Game of Thrones' Nikolaj Coster-Waldau is Calling Shots Now
I have a confession to make. Before this interview, I had never watched a single episode of Game of Thrones. It was all the fault of an ex-girlfriend (it was the kind of relationship that makes you act crazy and wonder who you are) who confessed one night that she'd kissed Jon Snow in a nightclub. Not Kit Harington: "Jon Snow,” she said. So every time I drove up La Cienega Boulevard and saw that giant billboard of Jon Snow leering at me I went a little crazy inside. In turn, when Flaunt offered me the interview I almost said no, but when I heard I was to get inside the head of Denmark-born actor Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, it somehow seemed sweet revenge. After all, he is Jon Snow's nemesis: The Kingslayer.
And not only can he play the Kingslayer, but as we briefly cut to the opening segment of Coster-Waldau’s new film Shot Caller (in wide release August 18), we find his physicality embodying a very different kind of character. He wears a giant shoulder tattoo of a Viking, an illustration that is telling, as director Ric Roman Waugh informs me, of what type of gang the prisoner has joined. Then we pan over the muscles on a white man's body. Then the hands, which eke out some letter to a child. Then the stoic face of a white supremacist gangster.
In unsurprising fashion, the success of Game of Thrones has placed Coster-Waldau in a position to choose work that interests him. He doesn't need a blockbuster – he's got that, check and double check. I speak to him as he attends a comic-con and charity event in Columbia about what all this means. “It’s that weird thing where the work is kind of the same no matter where you are. You do your job and then after you’re finished you find out whether it’s successful or not, and to what degree. Obviously, with Game of Thrones, it’s on a level that is very rare and exciting. And now I’m in Columbia and it’s huge. I can go anywhere in the world now and people know about the show, which is bizarre. I can’t explain it. “At the same time – and I say this with gratefulness – it is a job, and I can’t look at it any differently. But, sure, the recognition factor is a lot higher after the show. It’s a different animal, Game of Thrones.”
Then, what does a success like Game of Thrones get you with your acting career? Where do you go from there? Coster-Waldau has taken his chops to the aforementioned Shot Caller: a scary and sobering thriller, directed by prison-film veteran Ric Roman Waugh. “I really wanted to get to the Sidney Lumet type movies,” Waugh tells me over the phone from Austin, Texas. “The stuff in the ’70s where they were about something. It was about a conversation happening, and I don’t want to be against the prison system, and I don’t want to be for it, I just want to put the audience on the 50-yard line and let you come out the other end.”
Lumet’s oeuvre spanned everything from the Henry Fonda courtroom drama 12 Angry Men (1957), to the four Academy Award winning Network (1976), to the neo-noir crime films like Prince of the City (1981), and Al Pacino’s Serpico (1973). Coster-Waldau would seem to fit right into a Lumet-style undertaking. Not only is he classically trained at the Danish National School of Theatre, where the curtains first went up on him playing a young Laertes in Hamlet, but he also possesses a humanness about him – a relatability. He displays an intense quietude in Shot Caller, which centers around a man ripped from his usually happy and rich circumstances and into something much more harrowing: a life, essentially, behind bars.
“First of all, I liked the script. It was an exciting, interesting look at the prison system in the U.S.,” Coster-Waldau tells me, “In so many parts of society we are very good at judging others, very good at thinking of the outside world as them and us in all kinds of situations. And this thing about the good and the bad, we like to divide people. The people that do bad things, we lock them up and throw away the key, and the good ones are safe. I thought the take of [Shot Caller] was interesting, because it’s a guy who is one of us, and he does a really stupid thing and it has horrific consequences…”
In Game of Thrones (which I began watching in a feverish fashion, not out of expediency mind you, but out of pure riveted compulsion), Coster-Waldau is constantly revealing and surprising. Just when we come to hate him there seems to be a soul under there, bubbling up. This process of transformation and revelation in the public eye is something he looks to be making a feature of his 20-plus year career on the stage and screen.
