT: Without spoiling anything, can you give us any hint of where Jaime Lannister’s journey will take him this season? [WARNING: SEASON FOUR SPOILERS BELOW]
Coster-Waldau: The hint would be that his actions at the end of season four when he set his brother free came with some severe consequences that he didn’t foresee. [laughs] He has to deal with those consequences. Tywin’s gone, the Lannisters are extremely vulnerable, and he has to step up somehow and try to protect his family, so we’ll see if he can do that.