The first thing you notice about Nikolaj Coster-Waldau is, well, let’s just acknowledge the elephant in the room here: he’s very handsome. The Danish actor is allegedly 51, though he could easily be confused for a 30-something male model with a few grey patches added to make him look distinguished. It’s easy to see why he was cast as the poison-pilled Prince Valiant in Game Of Thrones, Jaime Lannister, with golden boy looks so symmetrical that they ride the line between endearing and offputting.
Coster-Waldau will probably be synonymous with Jaime Lannister for a few years to come, at least with English-speaking audiences, a role for which he was nominated for an Emmy, eventually losing to his costar Peter Dinklage. But anyone who can play a native English speaker so convincingly without being one is clearly more than just handsome. It always blows my mostly-monolingual American mind a little bit when an actor with a noticeable Danish accent can lose that accent for a role.
This month Coster-Waldau is putting those talents (and yes, that enviable jawline) towards A Taste Of Hunger, director Christoffer Boe’s film about a single-minded chef pursuing a Michelin star while trying to balance a marriage that blurs the line between work and pleasure (with costar Katrine Gries-Rosenthal, a dead ringer for Sopranos-era Jamie Lynn Sigler). Jaime Lannister was a character we first met when he was tossing a child out of a window, who throughout the course of the show eventually becomes at least medium sympathetic. In A Taste Of Hunger, Coster-Waldau displays that same knack for adding levels, to a character who could easily come off two-dimensional. “Carsten” is driven and demanding, trying to compete in the cutthroat world of Copenhagen fine dining.
When the film opens in Carsten’s airy kitchen workshop, filled with glass jars of pickled ingredients and other food experiments, most food-television enthusiasts will instantly think of Noma, the world-famous three-Michelin-starred Copenhagen restaurant featured in countless food shows. Perhaps not quite to the degree that Pig imagines a secret underground of truffle purveyors in Portland, A Taste Of Hunger applies a heightened drama to the Copenhagen Michelin race, with a script co-written by Tobias Lindholm, of Another Round and The Hunt.
We spoke to Coster-Waldau this week, about food, acting, and dialect coaches.
You play a chef in this movie — are you a big food guy?
I love to eat, yes. I’m not a great chef myself. I mean, I’ll cook, I cook for my family, but I would not pick me as the go-to guy. I can provide sustenance. It’s not an emotional experience to eat my food.
Did you get to do any training or preparation for the movie?
Oh, I did, I was very lucky. I got to spend time with a couple of fantastic chefs. I mean, one guy called Rasmus (Kofoed), here in Copenhagen, he won the Bocuse d’Or, which is like world championship of chefs, years back, and now he has a three-star Michelin rated restaurant called Geranium here in Copenhagen. He was just so gracious, and he took me in, and I spent time just to understand the passion, the perseverance, the work ethic that goes into creating restaurants at that level. I even got to put on the outfit, and I was in the kitchen with the other chefs. It was a real treat. I didn’t ruin anyone’s food though.
Did he up your home cooking game at all?
Eh… a little bit. I mean, I think that would be the equivalent of never having played basketball before and then starting with being taught by Stephen Curry, “Go play with Steph.” I’m not sure it would help that much. I think these should start on a different level. I saw some stuff, and I got some tools that I could use, but there’s a way to go before I’m ready for the three-star game.
The movie’s about the Copenhagen fine dining scene. Is it as competitive in real life, or do you think it’s heightened for dramatic effect in the movie?
Well, I think it is as competitive, it’s also… I mean, God knows it’s not easier now after this pandemic. They’re dropping left, right, and center, but we were very lucky. We had all the extras that are in my character’s restaurant, all came from the restaurant business, so I could constantly ask them about, “What would this guy do here? Is it believable if he loses his cool? Have you experienced something like this?” Because there’s a couple of scenes where my character loses his cool, and he fires a guy, and they were all like saying, “Yeah, yeah, this happens all the time.” Because there is just a lot of pressure, and the hours are insane. And as you say, it is competitive.
Did you ever do any work in restaurants when you were coming up as a young actor?
No, I never did that. I worked in various stores, but never in a restaurant.
In hanging out with those young chefs, did you see any similarities between that lifestyle and being an actor?
