“What happened to your hands?” the makeup artist asks, pointing at a set of marks reminiscent to that of an impromptu fight with a cat.
“Yeah, it happened when I was on a horse this weekend. It’s been some time since I saddled up, and I just ripped my skin to shreds,” Nikolaj explains in-between making a cup of coffee,
“Does this have something to do with Game of Thrones?”
“Yeah, actually. Filming starts tomorrow, but I shouldn’t really be talking details with anyone,” he grins boyishly. And so it goes, conducting an interview with the man behind Jaime Lannister amidst the throttle of an announcement stating the next Game of Thrones’ season premier has been postponed, and he’s skirting questions with even the likes of the makeup artist. The iPhone record button hasn’t even been tapped, and all hopes that secrets will spill on the outcome of Jaime and the lot are gone like the trimmings of Jaime’s pre-photo shoot haircut. Season 7 spoilers may be off the table, however, details on the actor’s thoughts on portraying Jaime Lannister are not. But before we get to that, we need to turn back time – back to 1976, to be precise. Everything has a beginning, and Nikolaj’s – or at least the actor within him – starts with two men, each by the name of Ole. Ole Ritter and Ole Olsen, both of whom were Danish sports stars at the time and reserved as idols to the young Nikolaj:
“I was one of those kids who was always trying to get attention in whatever way possible, so I started doing voices. Ole Olsen in particular had a very recognizable regional Danish dialect, so as this little six year-old boy I ran around doing impressions of the man to anyone that would listen. It got people laughing,” he recalls, forming a huge grin.
Years later, Once Upon a Time in America rolled over the TV screen on repeat, and it plucked a chord with the then teenage Nikolaj. The impersonations he performed as a kid met the hefty acting talent of Robert De Niro as David ‘Noodles’ Aaronson, and for the first time, he thought, ‘Okay, I could be an actor.’
“I saw that gangster film from New York, and it was just so far away from the small Danish village of Tybjerg with 40 people I was growing up in,” Nikolaj explains, “and it was that movie that made me realize I wanted to explore worlds outside of my own.”
At the age of 17, Nikolaj managed to get out of that quaint village – pleasant as it may have been – and move into a shared house in Copenhagen. He signed up for a weekly drama class taught by a British transplant – a decision dedicated to prepare for what he knew was the real test: entrance performances for The Danish National School
of Theatre. Mercilessly, the school separated the wheat from the chaff, but Nikolaj found his spot at the reading table on his first try. Surprising news to his mother, she didn’t even know that he had applied.
“I’m sure I said that I wanted to be an actor, but I didn’t say that I had applied. You could put this down to a sort of superstition, something to do with not saying things out loud. I put a lot of pressure on myself, and if you say there’s something you want to do, then it becomes sort of binding, and then it’s jinxed,” Nikolaj adds, kneeling down so the makeup artist can fix his hair without having to stand on the tip of her toes. But if there was one thing his mother did know, this was a guy who had a knack for telling stories.
“We all have that desire to have our stories heard – everyone feels that way, I guess, and the best ones are those that strike a chord somewhere inside, and the audience ends up taking the story with them and inserting it into their own lives.” For Nikolaj, failure to capitalize on such an opportunity isn’t an option.
“Film can show us how the experience of being human is so universal, which is rather magical. That is, regardless of where you are, basic human emotions aren’t really so different, so there’s something incredibly strong about examining what it means to be human, and that is enormously interesting.”
THE MANY LIVES OF NIKOLAJ
The world has seen him as Andreas, Martin, Mark… and of course Jaime, just to name a few. Nikolaj has become accustomed to disappearing in and out of characters. The many lives he has “lived” would make the average Joe dizzy just thinking about it, but does he find it hard to let go of the many fates he has portrayed?
“No, I don’t feel that way about it. It’s only a job after all. Of course it can affect you if you have some scenes that are extremely emotional, but I know how to let go at the end of the day,” Nikolaj says while digging around for a nut in the bowl in front of him. Some films are harder than others – and some are more challenging. It’s one thing to steer a horse or fight with a heavy sword in your left hand, but it’s something else to play a man who has lost everything.
“It was hard, mentally, to star in Susanne Bier’s A Second Chance, where my character lost both his new-born baby and his wife. Every day was so draining; it felt like I was drowning in depression. It’s much less tiring to take on physical roles rather than ones that require an emotional performance,” Nikolaj maintains, looking down at his hands again.
“I concentrate on my work, but it doesn’t need to take up everything. It irritates me a little when actors become completely consumed on and off the set. It gets a little pretentious, but it’s their choice of course.” He doesn’t necessarily see the virtue in doing a Daniel Day-Lewis, going all in on method acting, because as he says: ‘I’m just Nikolaj – even before I come home.’ Nonetheless, he does sort carefully through the stories he chooses to take on, as some paths are too dark to walk down, and it’s not because they aren’t important, but he doesn’t always have the right gut feeling to take on the role.
