In ‘Against the Ice,’ Actor Nikolaj Coster-Waldau Is Not in King’s Landing Anymore
The Netflix film tells the true story of an early 20th-century explorer and his engineer fighting to survive in the Arctic. We talked to the ‘Game of Thrones’ star about what it was like filming on location in Greenland and Iceland in extreme conditions.
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Winter has already arrived in Against the Ice, an Arctic survival film starring Game of Thrones actor Nikolaj Coster-Waldau. (You might recognize him as the infamous Kingslayer Jaime Lannister.) The movie, streaming on Netflix, is based on the true story of Danish explorer Ejnar Mikkelsen (Coster-Waldau), who in 1909 embarked on a voyage with a six-person crew to determine whether Greenland was a singular land mass, in the process solidifying Denmark’s dominion over the island. But Mikkelsen’s adventure turns desperate when his crew leaves on a fishing boat while he’s still out on the ice during a scouting mission, leaving him marooned in the bitter tundra alongside engineer Iver Iversen (Peaky Blinders’ Joe Cole). The two men faced blistering conditions and hungry wildlife for almost 28 months.
Coster-Waldau, 51, also faced the elements while shooting Against the Ice in Greenland and Iceland. “We insisted from the beginning: we have to shoot everything on camera, on location in the Arctic,” he says. The Danish actor, who also co-wrote and co-produced the film, has visited the island for decades—his wife is originally from Greenland—so he knew how dramatic the landscapes and elements can be there.
We talked with the actor about acting in subzero temperatures, sparring with a stand-in polar bear, and working alongside a fleet of sled dogs.
Outside: There’s no green screen in this film—you’re actually in Greenland and Iceland. How did filming on location affect your performance?
Nikolaj Coster-Waldau: Nature is powerful when you’re there—it has almost a will of its own. But of course there were days when we got a lot more than we bargained for, and we had some storms that were ferocious. What’s so exciting is that the weather you see the film is what we really were experiencing. When the characters are struggling against the wind and in a snowstorm, we were really in a snowstorm during filming. There are a couple of shots where an hour after we got those shots, we all had to be evacuated from this glacier in Iceland because it was too dangerous. There was a guy in a van—a video assist guy—and suddenly rocks flew through the windows because the wind was so powerful. It was insane, but we kept shooting until that point. We shot in negative 18 degrees Fahrenheit. It was really cold. You can see that in the faces and the beards, the way you talk. It affects your performance and makes it all about wanting to be as authentic as possible.
What was the biggest challenge—mental or physical—of filming this movie?
I think that if I had to pick one, there’s the scene with the polar bear, which wasn’t a polar bear but this guy who was throwing me around. That was probably the toughest moment of the movie. There’s CGI, but to shoot it we had to have a stand-in to throw me. He was wearing a helmet with a polar bear head. He was a former Icelandic Olympian, the judo heavyweight champion of Iceland. Big guy, very strong. He was throwing me around, and after five, six, seven takes, I had to stop because I felt sick. I had a slight concussion from that experience.
Do you have a favorite survival movie or book?
I like stories about explorers going to unknown land and just breaking new ground. I think my favorite movie of that kind is The Right Stuff. I love that movie, about these guys exploring the limits of aviation. And then, of course, Free Solo from a couple years ago.
Your character in the film is drawn to extremes. Are there any extremes you gravitate toward?
I do a lot of mountain biking. I love when we’re in Greenland to go on hikes. We sometimes will take the tent with us and go off for a few days. I’ve never done anything like these guys—this is so extreme. I don’t have to feel that I’m about to die to enjoy it. I don’t need to BASE-jump. That’s not my thing.
What was it like to work with your furry castmates, the sled dogs?
Those dogs are so powerful. To see the hunters in Greenland with the dogs is incredible: how precise they are with the whip—the whip is never hurting the dogs, it’s just making a little sound next to them to go left, right, stop. This is a way of transportation that has been used for so long, and it’s still used in northwestern Greenland because it’s the best, the safest, the most economical way of traveling. And it’s with animals! The dogs were great—and they didn’t charge you for overtime.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.