The icy wind whipping across the coast by the Kattegat Sea, 37 miles north of Copenhagen, is cutting, brutal. Winter isn’t coming; it’s arrived. But Nikolaj Coster-Waldau is relentless, cycling tirelessly over the dunes and through the forests near Tisvildeleje. The 45-year-old Danish actor has not only survived on the most brutal show on TV (as Jaime Lannister in Game of Thrones—so far), but he’s rising in the ranks of Hollywood (he’s one of the leads in Gods of Egypt). The key to it all? Low expectations and the occasional mud-splattered day on the trails.
THE RED BULLETIN: Is mountain biking when it’s 40°F outside your idea of fun?
NIKOLAJ COSTER-WALDAU: Absolutely. At home I’m surrounded by women, so it’s important for me to do things with my guy friends. I need the dirt, the cold, the mud and grime.
So you’re the outdoor type?
We’re all animals deep down, which is why nature has such a deep impact on us. I recently went fishing on my own in the wilds of southern Greenland. It was a magical experience.
Is that the recipe for happiness? The Danes are said to be one of the happiest nations on Earth, after all.
The trick is that we Danes have low expectations. My father always used to say to me, “Only fly as high as your ears will take you.”
But as a star of one of the most successful TV shows ever, you’ve flown way above ear height …
If how successful the show is had any effect on the way I feel about myself, I’d have been in a mental institution years ago. That’s not why I do what I do. Plus, Danes don’t tolerate show-offs.
So you keep it to yourself when you’re feeling really pleased?
Occasionally I might say to friends, “Take look at this.” But to be honest, if you do that kind of thing, it’s really just because you want to hear how fantastic you are. I’m not looking for that.
Isn’t applause an actor’s reward?
I know other actors who are at the end of their tether because they live by other people’s opinions, and whether they are living up to the greatness that is expected of them. Which is why you should drop the ego and focus on telling a good story instead.
Where does that approach come from?
Becoming a father. It’s a shock to the system. You instantly stop being the most important person in the world. Until that point, you worry about your own mortality, but suddenly you’re worrying about someone else’s. That’s scary. You’re not in control anymore. My younger daughter was struck on the head by a horse and had to go to the hospital. She could have died. It was terrible. At the same time, having children is the most wonderful, exhilarating thing you can do.
When are your children happiest?
When we’re all doing something together as a family.
What made you happy when you were a child?
When my father was at home, and wasn’t too drunk, and we’d play cards. Or there was this TV program called Sports Sunday, where they showed a game from the English first division in the afternoon. At half-time, we’d go outside and kick a ball around.
A drunken father doesn’t sound like part of a carefree childhood.
My father was an alcoholic. He died in 1998. But I had a great mother, even if we did sometimes get visits from the police.
Why was that?
My mother occasionally used to get carried away and would buy presents for my two sisters and me that, sadly, she couldn’t afford. I still remember the day I had to return my mini hi-fi…
Not an easy situation.
I mostly just felt sorry for my mother.I knew how humiliating it was for her. She had a job and worked hard, but it was difficult to make ends meet.
Do your children know what you went through in your youth?
Yes, and I make sure they know that their life isn’t normal. They need to understand that. It can’t be taken for granted that you won’t ever have to worry about food and money. But I’m proud of my childhood nonetheless.
You wouldn’t change it, then, given the chance?
No. I don’t think it’s harmful to encounter the darker sides of life. If kids get bullied at school, for example, it’s horrible. But if you’ve got parents who love you unconditionally, then you realize that you’re good enough, regardless of what others say.
Endura Hoodie, MT500 Burner Pants and Singletrack II Shorts (worn over trousers): endurasport.com
Black leather high-top trainers: clarks.co.uk
LoDown gloves: specialized.com
Nike jumper (worn under sweatshirt) and short-sleeve sweatshirt: urbanoutfitters.com
Specialized Enduro Expert Carbon 650b: tredz.co.uk
Have you ever experienced rejection?
Thousands of times. Every time I didn’t get a part. The story of my audition for Vertical Limit when I was 28 was particularly embarrassing. It was the worst screen test ever. To console myself I went to Lisa Kline Men on Robertson Boulevard in Los Angeles and treated myself to $1,500 worth of clothes. It just made me feel worse. I returned them the next morning, the second the shop opened. I said something like “Sorry, there’s been a mistake,” and got my money back. You should have seen the look the saleswoman gave me. Total disgust. It was a good lesson; I’ve never spent so much on clothes in one go since.
You sound happy recounting the tale.
That’s because on the whole I’ve been lucky. I’ve been working for 20 years now and I’ve always been able to feed my family. I’ve learned that you just never know what the future holds for you.
The fact I missed out on getting the lead in John Carter. At the time that felt bad, but the irony is, that same summer I was cast in Game of Thrones. GoT became a huge hit; John Carter didn’t.
Can you remember your first days on the set?
The first time I walked into the throne room of the Red Keep was a profound moment. The set has been there since the pilot, and it’s impressive. When I saw that, I thought, “Holy shit. They’re serious.”
You’re one of the few cast members to have made it all the way through to the sixth season of GoT. Are you worried about being killed off?
No. Actually I’m curious as to how it all turns out. I’m sure the story will be told as it’s meant to be told.
Is there anything about your job that gets on your nerves?
Yes—all the criticism about Gods of Egypt. A lot of people are getting really worked up online about the fact that I’m a white actor. I’m not even playing an Egyptian; I’m an 8-foot-tall god who turns into a falcon. A part of me just wants to freak out, but then I think, “There’s nothing you can do about it.” You can’t win in that sort of discussion.
That’s an admirable attitude. Who do you admire?
The hundreds of thousands of people who are brave enough to leave their country and their terrible daily lives there with nothing more than the clothes they have on their back. They’re the ones I admire. We should make the most of this amazing resource, not be afraid of it. Look at the USA: It was built by people who had nothing but a desire to make a better life.
Are you an optimist?
There are moments when humankind shocks me. I was supposed to fly to Paris on November 14. I’d already packed my bag when I saw the news about the terrorist attacks. It’s unimaginable to me how someone could get to a point where they want to kill as many people as possible. But overall, I look positively to the future. It’s part of our nature to look ahead and find solutions to our problems. Because this life is the only one we’ve got.