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The Dark Knight rises

His hard-hitting role in HBO series Game of Thrones has helped push Danish actor Nikolaj Coster-Waldau to the edge of global stardom. And like his character, there's more to him than looking good in a suit of armour

The Dark Knight rises

Text by Ruth Styles

There's an old cliché that actors are always much smaller in the flesh than they appear on screen. Not Nikolaj Coster-Waldau. When I meet the Game of Thrones actor at a press junket at London's Corinthia Hotel, he dwarfs the other actors milling around - even the veteran English actor Charles Dance looks petite next to the 1.88m giant, his broad shoulders bulging and his muscled neck poking through a simple wool sweater.

Sporting standard-issue Scandi-in-Hollywood lank blond hair, Coster-Waldau looks like someone you'd find in an erotic novel; he seems custom-designed for swooning over. And while he's been compared to Prince Charming in Shrek, you can't quite imagine Prince Charming sleeping with his sister or throwing a child out of a tower window, two of the sins committed by "Kingslayer", Ser Jaime Lannister in just the first episode of Game of Thrones alone.

HBO's epic fantasy series has wowed critics, won awards and garnered an obsessive fanbase - all this despite its frequent nudity and bone-shuddering violence. (New York magazine recently voted the series' fans the most devoted in popular culture, ahead of followers of Lady Gaga and Justin Bieber.) The adaptation of George RR Martin's notoriously long-winded novels, about a group of families fighting for the throne of Westeros, based loosely on England in the Dark Ages, comes offlike Tolkien with anger issues and a severe case of nymphomania.

But it goes beyond the usual teenage fanboy fantasy realm because the characters are intriguing, even as they chop each others' heads off- it's the Mad Men of the Dark Ages, if you like - and Coster-Waldau says there's more to Lannister than meets the eye. "You start offthinking, 'Well, he's the bad guy, he's a horrible person,' but slowly, as the story progresses, you find out it's a little more complicated than that," says the actor in his gravelly, Danish-inflected English. "There is this whole side to him that you had no idea about - a man who is very articulate, a guy capable of empathy, who understands human nature, but is also a man of action. If he has to go through you to get to where he wants to go, he will, without any second thoughts."

Though the 42-year-old has played his share of one-dimensional, fantasy beefcakes, he made his name in 1994 with Nattevagten (Nightwatch), a much-acclaimed Danish thriller about a student who gets the nightshift at the morgue of a forensic department.

He has gone on to play the likes of a hard-drinking, immortal Dutch detective (for 2008 Fox series New Amsterdam); a high-class murderer in 2011's sharp Norwegian thriller Headhunters, based on Jo Nesbø's book; and, last year, a pair of identical twins in Guillermo del Toro's creepy horror film, Mama.

Along the way he's made a steady transition from Hollywood journeyman into something approaching stardom, helped by smaller roles in Ridley Scott movies Black Hawk Down (2001) and Kingdom of Heaven (2005). This month he appears alongside Tom Cruise and Morgan Freeman in Oblivion, a 3D version of Joseph Kosinski's sci-figraphic novel, and later in the year he'll star as Juliette Binoche's grouchy husband in Norwegian production A Thousand Times Good Night. Rumour has it he's also in the running to play the nefarious Baron Strucker in Captain America: The Winter Soldier, alongside Scarlett Johansson and Samuel L Jackson.

It seems a lot to fit in, given that he spends five months a year filming Game of Thrones in Belfast, away from Copenhagen, where his actress wife Nukaaka - a former Miss Greenland - lives with their two daughters. When we meet, he's just come back from the Grammys in Los Angeles and is looking forward to going home to his family. Born on the island of Langeland and brought up in Tybjerg, he doesn't seem the type to be overly impressed by Hollywood glitz, but he's not complaining. "I'm lucky I get the chance to do things other than Game of Thrones," he says. "I think that's why you get these great actors doing these cable shows. And I'm only two hours from home, so it's not that bad."

In between acting, Coster-Waldau has a punishing gym schedule - those muscles didn't just appear one day - which he also refuses to moan about. "It's physical, but not when you compare it to jobs like, say, being a miner," he says, breaking into one of his regular bouts of laughter. "Being an actor, you have a chair so you can sit down between takes if you want to. So I would never call my work hard. But it has its moments... There's a scene in series two when I'm tied up to a post in a cage, and we shot that over two days and it was pouring down with rain in Belfast. But at the end of the day I go back to my nice hotel room."

For a man whose character commits incest and kills babies, Coster-Waldau seems almost disappointingly grounded. The only time he gets slightly worked up is when he jokingly tells me how everyone hates the Lannisters. "They're like the Manchester United of Game of Thrones," he complains. "Apart from the team's own supporters, everybody hates them. When HBO comes out with posters, I'm always like, 'What? Another Stark poster! Bastards!'" With that, he's off, though I know it won't be the last time I see those biceps.

Season three of Game Of Thrones is currently screening. Season two is out this month on DVD 

Tall Order

Nikolaj Coster Waldau fits the stereotype of the giant Scandinavian actor. But are the leading men of Denmark, Sweden and Norway actually bigger than their American counterparts?

Scandinavia's leading men

Dolph Lundgren He-Man, bodybuilder and all-round Scandi action-man cliché

Alexander Skarsgard Lofty TV vampire and five-time winner of the 'Sexiest Man in Sweden' award

Pål Sverre Valheim Hagen The rising star - literally - of Norwegian cinema after his elevated performance in Kon-Tiki 

Peter Stormare The towering Swedish star of Prison Break and Lost

Nikolaj Coster Waldau Game of Thrones' giant great Dane

Mads Mikkelsen The medium-sized Cannes best actor winner for The Hunt 

Average height: 191cm

Hollywood's tallest

Samuel L Jackson 1.89
Morgan Freeman 1.88m
Will Smith 1.88m
Harrison Ford 1.85m
Tom Hanks 1.83m

Average height: 186cm


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