Interview: Nikolaj Coster-Waldau

By Dan Woburn. 

Nikolaj Coster-Waldau plays a conflicted detective and father in Susanne Bier’s dark, thought-provoking A Second Chance. Nikolaj took some time to chat about his role and to discuss the upcoming fifth season of Game of Thrones.
A Second Chance is a chilling, yet affecting drama about real people forced into incredible circumstances; a film that confronts our core notions about right and wrong, and those of us who think they can tell the difference. A film that forces us to ask: who are we to think we are better than anyone else?
Andreas is a promising young detective, who has a lot on his plate. At home, he and his wife Anne struggle with their newborn son, who spends every waking hour crying. At work, Andreas tries to rein in his newly divorced partner Simon who spends most of his time in strip clubs drunkenly looking for a fight. One day Andreas and Simon are called out to a domestic disturbance where drug addicts Sanne and Tristan are found bickering. When Andreas and Simon intervene, they witness a shocking instance of neglect that sends a livid Andreas home to his family’s warm embrace. Then, one night, the unthinkable happens and Andreas’ family is struck by sudden tragedy. When Andreas sees his life unravelling, he makes a choice that will lead himself and everyone he knows down a rabbit hole of moral and ethical disarray.
You’re no stranger to controversial or morally ambiguous characters. Can you talk more about your initial thoughts when you first read the script? What grabbed you and what interested you about Andreas?
I thought it was a great story, I thought it was a shocking story and also that I understood why he did what he did. Because I think for a guy when you’re in a relationship with a woman, you constantly come up against how different we are; you know, there’s the old… the classic is that a woman needs to talk about something and then – because I know that, I’ve been married forever. And I still make the same mistake of wanting to come up with solutions to the problem which is not what I’m supposed to do. But men, we want to fix it – if there’s a problem I’ll fix it.
Now of course here it’s an extreme problem – they’ve lost their baby and he’s in extreme shock and there’s no time to deal with his own feelings because he has a wife who’s shouting into his face that she’s gonna kill herself if he doesn’t fix it. And then in that state of mind he comes up with that crazy solution to a problem he can’t solve; you can’t bring back a dead baby. It’s just not possible. But he does it because he’s in shock. And I thought that was really interesting. Also because I think everybody who is watching the movie would share his initial thought when you saw that baby [belonging to drug addicts Tristan and Sanne, played by Nikolaj Lie Kaas and Lykke May Andersen, respectively], in those circumstances, you would think that baby needs to get away from that place.
So I thought that was interesting. And I thought that it was – I was shocked throughout, when I read the script, but also at the end when you find out what really happened. I like those – that’s one of my big, I guess, things in life – how we, as human beings constantly, we will… we do that just the way we navigate through life, we will meet people, we will put them into boxes, it just happens all the time. Even though we know that – clearly I don’t know anything about you, but still in my mind, or you in your mind, you’ve already made up some kind of history, a story about you, and where you’re from, and who you are – based on experience, but also just based on prejudice and all those things. And of course here, it’s high stakes in this one right? Because it’s life and death.
But still Andreas goes into that house and he makes a judgment *clicks fingers* like that. ‘That baby needs to get away.’ ‘These are bad people.’ And then of course because of what happens he acts on that, and those consequences are really interesting because when does the end justify the means? All those questions are interesting. And then I like the way that Susanne Bier tells the story it’s almost like a thriller even though it’s drama but you know, you can’t escape it. Which is, it’s exhausting, but you can’t. So yes, good script and a great director – that’s what attracted me.
Who did your sympathies lie with in regards to the characters?
For me it was Andreas of course, because I was playing him, but also I thought what I liked about it was that, initially, well, it changed – initially I also felt like he did, when I saw [Tristan and Sanne’s baby]. How can you allow your baby to be… there are no excuses for that! It was almost like when I read the script that same feeling of being really angry with someone and then when they get really sad you go “sorry, I didn’t mean it like that.” Because that’s when you realise, shit, she lost her child. And she knows her child is – and that’s just so messed up, what happens to Sanne – the character Sanne, that Lykke plays – but also all the characters are interesting.
Also with Anna [Maria Bonnevie], his wife, I also fell for her – what a horrible… I mean, she knows she’s done something horrible, she’s going through depression, she can’t talk about it because… a lot of women in the western world, or men for that matter, [have] that experience of ‘we have everything’ – everything is perfect – why do I feel like shit? How can I allow myself to feel bad? I have this beautiful home, I have a husband who loves me, I have a baby! And I’m still feeling like shit. That makes it even worse. So I feel for her as well.
Do you think the film’s sympathetic to motherhood and post-natal depression?
