Nikolaj Coster-Waldau has had quite the evolution in playing Jaime Lannister through seven seasons of HBO’s “Game of Thrones.” Season 7 featured Jaime finally questioning his relationship with Cersei for the first time, and finding out the truth of what happened to Joffrey. He has collected five Screen Actors Guild Award nominations as part of the show’s sprawling cast, and he is now hoping to earn his first Emmy nomination in a few weeks.
Coster-Waldau spoke with Gold Derby contributing writer Sam Eckmann in a video chat during the middle of filming on the final season of “Game of Thrones,” about Jaime’s journey throughout the series, what it’s like filming action vs. dialogue scenes, and what fans can expect from Season 8. Watch the exclusive video above and read the complete interview transcript below.
Gold Derby: Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, I’m talking here with, of course, Jaime Lannister of “Game of Thrones.” Thanks for sitting down with me. This show is sort of like no other right now and we’re nearing the tail end of this epic journey, with just one season left and the characters, at least the ones that have survived this long anyway, have all had this crazy transformation over these seven seasons so far, especially Jaime. I’m curious to know what for you has changed the most about him since the beginning?
Nikolaj Coster-Waldau: There’s been a couple of things on the way. I think the loss of his hand was a big defining moment. I think overall the undercurrent for him has always been, it goes back to the first thing he says in Episode 1, “The things I do for love,” which is about his whole life has been about his sister and he’s lived his life on his sister’s terms, if you will. I think the end of last season was a very, very big moment because I think for the first time he knowingly acted against Cersei’s wishes and he also, I think for a moment, saw her in a way like the rest of the world has seen her for some time, if that makes sense.
GD: Yeah, it does. Did you ever think back all those years you’d end up riding north to help the North men with that fight? Was that ever something that could’ve crossed your mind?
NCW: To be honest, you always look for little clues and then I think one of the great things about this show is that there are a lot of, also in Season 8, moments where you go, “Oh, I remember that in Season 2, Episode 3, that happened.” The tiniest of moments with Jon Snow in Episode 1, just says, “Good luck at the wall. We need great men like you.” Me and Kit Harington spoke about, “Surely at one point we’re gonna meet again. There must be some payoff.” And now at least he’s going north. So he’s trying to get up there. We’ll see if he makes it (laughs). You never know.
GD: You don’t. One of the things that I have been fascinated about with Jaime in terms of character changes is he sort of occupies this gray area oftentimes between hero and villain. He’s done some pretty awful things but then he’s done some redemptive things. Is that fun for you to play? Do you label him as one or the other?
NCW: No, I don’t see it like that. I think one of the great things about the show is you don’t really have heroes or villains, or when you think you have them, it kind of turns. I think one of the scenes that really captured that was last season, the whole loot train sequence where we have Daenerys, who’s the hero of the show so far, and then suddenly you understand why she attacks. There’s no question. It’s her right. But the brutality and the horror that she inflicts is kind of shocking and also what’s shocking, I guess, is the way they film it. They show it from the Lannisters’ perspective so you actually see the horror. Most other movies and films you wouldn’t have seen it from their perspective. You would have stayed up on the dragon, “Fuck ‘em all! Yeah! This is great! Destroy them.” But I think that is what the show is doing all the time. It’s so much to do about perspective and the fact is, none of us just good or bad and the same with these characters, and it’s really about what do you focus on? Who’s, if you will, the main attraction in this scene? And you can always, as with any conflict, any war, most of the time you can argue both ways, I think.
GD: Yeah, that battle was I think one of the most iconic moments of the show. How long does it take you to prepare for a scene like the loot train with so many stunt doubles?
