Nikolaj Coster-Waldau can walk on water.
But this should come as no surprise to his fans, who’ve known that there was something special about the Danish actor ever since he picked up a broadsword three years ago to play the amoral warrior Jaime Lannister on the medieval-fantasy series Game of Thrones (psst… here’s the Game Of Thrones Workout). To me, though, it’s a shock. Sure, he’s doing it with the aid of a 3.6-metre paddleboard and a carbon-fibre oar. But as my board bucks wildly, Coster-Waldau’s vessel slices through the Pacific like a Viking longship.
And it’s his maiden voyage.
Having recently wrapped the sci-fi thriller Oblivion, Coster-Waldau – Nik, to his friends – is in Los Angeles for two extra days of shooting for GoT. We’ve met up on this blue-sky morning for a lesson in stand-up paddleboarding.
Our launch spot, Malibu’s Paradise Cove, lives up to its name: white sand, water so clear you can see your shadow on the ocean floor six metres below, and an escort of bemused harbour seals. Leading us is instructor Tyler Lennon, who tweaks our form on the fly. “Don’t look down,” he says. “Gaze at the horizon.” A quick study, Coster-Waldau is powering his way along the shoreline. “I feel like a gondolier!” he yells.
Relaxed but upright, waving to fellow boarders, the brawny, shaggy-haired 42-year-old – who has two films slated to open this year in addition to Oblivion – hardly comes across as an actor at the apex of his career. He’s happy to stay out of the limelight and the Hollywood scene. He lives in Copenhagen with his wife, a former Miss Greenland, and his two daughters. He’s delighted, on this particular day, to be exactly where he is, doing exactly what he’s doing. “Out here, all that,” he says, gesturing to the congested, conflicted city, “goes away”.
Coster-Waldau has come a long way to reach this moment. Offscreen he speaks with the slightest of accents (“usually” comes out yew-shwelly), and he carries himself with a hint of old-world formality. Except for those clues, you wouldn’t suspect that he spent his childhood 8 000km from here in the village of Tybjerg, home to exactly 40 people. A talented athlete, he had early dreams of glory on the fodbold field. Between schoolwork and practice, however, he was devising an even more audacious plan. “I always wanted to be an actor, but I just never told anyone,” he laughs. “I had this superstition that if I said it out loud, it wouldn’t come true.”
As a teenager, Coster-Waldau recalls being entranced with the layered performances by the actors in the Sergio Leone gangster epic Once Upon a Time in America – still his favourite movie. “Here I was growing up in a tiny village in Denmark,” he says. “And I’m identifying 100% with this gangster from New York. And I think how amazing would it be to explore human behaviour in that same way.”
No one in his family had any connection to theatre or film or television; his mother was a librarian, his father an office worker. He had no idea how he’d pull it off. But as he watched the young Robert De Niro, James Woods and Joe Pesci fight and rob banks and romance pretty girls, one thing was clear: “I wanted to work with guys like that.”
After shipping off to theatre school in the mid-90s and scoring a European hit with his first movie role (a tense and realistic turn in the Danish thriller Nightwatch), Coster-Waldau appeared on film with such heavyweights as Liam Neeson and Harrison Ford. This year alone he shares screen time with Tom Cruise and Morgan Freeman in Oblivion, Jessica Chastain in Mama, and Juliette Binoche in A Thousand Times Good Night. The man keeps very good company.
Much of this success, he says, can be attributed to lessons learned in athletics. “I love team sports,” he says, “and being in a movie [is like that]. If you’re not good, you’re going to pull everyone down.”
Years in the audition trenches have taught Coster-Waldau how to perform in the pinch as well. In the late 1990s, he remembers, “I flew to Los Angeles to read for the lead in Vertical Limit,” a mountain-climbing action movie. When he arrived, the studio picked him up in a fancy car, teased his hair into a Lethal Weapon-style mullet, and made him sign an inch-thick contract with numbers he couldn’t believe – all before he even read for the role.
And then he tanked the audition.
In denial, he recalls, he dropped thousands of dollars on fancy clothes in Beverly Hills, trying to convince himself that stardom was imminent. The next day, reality hit. “I took a nice big beautiful slice of humble pie,” he says, and returned the clothes. The part – and the paycheck – went to Chris O’Donnell.
Coster-Waldau took the lesson to heart. “You have to take control of the room,” he says. It’s your moment; it’s up to you to maximise your chances for success. When he reads for a part now, he refuses weird hair demands and may even reconfigure a room if it’s not conducive to showing his strengths. “You have to be sharp when the camera’s rolling,” he says. “I want to be totally unselfconscious, like a child playing. I do as much prep as possible so I can lose myself for those seconds.” It’s a seize-the-opportunity blueprint: lay the groundwork, prepare thoroughly and then let it all go and own the moment.
It’s not unlike what we’re trying to do this morning by the beach. Moving west along the coast, we regroup with Lennon, the instructor, in an inlet half a kilometre from our put-in point. To fitness professionals, stand-up paddleboarding is known as a self-limiting activity – a high-skill movement requiring full-body coordination and unwavering attentiveness. Climbing, sparring and Olympic weightlifting are other examples. Such activities carry risks – falling, being punched in the ribs, dropping a barbell on your head. Screw up your form on, say, a lat pull-down, and you probably won’t know it unless a trainer is nearby and calls you on it. Overcommit to port on a paddleboard, though and the icy ocean will slap your face in a second.
This element of danger does more than give you instant feedback on your form; it’s also what makes self-limiting activities exciting and fun. And that’s a big part of why Coster-Waldau prefers the single track and the ski trail to the gym. “I like sports where it’s all on you,” he says. “Where if you lose your focus for a second, it’s all over.” Coster-Waldau still goes to the gym, albeit a bit begrudgingly. For a guy in his profession, who on any given day might be called on to ride a galloping steed or stab a rival through the eye, strength and stamina are essential job requirements. “I go because of what it does for me,” he concedes. “I feel better and perform better.” It certainly helps that his trainer, Copenhagen-based Jesper Mouritzen, mixes things up and personally competes against Coster-Waldau during most workouts. “Jesper is huge, so he wins anything involving serious lifting,” says the actor. “I win at tyre flipping, though. I’m pretty fast.”
We reach our turnaround point and begin powering our way back. A chop kicks up, but we ride the wind, waves and kelp all the way back to the launch location without major drama. “I’ll paddle in first,” Lennon says. “Wait for my signal; then drop to your knees and paddle in as fast as you can.” We watch as he glides into shore. He’s already warned us that most falls occur when people launch or finish. “I thought for sure I’d fall into the ocean,” Coster-Waldau remarks, a little incredulous.
We rest for a while, waiting for the right moment to paddle in and Coster-Waldau reflects on the state of his career. “I’m just looking for good scripts,” he says, flashing a wolfish smile. His plan is to keep working on acting, to keep exploring human behaviour – the dark and the light. It’s a slow-burn strategy to ensure that his career doesn’t flame out.
A set of swells passes. On the instructor’s signal, Coster-Waldau hits the deck, digs his paddle in and races shoreward, in the direction of Los Angeles. His landing is perfect.