Interview: Susanne Bier and Nikolaj Coster-Waldau get A Second Chance
He sports prosthetic golden fingers to play the role of Jaime Lannister on Game of Thrones, but Nikolaj Coster-Waldau hates getting a fake hand for any performance, which is why he’s grateful for the firm grip of fellow Dane Susanne Bier
By Katherine Monk
TORONTO—In the opening episode of Game of Thrones, his character pushed a young boy from a window without a hint of remorse. But put a fussy newborn in Nikolaj Coster-Waldau’s arms, and the handsome Dane turns into a human pacifier.
“It didn’t matter what the babies were doing… if Nikolaj picked them up, they would almost immediately fall asleep,” says director Susanne Bier, referring to the off-camera vibe on her latest film, A Second Chance (En chance til). A relatively small Danish-language drama about a police officer who makes a life-altering decision with good intentions, A Second Chance has been making a slow pass through North American art houses just as Bier’s latest mini-series, The Night Manager starring Tom Hiddleston and Hugh Laurie, airs on AMC.
In fact, speaking to Bier and Coster-Waldau in the same room at the same time is enough to make even the most Type-A person feel a little lazy. Bier has been juggling TV and features for years while Coster-Waldau has been doing the same, wearing a gold hand to the play the role of Jaime Lannister, one of a handful of stars to make it all the way to season six in the phenomenon called Game of Thrones — now the biggest TV show in history with more viewers in more countries, and more social media impressions than misbehaving cats.
Coster-Waldau is an anchor for GoT, but he’s never stopped his regular film work, taking gigs that run the gamut, from the philandering hubby in The Other Woman to the role of Horus in Gods of Egypt. Soon, you can see him in Shot Caller with Lake Bell and Spinning Man with Emma Roberts, but right now, Coster-Waldau is talking about his role as Andreas, a good cop who does something that leaves a moral question mark.
“Don’t tell your readers about it,” says Bier. “Don’t tell them too much about what he does because it will ruin the entertainment factor.”
I agree, and a discussion of the film’s specifics is reduced to questions of theme, starting with the idea of motherhood and the hyper-idealized nurturer.
“It’s true,” says Bier. “We tend to make snap judgments about people’s worth. And mothers are judged.”
Coster-Waldau nods. “If a woman doesn’t live up to the idea of what a mother should look like, she is demonized. And it happens so quickly. In this story, it happens after one encounter. Someone makes a decision about who is fit to be a mother, and the story goes from there. But it’s a decision made without real knowledge. I think that’s what makes it interesting.”
Bier says one of the central ideas she and writer Anders Thomas Jensen (Brothers) played with was context and character.
“It’s been incredibly fun to play with the prejudice and confronting this theme and turning it around. I think at some level we want to believe we are better than others, and we don’t have to be subject to the same rules. But I am not saying we are all the same. I am just saying don’t make pre-judgments out of fear,” says Bier.
“You can’t fully operate in the world if you have prejudice and fear. You are losing out on amazing things.”
Coster-Waldau looks at Bier’s big brown eyes and smiles. “We are all filled with prejudices, but there is nothing more exciting than meeting someone you didn’t know. You thought you had an idea of who they were, and in this world today, in this western world, we like to put people into boxes. Some are demonized and some are put on a pedestal. Yet at the core, we are really not all that different,” he says.
We are all filled with prejudices, but there is nothing more exciting than meeting someone you didn’t know. You thought you had an idea of who they were, and in this world today, in this western world, we like to put people into boxes. Some are demonized and some are put on a pedestal. Yet at the core, we are really not all that different…
“When I was young I always expected that there would come a time, as you get older, where you would get wise and understand the meaning of everything. Then you realize: Shit! There is no difference. We don’t get any wiser. We are just here, for a very brief moment in time. I remember that surprising me. Isn’t that ridiculous?”
No. It’s not ridiculous. It’s just the divine comedy and our sad stabs at meaning. If we’re lucky and enlightened, every once in a while, things seem to make sense.
