Nikolaj Coster-Waldau understands the art of the badass. The Danish actor can currently be seen in the role of Jaime "The Kingslayer" Lannister, a knight on HBO's fantasy-drama "Game of Thrones," and playing Clas Greve, a former mercenary who specializes in tracking — aka killing — people in the Norwegian film "Headhunters," opening Friday.
But as readily as the actor is willing to face down a man-eating direwolf, he's just as likely to show his sensitive side — or at least his good humor.
You're known for some pretty tough characters. Do you actively go after these roles?
No, no, not at all. It was just one of those things — ["Game of Thrones" and "Headhunters"] happened to come at the same time. Jaime is tough, a soldier, but he's not a psychopath. Clas is borderline psychopathic. He will do anything; he has a disturbing lack of morals. And Jaime has strong morals. We might not share his morals, but he has really strong morality. So I think that's a big difference. But they are both a lot of fun to play, I have to say.
What do you enjoy the most about playing these guys?
Well, a guy like Clas, he doesn’t follow the rules. I mean, I guess it's also one of the reasons why it's fun to watch these characters. Most of us — I mean, I know myself, anyway, I'm a law-abiding citizen. If a police guy comes and tells me to stop, I'll stop and I'll be very polite. Sometimes when you're faced with authorities and when you're faced with injustice, you'll still be polite. We all know that feeling, five minutes later you go, "Why didn't I just say that? Why didn't I just do this?" So that's why, when you finally get to see a villain or a bad guy or someone who just breaks the rules, it can be liberating. Or at least a lot of fun.
Do you actually have a hidden sensitive side that we don’t see on-camera? Like you foster kittens or bake cookies?
Cupcakes. All the time. You wouldn't believe. Masterful cupcakes, beautiful, a lot of pink. [Laughs.] No, I mean, I think I have normal sensitivities. No kittens right now.
Are you a dog person? Clas' canine plays a pretty big role in "Headhunters," and the wolves in "Game of Thrones" are almost iconic in the fantasy world.
We have two dogs. It was against my judgment. The first one, I did this show in 2007 in New York called "New Amsterdam," and I worked with this actress who had one of those, like, I would call it a rat, but it was a dog. They call it teacup size? Anyway, my wife saw this dog and she fell in love with it. Suddenly we were driving across New York looking for this perfect dog. We found it out in Queens. So we bought this Yorkipoo and we brought that back home. Now we also have a rescue dog. Noah and Stella. So I have two dogs, which are very sweet. Still, it's still difficult for me to walk them because, there's something about … I don't know. They're too small.
So the complete opposite of the dogs and wolves in these projects, then.
Oh yeah. They would be like a snack for that dog. The funny thing with the dog in “Headhunters,” they needed a special permit to bring it into Norway. We had to have a police officer and a vet on set at all times. What was even more bizarre they had all these trainers, everyone thought it was going to kill someone. And thank God I grew up with big dogs, so I wasn't afraid of it. It was just a big, happy dog. And what's funny is there's a scene where it attacks [the film's protagonist] Roger, played by Aksel [Hennie] in the movie. When they shot that, he had this little tennis ball that the dog was going to jump for. It's quite an act to have viewers believe a dog’s got you by the throat or the neck. So Aksel just held onto the dog and screamed. Now, this freaked this dog out so badly that it was petrified of Aksel. That dog, it never came back on set, it was too scared. So the take that's in the movie is the first take, and after that it was a traumatized dog.
Speaking of some other scary dogs — let's talk about the direwolves.
Yeah, speaking of tennis balls. …
Right! I had the chance to speak to Richard Madden, who plays Robb Stark in "Game of Thrones," and he said on set that the stand-in for his CGI direwolf was a stick with a ball on the end.
I didn't even get a ball. I just got a stick. They pointed a stick in front of me. I was like, really? I couldn’t even get a tennis ball. I was offended a little bit. I heard Richard got a tennis ball! But anyway. No, a stick. But I was amazed when I saw the episode. They did a fantastic job with those.
Do you ever get accustomed to pretending that a stick frightens you?
Well, there are these childhood traumas. [Laughs.] … No, you just pretend, don't you?
Do you get scenes that are more demanding than sitting inside a cage this season?
Yeah later on, finally. Yeah. Well, I can't tell you anything else. They will put me in chains then.
Back to “Headhunters.” Love, and lack of it, is a topic explored in the film. Do you think Clas ever loved anything?
Well, he loved his dog. I think he has been in love with himself for a long time. And then what's happened in his life [as a mercenary] is of such a nature that he has lost a lot of that part of the human experience, unfortunately.
How do you play someone who is so cut off from such a deep emotion?
