Nikolaj Coster-Waldau – Headhunters Q&A
Right now, Nikolaj Coster-Waldau is one of Denmark’s most in-demand actors.
Currently starring in Season 2 of HBO fantasy saga Game of Thrones, as the brutal Jaime Lannister, the 41 year-old actor now features in Morten Tyldum’s Headhunters, a gripping adaptation of the crime novel by Norwegian literary sensation Jo Nesbø, in which he plays Clas, a relentless tormentor to Aksel Hennie’s ruthless businessman-cum-art thief. If that wasn’t enough, he’s just completed the Guillermo Del Toro-produced horror Mama, alongside Jessica Chastain, and is now in the States shooting a sci-fi with Tom Cruise – currently titled Oblivion – from Joseph Kosinski, the director of Tron: Legacy. While it’s not the first time the 6ft 2in Dane has experienced big-budget films – his past credits include Ridley Scott’s Black Hawk Down and Kingdom of Heaven – there’s definitely a sense that he is now becoming a major European star. Below, Coster-Waldau talks about what drew him to Headhunters, why he thinks Scandinavia has suddenly become a hotbed for crime stories and how surprised he was at the success of Game of Thrones.
Q: You get to play the alpha male in Headhunters…
A: Yes, he’s an extreme alpha male. Though Aksel’s character Roger is also an alpha male. And I guess for him, he wants to see himself as the alpha male. He’s this guy full of insecurities, but when he meets Clas, it’s like it’s his superior.
Q: So was that fun to enact?
A: Yes, it has that heightened sense of reality. When I read the script, I guess I had the same feeling as when I first saw the movie with an audience. When you get to that scene with the toilet, when Roger dives into the pool of shit, that’s when you realise ‘It’s OK to laugh’. It’s got that extra bit of craziness. Also like Clas, he’s ridiculously well dressed and also an ex-elite soldier. He’s everything Roger isn’t. The funny thing is, it’s about a guy finding his true inner self. But I love the fact that he has to go through shit to get to that.
Q: Was there a lot of testosterone on the set between you and Aksel Hennie?
A: Well, in reality, Aksel is an alpha male! He’s the guy who will do crazy things; he will climb up a building! He’s very well cast as Roger Brown. He’s an over-achiever, for sure.
Q: Did you know him from the past?
A: I knew of him, because in Scandinavia, he’s Norway’s biggest film star, so I knew of him.
Q: And you’re from Denmark, so there must be some sort of Danish-Norwegian rivalry going on?
A: The funny thing is the rivalry has always been between Denmark and Sweden. Norway also used to be part of Denmark. But the thing with the Norwegians, they’ve left us back in the dust! They found the oil! They are so confident up there. They don’t feel the need to compete with us, because we can’t really compete anyway.
Q: How do you explain this sudden wave of Scandinavian crime thrillers?
A: Well, we’ve had these TV shows that have done really well internationally now, and I think there are different reasons. With the television and the films in Denmark, it’s been a very conscious effort. Whatever division that used to be between doing film and TV has been erased. You do get the best of both worlds joining forces. So when you do shows like The Killing or Borgen, you have the best directors going in and doing two or three episodes. So I think that’s part of it.
Q: Why has it been crime that has taken off as a genre?
A: I guess that maybe it’s because these are very civilised countries – very well regulated. They have all these Twin Peaks-like perfect worlds. You remember The Celebration? Thomas Vinterberg’s movie…that whole thing, you have the perfect façade, and then underneath you have all the rotten disorder. And it happens every month, you hear about something horrible. In Denmark, it still continues to shock people that it could actually happen in Denmark.
Q: Could it have anything to do with the gloomy winters that Scandinavia has?
A: Maybe! To be honest, I don’t know why. Everything comes in waves, and I guess now it’s just that wave. It’s probably going to ebb out in a few years.
Q: How popular is Jo Nesbø back home?
A: In Norway, he’s like a national hero. He’s very read. His Harry Hole series is brilliant. He’s very successful.
Q: Had you read his books before you did this?
A: No, I hadn’t read any of his books. Of course, I’ve read a couple now. And he’s very good at creating these twists and turns. The thing about him is you can tell, when you read him, that he’s having fun writing his stuff. It comes to him very easily – the bastard! He’s like an alpha male as well! Everything he’s done has been successful. Headhunters I think he wrote because he wanted to have a break from writing the Harry Hole books.
