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Emmy Contender: Game of Thrones' Nikolaj Coster-Waldau sees Jaime Lannister as a hero

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Aug 24, 2018, 12:00 PM EDT

Both Jaime Lannister and the Emmy-nominated actor who portrays him, Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, headed to the Far North this year — Jaime to help fight the White Walkers, and Coster-Waldau to help fight climate change. At the beginning of Game of Thrones' seven-season run, Coster-Waldau's Jaime initially seemed the least likely Lannister to win us over.

But his carefully nuanced performance has shown us the character's unexpected hidden depths: The man who saved King's Landing, only to be mocked for it. The man who loved deeply, but was forced to hide it (sometimes with horrific deeds — who among us didn't revile him from the moment he pushed little Bran out of that window?) During a break from his current wanderings in Greenland, Coster-Waldau chatted with SYFY WIRE about Jaime's evolution as a character and why he's too embarrassed to champion his own work.

Where are you calling from?

Nikolaj Coster-Waldau: I'm in the northwest of Greenland, in Uummannaq. It's a small town of about 1,400 people, and it's absolutely beautiful. I'm doing this trip with a small crew, traveling all over Greenland to places that I have some kind of connection to, and Uummannaq is where my wife is from. This is the first time I've been here. We've been married for more than 20 years, and then finally I made it here! And then before that, we've been even further north at the American airbase, the Thule airbase, where my father worked when I was a kid. We've been on a hunt. We've been camping on the icecap. We've done a lot! I'm halfway through the trip, and it's been wonderful and mind-blowing. All good things.

Is this an expanded version of what you did before with Google Maps in Greenland, when you were trying to show the effects of climate change?

It's one hundred percent inspired by that. I got a call from someone at a Danish network who saw that, and said they would like to do a longer version of that. And I said, "Well, maybe. But it would have to be on my terms, and it would have to be a personal story, because I don't do travel shows. That's not what I do." So they agreed to do that. So we're doing this where it's both a journey for me about stories in my life, and also an attempt to show climate change.

That's why we've been to the icecap, and I've met some scientists. The climate change debate will be one part of the show, because wherever you go in Greenland, it's like the canary in the coal mine up here. You can see the effects. If you talk to people here, they experience the effects of climate change in their everyday life, how the weather patterns are disrupting life in a huge way, which is important not just for them but for all of us. So that's part of it, but it's also just a personal journey to a country that is so vast and beautiful and scary sometimes.

Jamie Lannister battle

Credit: HBO

There's a way of reading A Song of Ice and Fire and Game of Thrones as a metaphor for climate change…

Yes! Absolutely. And it's a valid point. There's no question that the infighting that we do among nations and corporations, and our various levels of personal and corporate greed, pale in comparison to the threat that we face when it comes to climate change, and how we have to start focusing more. I mean, there is a lot of focus on climate change, but we need action. We have to step up our actions to a whole different level if we want to avoid things that are so drastic, we can barely comprehend it. The most positive forecast for the next hundred years indicates that sea levels could rise by two meters.

But the most pessimistic forecast shows it going up by five or six. And even with two, it's catastrophic to certain areas of the world, but six? It still baffles me when we still have a lot of world leaders who are not going all-in. It's so shortsighted. But ultimately, of course, you cannot blame the politicians. If you live in a democracy, it's our responsibility. So I just hope that more and more people will realize that it's not a fantasy. It's not a fiction. It's reality.

That's how it works as a metaphor in Game of Thrones: Seeing is believing. People ignore the threat of dragons or White Walkers until it's too late…

Game of Thrones is a beautiful work of fiction, but it shows us that we have to see it with our own eyes. I don't believe there's a single world leader who hasn't been shown evidence of what's going on. But we need action. Obviously, it's easier to see someone standing with a loaded gun and say, "We got to stop that guy."

But climate change takes many years. And the problem is, we can at best slow it down, and maybe stop it, but we can't reverse the trend. We can't go, 'Well, let's just cool down the planet by another two degrees, and we'll be fine." We don't have that option. But at the same time, I'm by nature optimistic. We'll find a way. We have many extremely smart people in this world, and there will be enough smart people to convince us of what to do, and how to do it. I guess we have to believe it.

When we last left Jaime Lannister, he had just seen a dragon used in battle, he saw the wight demonstration — he understands the vastness of these threats. And he understands that Cersei isn't going to keep her word or do anything about either of them. So it's up to him to do the honorable thing, to honor the agreement she made. The Oathbreaker becomes the Oathkeeper…

Yes! Like the sword he gave to Brienne. I actually think Jaime's been quite honorable throughout the story. You might not have agreed with his code of honor, but he's always been about family, protecting his family. So yes, he gave his word to his brother, to everyone, that they were going to go and fight this threat together. But of course, at the core, it's about his unborn child. If we don't deal with this threat, there won't be a future for my children or my children's children, you know? And you can draw that parallel to the issue of climate change, even if that threat is a couple hundred years farther down the road. If we don't take action, it's going to be such a terrible price that we'll be pushing onto future generations. But yes, for Jaime, absolutely. It's personal.

I always find it curious when his storyline is characterized as a tale of redemption. It's a question of information and perspective. Jaime actually saved King's Landing, but he was denigrated for it.