You try to find what you can identify with. He is very driven, he's very charming, he enjoys himself, he's very confident. You can understand, of course, when he gets into the chase [tracking Roger], he becomes this maniac. You just imagine, pretend what it would be like, and try to make it as believable as possible. The thing about this movie I think is all the characters have this sense of a heightened realism. It's got this larger-than-life feel to it, especially with him, because he's all of Roger's greeds and fears and wants in one person. So I guess you just do it. I didn't go through like, months of method acting to get there. That would have been weird. [Laughs.]
Some might say Jaime Lannister, too, is terribly in love with himself. What is his definition of love?
It's certainly an odd one, considering his incestuous relationship with his sister, Queen Cersei.
It's very complicated. I think there's a lot of self-hatred with him. I don't think he's very much in love with himself because he knows — when he says, "The things I do for love" [and then pushes Bran Stark out a window], he knows it's just horrible, but he'd never allow anyone to see that. He'd never give anyone the satisfaction of, "Oh my God, I'm so sorry," because it's his actions and he did it.
But he truly loves his sister. He loves his family. I think early on in their lives he was almost obsessed with her. And because they're twins, they're so close. Now I think he knows that it's not a healthy situation, but there's no alternative. He doesn't know or want to know how to not be with her. That's the way I've been thinking about it.
Another theme of the film is cheating: Cheating on your spouse, stealing artwork, deceiving people for corporate greed — what is the overall message?
It's interesting, because all of the characters in the movie, none of them are really being honest. And if you're being very basic, it's about being honest to yourself and actually knowing who you are and want you want and not constantly looking for another fix. That's what they all do here; they all just want something — something to make them happy, something to solve their problems. And I think that's a theme: Sometimes you really have to dig deep. Or in the movie, you have to strip yourself completely naked to find your core. It's an old truth but it's, you know, all the riches in the world are not going to give you joy or happiness. The only thing that really matters is the relationships to the people closest to you. It’s a very basic story.
Meanwhile, cheating is a way of life for the Lannisters. Do you think there was ever a time Jaime played by the rules?
Well, yeah – he plays by the rules, but you might not have the same rules. Obviously, I mean, the relationship with his sister, they're lying all the time. But I think in his mind he can justify it because he can't help it — it's love.
Now the thing he's most famous for, being the Kingslayer, yeah, that was very deceitful. He promised to protect this king and then he ends up killing him. But at the same time, I think if you ask him he will say, "Well, that was my finest hour. What I did to the Mad King, I saved a lot of people's lives by doing that." But of course, you're right, it was deceitful. But it's all in the eye of the beholder. Sometimes you have to break the rules.
If you look at the Arab Spring, something completely different, but if you look at the Arab Spring, everyone there broke the rules. Basically every revolution in the world, even in America, somebody broke the rules. Somebody said, "No, I'm not going to stand by this, this is not right."
I'm not saying Jaime Lannister is a noble man at all. He's done horrible things. And I think one of the great things about "Game of Thrones," as the show progresses you're going to get to know more and more people and you're going to get to know more sides of the story, and it's all a little gray. I mean, we so wanted to be the good guy, the bad guy, but no, it doesn’t work like that.
Going back to that sense of heightened reality — the film features tracking technology, and goes into the idea that it's been developed into gels. Did you do any kind of research into how much of that might be real?
You know, I wouldn't be surprised if there was some sort of crazy [technology like that]. I mean, we're all being tracked, just by having a cell phone. It's crazy. But whether you can actually put it in gels? It's something that the writer of the novel [Jo Nesbo] came up with. And I think it's one of those things: What if? And it's funny, that was one of the things at the first read-through, I said, "This is crazy. This doesn’t exist." And everyone says, "Yeah, it's crazy. It's a movie. It works."
Does it frighten you at all how "out there" in the world everyone is now? Being a celebrity that's already heightened for you.
That's funny. Everybody's a blogger these days, right? My wife showed me this little thing this woman wrote. It was my wife's birthday and we were at a café here in our hometown, and a friend of ours had arrived earlier and he had some flowers for my wife. And there's this whole thing like, now the blogger uncovered this hidden love affair between my wife and this guy, which of course was not true. I know this isn't about big technology, but in a way it is. This woman was blogging and she was sitting in that café and just like, "Oh my God, this is crazy," and suddenly it's out there. A snippet of that is going to be over here and then someone's going to throw it over there. But at the same time, it's very basic, very human, isn't it? Gossip is part of our world. It's part of our makeup, I guess. We love gossip.
Speaking of heightened profile — the better side of it — you've certainly come to the attention of more people since "Game of Thrones." Would you ever move to Hollywood full-time?
I'd love to. We've discussed it, me and my wife. We would love to live in the States, you know, and try it for, like, a year and give the kids that experience of living in a foreign country. I'm not sure it would be L.A., but it could be. … I mean, I love being in New York, one of the greatest cities anywhere. And the truth is, a lot of my work is out of Hollywood but they don't shoot there, so my family would just be sitting there. But I would absolutely love to live in the States for a while.