Over the past decade, the man you see in this photo has thrown a kid out of a tower window, sired three children with his twin sister, killed his cousin and a king, and stabbed a guy through the eye. There’s more, but you get the gist. Jaime Lannister, aka the Kingslayer—a central character in the multiaward-winning series Game of Thrones, which premieres its eighth and final season April 14th on HBO—is a miserable SOB.
That is the greatest compliment you can give Nikolaj Coster-Waldau. Especially since off-camera, he is so... so... not Jaime. This afternoon, the 48-year-old actor has recently finished a lovely forest walk home with his teenage daughter Safina just north of Copenhagen. “My oldest daughter, [18-year-old actress] Filippa, is on a skiing trip, and my wife [actress and singer Nukâka] is in Iceland doing a show.” Aside from being a loving father and husband, Coster-Waldau was recently credited as the highest fundraiser for crowdsourcing efforts by the United Nations Development Programme, where he serves as a goodwill ambassador, raising money for climate change and gender equality, among other cherished causes.
So, yes, Coster-Waldau is living the furthest life you could imagine from his alternative world of Westeros, where Lannister has defined his role with both murder and mirth.
You see, while Lannister commits a fistful of dastardly deeds, the next thing you know, he does something nice: brings his dwarf brother, Tyrion, a sex worker; saves someone’s life—that sort of thing. “There’s more to this guy than you think,” says Coster-Waldau, who’s scored a spate of nominations for his performance. Since 2017, according to London’s Express, he has been one of the highest paid actors on a TV series, earning roughly $2.5 million per episode. “We learn that maybe you can actually do horrible things and, also, at the same time, be an honorable man.” (George R.R. Martin, the best-selling author of fantasy novel series A Song of Ice and Fire, which inspired Game of Thrones, is said to have designed Lannister to explore the idea of redemption.)
For Coster-Waldau, the emotional layers of the character are precisely why he pursued acting in the first place. That, and maybe girls. “As a child, I spent hours imagining being different versions of a 10-year-old boy. Usually, he would win some kind of world championship in some made-up sport. The story would end with being chased by girls,” he says, laughing. The son of a librarian mother and a career military father, Coster-Waldau and his two sisters grew up in the rural village of Tybjerg, Denmark. One day in grade school, his teacher praised him for improvising after a piece of the set fell during a school play. “I thought that was pretty awesome,” he says. Years later, he would be the youngest student to be admitted to The Danish National School of Theatre and Contemporary Dance. “I first met Nikolaj at a Savage Rose concert in Copenhagen. He was sporting a ridiculous ponytail growing out of the top of his head,” says his best friend, Joe Derrick, who has known Coster-Waldau for 30 years. Bad hair days aside, Derrick is not surprised at his friend’s success. “He’s driven like no one else I know. Genuine. Interested in everything. Passionate about life. And he likes to win. He really likes to win.”
In Lannister, Coster-Waldau struck gold. “I knew this was a great character the first time I read the script,” he says. “His motives were, as he said himself, ‘the things I do for love.’ He wants to protect his family, and he’s willing to do whatever it takes.” (Hello, homicide and torture.) “What I love about my job is you try to examine why we act the way we do... what it means to be human,” he shares. “Jaime has this messed up romantic relationship with Cersei, his sister, but then you think about—well, maybe he wants to fall in love with someone he shouldn’t fall in love with.”
With a range of more than 40 film and stage roles, beginning with Hamlet; Nightwatch; Bent; and his first American role, Black Hawk Down, the actor appreciates the roles that accompany his age. “One of the great things about getting older is the parts get older. There’s something about having lived life that makes it a lot more interesting. I am attracted to characters that are complex and challenging.”
With the Game of Thrones finale in sight, Coster-Waldau is reflective. “There’s a pride to being part of something that didn’t overstay its welcome.” He pauses and carefully chooses his words to describe the show’s ending so as to not violate any nondisclosure agreements. “The producers did an amazing job. It’s so tricky because the world is so vast. There are so many storylines. They found the balance between the beginning and the ending. There’s very few happy endings in that world. They did a great job in not being complete downers about it, but also being true to that world.”
It will feel strange for Coster-Waldau to not return to Belfast, where Game of Thrones, in part, was filmed. But even more, he will sorely miss his cast mates, particularly his scene partners, Lena Headey, Peter Dinklage, Jerome Flynn and Gwendoline Christie. And they will miss him. “Nikolaj has always regarded himself as my mentor or spiritual guide, a sort of Scandinavian Yoda,” says Christie, who plays Brienne of Tarth. “It has been an endless source of pleasure for me. His dedication, coupled with real generosity and care toward his fellow actors, elevates his work above the rest of us. That, and a strong jawline—it’s so sharp, it means he can slice cheddar cheese on it and hand out the slices as energy snacks.”
Those chiseled features and tousled surfer-cool locks, in fact, helped land Coster-Waldau as a global spokesman for the L’Oréal Paris Men Expert program. “I really like working with them,” he says. “We recently partnered with the Movember Foundation [a nonprofit devoted to men’s health] and raised $250,000.” Between that and the United Nations Development Programme, he says he feels blessed to use his fame for the greater good. “I can be the person deflecting the spotlight onto the person next to me who is an expert dedicating his or her life to helping others,” he says. “It’s crucial they have a platform and that their voices are heard. That’s what I can do.” Now, lest you think this guy is all work and no play, enter the Leeds United Football Club, where he is a take-no-prisoners fan, as well as a lifelong soccer player. (“He still thinks he might be called for Denmark one day,” Derrick jokes.) But, a juicy role thrills Coster-Waldau even more than soccer.
There’s a film to shoot this spring, then a play. This fall at the Geffen Playhouse in Los Angeles, he will embody another horrible person: Macbeth. Jaime Lannister would grin.