I agree. I also think he's changed as a character. I think what happened to him when he lost his hand, as it would anyone who became disabled and had to rethink themselves — that did change him. He also tried to kill an innocent kid, and you can't excuse that, but if you ask a lot of parents, if it's a choice between your children and some kid you don't know, who do you choose?

You might refuse to make that choice, which I absolutely understand, but I can also see why he went, "Okay, I'm going to have to do the things I do for love," which can be horrific. If you ask any soldier why they do what they have to, it would be the same answer. We ask horrific things of our soldiers, and they have to find a justification, whether it's love of country, love of family… There is a moral compass.

And you're right. Jaime was known as the most dishonorable man, but that was based on a lack of information about the truth, because nobody knew he actually saved the world. People jump to conclusions. We all do that, all the time. And that's the beauty of a show where you can do a 360-degree change in character, and that's why it's been so much fun playing Jaime. People were absolutely certain about who this guy was, based on more or less one scene. And what other characters said about him. And then you spend time with this guy, and he's slowly revealed to you, and you're forced to change your opinion of him.

People would say to me, "I really like you, but I hate Jaime," and I ask why. "Because of what he did to Bran!" And then I explain, and they're like, "I know, I know, but I still…" It's like what Mark Twain said — it's easy to make people believe a lie, but it's almost impossible to undo that, and make them admit that they were wrong. [Laughs] And we wouldn't have had much of a show if that hadn't happened! That's the beauty of storytelling.

Since you're nominated for "The Spoils of War," is there anything in that particular episode you're most proud of?

[Laughs] I don't think of it that way. I can hear my dad saying, "Don't talk about yourself like that! That's embarrassing!" And it is. My toes are curling right now, and if I'm going to walk any further today, we have to stop this. [Laughs] I'm most proud of being a part of it! It's a beautiful episode. It's a thrilling episode. I thought the way that they shot it and the way it came out was just breathtaking. I mean, even the whole reunion with Arya and Sansa was so beautiful. It was just wonderful. Now I think it's one of my favorite episodes of the whole series.

It's also interesting because this is the first battle where we're rooting for both sides.

What was so beautiful about it is that there was a lot of action. But any great action scene has to have characters you care about, and here you have four major characters — Bronn, Jaime, Tyrion, and Daenerys. And you've been hoping, as the audience, "Come on, Dany, let's see the dragons! Go kick some ass!" And then when you do, when she unleashes Drogon, it leaves a sour taste in your mouth, because you see the horror of these flying weapons of mass destruction.

It's so brutal when she just incinerates thousands of soldiers. War is sometimes necessary, but it's never pretty. There's nothing great about it. It's great when it's over. There shouldn't be anything cool about it. And so even though it's impressive to see these things, you still understand the fear, the dread, the horror. And it makes you question your loyalties: "I don't want that character to die! What's going on? Dany, you're supposed to be our hero! You don't have to burn them that badly! Can't you just torch them a little bit?" [Laughs]

And it was fun to shoot it. Sometimes these sequences can be really time-consuming, but we shot it in Spain at this beautiful location, and although the dragons weren't there, everything else was. I mean, we didn't have 10,000 troops, 10,000 Dothraki, but we had real people doing everything. We had these amazing horseriders. We had these amazing stunt guys. The skill level is unbelievable, because they were standing up on those horses for real. And at one point, we had like twenty guys on fire! Sometimes, when you do these things, you have to use your imagination and react to a green screen. But here, we could take in all the horror of what fire does. It was a great sequence to shoot.

I think this is also the first time we've really seen Jaime in a battle. For all the talk about his military prowess, we haven't seen him demonstrate it much. He was captured early on, then he lost his hand, then he had to learn to fight again, and by the time he was able to conquer House Tully and House Tyrell, he kind of came in at the end…

I know! Up North, they've had all the fun. [Laughs] When he was captured, they couldn't afford to shoot that battle, back in season one. We got successful too late for that one! So I never experienced that. But here he is, commanding the Lannister forces -- he's just pulled off the perfect surprise attack, wiped out the Tyrells, and it was beautiful. Finally, a success! And then all hell breaks loose. As is often the case with Jaime. Whenever he has a moment of joy, it's snatched away from him – like when Myrcella was able to say, "I'm glad you're my father" — seconds later, blood starts dribbling out of her ear and nose, and she dies.

And it's the same here. "I did it! I didn't like what Lady Olenna said to me, but I got the money!" And then of course, it's all destroyed. And not just destroyed, but destroyed in such a manner that he realizes that there is no way to ever fight these dragons. And he has to tell his sister, and knowing Cersei, that is not going to be fun. There's no way.

And then suddenly, there is the faintest glimmer of hope that maybe, just maybe, if Daenerys stays focused on pulling the bolt out of Drogon for a few seconds more, there's an opening. I mean, he knows it's ridiculous. But he's still going to have to go for it, because that woman is going to kill his sister. There's no question. It would be the end of the Lannister family. And of course, he fails. But I kind of like that he did it, even though, as Tyrion says when he's watching it, he's a "f**king idiot." That's absolutely true.

But this is Jaime as a character. It's such a great part. It's absolutely beautifully written. To be allowed to do this for so long, to be able to tell this story over eight years, over 80 hours, and the story keeps moving, and doesn't repeat itself – how often does that happen? That's why shooting this last season, it started sinking in for all of us, "Hey, this is special." We cherish this. And that, I'm very proud of.