Nikolaj Coster-Waldau doesn’t spend a lot of time thinking through the relationship he’s asked to play on Game of Thrones. “I have two older sisters. I do not want to go there. It’s just too weird.”
Makes sense. After all, the Danish actor has for six seasons carried on an onscreen love affair with the actor playing his sister; the liaison between roguish Jaime Lannister and conniving Cersei Lannister has provided the show plenty of narrative thrust along with the bit of kink that makes the show such an original. For his part, Coster-Waldau just wants to know how it all ends: “I would definitely prefer to know what’s happening. But that’s just me.”
Coster-Waldau spoke to TIME in March for our cover story on Game of Thrones, whose seventh season premieres July 16; here’s an edited transcript of that conversation.
In your first episode, you try to kill a child by pushing him out the window. When you saw the script, did you hesitate at all?
No hesitation, no. I had a meeting with Dan and David and they told me what would happen with Jaime over the potential first three seasons. I thought it was very exciting, because it doesn’t get much darker than what happens in episode 1. Having sex with his sister and then he tries to kill an innocent boy: It’s very dark. So clearly, you would think, this is the villain. I was very interested in the reasons why he’d do it — the whole cliché of does the end justify the means. The journey from that moment until season 3 where there’s a scene with him and Brienne where he tells her the truth of why he became the Kingslayer. It’s a very interesting arc and, especially [with his] identity crisis, losing the hand that defines him in the public eye. There’s so many things going on for Jaime that it’s pretty messed up, so that’s always fun.
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How did losing the hand affect your performance — including the CG aspect?
I think it was episode 1 or 2 in season 4 when his sister made him a golden hand, and that was a moment of relief for me and for everyone. Because those episodes in season 3 where I had the stump, I think I had three different prosthetic stumps I would have to wear, and I would have to put my own hand down my crotch or my crack. They had to hide it and it just became complicated. And obviously in the bath scene, there was a prosthetic build onto my arm, so it was also very costly. There was a lot of logistics. When you have the golden hand, he had a couple fights, and that became a whole different thing — learning to use my left hand. I’m right-handed myself, so it was a challenge. Of course for him, the character, it was more interesting, because it was the identity thing, the one thing he’s always been good at was he’s a very good soldier. He can always use that leverage in any kind of situation. He can also get away with being a bit of a dick, an arrogant idiot. At the end of season 3, he finally comes back to his sister, the look she gives him is — clearly she’s not that excited about the stump. And if he was hoping for any kind of support or love from her, that was never going to happen.
The ground has really shifted under his feet — things that used to work for him don’t. And he’s not very good, compared to his siblings, at being an operator.
His life has been lived on Cersei’s terms. His whole life has been close to this woman: how do I serve her, how do I keep this secret. It’s all been about her and it still is, but now, I think he comes to a point when he suddenly has to rethink that way of life. As you say, he’s not very good at navigating the political world of Westeros. He’s never been interested, he’s never had respect for that, he’s not his father in that capacity. Having said that, he does understand the military part of that equation, because he’s a soldier and he has respect for life. I know that sounds silly to say — he’s killed a lot of people.
There was a great scene last year when he was sent on this stupid mission to reclaim Riverrun and I guess the futility of it was so obvious. But I thought the way he handled that was very interesting. He used his reputation, if you will, as leverage to convince Edmure to surrender. That’s what he’s learned these last few seasons — what it means to be a father and that bond. Of course it was taken away from him the second he felt it.
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What is it like working with Dan and David? How much of their vision do they convey to you, in terms of the grand sweep of the plot?
In the first three seasons, I loved that I had a very clear, specific goal, because I knew if we made it through those three seasons I was heading for that bath scene with Brienne. But now they’re very secretive. You will get the scripts for [one season at a time] beforehand. But if you survive that season, I have no idea what happens the next season. They know — and there are so many people involved and so much focus on this show — there are already leaks and they didn’t want any more leaks and I understand that. But I would definitely prefer to know what’s happening. But that’s just me.
You must just flip through scripts to make sure you don’t end up on the wrong end of a sword.
It’s good that the scripts are sent to us as a PDF. You can use the “find” button very quickly to see where you’re at. And then you read the whole thing. We’re all going to die eventually. We’ll see what happens in season 7, but now that you’re this close… I remember speaking to Lena about this every season, we would be surprised if we survived another year, and then another year went by. It would be, “Well next year is the one, because there’s no way they’re going to keep us around,” and then they did, and then last season, it was the thing where we said, “Oh God, I hope we get to do one more season, because I’m just so curious to see what happens.”
What’s interesting is that they evolved so much over the years. After we went off book, and this season is the first truly off-off-off, they’ve become much more protective over the story and script. I think now they feel this is truly theirs now, and it’s not to be tampered with.
What does “protective” look like?
I guess I can be a pain in the butt. I have suggestions like an annoying actor and I have questions. I’ve just sensed this last season that this is their baby: ‘Just say the words as they’re written, and shut up.’ Which is absolutely fine. I respect that! And obviously, what they write is not bad, it’s really good. It was a very significant shift.
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So it was okay to make suggestions before?
