During opening pleasantries for a Zoom interview with an actor, a reporter will often learn that the person they are interviewing is at their office in Los Angeles; a hotel in Manhattan, where the press junket is taking place; or, sometimes, in a car being shuttled to an airport.
Speaking with Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, the actor most famous for playing Jamie Lannister on Game of Thrones, may be the first time in my experience that the innocuous question of, “Where are you right now?” was answered with, “I’m in Nuuk, Greenland.”
The Danish actor’s wife is from Greenland, “which is why we have a house here,” he tells The Daily Beast’s Obsessed. He picks up his computer to point its camera towards the window, revealing a vista of azure-blue water and lush hills rising in the distance that rendered me dumbstruck. “Well, damn,” I say. “If it’s any consolation, it is really, really cold,” he replies.
The purpose of our conversation, sadly, is not for a house tour of an envy-inducing Greenland cottage, but to discuss Coster-Waldau’s role on the Apple TV+ series The Last Thing He Told Me. Based on Laura Dave’s best-selling 2021 mystery-thriller, The Last Thing He Told Me centers on a woman named Hannah (Jennifer Garner), whose life turns upside down when her perfect-seeming husband disappears without a trace, leaving her to care for his daughter (Angourie Rice’s Bailey)—her stepdaughter—and about a million questions.
(Warning: Spoilers ahead.)
The show’s season finale is now available to stream, answering many of those questions. Over the course of the season, we learn why Coster-Waldau’s character, Owen, vanished.
His true identity is “Ethan,” and he was married to Bailey’s birth mother—and Bailey used to be called “Kristin.” It turns out that Kristin’s grandfather, Nicolas, was involved with a crime syndicate, and her mother—Ethan’s wife—was killed after she didn’t follow through on a job for them. Ethan provided evidence to convict Nicolas. Kristin and he were placed in Witness Protection, but, after that was compromised, he decided to hide them himself and start a new life: he as Owen, and she as Bailey.
In the finale, we see that years have passed. Hannah is opening an exhibit at an art gallery, when she notices a mysterious man, his face almost entirely obscured by an overgrown beard. She clocks the wedding ring he’s wearing, and has an instant moment of recognition. It’s Owen. “The could-have-been boys still love you,” he whispers, referencing a conversation from their past. As Hannah stands shell-shocked, he leaves, and Bailey enters with a new boyfriend. She calls Hannah “Mom”—the first time we, as an audience, hear her do so. Hannah and Bailey, it seems, are finally settled and happy.
From Greenland, Coster-Waldau breaks down his own reaction to the finale, whether he thinks Owen was right for disappearing the way that he did, and what that dramatic, brief reunion between Owen and Hannah could mean.
When you signed on for this show, did you already know about the twists and turns it takes?
I didn’t know anything at first. I just knew it was Josh Singer who wrote it, and that piqued my interest. So I read the scripts and then, of course, I found out that he was married to the author, Laura Dave. My way in was through the scripts, not the book. I thought it was just a fascinating story. I love that this is a mystery thriller, but the engine within the core is this very sweet, very easy, basic, relatable story about a stepmother trying to connect with her or her stepdaughter. I thought that was very clever.
As outrageous as the twists might be, there is something about that relationship that a lot of people can connect to.
It gives the story this beautiful emotional core, which you need, because all the other stuff is thrilling, and it’s surprising. When I was reading the scripts, I was trying to guess, who is this guy? What happened? Because the setup is great. You believe 100 percent that these two, Hannah and Owen, are meant for each other. They love each other. He comes across as the perfect guy. She’s the perfect woman. They’re such a nice couple. And then finding out that he’s been keeping [secrets], that everything about him is something that he recreated himself—I thought that was fascinating.
When I was watching the season, I was relieved to learn about who Ethan was before he became Owen, and why he was in protection. It confirmed that he was a good guy. But I still felt betrayed by the fact that he had manufactured his life with Hannah. What was your reaction when you found out who Ethan was?
I think that it goes back to what he also says, which defines him: “I’ll do anything for my daughter and to protect my daughter.” You find out that he got caught up in something that he had no intention of being caught up in. He fell in love with a girl when he was young, and she had a father that he also kind of fell in love with. Sometimes that happens. He had a very different background. He’s suddenly in this world where, it seems, all his dreams come true. But then he found himself betrayed. He found himself being used in a way that he maybe couldn’t see the consequences of at first.
It is really easy to feel sympathy for him.
