The Danish actor opens up about what is next after the epic series’ conclusion
Game of Thrones. The epic saga chronicling the struggle between the Lannister and Stark clans is–as most would describe it–nothing short of epic–perhaps one of the best series to ever air on TV. The complex story brought us a bevy of unforgettable characters throughout its unparalleled run as the interpretation of Georges R. R. Martin’s fertile imagination.
One of the series’ leading characters is Jaime Lannister, the Kingslayer, portrayed by our cover star, the Emmy-nominated Nikolaj Coster-Waldau. We sat down with him shortly before the unveiling of the series’ last and final season on HBO and before heading back to his native Denmark, where Coster-Waldau resides with his wife – Greenlandic actress and singer Nukâka – and their two teenage daughters. The veteran actor, producer, screenwriter, and activist, with more than 25 years in the business, is no stranger to hard work. Since the early 90s, he has performed on both sides of the pond in a variety of genres. While American audiences know him primarily from his role on HBO’s mega-hit, he is equally adept on the big screen, as well as the theater stage.
On a cool day in downtown Los Angeles, the handsome and rather mysterious leading man showed up as casually as a star can possibly get, without an entourage, with a simple backpack and a humble request for a cup of coffee. After a few introductions, he quickly made his way toward the clothing rack, where he perused what he would get to play “dress up” (his words) with. (He would forgo his usual jeans and t-shirt for a more sartorial look for this shoot.) So, for a couple of hours under the keen eye of top photographer John Russo, the Danish actor let his guard down for a smoldering pictorial, before sitting down for a thoughtful interview.
Your long and very successful run in one of the most talked-about television series of this or any other era is about to end. Any trepidations? No, no. [wistfully] Obviously, it’s a big show. The beauty of this series is that we shot it every year for about four to five months, which allowed me to take part in a multitude of other projects, both here and in Europe. I am going to miss the people, but I am very proud of having been a part of it and of how the show’s creators stuck to their guns and ended it exactly the way they had said it would. I am sure that there were a lot of big trucks filled with money backing up in their front yards, but they said, “No, this is the story we want to tell, and it’s going to end like this.” When I read the script of the last season, I was extremely impressed and happy to have been a part of it all.
Could a show like Game of Thrones have been made anywhere other than on HBO? Today? Sure… Ten years ago? No chance. The landscape of television has changed tremendously in the last decade. The way we watch has been wholly transformed with streaming services like Netflix—which is the current giant—but also with Hulu, Amazon, and now Apple’s recent introduction into the game.
As an artist in this new landscape that you just described, does it allow you more freedom or rather mount the pressure to choose the right path leading to an audience? It depends on what kind of person you are: a glass-half-full or half-empty kind of chap. There is so much content out there, which could arguably cause great shows to get lost in the abundance of what is being produced. Of course, it helps to have a great show, but you also need a strike of luck to break through. There were approximately 500 series created last year; it’s a lot of new shows. This ultimately opens doors for aspiring filmmakers to tell great stories that are unique and interesting. One of the best things about streaming services is that they are not afraid to take risks. I just saw a show directed by Ben Stiller, called Escape to Dannemora. It’s a fantastic show; it is very dark and … well, it could never have been done on a typical broadcasting network. So looking back on the opportunities I have been given, I tend to be on the glass-half-full team.
You had a long career in Europe before breaking through in the States (Coster-Waldau starred in Black Hawk Down, his introduction to the US audience) and were classically trained in Denmark (he studied at the prestigious Danish National School of Theatre). How has your training impacted your approach to your craft? Alternatively, is it an instinctual process? I think that it is a mix. I love theater, and while I haven’t done any in a few years, I yearn to go back as soon as possible, because, from an actor’s perspective, it is the purest way to do what we do. One thing you do miss when acting in a film is the audience. When I think of theater, I imagine how excruciating it is to sit through bad performances, whereas the feeling is pure elation when watching a great play, because it happens right in front of your eyes. The immediate feedback from the audience is quite irreplaceable, be it for actors performing a fantastic piece on stage or singers giving an amazing concert. One of the reasons I wanted to be an actor is the ability to explore human behavior, which I found to be fascinating. I still do to this day. The process of understanding why we act the way we do never cease to amaze me. The reason why brilliant people end up doing really awful or just plain dumb things is one of the many curious aspects of this quest. All I know is that, when I see good work, whether in films, television, or stage, it always informs me and will hopefully make me think about my own life. We are all in this thing together and whether we want to admit it or not, we all influence each other a lot more than we think.
