Though he's probably best known as the "Kingslayer" Jaime Lannister on the hit HBO swords and sorcery series Game of Thrones, Danish actor Nikolaj Coster-Waldau has been a respected actor in world cinema since his breakout performance in the 1994 film Nightwatch. That film was remade in 1997 starring Ewan McGregor, but Coster-Waldau would soon return to Hollywood's radar in 2001 working with McGregor again in Black Hawk Down.
He's continued to balance work in Hollywood and important world films throughout his career. Speaking via phone from Seville, Spain, where he is currently shooting season five of Game of Thrones, Coster-Waldau reveals his personal connection to his latest indie/world film by Norwegian director Erik Poppe. In 1,000 Times Good Night, Coster-Waldau plays the husband of a war photographer whose passion for her work tears her family apart.
The film is based on Poppe's own experiences as a war photographer. Though Coster-Waldau admits his job as an actor is hardly as noble, as a married father of two, he can relate to the strain on family life that comes with sacrificing for one's career. "I'm certainly not saving the world," he says with a laugh, "but I am following my passion, which is pursuing my acting, and of course there's a price to pay in my home life, in my family life."
The 44-year-old actor says his personal lessons and empathy for his wife and two daughters informs being on the opposite side of the dynamic, as his character, Marcus, must stay home with two daughters while his wife, Rebecca, played by the noted French actress Juliette Binoche, enters war zones, risking her life to tell stories few dare tell. The film opens with her photographing the ritual of a woman preparing to sacrifice herself as a suicide bomber in Kabul, Afghanistan. Rebecca's urge to get close to the action leads to her almost losing her life, and it drives home a reality check felt more by the family than the photographer.
At first, when Poppe asked him to be in the film, the actor thought he would play the photographer, but he was pleasantly surprised by Poppe's decision to reverse the roles.
"I thought that's actually better because if you make a movie about a guy that does that, then he's a hero in a war zone because he's sacrificing his life and he's putting himself in danger for the greater good, and he's saving the world, and you don't really question the fact that he's leaving a family behind," notes Coster-Waldau. "But because it's a wife and a mother, it's a whole different [dynamic] because I guess it has this whole stigma and what does it mean to be a mother and the fact that she would put herself in harm's way when she has kids just raises so many questions."
Furthering that, the film takes its time to present a tension between the couple. Marcus dreads his wife's decisions to enter in harm's way but also does not want to interfere with the work she loves so dearly. "He loves this passionate woman," explains Coster-Waldau. "He loved that he created a family with her, but because of what she does, there's a constant undercurrent of anxiety and of fear and of uncertainty that is confirmed when she gets into the explosion, and he says there's no way he can do it. He can't go back to that feeling, that life, and I think that it's heartbreaking."
The film demands some subtle acting, as the characters often suffer in silence, though there are also some dramatic arguments that explode from repressed feelings and resentments. Coster-Waldau says he was grateful to work with Binoche, who he says invested a lot in her role. "She's one of the hardest working actresses I've ever worked with. She will keep digging to find the essence of the scene, the truth of the moment, and I learned a lot from her," he says.
He clarifies that the lessons he learned from Binoche, who is six years his senior, were never explicit, but came from merely observing and working with her. "It's just to keep an open mind all the time, to keep questioning motivations, reasons for doing what our characters do. It's stuff that's easy to forget sometimes because we all as actors want to solve the scene," he explains. "Sometimes you can't do this quickly. It takes time, and Juliette was really good at allowing herself to take her time, even though it could be painful, and it always turned out better."
Coster-Waldau describes a deep, focused working relationship. He explains that when they met on set, they were already in character, and all they ever spoke about while making the film was their characters. It never seemed like he had a fan boy moment with Binoche, although she's an Oscar-winning actress with countless notable roles to her name. "We would just come on set and became our two characters," he says. "It would be a very easy way of working with someone, and then when we wrapped, we actually started talking as human beings."
He admits a sensitivity to the idea of celebrity, having recently found a new version of it with his role in Game of Thrones. He understands part of his career is indebted to the brand, so he is quite diplomatic when expressing his opinions about his new notoriety.
"Oh, I think it's a weird thing," he admits. "I think just the word 'celebrity,' it's all changed over the years, the last 15, 20 years. Now, here in Spain, there's a huge, passionate following about the 'Game of Thrones.' They love it. There's a lot of fans that follow the show. They follow us, and there's the culture of the selfies and the culture of now including themselves. It's not really real until there's a picture somewhere. It's interesting. I don't know, I guess celebrity is a weird word that I would rather not have after my name," he adds with a laugh. "I'm an actor. That whole world is something that I try to stay away from as much as I can."
He does it in practice as well. He admits that he's a big fan of U2, but when he met U2 drummer Larry Mullen Jr., who has a supporting role in 1,000 Times Good Night, he had to contain himself a bit.
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"The first time, I met him at a restaurant in Dublin. It was just for the cast," he explains. "I just knew there was a Larry. I didn't know he was the drummer from U2, and then once we started eating, I didn't really think about it because he's just a guy, and then finally we started talking, and I put one and one together. It was pretty weird. I tried not to ask about U2 stuff because you don't want to be that guy, but I'm a huge, huge fan, so it was a battle to not ask him stupid questions."
Follow Hans Morgenstern on Twitter @HansMorgenstern.