As Jaime Lannister in Game of Thrones, Nikolaj Coster-Waldau has brought a great literary villain to TV life. Now he's oozing more black charisma in one of the most twist-filled movies of 2012. Harry Guerin talks to the 41-year-old Danish actor about Headhunters.
Like Richard Attenborough, Willem Dafoe and Anthony Hopkins before him, Nikolaj Coster-Waldau proves the theory that gentlemen off-screen make the best baddies on it. How’s this for helpful: Coster-Waldau is currently up to his eyes shooting the Tom Cruise blockbuster, Oblivion, but is more than happy to use his lunch break to talk about his new movie in Irish cinemas, the black comedy-thriller Headhunters.
Based on the Jo Nesbø book of the same name, Headhunters tells the story of Roger Brown (the excellent Aksel Hennie), a smugness incarnate corporate recruitment specialist who crosses paths with a retired CEO and soldier called Clas Greve. It's fast-moving and funny, with perhaps the most cover-your-eyes toilet scene in movie history (think Andy's escape in The Shawshank Redemption x 100), and if you like Coster-Waldau in Game of Thrones, you'll love his take on alpha male, Greve. You won't come out of the cinema with a higher opinion of humanity, but you will of him.
Harry Guerin: Had you read Jo Nesbø's book Headhunters before you were cast in the movie?
Nikolaj Coster-Waldau: No, I hadn't. But then I read it after reading the script, which I think was helpful. Sometimes, when you have these adaptations, if you've read the book before the script you pay attention to the things that are left out. Whereas, because I hadn't read the book, they were just bits of more information that could inform the character.
Clas Greve, like your Jaime Lannister in Game of Thrones, is one of those bad guys you can admire and hate at the same time. Was that a big draw for you?
The moment in the script that I felt that this was something I really wanted to be part of was when I'm chasing this guy and he dives into this outhouse. When I read the script I thought, 'I wonder if they're really going to go there?' And when I watch the film with audiences, it's that moment where people go, 'Oh!' The times I've seen Headhunters with an audience, you feel they're going to say, 'What kind of movie is this?!' And then they say, 'Ok, that's rough. Anything can happen here!'
Headhunters recalls the saying 'When you sup with the devil, make sure you have a long spoon'.
It's true! The other thing I really liked about the script is that there aren't really any nice people in this story - they're all horrible in some way! The first time you see Roger Brown he's treating his wife in a horrible manner. He's being unfaithful - and he also treats that girl terribly! Everything is just bad about this guy; it's just off. And then Brown meets my character, who's the guy he wishes he was. We're two sides of the same coin. Men are just horrible!
What do you think Headhunters says about human nature?
We will literally jump in a pool of crap to stay alive. Or... love is all that matters, until it's not...
You've starred now in two great adaptations - Headhunters and Game of Thrones. As an avid reader yourself, what books would you like to see on the screen, and what characters would you like to play?
There is a book, a biography by Sarah Bakewell called The English Dane, which is the true story of [adventurer] Jorgen Jorgenson, that makes the life of Forrest Gump seem tame in comparison. That's a dream project.
You've described an acting career as your lifelong dream. What actors and movies had the most impact on you when you were starting out?
Numerous. I grew up in the countryside so didn't really get to see any theatre until I started at drama school. So it was TV series and films - Danish, English, Irish, American actors. Then, later when I started studying, the films of the Seventies stood out: the work of De Niro, Pacino, Hoffman, Hackman, Duvall, John Cazale, Walken, or Brando in The Godfather and Last Tango..., or Meryl Streep in anything. When I see a great performance I get as excited today as I did 20 years ago.
It's 20 years this October since you made your acting debut on stage in Hamlet. Had you a career plan back then or were you just taking things role by role?
I had some dreams; I had some hopes, but I think I fairly quickly learned that the whole idea of making a plan is impossible as an actor - at least it was impossible for me. But I've always had this desire to travel, to try and work in other countries, and I've been very fortunate in that way.
Which brings us to working in Belfast on Game of Thrones. How much have you enjoyed working with your Irish co-stars on the series?
There are so many incredible Irish actors on this show I am in awe every day. And they are good fun as well, which doesn't hurt when you've been enjoying the, shall we say, generous Northern Irish autumn weather for 15 hours and are covered in a foot of sound Irish mud! You can't have divas on a set like that. I know that the countries are very different, Denmark and Ireland, but it always seems to me that we have the same kind of humour. It's very relaxed and you can't get too precious about yourself with them. Everything about that show is brilliant. I know it's a bit of a cliché, but it really is a great group of people.
Do you think it was better for you that Game of Thrones and the media attention surrounding it arrived in your early forties, rather than when you were in your twenties?
I am not complaining, that's for sure. There have been numerous other films and TV that I was excited and passionate about and then they just disappeared: and not always because they were crap. Not always. It's a welcome change, to be honest!
Last week in Ireland [April 13], another of your new movies, Blackthorn, opened, in which you star opposite, among others, Irish actors Stephen Rea, Padraic Delaney and Dominique McElligott. What was it like working with them on the Western?
Well, speaking of working with Irish actors... We were in Bolivia and I was so unbelievably lucky to get to work with those brilliant actors. And then being on horseback on the Altiplano in Bolivia. It was one of the coolest experiences ever. And then Sam Shepard in the lead, who is such an icon. And Stephen Rea!
You're currently shooting the Tom Cruise sci-fi adventure Oblivion. What can you tell us about it?
I am not allowed to say anything! I mentioned in another interview that I was in the movie and played the character Sykes but was then told that I gave away too much information. So, better not say anything. Was that too much?
Headhunters and Blackthorn are in cinemas now.