NCW: We shot for a long time. We shot that in Spain in a place called Cáceres. It was complicated ‘cause there was a lot of things that had to join together. Obviously there was some horse training, quite a lot of horse training involved, but l loved it. Obviously we didn’t have the dragon, but everything else was there. I know they set a record for most guys on fire in one shot, it was 20 or 21, so when you stand there and you see that, it’s absolutely horrifying. Obviously you know, I think they count to 30 or something and they jump in with the fire extinguishers, but up until that point you see human beings on fire. It’s just horrible, which was great for us and for me, for when you shoot the scenes when you want to see Jaime’s reaction to this. Also the scene after when he comes back to Cersei, it made it so much easier for me to carry the knowledge of this horror. But to answer your question, it was a lot of prep and we have the best stunt guys and riders and you trust them. I never feel in danger.
GD: That’s good. And despite being a warrior, and you have a lot of great battle scenes over the course of the series, I often associate you with these great two-hander scenes. Something that “Game of Thrones” does really well is its dialogue. That’s what keeps people, or me anyway, coming back is because there’s so much emotion there, whether it’s with you and Gwendoline Christie or you and Jerome Flynn or Lena Headey, do you have a preference in acting over one of those areas? Do you prefer the action scenes or the more dramatic work?
NCW: Action without context is not interesting. I think that’s one of the things with the show is that you care with the loot train, you’re so invested with all those characters so you don’t want them to die. You don’t want this bad thing to happen. It’s telling a story about these characters in an extreme situation, which is a battle. I had some amazing scenes. I was very lucky in this season. I had a scene with Diana Rigg, her last scene on the show which is such a great two-hander. Also, as you said, you’ve heard about Jaime Lannister being this great soldier but most of the show he’s been failing, or you’ve seen him after he was captured or he goes off to save his daughter and he brings back her corpse. And finally, here you see him, you saw it last season as well. You see him doing what he does best and succeeding, out-maneuvering his brother and Daenerys and then basically going to this woman, who’s like the female version of his father. He has all the power so I didn’t have to play any of that and it was just a beautiful scene. But it’s because as you know, the ending, he thinks he’s done all the right things and he’s also given her and honorable death in a way. He’s been gracious getting her pills so she wouldn’t suffer and then she goes, “By the way,” and stabs him in the heart with the truth of Joffrey. First of all, she’s so amazing as an actress and it was beautifully written and it was fun, so to answer your question, as an actor, it’s different kinds of fun but creatively, doing those scenes, the two-handers, three-handers, I love them.
GD: I don’t think you’ve had just a two-hander with Diana Rigg before. So I’m curious, what’s you’re reaction when you read the script and you realize that you get to do that?
NCW: First of all, the story surprised me, and I love the fact that it surprised me and I love that fact because at the end of Season 6, you see the biggest army ever is arriving, and you go, “The Lannisters, they can’t win this.” And then you actually see that they can. They have a shot, up until that point when the dragon then goes crazy. But when I read it, it was just a great scene. It’s a power play. It was just a lot of layers and it was also a scene where a woman knows this world and she tells him something that he definitely does not wanna hear. She says that Cersei is gonna be the death of you. If you don’t wisen up, she’s gonna kill you. Which of course sets up beautifully the last scene of the show between Cersei and Jaime where Jaime thinks and then I think the audience for a second you go, “Is she gonna take him out? Is she gonna kill him now?” At the end of the day, I’ve been very, very lucky with the writing for Jaime. It’s complicated with these scenes because there are so many layers and then of course, so many things happen between the scenes because we have so many characters, we don’t have the time to follow them all the time so you have to make all these connections and all these adjustments between the scenes, but it’s fun.
GD: Well, speaking of you and Cersei, you and Lena work so well together and had so many great moments this season. There’s a lot of times where she makes moves to make your relationship public. She lets the servants see you guys in bed and she wants to let everyone know the baby is yours. Is there were you think the breaking point comes at for Jaime?
NCW: I think that what’s heartbreaking in the end is that she’s playing him. I think there is a little part of her that wants to embrace the romance and of course, they lost three children. Now she’s pregnant again. Could we regain what was lost? That’s a beautiful dream. At the same time, though, she used him in this whole endgame. She manipulated him into believing that love is stronger than anything and that he was her closest confidant. All those things which made him easy to manipulate. I think more than anything in the end, that really broke his heart. That she’s that cynical about everything. She’s just cynical, ‘cause it’s about power in her world.
