He has a rugged physicality that’s served him well in movies like “Kingdom of Heaven,” “Black Hawk Down” and even “Wimbledon,” but Nikolaj Coster-Waldau (the “j” is pronounced as an “i”) is an actor still probably best known by face, and not name. That could be changing, though, as the Danish-born actor has a plum role on HBO’s zeitgeist smash “Game of Thrones” and a meaty part in Tom Cruise’s next film. His latest movie is the deliciously twisted dark crime comedy ”Headhunters,” a Norwegian import that centers on a corporate recruiter (Aksel Hennie) who also moonlights as an art thief in order to pay for his lavish lifestyle, and finds his double life compromised when he crosses paths with Coster-Waldau’s character, a disgraced CEO who’s more than he seems. ShockYa recently had a chance to talk to Coster-Waldau one-on-one, about his movie, cinema’s greatest shit-centric scene since “Trainspotting,” acting in different languages and what he can’t say about “Oblivion,” that Cruise film. The conversation is excerpted below:
ShockYa: There’s such a delightful level of gamesmanship in “Headhunters,” much of which I assume is ported over from the novel (upon which it’s based). Did you have any familiarity at all with the book prior to filming?
Nikolaj Coster-Waldau: No, I hadn’t read the novel. I’d heard of Jo Nesbo, the author. He has this series with a detective, Harry Hole, and is like a national hero in Norway. But I hadn’t read this one. In a way it was a good thing, though, because I didn’t know how big George Martin was (before “Game of Thrones”) either, and so coming to Norway I learned quickly that this was the first adaptation of one of his novels. So I was happy that I didn’t know anything, because that meant I could just focus on the script.
ShockYa: Does the existence of source material and that extra backstory pique your interest at all, and factor into what projects you find you’re interested in?
NCW: No, not really. … If I read a novel and really love it, and then see an adaptation, rarely does it live up to my expectations or to the way I envisioned it in my head. But at the same time, what you always look for is just a good story, and if something’s really successful then usually it’s because at its core it’s a great story, and I think that was the case here.
ShockYa: Watching “Headhunters” I was tangentially reminded of the American film “Duplicity,” which Tony Gilroy wrote and directed, [insofar as] we don’t often see movies about corporate espionage and the like, when in reality, with millions and sometimes billions of dollars on the line, that stuff probably goes on a lot.
NCW: Oh, absolutely, you would have to think (it does). You have some moves that deal with the world of big finance and how brutal it can be, and I’ve always loved those stories. But it’s interesting, as you say, because I don’t seem to recall a lot of those types of stories breaking in the news (in real life). … Maybe they’re too clever in getting away with it. I remember a friend of mine, many years ago, in the mid-1990s, [was starting] a business in Russia and he told me how corrupt it was — how much money he had to carry with him to pay people off. That’s a slightly different story (than in “Headhunters”), but based on the same thing, I guess. He was met at the airport by a guy that said, “Well, you’re here for this and that, right? Then you need to speak to me.” That sounds like something from 100 years ago, but it still exists, I think.
ShockYa: I think “Headhunters” also features the best shit-centric scene since “Trainspotting.”
NCW: Yeah! (laughs) That’s true! Finally! I knew there was a scene that compared to that, and that we’d topped, and of course — it’s from “Trainspotting.”
ShockYa: Luckily your character is not on the receiving end of that scene, I guess, but you were still around for its shooting. How did that go?
NCW: Oh my God, you have to give Aksel (Hennie) credit for shooting that scene. I mean, that outhouse that we shot in was literally freezing that day. But he did it, he jumped in. And you know those little heaters you have for camping, where you can cook a cup of something — like a little electric heater? That’s what they had! One little tiny one that didn’t do much damage at all. So he almost had to break some ice when he jumped in. And it was a mix of oatmeal, coffee — all kinds of shit. But it’s funny, because that scene is so important, actually. When I read the script, that scene is where I understood it, and everything made sense, and also seeing it with an audience it gets a laugh because [it's where] the audience realizes it’s OK to laugh — that it’s so crazy and horrible that you have to laugh otherwise you can’t watch it.
ShockYa: Obviously there are many other actors who act in multiple languages and have lead roles — Kristin Scott Thomas comes to mind — but I’ve seen you in some of your other Norwegian and Danish films, and been impressed. How does the difference in language that impact your process, if at all?
NCW: It’s interesting, there are differences. I think the biggest difference is that there’s a little more work. When I do a Danish movie I might have to prepare a little less, in a way, when it comes to the actual line readings. And often I will improvise a lot more. But I know that when I do an American movie, any time I improvise (from a line of dialogue) it will be something I think about before I get on set, just because it is my second language and I’m still very aware of that. But I also did a French movie, and that was crazy, just insane — because I’m not very good in French, and I actually spoke a lot in that movie. It was the weirdest thing ever. So that’s what’s hardest about working in a foreign language. But for me, when I work in English, it’s almost more fun as an actor, because I feel like it kind of becomes 100 percent fantasy. What’s so much fun about acting, at least for me, is that you get to become someone else, just for these brief moments. And when you do that in a language that isn’t yours, it kind of becomes a full experience — you say, “There’s no way I could be this guy, I don’t even talk like this guy, I really am someone else now,” at least between action and cut.
ShockYa: When you did the French film, did you learn lines phonetically?
NCW: No, I do speak French, I’m just not very good at it. And then I had a great coach, and worked very hard. I worked with this great actress, Agnes Jaoui, who would occasionally like to improvise. And that I couldn’t do. (laughs) But what’s interesting is that in the movie there’s actually a couple times where she does that and you see me just look at her, and it makes sense that the character doesn’t respond, it’s actually very meaningful. But what you don’t know is that that’s just an actor standing there going, “Help!” People instead say, “Wow, your eyes, they’re so alive.” It was pure panic, really, but a great time. I didn’t get a call-back for the second movie, though.
ShockYa: Was “Game of Thrones” something that you thought might be as big and successful and impactful as it’s been?
NCW: No, of course not. It’s a genre that’s never really done well on television. But what I loved about it, even when the producers first described it, was that it was so ambitious and crazy. Because of that, I thought it could be a really bad, huge mistake or it could become successful, and thank God it was the latter. It would have been horrible to have been that one HBO show that sucked, and dragged the network down.
ShockYa: Well, that may be how Dustin Hoffman feels now.
NCW: (laughs) Oh, don’t say that! (laughs)
ShockYa: You also have Universal’s “Oblivion,” with Tom Cruise, which is slated to come out next April. You’ve been shooting that, right?
NCW: Yeah, I just got back on Saturday, actually. I’ve been shooting in Louisiana, but I can tell you absolutely nothing because I have been told in very clear terms that I am not allowed to say anything. But Tom Cruise is the lead, yes.
ShockYa: When they communicate that gag order, is it a team of stern-looking lawyers in suits with glasses who tell you that, or…?
NCW: (laughs) No, nothing like that. It’s all with a smile. And a knowing wink. I did this interview with the English magazine “Empire,” and I said that I play a character called Sykes. And apparently that was too much information. So I might play a character named Sykes, who knows. It’s based on (director) Joseph Kosinki’s graphic novel, and the rumors are (that it’s sci-fi), but then again the novel hasn’t been released yet, so… (laughs) I’m sure they’re going to send me something official soon that I can quote.
Written by: Brent Simon