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‘Game of Thrones’ star Nikolaj Coster-Waldau goes from Lannister to gangster

Nikolaj Coster-Waldau in
Nikolaj Coster-Waldau in "Game of Thrones."

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It doesn't always feel good to be a Lannister. Nikolaj Coster-Waldau would know. He stars as Jaime Lannister in "Game of Thrones," the HBO drama based on the books by George R.R. Martin.

As lord commander of the Kingsguard (or, these days, the Queensguard), Jaime has slain a mad king, lost a limb, dealt with all sorts of family drama, fought countless battles and met face-to-face with a fire-breathing dragon.

It's all in a day's work for Coster-Waldau, who has been part of the show since its inception — seven seasons. Still, Coster-Waldau somehow finds the time to do other projects, like the new film "Shot Caller," directed by Ric Roman Waugh.

Shot Caller trailer

"It's a great character piece," Coster-Waldau said. "It had a lot of things that I thought [were] really interesting and then, most importantly, it was about something that I think is really important."

In the film, Coster-Waldau plays a Pasadena man who finds himself joining a Southern California prison gang. The film touches on issues of race, including white nationalism — a timely matter following recent events in Charlottesville, Virginia.

When Coster-Waldau stopped by The Frame, he talked about "Shot Caller" and "Game of Thrones."

Interview Highlights

Nikolaj Coster-Waldau in
Nikolaj Coster-Waldau in "Shot Caller."
Scott Garfield

On his role in the new movie "Shot Caller":

This movie reflects reality. The reality in these prisons is that they're completely segregated by race, and that they're controlled by these gangs. There's something about the theme of 'them and us' that goes through all our lives — politically, religion, countries. Human beings, we're pack animals. We need this 'them and us' thing. ... And, of course, it's so extreme with prisoners, because if you break the law and you're put away, you kind of become 'them,' and we don't want to deal with you. And then we forget about you, we put you away. So that theme I find fundamentally interesting as a human being, but also as an actor."

On his most challenging scene in "Game of Thrones":

The scenes I have in the bathtub with Brienne, where [Jaime] tells her about how he killed the Mad King. I knew that was coming for three years, so the build-up was very intense, and it was a difficult day. It was difficult because of the prosthetic ... I had to have this stump applied. That was tricky. And you're naked, which also gives it a bit of tension. ... But then, more important, it was just a vital moment in this character's story, so I wanted to get it right.

Jaime tub

On filming the battle sequence in the "Spoils of War" episode:

We have a lot of CGI because we don't have real dragons — yet. ... So we don't have that and we don't have the direwolves, but everything else is in camera. So what you see is real people burning. You see 30 guys standing on horseback. It's exhilarating to shoot. Because the show, it's so popular, we have the resources now. I think that that sequence took almost four weeks to shoot. It's like shooting the biggest movie you can imagine. It's just fun.

On how actors learn about the deaths of their characters:

The main characters will get a phone call, usually. [laughs] ... A lot of people also just find out when they read the script. I don't think anyone finds out at the actual table read. For some reason I think Stannis — Stephen Dillane — he found out in his trailer, reading the script, I think because they made a mistake, apparently. They forgot [and said], Are you going to call him? No I'm going to call him. OK! So he was like, Are you... what?! I guess I'm not the chosen one, but the red priestess said it was me! But ... other than that they're pretty good in telling people.

Lena Headey and Nikolaj Coster-Waldau in
Lena Headey and Nikolaj Coster-Waldau in "Game of Thrones."

On when he became aware of the show's popularity:

I remember the first time it struck me was after season one aired. I was back in Europe and the show aired only on a small subscription channel in Denmark, so it hadn't really caught on. ... But then we went to Comic-Con in San Diego, and walking into the Hall H and there were 6,000 people going crazy... It did strike me that maybe it was doing better than I thought.

And then, of course, when you start seeing other shows referencing our show. It's been in so many, like, music, in pop culture in general. And, you know, suddenly, oh yeah, the president is watching the show. I mean, you go, OK, this is clearly something that people want other people to know that they like.

On why the show works for so many people:

Always, any good show, whether it's a successful show, whether it's 'Breaking Bad,' 'Mad Men,' all those shows, you have characters that are interesting that you want to follow. And there are surprises in the storytelling. One of the moments that was like a make-or-break moment for 'Game of Thrones,' I think, was episode nine of season one, when the hero of the story, Ned Stark, was killed. I remember reading it — that was shocking. But ... the response was so overwhelming. There were so many people saying, I'm never going to watch this show again. But of course, they did.

In some ways, even though it's this fantasy show, there is something real about the way the story is told. No one's safe, that has something to do with it. ... The most horrible moment in the show was for me was [when] the young princess Shireen Baratheon was burned at the stake. ... So you have characters, young, old, and, of course, it's set in a world that's not directly identifiable, so you can watch it anywhere in the world and you can enjoy it.

For John Horn's full interview with Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, click on the player above.

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