Well, I guess they just tolerated it, like “Okay, all right.” This season, they were just like, “No, no, no.” Which is cool! But as this actor, you are fighting for every… It’s a funny thing because you’d think at this point you know everything. Even though you’ve played this guy for seven years, you’re starting over every season.
It must be exciting to no longer be tied to the books — and for the show to be totally its own thing for the first time.
With the other seasons, there’s so much love of the books that there was this constant discussion in the fan community about if we lived up to the brilliance of the books or how horrible a job we did. It’s just been wonderful — not wonderful, but it’s been interesting that even still, they haven’t left the show and the show seems more popular than ever before and that’s down to Dan and David and the writing. I’ve never in a million years thought that I would connect with an audience like Game of Thrones because they’re so passionate, and they know so much, and they know the mythology, and they can tell me what happened a thousand years before the show started, because that’s when my great-great-great-great-great-grandfather fought this guy… it’s amazing! Obviously it’s down to George R. R. Martin creating this world. I’m just very grateful to have had that experience because you meet so many people that are so passionate about the show and part of me is, like, it’s my job! It’s one of many jobs! But anyway, I don’t know what I’m talking about.
It must put a certain amount of pressure on you all that fans know so much of the history and want to know so much of the plot before it airs — presenting a whole new set of challenges.
You’re absolutely right. But the funny thing is, this season, probably all the scripts leak and are out there online somewhere. You have some tiny fraction of people who will devour all the information and come up with theories based on that information and they will really find out whatever they can. I believe that 99.99 percent don’t care and don’t want to know. And that’s really it. And a lot of it is also HBO being very good at just giving enough information to keep the spin going. Those fans do produce a lot of mileage online.
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How did you build the particular chemistry you have with Lena, who plays your sister and your lover?
We’ve had conversations all along. The funny thing is we’re very, very different in the way we approach it. The way we work, everything is different. For me, we talked about the backstory. They’ve been together their whole lives. This is truly a 30-year romance that you can’t just walk away from. It’s not like you go, “Oh, my God, this is it, you’ve crossed the line.” And that’s what’s interesting. And I think at the core they still have an attraction to each other. Which is obviously really weird when you think about it. I’ve never really gone too deep into the whole sister-brother thing because I can’t use that information. I have to look at her as the woman he loves and desires. Lena’s a very good actress, and that’s kind of what carries the whole thing.
If you stop to think too hard about the nature of it…
There’s a distance. And you don’t want that distance in there. I have two older sisters. I do not want to go there. It’s just too weird.
There was some controversy a few seasons ago over—
Yes, the sept where Joffrey was lying in state, and what many viewers read as the non-consensual sex between Cersei and Jaime. What did you take away from that experience — did the controversy reach you?
Oh yeah, it reached me. It was difficult to avoid. Sometimes, things just take on a life of their own. Most people who saw the scene, it was messed up. We knew it was messed up. This is weird, pushing all of the wrong buttons, if you will, because there’s a dead son and they’re having sex. That’s fu-ked up. That was also what I thought was really interesting and made sense to me. They’d been estranged for a while — there was so much pain, there was so much anger, there was so much need for each other that it became this. Throughout their lives, they’ve had to grasp these moments of very passionate intimacy when they could. That way of expressing the need they had for each other. We didn’t think of this as a rape. The fact that suddenly it became one of these things. Online, it can take on a life of its own. [People say] “Rape,” and then someone says, “No, it’s not rape!” and then the counter becomes, “Oh, so you’re pro-rape!” And then you go, okay, I guess we’ll just step away from this.
It became about the whole idea about whether you should show rape on TV or film or whether you should not, and that’s a discussion to be had, sure, but it took it away from what we thought we did. I do remember saying “This could be interpreted,” but we never thought it would go that extreme. It’s happened a couple of times on the show — certain scenes explode while other scenes do not. In season 1, there’s the scene where Ned Stark has to kill one of the direwolves, and there was an outrage — how can you show the killing of a direwolf? Which is funny in itself because it doesn’t exist, it’s a fantasy animal. No one mentioned the scene after you see the Hound riding to town with a dead boy draped over his horse. No one thought that was disgusting. The same with our scene, which was actually provoking — thought-provoking. Uncomfortable to watch Jaime and Cersei. But two scenes after, you have wildlings attacking this village and you have a crazy man grabbing a boy and saying “I’m going to kill your mama and your papa.” It was truly traumatizing for that kid, but no one thought that was too much. My point is, I find it very difficult to anticipate what scenes people would discuss the most afterward.
Jaime had gone through this story also with Brienne, and we all wanted Jaime in a way to go with Brienne! She’s a good woman, she has all the right morals, and she’s perfect for you! Don’t you see it! You idiot, you fool! And then he goes and has sex with his sister in front of the corpse of Joffrey, that’s just disgusting! That was part of it… people felt let down by this. That’s not how it’s supposed to go down; it’s not supposed to be like that.
So it’s one of the complicated, risky elements that makes Game of Thrones the show that it is.
Well, it wouldn’t be the same show then. From season 1 with the killing of Ned Stark, that’s the nature of the show. And I still believe that that scene — even how messed up it was — was still true to those characters in a very disturbing way. What can I say? But I want people to remember it’s not real. It’s a story.
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