In Guillermo de Toro’s new horror film Mama, Nikolaj Coster-Waldau plays identical twins Jeff and Lucas, the father and uncle respectively of two feral girls, Victoria and Lily. When Jeff disappears, Lucas and his girlfriend Annabel (Jessica Chastain) must save his nieces from the mysterious, amorphous, and angry maternal specter named “Mama.” It sounds like a familiar concept, and it is, but that doesn’t mean you want be jumping out of your seat every time Mama bursts into the frame.
Tall, blond, and multilingual, the Danish actor is most famous for his roles as lethal soldiers: Jaime “Kingslayer” Lannister on HBO’s Game of Thrones; Clas Greve, the unhinged marine-turned-businessman in the Norwegian thriller Headhunters . In his Game of Thrones armor, Coster-Waldau bears a striking resemblance to Prince Charming in the animated Shrek films. It’s hard to imagine a young Nikolaj watching Poltergeist or Friday the 13th and cowering in fear behind sofa cushions. But, as the actor assures us when we meet in New York, plenty of films had him hiding his eyes as a child.
EMMA BROWN: So the beginning of Mama was very upsetting—and I was wondering what do you think the difference between the twin brothers is that one of the brothers can go to this extreme?
NIKOLAJ COSTER-WALDAU: I think to believe you can never be pushed to commit an act of craziness… It’s dangerous not to acknowledge. I think we all have the capacity of evil in us. That story—what happened just before the beginning—is an interesting story, but it’s a different movie. When I read the script, I loved those first 10 pages, because I thought, “This is different. This is not what I expected.” Then, of course, it changes back into this other movie. But it was great to have it; when I played Luke, he knows that he is an identical twin [to Jeff] and I think he carries that guilt, which is also why he’s continued searching for his brother and for these kids, and then when he finds them it’s so important for him to take care of them. Even though, when you think about it, maybe he’s not making the right decision maybe, you could argue that he and Annabel aren’t really able to take care of children that are that traumatized.
BROWN: Horror is sort of a marginalized genre. Why do you think that is?
COSTER-WALDAU: [pauses] There are some great ones; there are also a lot of not-so-great ones. You can say that it’s unfair, but it’s also sometimes just because there’s a lot of crap being made. But it is interesting, because there is a weird sense of guilty pleasure watching these movies: you watch it and you feel sick and you feel, “Oh God. This is horrible! I’m sweating, I’m scared.” And you go out almost like you ran a marathon, so maybe that has something to do with it. I’m terrible with watching movies like that; as soon as the music goes [hums], “Dun dun dun,” I’m already looking away. But at the same time, I love The Shining, I can watch it again and again, even though every time it’s a horrible experience because I’m scared and just going, “Oh no, they’re going to cut to the twins!” And they do.
BROWN: Were you cautious about accepting a horror film when you first read the script?
COSTER-WALDAU: No. I wasn’t because I knew the people involved; I knew Guillermo del Toro was executive producing. Then I saw the three-minute short that Andy [Andrés Muschietti] and Barbara [Muschietti] did, and I thought that was brilliant and it was scary, and the way it was shot was beautiful, this long dragging shot. It was just brilliant. So by watching that you could see what kind of style they were looking for. Also, I liked the script—that every character, including Mama, has a real emotional motivation for what they do. I also liked that the ending wasn’t as I expected. It’s a poetic ending, I guess, so I hope the people don’t feel cheated.
BROWN: Do you remember the first film that scared you?
COSTER-WALDAU: Yes, there was a couple. There was Poltergeist—was that before or after The Exorcist?—one of those two. The Exorcist was the one with the head, right? That was scary.
BROWN: How old were you?
COSTER-WALDAU: I feel like I couldn’t have been that old. Then, when I was a little older, we got a video [player] and my friend had Friday the 13th and that was scary. [laughs] There was a Danish movie, which was old, from the ’40s. The killer was whistling a tune—I never saw the movie because I was hiding behind pillows—[but] I remember that [whistles]. A friend of mine, we saw it together and he knew I was really terrified and every time he would freak me out he would just whistle and I would go, “Ah! Don’t do that! Please!”