GD: There’s so many layers specifically in the scenes we’re talking about and I asked how long it took to prepare for the loot train and a scene like that. Do you get any rehearsal time? What is your rehearsal process like for an actual dialogue scene?
NCW: We have rehearsal. It varies, but we’ll usually have rehearsal quite a long time before we actually shoot. It’s different with different actors. Me and Lena, because we’ve worked so long together and we know the characters so well, usually the rehearsals will be a very, very long intensive discussion, and we go through all the ins and outs and try to make sense of it and then we’ll put it up. We’ll do a very simple blocking. We won’t touch it until the day. But the thing is, the fun with those scenes and also now of course in what we’re shooting now is that you’ve built up so much information over all these years. I’ve never done anything that lasts. We started more or less to this day nine years ago with the pilot. You’ve had so much time with these characters. You spend so much time thinking about where, why. You feel like you know them so well. You’ve thought about all kinds of things. “How did that affect them that they grew up without a mother?” All those things that you take with you. And of course then when you do the scene, at least I am, just before you do it, you wanna forget everything. You don’t wanna come in with all this and wanna tell 28 stories in one go because you can’t.
GD: Having spent so much time with a character and now we’re off book, with the show getting ahead of George R. R. Martin’s novels, what was the most surprising turn for Jaime, something you didn’t expect based on everything that had happened before?
NCW: It’s that weird thing where you’re caught between what you hope for the character in a way, what I want him to do, and then what he does. I think that I’m more of a romantic than Dan [a.k.a. D. B. Weiss] and David [Benioff]. I kinda wanted him to just break out, just leave Cersei and she’s bad for you and it’s not healthy, and clearly you’re in a relationship where you are more in love with her than she loves you, and what about this Brienne of Tarth? I’m no different than anyone else, a hopeless romantic. But then, it totally, for me, makes complete sense the way they choose to tell the story after the books. Anyone who knows anything about any writing, adapting, it’s so difficult to adapt a novel, but then to also have to go off it, it’s quite an achievement, I think. But I wanted Jaime to do something else a long time ago and I’m so grateful that they didn’t, because he is defined by his relationship to Cersei. There’s no question about it. The interesting thing now, of course, going into 8, ‘cause now he’s left her, is this real? Does he mean it? Or was that in a moment of emotion? That thing where you’re so angry so you walk out, you’re never gonna come back and then 20 minutes later you go, “Oh. Hey can we talk about it?” He might be texting her, like, “Please. I’m sorry.” But who knows? That wasn’t a spoiler. I just find that interesting. I think that’s always been interesting. I find these characters so relatable. I can relate to these people, even though they are in this ridiculous crazy world with dragons and direwolves and magic and all that stuff. Ultimately that’s part of the reason people love the show. You can still identify with those moments, as you said, the two-handers and three-handers.
GD: Absolutely. well, as we come up on time here, I’m afraid to ask about Season 8 ‘cause I think HBO will probably send assassins after me if I spoil anything and I don’t want spoilers, but since you’re in the middle of it now, just to tease us, to leave with something, how would you describe Season 8 thus far in three words?
NCW: Three words. Surprising, enormous, heartbreaking.
GD: Surprising, enormous, heartbreaking. Let the internet run wild with that.
NCW: I could pick three other words as well. It could also be satisfying, shocking… and heartbreaking again, I think (laughs).
NCW: Let me put it this way. It’s a different animal now in a way, because it’s six episodes, right? And we spend more time shooting these six episodes than we did shooting two whole seasons before.
GD: Right, each one’s like a feature.
NCW: One episode was 73 days, so I mean, it’s crazy.
GD: Well that’s incredible. I think that’s all the time we have for you. I’ll let you get back.
NCW: Sorry about the internet connection. I think we made it through.
GD: We made it through and we’ll ponder those words you left us with and get ready for Season 8.
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