NIKOLAJ COSTER-WALDAU spent about a decade of his life playing Jaime Lannister, easily one of the 20 or 30 most central characters on the sprawling, money-minting HBO fantasy series Game of Thrones, and as of this past June, that is no longer his job. You’d assume somebody in that position would have some thoughts about what it means to go through that experience and have it end, and he does, in his own pragmatic, even-keeled, presumably classically Danish way. But right now he needs to make a decision about whether to accept the mushroom coffee.
“Is it going to get me high?” he asks.
“No,” says the dude doing the coffee-proffering, sort of apologetically. He’s management tier at a competitive ax-throwing range in North Hollywood; Coster-Waldau and I have just thrown hammer-sized single-blade axes at a wooden target for about as long as it’s possible to do that for fun. There’s a pending liquor-license application on the door—tell your god to ready for blood—but at the moment all Coster-Waldau wants is a hot drink, and all they have is anadaptogen-rich brew of ground-up Cordyceps mushrooms in water.
“It’s wild,” the dude says. “Caffeine usually has, like, a spike”—with his arm, he mimes energy going through the roof—“but this just feels like I’m in a good mood.”
Oh, perfect. That would be amazing,” Coster Waldau says. The guy goes off to make the coffee, which, when it arrives, is surprisingly drinkable despite existing in the uncanny valley between beverage and broth. You have to be careful when someone asks if you want mushrooms, Coster-Waldau points out. I ask Jaime Lannister if he’s heard about people microdosing psychedelics, and he has not. But the actor recently visited a retail-cannabis storefront for the first time and couldn’t believe it: “It’s like you are walking into an Apple store, and they just sell weed,” he says. “It used to be you’d do it in a parking lot, right?”
It’s not that Coster-Waldau particularly wants to talk about the ins and outs of buying drugs in ’90s Denmark. We’re just at a kind of impasse already. My job is to ask him questions about the final six episodes of Game of Thrones, which premiere on HBO in April, and one of the rules that come with his job is that he can tell me virtually nothing. He knows how it ends. He thinks the way it ends is fantastic. His last day on the Thrones set was a beautiful and emotional one. “I think I got some dust in my eye,” he says. When I ask him how the after-party was, all he’ll give up is that there were a few of them, there were a lot of people there, and they were—he takes time to choose this word carefully, as if the wrong one would give something away—“fun.”
Maybe the emotional component of this thing being over hasn’t hit him yet. Maybe it never will; he doesn’t know. “Maybe this fall, when we’re not going back to Belfast,” he says, “that’s when you go, Oh, I guess it really is over.”
The feeling he has is pride, he says, “that [show runners] D. B. Weiss and David Benioff stuck to their guns and said, ‘This is the story we wanna tell; we’re not gonna extend this’—because I’m sure HBO would have loved another couple years of this show. There’s an audience for it, for sure. But I think everyone who watches the show will appreciate that it’s finished—that it was one story from episode 1 to episode 83, and we told it.”
I ask Coster-Waldau if he’s ever thought, Ehh—I could have hung in for a few more years. He’s not sure.
“The last season was so intense,” he says.
One battle scene—Internet rumoir, for what it’s worth as regards a production as black-site uptight as Thrones has been, says it’s the battle for Winterfell—took around 50 cold, wet nights to shoot at three different locations.“It was brutal,” Coster-Waldau says, “but because it was the last season, it was like, Yes, we can do this.”
Coster-Waldau is 48 years old. His New Balances are Seinfeld white, and there’s a fair amount of gray in his sandy blond hair. He’d kicked around American movies for a while by the time Game of Thrones happened, playing war-film snipers and cheating husbands and the kind of guy who pulls a gun on Tom Cruise in a Tom Cruise movie. Even in smaller parts, he looked like a leading man who’d gotten lost on his way to something else, because in a sense that’s what he was. His very first film, the 1994 Danish thriller Nightwatch, in which he played a morgue security guard who discovers he’s the prime suspect in a serial-killer case, was a blockbuster that made him a pretty big deal in Denmark, and he dropped out of the English theatre school he’d enrolled in, figuring he was off and running already.
