When it began in 2011, the sex and violence of HBO’s fantasy drama Game of Thrones – based on the novels by George RR Martin – got some people harrumphing, but many millions more in 60 countries were hooked.
The Stark family were the good guys, a sort of salt-of-the-(middle)-earth kind of people. By contrast, the Lannisters were the villains of the piece, metropolitan schemers dead set on reclaiming the throne in King’s Landing, the capital of Westeros. The scene was set in the first episode, when favoured son Jaime Lannister threw the young Stark boy, Bran, out of a tower window after Bran happened to catch Jaime and his twin sister Cersei in flagrante. Not nice.
So, incest, infanticide, high treason, more than a little smug – the rap sheet against Jaime when we first met him was long. He began the show as the boo-hiss panto villain, a man known as the Kingslayer on account of having killed his old boss, mad King Aerys Targaryen, and his innate superciliousness instantly made him the preening high-school jock everyone was willing to fail.
But last series saw a turnaround. Jaime had been captured by the Starks but a deal was struck and he found himself being escorted back to his family by the Amazonian Brienne of Tarth. He began by mocking her in his usual fashion, snide spirit unbowed – but as the series went on a more human side was revealed. Finally, in a climactic scene (in a bath tub), he told Brienne why he killed the king. It was to stop the monarch murdering nearly everyone in King’s Landing – the Kingslayer was a hero, not a knave.
“His whole life has been spent being a soldier and it’s a very hard, brutal, unsentimental world that he lives in,” says Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, who plays Jaime. “Clearly he’s lost his innocence over the years and has become very cynical. But meeting Brienne and seeing her innocence, her extreme belief in doing the right thing and being honourable, has kind of reminded him of what he was, what he believes in and maybe what he still wants to be.”
That’s not to say he’s not still a little conflicted. “Well, he still has... issues with his sister! The guy has only ever been with this woman. I think there’s a very strong physical attraction, just a basic physical need that he carries that’s driving him crazy. Without giving anything away, in their first scene he says, ‘Listen, I’ve been home for weeks now. Can we, erm...”
Series four sees Jaime back at King’s Landing with his family, the Lannisters, in power. He’s been made the Lord Commander of the Kingsguard, but he’s still, essentially, working for Daddy, the domineering Tywin Lannister (Charles Dance). Jaime is reminded almost daily that he is a Lannister. What does that mean?
“I don’t think it necessarily means being bad, but it means you have been brought up in a world where no one else really matters unless you can use them. I think for all these children of Tywin – Cersei [Lena Headey], Tyrion [Peter Dinklage] and me – you’ve been taught that you are superior and that no one, nothing is more important than your family.”
Being a Lannister also means being fantastically rich. When Jaime and Brienne were kidnapped last series, the Kingslayer reached for his purse and expected to be able to buy his captors off. “Jaime has grown up believing that gold outweighs everything. That was until he met Locke [his captor], and suddenly there was a different thing, basically pure hatred – disgust at the Lannisters, their self-entitlement and privilege; the Lannister belief that whatever you say, I can just buy you. But he couldn’t.”
Instead, in a scene particularly gruesome even for Game of Thrones, Locke chopped off Jaime’s sword hand and hung it round his neck. Now Westeros’s greatest swordsman must learn to fight southpaw.
“I’m right handed. I’m never as good with my left as I am my right, so it is a little bit like having to learn again. But you have to remember that Jaime’s a soldier, he’s been trained his whole life – of course he can fight with his left hand. We just can’t make him too good too soon.”
Coster-Waldau is Danish, and has been working for 20 years, but Game of Thrones has brought him to global attention. “Of course, it opens some doors,” he says, pointing to his lead role in Jo Nesbo’s Headhunters and upcoming roles in A Thousand Times Goodnight with Juliette Binoche and The Other Woman with Cameron Diaz.
He is, of course, not the only Dane to achieve sudden prominence. Kim Bodnia, Martin in The Bridge, was two years above him in drama school. The two of them starred together in Nightwatch in 1993, which was both of their debut features. A young actress named Sofie Grabol played his wife in that same film, long before she found fame in The Killing. He’s also worked with Birgitte Hjort Sorensen, who played journalist Katrine in Borgen, and has just starred in a film with Nikolaj Lee Kas, who played Sarah Lund’s ex, Matthias, in the final series of The Killing.
“I know all of them, yeah. It’s a small country! There are 900 members of the Danish Actors Association and one or two hundred of those work, so it’s a small pool. But I love those TV shows – there’s a new one that hasn’t aired here yet called The Legacy, which is just brilliant.” [It’s coming to Sky Arts this autumn.]
So when can we look forward to Jaime Lannister making his debut appearance in the next Scandi phenomenon?
“I’ve been asked a couple of times. I just haven’t been able to. I would love to do some of those, but they shoot for a long time and, er, I have a day job...” he says, pointing to the massive Game of Thrones poster looming behind us with his scarred face front and centre.
Game of Thrones series four starts on Monday 7 April at 2:00am and 9:00pm on Sky Atlantic.