“I think the only meaning we have as humans is having a close, or intimate, relationship with other people. I think this is how we learn to understand each other, through empathetic connection. Otherwise, you are alone, disconnected. I don’t think this is really living. It’s more existing with distraction,” says Bier.
What about work? Is that a distraction, or a source of meaning?
“It can be both, I suppose,” says Bier. “But for me this is not a distraction. It’s too hard. In actual fact, moviemaking is not glamorous at all. It’s about wearing 200 layers of clothes and standing in incredibly freezing temperatures, or very hot temperatures for long hours, then agonizing at night over whether the scene is working.”
“And the rest of the day is just plain stressful,” Coster-Waldau adds.
“I think finishing a really good day of shooting is the most rewarding and freeing feeling I can have. If you feel you caught something truly beautiful… It’s why we do what we do. Sure, we get to dress-up and walk red carpets, but very rarely, and all I do is worry about tipping over in my high heels,” says Bier, who walked the carpet of carpets when In A Better World beat Canada’s Incendies for best foreign film at the Oscars in 2011.
“She does that a lot,” says Coster-Waldau. “She tips over.”
The two laugh like the old friends they are – two theatrically trained Danes making it big on the world stage.
“We’ve learned not to react to her tipping. We freeze for a second and then she gets back up and we carry on,” says Coster-Waldau. “Her way of working is different and something she has probably finessed over the years. She’s very collaborative and she’s good at making sure we’re all there to tell the same story. There’s a high level of concentration on the set. She never tells you if it’s great. She just says ‘we got it.’”
Coster-Waldau looks over to Bier, who tries to swat the sentiment away like a pesky fly. “But I really mean that in the best way,” he insists. “It’s liberating. A lot of directors will want to boost the confidence of the actors, which totally makes sense… but once you say something is amazing and great and wonderful you can’t go further up. And we’re all suckers for praise, so suddenly you find yourself as an actor wanting to be praised and that is horrible,” he says.
A lot of directors will want to boost the confidence of the actors, which totally makes sense… but once you say something is amazing and great and wonderful you can’t go further up. And we’re all suckers for praise, so suddenly you find yourself as an actor wanting to be praised and that is horrible…
Joking, Bier gives him a babying pat on the back… “But you are not a vain actor. Sometimes vain actors can be great actors, but your need is to get it right. Getting the moment right. So it becomes collaborative and a moment where you feel that you are holding hands together.”
Coster-Waldau grabs her hand. The two smile. “I like it when you take my hand. Because I know you will guide me to the best place without bullshitting me. Seriously… Some directors will have a scene where you are just walking… and they say, ‘that was amazing!’ [clap, clap] ‘Wonderful!’ ‘Thank you so much!’ And say to yourself: ‘What a dick! Who do you think I am? Really? You think I need that?”
Sometimes, I think I would like someone to kiss my ass for being able to ambulate.
“No! No you wouldn’t!” Coster-Waldau cautions. “You know they would be lying. Like, who tells the sound recordist, ‘Wow! That sound you just got of the footstep was AMAZING!’ Nobody does that. It doesn’t happen. So I love Susanne’s approach. It’s not fake. You just try to do your job… “
Bier laughs. “Thank you for that. Well, I am very disciplined shooting. I am very disciplined with time. I don’t usually go over. I don’t believe in taxing actors too much. And I like finishing in time,” she says.
“The more you are prepared, the more you can be flexible. You make room for changes. You can find depth in a scene. This was a positive environment. We had a lot of fun with the babies. And even though we had a brilliant caretaker for them, and she kept them reasonably calm, the babies loved Nikolaj. The minute we put a baby in his arms, they would fall asleep – and the whole cast and crew would go ‘Awwwwww!’” says Bier.
Coster-Waldau’s chiseled features suddenly bloom with a pink blush.
“He’s already rather attractive, but put a baby in this man’s arms, and he becomes irresistible.”
A Second Chance is currently playing art houses across North America, and is available on DVD and Blu-ray as an import. Game of Thrones is currently in its sixth season on HBO and The Night Manager is airing on AMC.
THE EX-PRESS June 13, 2016