“But I did learn one thing, about being known for one part—and it’s gonna be interesting to see how the younger actors on Thrones are gonna navigate this—because for a good five, ten years in Denmark, every time I did anything, I was the guy from Nightwatch. As a young actor, it drove me crazy—like, Don’t put me in this box. I’m not the Nightwatchman. And of course that’s gonna happen with Game of Thrones. This whole concept of fame, it’s a completely empty shell made up of other outside forces. It has nothing to do with you. It will never have anything to do with you. You will just be there to fill some narrative that has nothing to do with you, and unless you keep that in mind, it’s going to drive you crazy.”
This is probably as good a time as any to note that in 1999, Coster-Waldau starred in Misery Harbour, an adaptation of early semi-autobiographical stories by the turn-of-the-19th-century Danish-Norwegian novelist Aksel Sandemose, whose legacy in Danish culture is the concept of janteloven. This ten-point code of ethics stresses community over individualism and is supposedly the reason the Danes are (again, supposedly) the happiest people in Europe despite being among the most-taxed people this side of Sweden. The first rule of janteloven is You’re not to think you’re anything special. The seventh rule is You’re not to think you’re good at anything. That’s somewhere in Coster-Waldau’s psychological makeup, he presumes, along with whatever else you get programmed with when you grow up in an extremely well-organized society peopled by former Vikings. This apparently makes you the kind of person who will tell you politely that he has to get up and pee, and if you don’t hear him say it because of ax-throwing background noise and proceed to your next question, he’ll sit there for a full minute and answer your entire question before getting up and saying, more firmly, “I’m dying to pee,” and only then will he go off to pee.
He is also very polite, but firm, when pestered further about what the last season might have in store for Jaime. “I can’t tell you anything about that,” he says, smiling. Then, after a beat: “He grows out his arm. His arm grows back.”
Finally, I say. I think fans have been waiting for that moment.
“Yes. It grows back,” he says, “but not in the way you think.”
Is it, like, a tentacle?
“It’s a claw,” he says. “It comes out as a claw. No—it’s a paw.”
Chances are this isn’t true. But a reckoning for Jaime Lannister does feel inevitable. When we first see Jaime at the beginning of the series’s run, he’s breaking janteloven all over the place by believing he’s extremely special and good at many things; by the end of the show’s penultimate season, he appears to finally be reconsidering his life-derailing allegiance to Lena Headey’s Cersei, who’s both his sister and the mother of his children, all of whom have died violently as a direct or indirect result of Cersei’s pursuit of the Iron Throne. He’s suffered mightily because of her, and inflicted mighty suffering on her orders. A Lannister always pays his debts; what that’s going to look like remains to be seen.
Jaime and Cersei’s affair—if that’s the right word, since we find out at one point that she’s the only woman he’s ever been with—is one of the most gallopingly crazy TV relationships of all time, but Headey and Coster-Waldau have always imbued it with improbable tenderness. Coster-Waldau says it’s because he’s never seen Jaime’s longing for Cersei as unusual except in its taboo particulars.
“I think most people have at least been attracted to someone you shouldn’t be,” he says. “Not your sister, but someone you really shouldn’t fall in love with. Like your best friend’s girlfriend. It’s one of the few true love stories in Game of Thrones—Jaime is dedicated to this woman.”
The easiest Lannister to root for is Peter Dinklage’s Tyrion, who overcomes a lifetime of internalised cruelties, summons undiscovered reserves of courage under pressure, and gets to swish all the show’s best lines around his mouth like swigs of fine Dornish red. The galaxy-brain Lannister to root for is Cersei, the only person on Game of Thrones who actually seems qualified to run a kingdom. But Coster-Waldau’s Jaime is the most relatable Lannister, the Lannister who keeps doubling down on previous bad decisions, the Lannister who’s just trying to find a way through a life of indignity, the Lannister who lives with the understanding that everything he’s believed in has failed him. They put Tyrion quotes on T-shirts because it’s fun to imagine becoming our best selves; the only Jaime Lannister quote anyone remembers is “There are no men like me—only me,” which is read by some as Wolverine-ishly badass but has always struck me as profoundly lonely. The most adult thing about Game of Thrones isn’t how bloody or raunchy the show is; it’s the fact that it’s a heroic-fantasy series whose heroes sometimes can do nothing but find an honourable way to play the lousy cards they’re dealt.
