The villainous Jaime Lannister talks about loving your sister too much, his toughest day of shooting and why the teenage King Joffrey is like Justin Bieber
A version of this story appears in the Comedy/Drama issue of EmmyWrap
Before that whole Red Wedding massacre came along to shock “Game of Thrones” viewers, the most gripping moment in Season 3 of HBO’s epic series may well have been one of the quietest.
It was the moment when a naked, battered, nearly defeated Jaime Lannister, soaking in a bathtub after nearly dying when his right hand was chopped off, told an equally naked Brienne of Tarth that the murder that gave him the nickname “Kingslayer” was actually done out of kindness – that he killed Aerys Targaryen to prevent the so-called “Mad King” from burning his city to the ground and killing every man, woman and child within its walls.
Danish actor Nikolaj Coster-Waldau delivered the wrenching monologue in a voice that barely rose above a whisper.
The moment softly, quietly and brilliantly upended what we thought we knew about Jaime Lannister, who was introduced in the first episode of the series sleeping with his sister Cersei and then shoving seven-year-old Bran Stark out a tower window when the boy catches him in the act.
It made Coster-Waldau one of a number of “Game of Thrones” actors who deserve supporting actor and actress consideration this season – not just past winner Peter Dinklage, but also Diana Rigg as the devious Olenna Tyrell, Rose Leslie as the feisty Ygritte, Gwendoline Christine as the amazon warrior Brienne and Charles Dance as the thoroughly villainous Tywin Lannister.
Jaime Lannister is usually a man of action, but in your big scene this season you barely moved.
Yeah. I waited a long time to get to that scene. I knew from when we started the pilot that that scene would come eventually, if we were lucky enough to get picked up and get as far as Season 3.
So you knew the scene was coming from the time you first took the role?
I remember the producers telling me about the whole world when I first talked to them about the part. I didn’t know anything about George R.R. Martin, I’m not proud to say. They told me about the story, and about how in Episode 1 Jaime’s having sex with his sister, he pushes the kid out the window… It was so dark, I just got really excited about it, because it’s such a great thing to have a character that’s so clear cut. That’s the baddie, and he has these big action things at the beginning of the show.
And then they told me his secret about why he’s called the Kingslayer, and the guy he really is. Which is a very different man from the perception of him, and very exciting.
But the audience won’t hear his side of the story for two and a half seasons.
Exactly. The beauty of it is that you have a character who’s not a whiner. He would never go out and say, “You don’t understand, I was wronged!” He’s not going to give people the satisfaction, because he’s smart enough to know that that’s not going to work anyway.
It’s that weird thing: If you hear a foul rumor about someone, even though two weeks later you hear it wasn’t true, it still sticks. Horrible rumors have a tendency to leave a smell, in a weird way.
Well, one of the foul rumors about Jaime — that he’s in an incestuous relationship with his sister — sticks because it’s true.
There were so many times I thought, “Why the hell?” I get that you can fall in love with your sister when you’re young, but years have passed. He has to let go. It’s not doing him any favors. It’s such a terrible relationship, and it’s defined him in so many ways. But then you go into the family dynamic, and it does make sense if you’re that isolated from the rest of the world, and you’ve been living under this tyrant and you only really have your brother and your sister.
What parts of Jamie were hardest to get a handle on?
The difficult thing was always the balance. Even in episodes where he had a lot of scenes, you’re still looking at a maximum of maybe 15 minutes. Last season I was only in four episodes. The hope is that if you went back and looked at all those scenes, you’d be able to spot those little clues that I put out early on about who he is. Those little things so that once you get to the bathtub, it’s not a case of, “Where the hell did that come from?”
So you’d been thinking about the bath scene for two and a half seasons before you got to do it. No pressure there.
Yeah, it’s such a big moment for that character. There were so many thoughts that went into that day, but you want to in the moment just be able to let go and not think of anything. It was quite some day.
Just on a personal level, it’s a very interesting journey that Jamie takes. And I’ve obviously thought a lot about what it would mean if you lost something that so identifies you. That hand is the super-hand, the thing that defines him. It’s his pride and it’s who he is, but it also gave him the name Kingslayer and kind of condemned him in that world.
How long did it take to shoot the scene?
We had one day. It was a long day. One of the toughest days I think I’ve ever had, because it was so important for me that we got it right. We did the speeches in long takes, and the camera operator said they were the longest takes we did in the series. It was exhausting for everyone, not just the actors. I was so grateful for Gwendoline Christie, who jumped into the water with me every time. We were clean when we left, that’s for sure. [laughs]
And the end of the day, did you feel that you had the scene?
Yeah, it was a very special day. It felt really good. I mean, all of us felt that we accomplished what we hoped for. I know that that character, and it is a big moment for him to open up. He’s never told that story before, and it’s such a big, big secret to carry around.
In the first couple of seasons, we thought Jaime was the ultimate villain, and Joffrey was a monster, and Cersei was evil. But this season, the family pales next to your father.
Oh, Tywin is such a tough, tough dad. I love those scenes in this season with Cersei and Tyrion [Peter Dinklage’s character]. We’ve seen them where they’re very powerful, they’re very strong, but when it comes to dealing with daddy, they’re just little kids. They can’t say no to daddy.
And I love what Lena has done with Cersei. She’s this horrible woman, of course, but she’s opened up these little glimpses into a woman who’s still just a mother. She understands how ruthless that world is, and she’s trying to take care of her own. And yes, she’s very brutal, but so is that world.
And even Joffrey. I mean, he is a monster, don’t get me wrong. But you can still see that he’s just a boy. Growing up with no boundaries, no rules, he’s so messed up. And I think what is so great with Jack [Gleeson]’s performance is that he still shows us the boy, even though the boy has so much power. Then again, you look at some of the young celebrities today, and you see what power does to young people. It’s just not a healthy thing. Look at Justin Bieber.
Has “Game of Thrones” changed your life and career?
It hasn’t changed my life. But I was just talking to my wife about this – this June is my 20th year as an actor, since I left the National Theater school. I’ve always been working, but what’s so amazing is that there are very few moments where your own enthusiasm for a show is actually shared with an audience. That’s quite rare. It certainly doesn’t hurt to be on a show that people see and watch, and there’s no question that some of the opportunities I get now work-wise are related to “Game of Thrones,” for which I’m very grateful.
Do people call you “Kingslayer” on the street?
It happened in Season 1 here in New York. But I haven’t had any bad experiences. People say with a smile, “You’re a horrible person.” There were a couple of times in a bar where people go, “Kingslayer!” But usually they follow it up with beer, so that’s absolutely cool. Call me Kingslayer and buy me a beer? I love it.