Well… I don’t think it’s about post-natal depression. It’s part of it. What it’s about is ‘don’t judge a book by its cover’. Don’t jump to conclusions on Sanne for example… She is not the ideal mother to begin with, no question about it, but maybe if we try to understand the circumstances or try to help her instead of just pulling the kid away, I mean – I think it’s sympathetic to all the characters in a way.
How did you bring your experiences as a parent to the role? Was it emotional for you?
I think it – obviously it’s, y’know, you use whatever you are; you have your experiences – you do that in anything you [do] as an actor. There were scenes that were really, really dark where you can’t help but imagine what it would be like if it was your own kids, or your own kid. You use yourself, of course.
How do you leave that on set every day? Not take it home with you?
Well it’s not therapy what I do – I don’t use my job as therapy. For me I’m telling a story and it’s part… it’s a craft. I’ve never quite understood that when people say they can’t let go of a character because I go, then, that means you’re sick, in a way. But you know what I mean! Because then you have – there’s something wrong. And I’m not saying you can’t get great performances out of that, because I’m not judging that way, but I’m thinking that must be horrible to… but for me it’s a craft, and when I leave my day of shooting, I don’t leave it, but I’m thinking ahead for the next thing. But there’s no question that doing a film like that there’s a lot of questions – you talk about these big dilemmas all the time, and also with my wife, and y’know, things come up – like with anything, anything that happens in life affects you.
Is it a novelty and a comfort somewhat to do film in your mother tongue and does that make it easier to act?
It didn’t feel easy, it didn’t feel harder, it felt the same, it felt great. There was a bonus, I worked with friends. Ulrich Thomsen played Simon, my friend in the film, we went to drama school together, 20-odd years ago so we’ve been friends for [a] long time. And Nikolaj, who plays Tristan, [is] also an old friend, so of course you have a shorthand which was great. And they’re all just brilliant actors. And Susanne Bier, which we haven’t talked about, she’s one of the best directors I’ve worked with in the way she works because she’s so focused on – as an actor it’s wonderful because it’s all she really cares about, performance – that’s really what she’s after, the emotional response she can get. And it’s very inspiring to work with her.
What do you think about the growing popularity of Danish cinema, or Scandinavian cinema?
It’s surprising.
Do you think there’s something unique to Scandinavia, or Danish culture?
I don’t know why it’s happened. I think there is something they – they’ve spent a lot of… the Danish radio, which is equivalent to BBC, have really focused and spent a lot of resources on getting a strong drama department for the last, well, thirty years. But for the last twenty years there was a change in the way that film and television used to be really separate. And then they made the conscious decision to use as many established film directors that they could, and writers, and that has really paid off I think. That’s one reason. But you know, for us, I’m sure it’s the same when you see a British show you go “why’s that popular overseas? It’s not that good.” I’m not saying it’s not that good, but you know that thing where you go “well, that was surprising”. It’s weird, like Borgen – I don’t know if you’ve seen that, but that’s a very specific Danish show about a system we have which is not unlike yours, or unlike the Americans, or unlike the Australians but it’s been really successful in those places.
So is it important for you play roles like Andreas, your role as Horus in the upcoming Gods of Egypt, and The Other Woman that are separate from, and quite different from Jaime?
Well, I like to do different stuff, I’ve always done that. Also before Game of Thrones. The only plan I have is I like to not repeat myself too much, if I can avoid it. The Other Woman I was shooting when I got the offer for [A Second Chance], it’s as different as it can be. That’s real fantasy. But I had a lot of fun shooting that. And when I read the script I was like ‘this is ridiculous’. But that character – I can have a lot of fun with that guy. Y’know, it’s not gonna change the world at all – but it’s gonna be a fun thing to do and then equally this, I thought, well, this is gonna be really tough but also amazing to explore that part of life. I’m sure yeah, I could probably have played a lot of knights over the last few years.
Have you been offered a lot of them?
There has been a few come my way – y’know, I’m sure you all go a lot to the cinemas and you’ll see there’s a lot of not-very-good things out there, and a lot of scripts are not very good. I don’t think you can plan too much.
How did A Second Chance come your way?
Susanne Bier called me – as I say I was just in New York shooting The Other Woman and going through that thing and then she called and said “I have a script, I’d like you to play the lead, would you read it?” And I said, “uh, YES.” She sent it, I read it right away, and then I read it again and then I called her back and said “okay let’s do it, when are we shooting?” and that was it. I was very lucky.
And there was no trepidation considering how dark the story is?
