Winter could have been over for Nikolaj Coster-Waldau when “Game of Thrones” ended in 2019, but the Danish star put himself back in the snow for his latest adventure, “Against the Ice.”
The film, which is now available on Netflix, follows the wild saga of Denmark’s Ejnar Mikkelsen, a captain, explorer and author who set out in 1909 to recover the maps and journals of a failed Artic expedition a few years prior. At stake was a dispute over Northeast Greenland, which the United States had claimed and which the Dutch were attempting to invalidate by proving that Greenland was one island. Mikkelsen had only his sled dogs and one inexperienced mate at his side for the mission, which kept getting more complicated.
It’s a project that has been with Coster-Waldau for almost a decade. Director Peter Flinth, a friend from school, sent Mikkelsen’s book “Two Against the Ice” to consider. Flinth had heard about it from the Queen of Denmark Margrethe II who had mentioned to Flinth that it might make a good movie. Coster-Waldau agreed and not only does he star: He also co-wrote the script with his longtime friend and collaborator Joe Derrick.
“It was a long journey. It was a complicated book to adapt.” Coster-Waldau, 51, said in a recent interview. “I’ve always loved survival stories, explorers who go to unknown places. It’s exciting. But what really caught me here was it was an unusual combination. Normally both men would have had the same ambitions and hopes but here one of them was a famous explorer and the other was literally just a mechanic. This is what actually saves them, that they were so different.”
They shot on location on glaciers mostly in Iceland, some in Greenland, and relied minimally on CGI. In casting Joe Cole as Mikkelsen’s very green companion Iver Iversen, the filmmakers warned the actor that the conditions would be harsh and comforts minimal. (There was a bus people could go to to get out of the elements for a bit, but no personal trailers on the glacier.)
At one point, Netflix sent back a note on footage they had seen worried that they were overdoing it with the snow and ice on his beard, not realizing that it was neither makeup nor effects — it was real. Funnily enough, Coster-Waldau said his fur period costumes proved warmer than the modern artic gear that much of the crew was wearing.
The film’s debut is a full circle moment for Coster-Waldau and Flinth, who over 30 years ago brought one of their student short films to New York, hoping it might open the doors to Hollywood magically. They got a screening room somewhere on Broadway and some friends showed up. It was a fun night but not exactly a career changer. But it made the premiere of “Against the Ice” at the Paris Theater this week even more poignant for the longtime friends.
“The fact that Nikolaj and I kept working on this story for so long is proof that it had enough material and substance to make it into a great movie,” Flinth said.
Friendship has been a theme of the whole project, both in the story itself and in the fact that Coster-Waldau and Derrick made their creative partnership official a few years ago, founding Ill Kippers Productions. It was actually seeing “Game of Thrones” showrunners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss work together that inspired him to start the company.
“I was like, wow, imagine going to work every day with your best friend,” he said.
“Game of Thrones” took up a lot of air in the culture when it was on, but Coster-Waldau has always been aware that there is life outside of Jaime Lannister. He started on the HBO show at age 41, after he was already a major star in his country and had had some big breaks and disappointments in Hollywood. It was on a trip where he found he’d lost out on the lead role in “John Carter” that he found out he’d booked a pilot about dragons. Though it might not have seemed like it at the time, it turned out to have been the best-case scenario.
“Game of Thrones” provided stability and renown and made him a household name in the U.S. But even during the eight-season run, he was always doing other projects. The only difference now is he doesn’t have a few months of his year blocked off to go film in Belfast and he has a little more time to write.
“I love acting. I love getting jobs as an actor,” he said. “But what we’re doing now is so much fun and so interesting, just to get in from the beginning of a story and help create it.”
And next up he has a multi-part Audible drama that Derrick wrote and he performs in that will debut sometime in May. He describes it as an “old school radio play.” But first, he’s enjoying the moment with “Against the Ice.”
“There is just such a sense of accomplishment and pride in this movie, because it was not an easy one to make,” he said. “Our ambitions were so high.”