“I wouldn’t be able to play a paedophile, because I would want to kill him while I was reading the manuscript, so it wouldn’t work,” he explains, but also points out the risk to limit oneself by turning down films that don’t have the right message. For him, it’s best to break it up a little. It’s an obvious assumption that he doesn’t exactly feel prone to play a knight for the six months he has off from working on Game of Thrones, yet Nikolaj can see bits of himself in every role he plays, making it hard to pinpoint the one that he resembles the most.
“In appearance, they all look pretty much alike,” he adds with a grin, pauses for reaction, and then continues in a more serious tone:
“I’ve just been filming in Montreal, where I play a totally fucked up ex-policeman who’s about as irresponsible as possible. I hope to think I’m nothing close to that, but I can acknowledge certain attributes in myself, where you behave selfishly, both in your romantic relationship and towards your children. Nikolaj has played a little of everything. An egotist, a knight, and a charmer, but which role is he most proud of?
“What would you say if you were a pretentious actor? They’re all my children, all of them!” he raises his hands and voices into character. It’s hard for him to say, as the experiences he has when he makes a film can often appear differently when he looks back at it afterwards. No, he really doesn’t know if there’s a particular film he’s especially proud of.
“I’m proud of my children – my real children – but not of my films. I might be one day.” On the other hand, he doesn’t have any problem describing the absolute low point of his career; an experience, which has stuck like mud in his memory. “Things were not looking so bright in 1999 – it was a bad year,” Nikolaj interjects quickly. He ended up standing on some yacht in South Africa making a German sausage commercial.
“I was standing out there all alone in the bay of Cape Town. It sounds fantastic, but I was trapped on a yacht, and that doesn’t sound so bad either, but it was with an absolute nut case of a director, who yelled for a majority of his time in our presence. If I had just been there to have fun it would’ve been amazing, but for a young, ambitious actor, it was a real low point,” he admits, adding that the commercial is still available for one’s viewing pleasure on YouTube. Jimmy Kimmel was so kind as to show it live when Nikolaj took part in his late night talk show a couple of years ago. “That was a great moment,” Nikolaj’s eyes rolling.
THE GOOD, THE BAD, AND THE WORSE
One may not remember Nikolaj from his days of eating sausages on a yacht, but most of us will without a doubt recall him as Jaime Lannister – a character, who is more or less like an onion. Each season, layers are peeled away, getting closer to the core of the conflicted king slayer. And it was this… precisely this that lit a fire in Nikolaj when he met the producers behind Game of Thrones for a little LA chit-chat that would change his life.
“They told me about Jaime, and what would be happening in the first three seasons of the series, and I was hooked. (Spoiler alert!) It started off so dark with Jaime’s incestuous relationship with his sister, the attempted murder of Bran, the innocent boy who witnessed their steamy love scene, and all the consequences that followed.”
Nikolaj acted out a scene for them and they offered him the part. An easy audition for Nikolaj, admits the actor – nonetheless, he hadn’t anticipated the massive success and acclaim the series would later gain for him. He was aware that it had been well received after the premiere, but it wasn’t until one hot day in July, in San Diego, at Comic Con, that it actually sunk in. Normally, a convention like this would’ve been attended mostly by the usual fanatic, greasyhaired, basement dwellers one would expect, but this time it was packed to the brim with first time Comic Con goers, all there to get a taste of the life in Game of Throne’s fictional continent, Westeros.
“And I thought, ‘that’s bloody amazing.’ It had become so huge that it was hard to grasp,” he says enthusiastically, but now there’s also a reason for this. Game of Thrones is able to do a bit more than other series. It can make us feel every emotion capable to the human species, push our boundaries, take things to the absolute extreme – and then go even further. Heroes’ heads get chopped off, children are murdered, bad guys win – and amidst it all, the viewers are left with a never ending question, “But, who are the bad guys?” Even Nikolaj’s own character has evolved from jackass to soft-hearted father-figure.
“So much has happened. Of course it’s a bit more extreme with Jaime because of how the series started, but that’s what makes it fun. That you have so much time to work on the character, and Jaime is neither completely good nor totally evil.”
Of course there are two obvious heroes: Queen Daenerys, Mother of Dragons, and Jon, current reigning King of the North. Purity holds true in the heart of Jon, but even in our beloved snow-haired queen, a brutal side shines bright – yet we pine over her anyway. The same could be said for Nikolaj as Jaime. For many, it’s impossible to understand the extreme decision to push a boy out of a window in order to avoid an incestuous sex scandal, but in a world where Jaime is the father to his sister’s children, such measures are necessary.