Well, I think that there are similarities. The dedication that you need to succeed… A great restaurant is more than just food, it’s also telling a story in many ways. I mean, that kind of thing, like when I was young, we had our daughters, and I was very ambitious, so that whole thing, but I think that goes for anyone. When you’re young, you’re trying to make your way in life, and then when you have a family, you don’t want to compromise, but you have to. I think that’s what I loved about this movie. It’s not a simple thing. It’s not like, “Oh, he’s the good guy, and she’s the bad guy,” I mean, they’re in this together, and they’re trying to find their way.
So your character, and your wife’s character in the movie, you guys sort of bond over this late-night hot dog kind of thing. Is that pretty typical late-night food in Denmark? What are the late-night foods besides a hot dog?
I mean, that’s one of them, and then of course you have a slice of pizza, kebab, that kind of stuff. But in Denmark, the hotdog stand is a very specific thing.
In the hot dog scene, I think you guys put, what was it, mayo, ketchup, and pickles? Is that a pretty standard Danish hot dog topping?
That’s it. Custard as well [I think he meant to say mustard here, but I’m not entirely sure, -Ed.], and there’s different ways you can do it, but yeah. That’s what you do, it’s the full — if you want to get the arteries clogging, that’s what you get. Fuck up those arteries.
When you’re shooting outside of Denmark, are there local foods that you miss?
I don’t know… I mean, usually the bread is what I miss.
Special kinds, or just generally you think the bread is better in Denmark?
Well, I mean, we’ve got good bread [generally], but [specifically] it’s rye bread, just really dark, dark rye bread. It’s something you grow up on here. But no, when I travel, because I’ve been very lucky to travel a lot of places, mostly I like to go and experience whatever they have to offer.
That’s the fun of going to different places for me. Are there any different foods that you’ve discovered, and stick out in your mind, or that you’ve brought back from places that you’ve been able to shoot?
Oh, I wish I could bring them back and then recreate them, but that’s not going to happen. I was recently in Mexico, and we were shooting in this small town, and there was just this… you know that thing, we get tacos everywhere, and in LA, there are taco stands there. But sometimes it’s also the whole, the location definitely played into it, but it was just one of the most delicious tacos I’ve ever had. I don’t know why, I’m sure it was the location, and then maybe they had some special thing they put on it. But I mean, for me, it’s not about it being in a fancy restaurant, necessarily. I think we all know that when we travel, it’s not necessarily, “Oh, we went to this incredibly nice restaurant,” but it’s like, “Oh no, we went to this restaurant, and then we met this waiter, and he was just the nicest guy, and we got talking to him…” It’s always the whole thing, right?
Yeah, the full experience. It seems like you shift pretty seamlessly between English roles and Danish ones, is there a lot of work that you have to put in to be able to do that?
I mean, obviously I have, depending on what kind of part, I will have someone to help me out with getting accents right. The dialect coaching and stuff, so I don’t sound like I come from the same place every time. But no, I never think of it like going back and forth. Usually, it’s just for me is like, “Oh, this script is really cool. It happens to be an English character, or an American, or a Danish character.” The actual shoot obviously is different, because there are cultural differences as always. But yes, I guess it is kind of seamless, I don’t think too much about it.
Other actors, when they’re Scandinavian, I’ll probably notice [the accent] at a certain point, just with certain words. But I don’t remember ever noticing that in your English roles.
That’s good. I remember living in London 25 years ago, and I was so upset every time I was caught out, and obviously I was caught out all the time. But that made me work even harder to try to crack that thing. I’m still working on it, but it is part of it of course. There are a lot of things that go into it. I don’t want that part of it to take you out of the illusion.
What is the film industry like in Denmark? Is it small enough that you sort of know each other? Is there a pride in it, where you root for other Danish filmmakers and actors?
Oh, well, it’s a fantastic film industry. Obviously, I’m biased, but I think we have some great, great directors. We have a long tradition, we have the oldest studio in the world, is here in Copenhagen. Last year, we won Best Foreign for Another Round, which is a wonderful movie. This year, we have a great movie called Flee, which is in contention [on which Nikolaj is an executive producer -Ed]. Fingers crossed it’ll get a nomination. So yeah, it’s a great film industry.
‘A Taste Of Hunger’ hits theaters and OnDemand platforms January 28th. Vince Mancini is on Twitter. You can access his archive of reviews here.