He tells me about making his audition tape in an attic with a friend for his first American role in Black Hawk Down, directed by Ridley Scott. “I think as you start out as an actor you have to be a little delusional. If you look at the arts and making a living nowadays it’s stacked against you. I always thought I would be able to get a job, to be able to work, that’s one thing, but the whole aspect of being in something as big as Game of Thrones, and of course as rewarding professionally and financially is you can never expect that – it’s mind boggling,” he tells me, sounding slightly matter-of-fact (I suppose you’d have to be to keep your equilibrium when thrust onto such a great stage), he pauses briefly, before unveiling further. “The thing is: you never know. The only thing you do is you keep working. One of the toughest things, and one of the most important things as an actor is that you have to keep working.”
The show is so great not only because of the brilliant storytelling of George R.R. Martin and creators David Benioff and D.B. Weiss, but also because the acting is superb. It’s such an interesting mix of thespian élan. A lot of the actors on the show aren’t stars (or weren’t originally), but they can act, both alone on screen and as an ensemble. Then there is the fact that they all seem born to play these roles. And then comes Jaime Lannister, played by our subject at hand, this singularly handsome figure, gently hiding his Scandinavian twang, his chin in the air like some proud moose. He’s very good. He’s very true.
Suddenly, I’m vividly thrown (no pun intended) back to the first episode of Game of Thrones, to that unforgiving moment when the Kingslayer pushes Bran off the ledge, sending the innocent boy to fall to his assumed death. I ask Coster-Waldau about this dark edge I see in him, this sleight of hand that both the Kingslayer and Jacob Harlon, his character in Shot Caller, possess. I can’t help but think it has something to do with growing up in Scandinavia, a place with two very different faces in terms of atmosphere and weather, a place that can be as bleak as a dark cave for months and months, before shining like paradise in summer.
“Well, so do you, man,” he responds quickly. “We all do. There’s no question about that. I think one of the great things about acting and why I keep doing it is that I find people’s behavior interesting. And I think we’re all unique, but very, very alike at the same time. Or that you are exclusively good, it’s just not possible. We are all emotional beings. And how we act on these things…that’s a different story.”
I ask Ric Roman Waugh why he chose Coster-Waldau to lead his film. “The thing that scared me the most when I wrote the film was: how do you balance finding an actor that can go over a ten year period from a white-collar person that you never think could become violent, but then buy them when they do become this other person. And when Nik responded to this material I knew that he was the perfect gamble. And when I say gamble, I mean I knew that he could play both of these visages and pull it off.”
Waugh is very well-versed in the prison system, and he said that after putting hair and make-up on Nik he knew. And you’d be hard-pressed to disagree. In Shot Caller Coster-Waldau looks very much like a gangster knee-deep in shit, a guy who’s forced to eat Denny’s (if he’s lucky) for every other meal, and who has to shop at the nearest gas station for clothes (see Pro-Club t-shirts and plaid shorts).
It’s very sad, this whole thing – the death and heartbreak of these films and television shows. I suspect that two things come to mind when in prison or after having just stabbed a king in the back: regret and God. A pause comes from Coster-Waldau when I put the question of regret to him: “I believe in trying to evaluate yourself – if you can – then trying to gain some insight into why you repeat some mistakes and try to not repeat them again. I remember reading about this interview with these nurses who take care of terminally ill patients and they asked them if there was anything that these people talk about, is there a theme, and there was one thing that everyone talked about: they regretted not spending more time with their families, they felt they wasted so many years working and working and not being with their families, and there is a part of me with every job I do, although I love it, it is taking me away from my family, so, I guess sometimes that is a regret. At the same time I’m also aware that I choose to do this, so I’m not going to sit there and cry about it.”
And about God? A Higher Power?
“I do believe in Karma. In just the most basic sense of the word. If you are being an asshole to people it’s going to bite you in the ass. And I also think if you are decent in the way you behave and how you treat other people that will also come back in a good way. I think it’s very simple. I’m sure if I Google Karma it may say something different, it’s probably a much more profound thing, but… do unto others as you want them to do to you, right?”
I answer back, “I saw the other day that Karma knows no time and no place.”
“I’d say that’s right,” he answers, before telling me he has to board a plane to Buenos Aires.
And I can hear my mother shouting in the background of my mind (she’s a rabid Game of Thrones fan), “Does Cersei die! Does Cersei die!”
I can’t ask. I hear the flight attendant’s beckoning. Sorry, Mom. I guess we’ll find out soon enough.
Written by: Augustus Britton
Photographer: Adrian Mesko
Stylist: Micah Johnson
Hair & Grooming: Erica Sauer
Photographed at: Splacer.co