BROWN: Did you know Jessica was going to be in the movie when you signed on?
COSTER-WALDAU: I did. I think I, like the rest of the world, got introduced to Jessica last year when all these great movies came out. I had just seen Tree of Life and after I saw The Help and Take Shelter, which was such a great movie. She makes you better. Same with the kids, actually, they were so alive. I don’t know how they find these kids, it’s just brilliant.
BROWN: Did you ever worry about them being traumatized by the movie?
COSTER-WALDAU: Oh, no, I don’t worry about that. I’m sure the parents do… but no, I don’t. I’m sure they’ll be traumatized; they’ll never be the same.
BROWN: How much longer are you in New York for?
COSTER-WALDAU: Two days, and then Toronto and then LA. In LA I’m doing Game of Thrones—we have to shoot two days.
BROWN: In LA?
COSTER-WALDAU: Yeah, it’s unusual, but there’s one scene where one character—it has to be in LA, because the character can’t leave.
BROWN: Do you normally shoot in Belfast?
COSTER-WALDAU: Yeah, Belfast and in Croatia and then the other part of the story shoots in Morocco and Iceland.
BROWN: I know that the Game of Thrones writers sometimes play pranks on the cast members.
BROWN: Have they ever played a prank on you?
COSTER-WALDAU: No, they owe me one. I did one on them; this was Season One. There was a lot of talk about my hair —whether it was too long or too short or whatever—and I suddenly decided to see if I could pull a prank on them. I wrote them on a Saturday, I was back on Copenhagen, I said, “Guys, I’ve had enough of this talk about my hair. I’ve decided I need to own my character, so I’m going to have my hair cut. I’m going to send you a picture once it’s done. I hope you respect that and deal with it. Bye.” So I waited eight hours and then I sent the picture where I had a buzz cut and I’m just looking into the camera. I wrote: “This is it. He’s a soldier. I feel empowered. I’ll see you on set. —Nikolaj.”
And I didn’t hear back from them. Then I flew out to Dublin and I [still] didn’t hear from them, so I thought they didn’t buy it. I arrive, I’m in the car going to work and I get a call from the assistant director and he goes, [whispers nervously] “Nikolaj. Hey… d-do you have any hair?” I said, “Who’s asking?” He said, “We’ve got this picture of you and I’ve got hair and makeup, they’re all trying to find a wig for you and it’s all very dramatic.” So apparently they believed me and they were already calling HBO headquarters and my manager and everyone was so angry. Of course I was just pulling a prank and trying to be funny, and it worked—they did appreciate it in the end—but I felt bad. But the worst thing is that, ever since I know that Dan [Weiss] and David [Benioff], the executive producer, they’re just waiting now. It’s been almost two years and every time I’ll come on set, I look into my trailer—I expect something bad to happen, which is terrible. So no they haven’t pulled a prank on me yet. That was a long answer. [laughs]
BROWN: No, I liked it, a little story. Is there anyone from the Game of Thrones cast who you haven’t really had a chance to talk to?
COSTER-WALDAU: A lot of the guys I haven’t had a chance to talk to because we’re so separated in these worlds. We meet at the read through and at press junctions, but I think I’ve met most of them actually… but it’s a great cast.
BROWN: Who in particular would you want to have a drink with?
COSTER-WALDAU: Well, there’s a lot of them, but if you ask me of someone I haven’t met yet, [there’s] a really good actor, he plays Mance Rayder, and his name is…
BROWN: Oh, Ciaran Hinds?
COSTER-WALDAU: Yeah, exactly. He’s a great actor, so I’ll have a beer with him, hopefully.
MAMA OPENS IN THEATERS FRIDAY, JANUARY 18. GAME OF THRONES RETURNS MARCH 31 ON HBO.