When Nikolaj Coster-Waldau first encountered fame, he did his best to outrun it.
“I had this weird success in Denmark, but I didn’t stick around to enjoy it,” the 42-year-old actor says of the celebrity that came with his 1994 Danish hit Nightwatch. “I wouldn’t have known how.”
Almost 20 years later, he still doesn’t seem entirely comfortable with stardom, in spite of his own steadily increasing visibility.
In January Coster-Waldau shared the screen with Jessica Chastain in the thriller Mama, and soon he’ll costar with Tom Cruise in the sci-fi nail-biter Oblivion and will play opposite Juliette Binoche in A Thousand Times Good Night. And then there’s the March premiere of the hotly anticipated third season of Game of Thrones, the hit HBO fantasy series in which Coster-Waldau plays the seductively sinister Jaime Lannister.
The show’s coming season, he says, is the reason he signed up to play the aristocratic, bloodthirsty and incestuous Lannister in the first place.
“I came on hoping we would get to shoot season three, because so many great things happen to my character,” Coster-Waldau explains. “Something I love about the show is that in all lives, people face preconceived notions. They might be positive or negative, but rarely does it match the way we see ourselves.”
That’s especially true for Lannister. “It’s very clear he lives in a world where everyone has a very negative opinion of him and they fear him,” he says. “And none of it has anything to do with the way he sees himself. More of that is revealed in this season.”
And despite being a welcome guest in millions of homes on Sunday nights, Coster-Waldau has trouble recognizing his accomplishments.
“I still don’t know what ‘making it’ means,” the married father of two admits. “But I’m working.” And that’s been the plan for as long as he can remember.
“I always wanted to be an actor,” he says. He left home at 17 and moved to Copenhagen, where he attended the National Theater School. After graduation, Coster-Waldau went to England, where he enrolled in and promptly dropped out of the Bristol Old Vic Theatre School and did his best to lose his Danish accent.
“I moved to London and stayed with my sister, and we made a rule that we couldn’t speak Danish to one another, and for two years we didn’t,” he says. “I also got work back home, so I’d go there to do a project and then come right back.”
One such project was Nightwatch, a thriller about a young man working the graveyard shift in a morgue. The movie hit it big, and an English-language version was put into development, helping Coster-Waldau find an agent and land meatier roles. “It was then I got my first big job, a movie called Bent that had me making out with Clive Owen,” he recalls. “The movie was beautiful and very intense. That’s how it all started.”
Steady work followed, including a starring role on Fox’s short-lived 2008 series New Amsterdam, about an immortal New York City cop, and, beginning in 2011, Game of Thrones and the rush of roles that have come since. He’s even taken a turn as a playwright, recently staging a reading of Cardamom, a play he penned, in Dublin. It’s a long way from a small town in Denmark, dreaming of a career in movies.
“It sounds great when you describe it like that,” Coster-Waldau says with a laugh, “but you don’t want to get carried away.”