“He has not had a lot of success and joy in his life,” Coster-Waldau says of Jaime. “Everything he touches breaks.”
He liked the moment, a few seasons back, when Jaime finds the courage to tell his daughter that he’s her father. A real pitch for him to hit, as an actor. Of course, seconds later she dies, poisoned by one of Cersei’s enemies, because forget it, Jaime, it’s Westeros. If there’s one thing that’s been frustrating about the latest seasons of Thrones, it’s that the pressure to wrap up dozens of plot lines in impactful and Reddit-satisfying fashion hasn’t always left the characters much room to be introspective about seemingly major life transitions like all of their children dying.
“I’ve driven the writers crazy for exactly that reason,” Coster-Waldau says with a smile. “It’s the nature of the show that the story lines jump around, but couldn’t [Jaime and Cersei] discuss the fact that their last remaining child is dead, and now Cersei’s going to be queen? So much happens in between—you have to connect these dots as an actor and sometimes make pretty massive leaps. There’s a lot of bridges you have to build in your mind.
“By this time,” he says,“both David and D.B. have learned that actors can be emotional. But of course, my focus is just [on Jaime]. Their focus is on a hundred other actors. I have the luxury of focusing on this. I want them to sit for days and talk about this.
“What do you mean,” he says in a spoiled, extremely un-janteloven, preening-actor-guy voice, “you don’t have time to talk to me about Jaime? He’s the most important thing in the world.”
When Coster-Waldau first went in to read for Thrones, Benioff and Weiss couldn’t tell him everything about what they had in mind for Jaime, particularly once the show caught up with the narrative in the fantasy novels it’s based on. But they told him enough—right up through Jaime losing his hand, and by extension his identity as a swaggering swordsman, in an encounter with a gang of backwoods thugs. Coster-Waldau wasn’t put off by the idea of playing a character who closes out the series pilot by pushing a child out a window after he catches Jaime and Cersei in flagrante. He liked Jaime’s line in that moment: “The things I do for love.” How the line and the action cut against each other. He loves that contradiction. It’s what fascinates him about people.
“It’s very rare that you meet someone who completely, 100 percent walks the walk and talks the talk. Everyone has opinions about everything, but very few can actually live up to the ideals that they bestow on others. Right now we’re going through a time when people fuck [up]—and I’m not talking about criminal behaviour, just people being idiots. There’s no forgiveness. You crossed the line, buddy.
“We’ve had this, also, at home. There’s a song that is from 1800-something. It’s a beautiful song. I’m translating—‘The Danish Song Is a Young Blond Girl.’ And suddenly someone was offended because she was not young and she was not blond. You kind of go, What? For me, anyway, maybe it’s because I’m old and I’m insensitive, but I also think that there is a point where you have to—being offended is also a choice. You can choose not to be offended. Because if we don’t, if we constantly have to censor each other and ourselves, then that’s a scary future.”
This conversational turn is probably best understood as a cautionary tale about mushroom coffee. I change the subject. We talk a little more about the job, about what he wants to do next. He’s not overly concerned about finding some decisive, gestural way to put Jaime behind him, some transformative look-what-else-I-can-do kind of part. For what it’s worth, if you care to see Coster-Waldau do a totally credible 180, away from all things dragon-adjacent, you can see that happen in 2017’s Shot Caller, where he’s a white-collar bro who goes to prison after a DUI crash and rises through the ranks of a fearsome white-supremacist gang.
But that’s not the point. You are not to think you are anything special. Coster-Waldau has already shot one film since Thrones wrapped, and as soon as he’s done here, he’ll take a car to the airport and fly to Denmark to shoot another one. He’s not working this hard because he wants to put Jaime Lannister behind him. He’s working this hard so that he can take the summer off for the first time in a long time and spend it with his wife and his two daughters, who’ve grown up alarmingly fast while he’s been off fighting for the throne of a fictional kingdom. The work is a thing you do for love. There is nothing unusual about it, as he sees things.
This article originally appeared on Men’s Health