“If the boy were to reveal to people what he had seen, well, then Jaime’s sister/lover and their children would be executed. So, it was either little boy Bran or his very own children. You can understand that.”
Game of Thrones is now drawing to a close with just two short seasons left – divided up over two years. The cord isn’t being pulled out too quickly, but what’s going to happen afterwards? And is Nikolaj looking forward to having the circus that is Game of Thrones done and dusted?
“It’s a job, and I get six months a year to do something else, but it can be something quite special when it’s running, because you get so much attention. It’ll be nice enough when it calms down a bit, but on the other hand you should be careful for what you wish for,” Nikolaj says as nostalgia fills his dark blue eyes. But if nothing else, the journey has offered some memory-bank-worthy experiences with fans.
“I’ve been approached twice now in the changing rooms at the gym by people asking if they can take a picture while being in the shower, and that wasn’t quite the appropriate place for it. That’s crossing the line.”
FROM TYBJERG TO HOLLYWOOD
Since Game of Thrones, Nikolaj has taken Hollywood and all our living rooms by storm, but what would the young kid from the small Danish village think of him today, if he could’ve cast his glance into the future?
“I think he would be really impressed, but he would probably also say ‘yes, but you were never in Matador (hit Danish drama series) and he would’ve been right, but the series ended when I was still a kid,” he points out, emphasizing the futile race against time. As a star in perhaps the biggest TV series ever, Denmark’s Matador hardly holds a candle to Game of Thrones – yet just another piece of evidence that modesty resides firmly in Nikolaj. However, he isn’t ridden with the fear of being able to live up to anyone’s expectations of him, because, as he says, he doesn’t go up to people and ask them what they really expect of him.
“I’ve been doing this now for many years, and as an actor there’s nothing worse than going around feeling tense. I have to be relaxed and open towards what happens, and it’s not particularly healthy to feel that you should live up to something, so there’s a limit on how seriously you can take yourself,” he maintains.
It’s impossible to avoid all the curious glances, though, which he now gets as
he walks the dog or shops for groceries. Naturally, he can’t go running around
with his head under his arm, but to Nikolaj’s advantage, the glamor so many
selfie-famed celebrities are begging for couldn’t be the least bit of a distraction
“I live in Lyngby near Copenhagen, and there are many new students from the Technical University of Denmark, who find it quite interesting to see Jaime strolling about the neighborhood. But then a week passes and people lose interest. It doesn’t get any more exciting than that,” Nikolaj states.
“Of course it can be quite stressful if you’re out with the family and you’re constantly being reminded that you’re not anonymous anymore. I don’t generally care that much, but it can be really bothersome for my girls to think that you walk around alone in your own private world and then suddenly find out that it was, in fact, not the case,” Nikolaj admits. However, there are some perks to the job – what does the actor think about receiving a manuscript in his mailbox where he’s slated to kiss both Cameron Diaz and Kate Upton?
“I didn’t know who Kate was. But I soon found out, and I was just looking forward to telling my friends about it. I knew exactly which of them would be really annoyed by it,” Nikolaj laughs out loud. Having said that, he calmly admits to being much more impressed, overwhelmed in fact, by the many amazing experiences that acting has given him:
“I made a small film in Bolivia, where I was playing a young version of Butch Cassidy, and there was one day where I sat on my horse like a cowboy and rode out over the plains for nearly the entirety of the shooting. That was nice, that was something surreal. The craziest was probably during the filming of Black Hawk Down, when I flew up along the African coast I sat in a weightless state for a couple seconds, and I really did think ‘how crazy is this, that I’m getting the chance to do this?’”
Nikolaj has had a go at all of it. A little of everything. His reputation has brought him far and wide. To Africa. To Hollywood. And back to Africa. Has it changed him? Does his family and friends look at him differently?
“I hope not. It’s hard to say whether you change, but the first job I had after theatre school was in the film Nightwatch, which became a huge success. It was a bit hard to handle in the start, but I don’t feel that it anymore.”
Despite currently enjoying great success with many projects in the pipeline, he’s still very down to earth. Perhaps because he doesn’t completely feel like he has made it yet, making it too early to take a status report.
“There are things that I’m pleased that I’ve have done: to have had children… maintain a firm base, stuff like that. Some things need to be prioritized – the framework which I create for myself and my family needs to be solid, and acting just has to come in second place,” he begins, drinks the last of his coffee, and continues:
“When I was growing up, my mom didn’t have much money, so our house got repossessed, and there were some things that weren’t so great. So, it has been important for me to not get into debt and to own my own house and make sure everything is checked and balanced.”
In his private life, then, he has achieved his goals, but in terms of acting, there are still many parts for him to disappear into, if only for a brief moment. But it isn’t as if he has some sort of illusion about being able to change anything, because when it comes down to it, it’s just a job, and Nikolaj isn’t going to waste his time on taking himself too seriously.