No, I don’t really care too much about those things. First of all, you never know – the only thing I knew was that I really responded to the script. I knew that I really liked her as a director so, well, if I start worrying about what people are gonna think, then I shouldn’t be doing what I’m doing. And the same with Game of Thrones when I read it I thought ‘wow, he is having sex with his sister, that is such a cool way to start off a character.’ Morals – the whole thing about morals is interesting, because everyone has morals. There’s always a gap between the morals we have and what you do. Or the morals you have and how you think. It’s never just the same. Does that make sense? We have the way we want to be, and the way we are. Even just sometimes we’ll do stuff and you’ll go ‘how could I…?’ – and I’m not talking about being unfaithful or, just, y’know, I could be walking down the street I’m having a great day then some guy drives in front of me in a stupid way and I go “you fucking ass!” and I suddenly find myself doing really stupid things and I go ‘oh my god that’s embarrassing, why would I do that? This goes against my belief system!’
Speaking of walking down the street, the last time I did a roundtable with you was I believe for Season 2 of Game of Thrones and at that point there was fan interest, nowhere near as much as it is now, and people were coming up to you in the street and mixing you up with Jaime and whatnot. What is it like for you now? I think at one stage you were filming in Belfast, and a waiter came up to you, and said…
Oh yeah remember that story? That’s actually one of the few times I’ve had like a weird, little… scary! Because he was very dark, yeah. “I don’t like you. Can you sign?” “I’ll sign for you!”. No but it surprises me all the time still. Anywhere in the world really. It’s been everywhere. The last few months here it’s been cooling off, now you know you’re between seasons. The next five months are gonna be… when it’s on, it’s really on.
This time of year is almost, kind of like Christmas for you guys.
No, it’s the silence before the storm.
In the sense of a good thing, or a bad thing? Do you wanna lay low during that period or do you wanna soak it up and be like ayy, I’m on the biggest show on the planet.
I like to… *laughs* Back home, it’s very quiet back home. When I go to things like, tomorrow, there’s a big premiere, then yeah it’s fun, because it’s just over the top. It’s still weird when you… I remember once I was with my family in a restaurant… I just don’t think about it. And then sometimes it does become… once one person comes over, it’s like, everyone. And I get it, it’s fine, it’s fine, but it’s still – it’s weird. Like someone asked me a question earlier about, “what are the fans like?” I was like I don’t know, because it seems to be everyone. And I think if you start trying to – that whole thing about putting people in boxes. If you think you can define what a person is like by what they watch, what kind of television show they watch, I think you are mistaken. You know what I mean it’s like, everybody, so many people watch our show, or any show for that matter. It surprises me. In a good way, of course. But anonymity is nice.
I know Natalie Dormer at one stage was quite, not freaked out, but very interested to see characters dressed as her at like Comic-Con or any of these conventions, have you had the same thing?
I was in Sydney last year and I went one day to a Sydney convention. I’ve been twice, and then this year I went to one as well, in Salt Lake City. But in Sydney suddenly Jaime came up, with Joffrey, Jaime with his one hand, and he looked better than I did as Jaime, he’d really done a good job. But what was scary was Joffrey, and this kid looked exactly like Jack Gleeson. It was eerie.
Did you do a double take?
Yeah I had a picture taken, of course. Have you ever been to one of those conventions?  I want to make a show about a convention. Because the sane people are the guests. That’s just the people that like a show, they go to dress up, have fun for a day, they go to a convention, act fun. The weird people are the ones behind the scenes… that’s the weirdos. No, but [there’s some] seriously sick people in there! Because back here, they go “pfft, look at all those crazy people out there!” and then you go, “have you seen any mirrors around here, you guys…” because it’s so messed up. What’s not to like about people who go to the [conventions], I mean they’re just passionate about a television show. They’re having fun.
How long are you going to be in London and what are you up to?
I’m going to be here tomorrow and Thursday, I’m very lucky [as] I’m going to Rome to talk about this film again. And then I’m flying to San Francisco to do another premiere of Game of Thrones. And then… I’m gonna go home. Then I’m gonna start a film [Fun House] in the States in April. Late April.
Do you have anywhere you like to spend time in the city?
In this city? Many places. I lived here for years in Stoke Newington. First in Hackney, then Stoke Newington. When I’m here, I’ll just walk by the river. I like that. A walk in the rain.
Lastly we had some shock scenes last year as we always do in Thrones, obviously one containing yourself in particular. Are there shock scenes this year?
And how long more do you think the show can go on for? Obviously we need to wait for George to [finish writing the books].
I think everything is about seven seasons. I mean I don’t know for sure, but that’s what the writers are saying.
Would you be happy for it to end then at that stage or would you like to continue on for fourteen seasons?
No no no, I think they’re telling one story. I think they have a very clear idea of this as seven seasons. Seven Kingdoms, seven seasons.
Two more.
Two more, yeah.
A Second Chance is released in select cinemas from Friday 20th March. Game of Thrones Season 5 airs on Sky Atlantic starting April 13th.