Q: How close do you think the adaptation is from the book?
A: Well, it’s close. But still there are some significant changes, especially with the third main character – his wife, Diana. They made some changes there. But something just happens when you see it, instead of reading it. In the book, she was much more a tool of Clas. Clas really used her a lot more to gain contact with Roger. Now it’s more Clas who is doing all of it. In the book, they had more of a relationship.
Q: Did you have access to Jo at all?
A: I met him. I didn’t really ask him too much about the character. It’s like with Game of Thrones. I met George R. R. Martin as well, but I don’t know what to ask him. What we do is the script, and that’s what you have to focus on – for me anyway. Otherwise, you get confused.
Q: The film has a crazy energy to it. It truly is a rollercoaster ride. Did it feel like that?
A: Well, it felt like that when I read the script. I didn’t have that feeling…of course you never know if you’ll be able to do that…but if there is one thing we don’t have in Scandinavian cinema is much money. We only had 38-40 days to shoot it, and with action you need a lot of shots. Compare this to America, the unions are very strong in Norway, so you have fewer hours to shoot. So that was the only thing…I wondered ‘Are we able to get enough shots?’ But all the credit goes to the director and the DP – they did an amazing job. It doesn’t look like a cheap film.
Q: What did you like about your character?
A: I like the fact that…usually in Scandinavian movies, we have a need to explain people’s behaviour. There will always be that ‘he came from a broken home’ or whatever it is. But here it’s more this is the guy, and he’s the sum of his actions, and I thought that was refreshing. So I just thought that the whole thing had a great energy. Then of course you cross your fingers and hoped for the best.
Q: Where you there when Aksel had to do the scene buried in the sewage?
A: Oh, yes. I was there. First of all, it was horribly cold. And they had this big tank of shit made out of Nescafé and cereals! Then they had one of those heaters you have when you go camping, and they tried to heat it up! They managed to break the ice and poor Aksel had to jump in and out, in and out. But he did it, and for some weird reason, I think he has a perverted love for stuff like that. He likes to prove himself. And we shot that in late October in Norway – we had frost everywhere.
Q: What was the toughest scene for you to film?
A: I didn’t have anything that was tough. It was more fun! Watching him suffer! He really suffered. I was cosy in my trailer! It wasn’t tough, it was a lot of fun.
Q: How would you rate Morten as a director?
A: I think he’s really good. You can’t make movies like that unless you know what you’re doing. I don’t know how they make those action sequences, because you really have to be so specific with your techniques. His whole team, they’ve worked together for many years. And sequence where the lorry hits the cop car, and it goes over the edge…they had this rig built where they could flip this car, and they had these twins in there…they shot a whole day with these twins hanging upside down…
Q: The twins are great in the film…
A: Yes, the twins are great and it took forever to find them and they came from way out in the countryside in Norway. They found these guys and they’d never done anything like this, and they found themselves wedged in a car, hanging upside down, and their faces were getting redder and redder! They were like ‘We need a break!’ and then they came down.
Q: So going back to Morten…
A: Yes…at the same time, he’s an experienced director, so he allowed us to do what we felt like doing. He wasn’t controlling us. So I have a lot of respect and admiration for him.
Q: You’ve managed to get a nice balance between European and American productions. Has that been by design?
A: Well, a lot of luck, for sure. Ever since I was a kid, I always wanted to be an actor. I always wanted to work in England. To me, English actors were the best. They were the ones that I admired the most. Mostly on British television. There were so many actors you saw, and I loved watching these shows on the BBC. Back then, it was what we wanted Danish television to be. But there were also American actors [I loved]. So already when I went to drama school in Denmark, I applied to Bristol Old Vic and I was accepted. After I finished drama school in Denmark, I had my first job, which was the movie called Nightwatch – which was then remade with Ewan McGregor. And then I started in Bristol at the Old Vic, and I was there for less than two weeks, and I ran away! Well, it was a good plan, I think. The plan was, if I want to work in England, I had to learn the language, and if I want to learn the language, what better way than going to drama school and do nothing but focus?
Q: So you didn’t speak any English then?
