To the masses, Nikolaj Coster-Waldau is known as the villainous-turned-valiant knight Jaime Lannister in Game of Thrones. His character appeared in the fantasy drama’s very first episode and went on to feature in all of its eight seasons. And, thanks to unlucky circumstances and the loss of a hand, Jaime had perhaps the most intriguing trajectory of all.
But the show is merely the most visible of the Danish actor’s accomplishments: his breakout role came 17 years before the HBO sensation, in the 1994 thriller Nightwatch. He’s had supporting turns in several blockbusters, such as Black Hawk Down and Oblivion, and has made regular forays onto the stage, too. Just last year, the actor co-founded a production company through which he’s currently making an unannounced film which, he suggests, distressingly features “a lot of dogs that all die”. It’s the presumption that he’s just Jaime off GoT that irks the actor when he signs in to our Zoom chat from Iceland. He’s much more than that.
“Over those eight seasons, I did two films every year more or less,” says the 50-year-old. “But obviously the success of the show, which is so enormous, makes however big those other successes are pale in comparison. I worked more weeks on other shows than Game of Thrones. In my world, those other jobs took up much more space than Jaime Lannister did.”
One such job was small-town thriller The Silencing, released earlier this year, which is like a James Ellroy novel if you switched out sun-soaked Los Angeles for the dreary backwoods of Minnesota. In the film, which is available to download now, Coster-Waldau plays animal tracker Rayburn Swanson, a grizzled alcoholic haunted by the disappearance of his daughter five years earlier. When a body turns up and a suspect surfaces, Rayburn takes matters into his own hands.
“The script had been around for a couple of years,” he says. “I just liked the basic story of a guy who’s a drunk and then loses his daughter. Normally, in a story, that’s when the change would happen, but it doesn’t. I thought that was interesting.”
Coster-Waldau clearly has a taste for smaller-sized films shot in an almost guerilla style. The Silencing, he tells me, was shot on a shoestring budget in Canada, and sees him running through deserted, clearly freezing, locations in the dead of night. Thankfully, this complements the Covid regulations he’s adhering to on his current film. “On set, you can have a maximum of 10 or 15 people in one space,” he says. “It’s difficult, but it works.”
This, presumably, would have caused issues if he’d been filming, say, one of Game of Thrones’ gigantic battle sequences. “Oh, it couldn’t have happened,” Coster-Waldau says immediately. “With the virus as alive as it is? With 400 extras, 60 actors and 400 crew? It’s difficult to imagine how you could do a show like that.”
Once things get back to normal, I wonder if he’d like to plan a more permanent move to Hollywood. Could he, for example, be lured by the prospect of making millions while wearing spandex in the Marvel Cinematic Universe? Coster-Waldau isn’t so sure.
“I probably wouldn’t say no, but the thing is, I’ve done one of those green-screen movies, and I don’t find them that exciting. There are a lot of fantastic actors who do a lot of them and I always go, ‘Please take a break – I wanna see you in some of the other movies that you’re so f***ing great in.’ A couple have great characters, but I find most of those movies incredibly boring so I don’t see that happening. But you should never bite the hand that feeds you, I guess.”
Coster-Waldau might simply be wary of jumping to another long-running series that’s followed by supremely die-hard fans. He understands why the Thrones finale divided viewers (“it’s impossible to make the perfect ending”) but notches it down to the simple fact that “a lot of people don’t like their favourite shows coming to an end”.
One thing GoT has on its side, though, is the fact that none of its ensemble have faced the wrath of “cancel culture”, which is good news for its legacy. Coster-Waldau believes shutting down people and their careers due to old offensive remarks is “counterproductive to progress”. If you ask him, “basic forgiveness” should prevail.
“If someone says, ‘I’m sorry for that thing I said 10 years ago; I meant it as a joke and I don’t mean that any more,’ I hope people can say, ‘Well, fair enough.’ I guess I said things when I was 20 that I don’t mean now.”
Since 2019, Coster-Waldau has been optioning numerous projects as part of Ill Kippers, the production company he’s created with his friend, Joe Derrick. These include an adaptation of the coming-of-age novel We Are Lost and Found (2018) and Jo Kaplan’s recently released gothic novel It Will Just Be Us. They’ll also release a documentary exploring the rise and rise of fan conventions, something Coster-Waldau is more than familiar with considering his 10 years as part of the world’s biggest show. Not that he can relate to obsessing over something in quite the same way as the people he’d meet at these events.
“I love Leeds United football club, but I won’t be depressed for days if they lose,” he quips wryly. Still, he can understand the appeal even if he admits he doesn’t miss the lovable if problematic Lannister rogue. C’mon – not even a little bit?
“Shall I be honest now? What I think you’d want to hear if I were you is, ‘Oh God, I was depressed for weeks; it was so difficult to get over it.’ We’d spent 10 years together so, by virtue of that, it was an emotional moment because it suddenly came to an end. But half an hour later?”
He shrugs, letting out a guilty chuckle.
“It took me 10 years to understand things come to a natural end. Now, I’m just an old, cynical, cold-hearted man.”
The Silencing is available on digital download now