An interview with Nikolaj Coster-Waldau

Nordic

With the Dogme95 Manifesto celebrating its 20th anniversary, one of the movement’s own visionary filmmakers Susanne Bier (In a Better World, 2010) introduces her latest family thriller, A Second Chance. Game of Thrones (2011- ) and Headhunters (2011)star Nikolaj Coster-Waldau is family man Andreas, whose morals are questioned in the wake of a personal tragedy. His attempts to keep his family safe ultimately lead to a life-changing chain of events to which he cannot control.

We spoke with the Danish actor about his history of provocative roles, method acting, and his native Denmark.

You’re no stranger to morally ambiguous characters. What fascinated you about the character Andreas?

Nikolaj Coster-Waldau: I thought it was a great story; it was shocking but I understood why he did what he did. I think that when you’re a guy and in a relationship with a woman you’re going to come up against how different you are to your partner. The classic theme is that the woman needs to talk about something. I know that; I’ve been married forever and I keep making the same mistake about wanting to come up with the solutions to the problem. But that’s not what I’m supposed to do. As men, we want to fix it and, of course, in A Second Chance, there is an extreme problem. Andreas is in extreme shock; there’s no time to deal with his own feelings. Then in that state of mind he comes up with a crazy solution to a problem you can’t solve. Andreas does what he does because he is in shock and I thought that was really interesting. I was shocked throughout when I read the script and at the end when we find out what really happened it was a huge shock.

It was a very unexpected shock.

KCW: That’s what I love: those things in life that show how human beings constantly navigate through life. We meet people and put them into boxes that just happen all the time. Even though we clearly don’t know everything about each other, in our minds we have made up some kind of history based on experience and all those kinds of things. In the film, it is high stakes because it is life and death. Still, Andreas goes into that house and he makes a judgement [SNAPS FINGERS] just like that and the consequences are really interesting. When does the end justify the means? All those questions are fascinating. Then of course, I like the way that director Susanne Bier tells the story; it’s almost like a thriller but it’s a drama that you can’t escape from. A good script and a great director; that’s what attracted me to A Second Chance.

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Which character did your sympathies lie with?

NCW: Initially, I felt like Andreas did when he saw baby Sofus for the first time. How can you let this happen? There are no excuses for that. When I read the script I had the feeling of being so angry at someone and then, when they get sad, you change your mind and think ‘I didn’t mean it like that.’ But all the characters are interesting; there are so many. With Anna (May Anderson), Andreas’ wife, I also felt for her even though she knows she has done something terrible. A lot of people in the Western world go through this experience. That makes it even worse, so I really feel for her.

How did you bring your experiences as a father to the role?

NCW: I think, obviously, you use whatever you have based on whoever you are. You bring your experiences to whatever you do as an actor. There were scenes that were really dark where you can’t help but imagine what it would be like if it was your own kid. You use yourself, of course.

Did you feel any trepidation about the role considering how dark the narrative is?

NCW: No I don’t really care too much about those things. The main thing is that I really responded to the script and I really like Susanne as a director. If I started worrying about what people are going to think I shouldn’t be doing what I’m doing. I don’t think in terms of morals because I think the whole idea of morals is very interesting. Everyone has morals and there is always a gap between the morals you have and what you do. It’s never just the same, if that makes sense? We have the way we want to be and the way we are. Everyone’s different.

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Would you say you are a method actor or are you able to switch off your character when you leave the set?

NCW: Well, I don’t use my job as therapy. For me, I’m telling a story and it’s a craft. I know some method actors and I’ve never quite understood that when people say they can’t let go of their character. My response is: ‘That means you’re sick in a way!’ [LAUGHS] But, for me, it’s a craft and when I leave my day of shooting I don’t leave it behind. I’m still thinking about it; thinking ahead for the next day. In a film like A Second Chance, there are a lot of questions and you think about the dilemmas all the time. Also, with my wife, things come up and how they affect you, like everything in life.

Do you prefer acting in a Danish as opposed to an English-language production?

NCW: It doesn’t feel easier or harder; it feels the same and it’s great. There was a bonus that I worked with friends. Ulrich Thomsen, who plays my friend Simon in the film, we went to drama school together 20-odd years ago, so we have been friends for a long time and Nikolaj Lie Kaas, who plays Tristan, is also an old friend so you have a short-hand which is great. They’re all just brilliant actors. And Susanne Bier is one of the best directors I’ve worked with because she is so focused. As an actor it’s wonderful because she really cares about the performance. That’s what she’s after; the emotional response she can get. It’s very inspiring to work with her.

What do you think about the growing popularity of Nordic Noir and Danish cinema? How do you feel about its unique style?

NCW: I think it’s surprising. I don’t know why it happened but I think there is something from the amount of money invested by Danish Radio (DR), which is the equivalent of the BBC. They have really focused and spent a lot of resources in getting a strong drama department for the last thirty years. But in the last 20 years, there was a change in the way that film and television used to be made. Then they made the conscious decision to use as many established film directors and writers that they could which has really paid off. I’m sure it’s the same for you when you see a British show, you ask ‘Why is that popular?’ [LAUGHS] You know, when you react and say, ‘That was surprising!’ It’s weird. It’s like Borgen. That’s a very specific Danish show about the political system we have and it’s not unlike yours or unlike the American or Australian political systems, but it’s been really successful internationally which is great.

A Second Chance is released in UK cinemas Friday 20th March 2015

Words and Interview by Antony Smith