A: Well, I spoke English but it was what I’d learnt at school. But then I also realised I wanted to act, I wanted to work, and you can’t learn to become an actor. I believe that you have to do it; that’s how you learn the craft anyway, if there is such a thing. So I stayed here, and then I went home and did some work, then I came back. And then they were going to re-do Nightwatch and I got a call from Ewan McGregor’s agent, and I signed up with that company…and suddenly I got a job on the movie Bent, the Clive Owen movie. I found myself in Glasgow making out with Clive Owen, and Mick Jagger hanging in a trapeze with rubber tits singing ‘Streets of Berlin!’ It was a great experience, and I thought ‘I can actually get a job doing this’.
Q: Were you originally going to be in the Nightwatch remake?
A: No, it’s just that Ewan’s agent saw the movie and liked me. We were in the same role. I then worked with him five years later on Black Hawk Down, and he made me promise not to watch the movie – the remake. He didn’t have a good experience with that. The mistake they made was that the director of the version I was in also directed the remake. And then he was too close to the original, so he was trying to re-do it shot for shot. Ewan said he would show him my performance and say ‘That’s what I want’ and I would die if that was done to me.
Q: Headhunters has been picked up for a Hollywood remake. How do you feel about that?
A: Well, it’s great. For Nesbø and the company that made it, it’s a great situation because the fact is, no matter what, our film has a release in April in the States.
Q: At least if the remake does well, American audiences might then discover the Norwegian original of Headhunters…
A: Maybe. But I think it’s more the fact that it’s good publicity for Headhunters in Europe and Scandinavia, and they can make a bit more money out of it!
Q: It also keeps the Scandinavian crime cycle going…
A: Yes. In fact, I’m sure there will be a lot of fantasy television in the next couple of years because of Game of Thrones. I’m just guessing.
Q: Are you amazed at how popular Game of Thrones has become?
A: Yeah. It’s a pleasant surprise, because it’s very extreme. It’s HBO – well, all their shows, they really commit themselves and to do something like Game of Thrones, it’s a very expensive show to shoot. It’s got the biggest cast of any show, I think. And this season, we shot in three different countries. I can’t imagine anyone else being able to pull that off really.
Q: What is it you like playing about that character?
A: My character? Well, Episode 1 ends with him shagging his sister, then a boy walks in and he says ‘the things I do for love’ and pushes the boy out of the window. It was a great start! I thought ‘Wow, that’s a great start for any character!’ I didn’t know much about fantasy. I only had those pre-conceived opinions that are never very good. Everything is black-and-white and you have heroes and bad guys. Whereas here, in Headhunters, they’re all human and very selfish, as we all are.
Q: You’ve just finished Season 2. Is there a Season 3 on the way?
A: Well, we all hope. But we don’t know. I’m sure some people have decided, but we’ll wait and see.
Q: So I assume you can’t talk about what happens in Season 2 or I’d be stabbed with a big sword?
A: Yes, there are a couple of journalists that have been killed already!
Q: Was it as fun to film second time around, though?
A: Yes, it’s a great bunch of people. I’ve got a ridiculous respect for British actors and to get to work with all these people was brilliant. Plus also, it really is good writing, and three-dimensional. You get to understand why the characters behave the way they do and it makes sense, even though you might find it repulsive at times.
Q: You’re also heading out to Hollywood for Oblivion…
A: Yes, it’s a great script by William Monahan, from a story by Jo Kosinski and Barry Levine. But it’s a very good script. I like any good script, but the thing about sci-fi, it raises these existential questions about life.
Q: It’s about people living in the clouds. So does it have an environmental message?
A: No. Yes. Maybe! But it’s going to be a great experience. It’s a ridiculously big movie. It’s a Tom Cruise movie, so it’s going to be interesting to experience that. We’re shooting in New Orleans, so I can’t wait to go!
Q: And you’re also in Mama with Jessica Chastain?
A: Yeah, it’s a ghost story. It was a lot of fun. And clearly she’s extremely talented. She’s probably going to make me look like shit! She’s had a good year! But I’m not complaining.
Nikolaj Coster-Waldau's new film Headhunters is out on April 6, but we managed to grab tickets to the press release at Showroom. Our verdict is here.