You’ve worked a lot in Europe and now have been a constant presence in the US. What is that transition like? Is there a switch that happens? There used to be one. However, I honestly don’t find a big difference between the audiences. People are people. Of course, there are cultural differences between Europeans and Americans, but we basically want the same thing; we want to love and be loved. You want to be able to support your family while doing something that brings you joy and pleasure. Alternatively, maybe you want to make enough money to allow yourself the luxury of doing things besides work that can still bring that spark into your life. I love doing films because you end up creating small communities that come together and do something for a unique period in their lives. That feeling is the same in the States and in Europe. I think that the most significant difference is the size of the audience. A studio movie is big enough to possibly lose a bit of that, but I also work in a number of independent films that bring about the same feeling.
Some people call you a “serious” activist (I am not sure that there is such a thing as a frivolous activist). Among other endeavors, you are a United Nations Development Programme Ambassador. What motivates you to get involved? I think that it interests me, of course. The UNDP has established 17 goals, of which I have chosen two: Gender Equality and Planet Action. I have two teenage daughters, and I want them to have the same opportunities that men do. The scale of global inequality is mind-boggling. The challenges we face are significant enough that they call upon everyone’s participation in the solution. With regard to climate action, global warming is a real problem that affects all of us. People may want to discuss whether or not it is human-made, but that doesn’t matter. The fact that it is happening is why we need to take action. We certainly don’t want to make it worse, which we are, and it has reached an alarming level. Last year, carbon emission rose in the US, which is one of the two largest emitters of CO2. We need to find a way to stop this, which is why I felt compelled to accept the UNDP’s request to become an ambassador. I am fortunate to have a platform that allows me to shine a light on topics we need to discuss. Keep in mind that my job is to turn the spotlight on the experts, the people who have spent a lifetime studying and researching with little recognition. My role is to draw attention to their work so that their voices are heard when suggesting solutions to those problems. Some fantastic scientists are working all over the world, so let’s listen to them and give them the opportunity to provide us with a blueprint to solutions. The bottom line is that we can solve these problems; all it takes is the will to put pressure on the politicians to achieve that goal.
What do you say to people who believe that actors should stay in their lane and stick to acting? I am an actor, but I am also a citizen! [forcefully] I am no different from an electrician or a plumber; I still have a voice. My point is that I am not well-versed in the science involved in this process, but I can surely raise my voice to grant the experts a chance at conveying their message. Don’t listen to me because I am an actor. But if my presence were to encourage people who wouldn’t ordinarily show up to do so, then there must be a reason for them to listen to the scientist who has studied the ice cap in Greenland; he has seen and understood the cause and effect. We should listen because the repercussions will be otherwise catastrophic. Sick people follow their doctor’s advice because professionals are knowledgeable in their fields of specialty. Conversely, when it comes to climate change, there are many financial interests that obstruct common sense. I think that, while it is great to make money, it would be equally great to have a planet on which we can enjoy this wonderful life.
Talk to me about Lion’s Share. It is such a simple idea. It started with an ad agency in Australia joining forces with the UNDP. The concept stems from the fact that we all love animals and like to be associated with their characteristics. We always use this idea to sell products. Think about it! 25% of all ads feature animals. We portray the strength of a lion or the elegance of a horse; if you start focusing on the ads, you cannot miss it. And while humans get paid for their work, animals don’t. That’s why we want to pay 0.5% of the ad spend to support both conservation and preservation. It is a private fund, which eliminates any risk of exposure to government corruption and in turn guarantees the money going directly to the cause. The extinction rate is growing annually. We are very good at making space for ourselves, sometimes at the expense of everything else.
Leeds United? You mean the mighty Leeds United! [disclosure: the interviewer is a Tottenham Hotspur FC fan] The glorious, mighty Leeds United. Ahh…yes! By the way, your manager admires ours quite a bit! We are of course on top of our league—well, at least this year. We have had a long history of terrible teams, so that is rather poetic this year! I became a fan when I was 19 years old; I went with a friend to a game and fell in love with the atmosphere. To be fair, it has been s— ever since—except for this year of course. Our manager is a genius!
What is your personal style? My style is comfortable! That is how I would describe it. This last outfit (referring to a beautiful green ISAIA suede jacket) is the closest to something I would wear at home. It’s much more fun to go to a shoot like today and get dressed up, or when I go to a premiere or event. For everyday wear though, just give me a pair of jeans.
A Nobleman is…