Then, of course, when his ex-wife, or his wife at the time, dies, I could understand why he felt the need to do what he did, to protect his daughter. It was so she wouldn’t live in that world, but also so he would be able to live with himself. Moving on to the present day story, is there a part of me that thinks, “Maybe one day you could have sat Hannah down and explained all of this to her? Or at least when you write a note, maybe making it more than two words could help?” Of course, but we wouldn’t have a show then. [Laughs]
What we see of their relationship at the beginning of the series is just so easy to root for.
In many of the scenes early on, I remember thinking he’s almost too nice. But of course, he’s so nice because the scenes we see are Hannah’s memories. They are her memories of falling in love with someone. When you fall in love with someone, you don’t see the flaws. You don’t want to see them. You only see what you want to see. But there are flaws in his personality, that’s for sure. I would hope that if I ever found myself in a similar situation, I might have chosen differently.
Before the reveal of why Ethan went into protection, I spent that half of the season hating this guy—thinking he was a real jackass for abandoning his family. Do you like playing a character that the audience might dislike?
Characters with secrets are always interesting. He has a lot of secrets. I think that most people [don’t have them] to this extent, but we are all flawed. The idea that we’re all 100 percent transparent at all times [is delusional]. We choose to reveal only parts of our personality. We all do that. We don’t even think about it. I do find that interesting. For all of us, there are gaps between what we say and what we do. I think that space is interesting to explore.
When Owen/Ethan returns in that big final scene, he’s got quite a scruffy look. Have you had a beard like that before?
I have had a beard like that. Maybe not quite the ZZ Top beard, but I have had a beard that was full and big. There was a lot of discussion about how [he should look]. At first it was just going to be a lot of tattoos, but I didn’t think that would work. He’s supposed to live in and be hiding in plain sight. That’s the idea, so that his past can come back and find him. I thought that if he was covered in tattoos, he would stand out. A beard changes your whole appearance.
That’s true. I barely recognized you.
We did a bunch of tests. There was one day where I had a big beard on, and I was like, “I gotta test this with Jennifer.” Because Jennifer was so committed to this whole story and to this character, Hannah. It was very inspiring. So I got the whole thing on. We were on the studio lot, and I said, “Where’s Jennifer?” She was doing another scene, and I snuck in.
She was sitting between takes, just minding her own business. I sat down next to her, and she didn’t know it was me. She thought it was just some guy. I just said, “The could-have-been boys still love you.” She looked over, and she didn’t recognize me at first. Then she gasped and got a real shock, in a good way. It was kind of an emotional moment.
Why was it emotional?
Throughout this show, Jennifer carries Hannah’s longing for finding Owen, to reconnect. He is the love of her life. For me [Jennifer’s surprise] was the reaction we wanted. I would be able to hide in plain sight. Now the question is: Is it a selfish act [for Owen to return?] Why can’t he just let her be? Why does he have to reappear?
Do you think it was selfish?
I do think it is a selfish thing. No question about it. He’s been longing for her, and he’s longing to be seen and to let her know that he appreciates what she’s done. Because she didn’t ask to be thrown into this. He just threw her in. “Now you have to take care of my daughter, because I can’t. She won’t be safe around me. Please do this.” And she did it, which is an incredible act of love.
After all this time, the only thing he says to her is that big line, “The could-have-been boys still love you.” Why do you think he chose that to say?
It goes back to a scene early in their courtship. He asks her about her past, this other guy, a former partner. She calls them “the could-have-been boys,” the loves that just never happened. And he’s become one of those. It’s, in a way, also saying, “We can’t be together. We could have. I will always love you.” It’s a sweet throwback, and maybe a way to say, “Maybe it’s time for you to let go.”
I do feel that, as an audience, you do believe that they are meant for each other, these two, and the circumstances just got in the way. But the love is still there. The love is intact at the end. They’re gonna have to make a second season, I guess.
The way Jennifer Garner played that scene, there are so many ways you could interpret her reaction. I’ve gone back and forth on whether this is the first time she’s seen him, or if it’s happened before. What did you think?
My read is this is the first time that she’s seen him. That is the shock. And I think the reason he does it now is that, just after this moment, we see his daughter, Bailey, come in. You can see that she has landed on her feet. She’s doing really well. She calls Hannah, “Mom.” You can feel that this is a tight unit now. For me, it was always a moment of gratitude, wanting to make sure that she understands that he’s seen her and he appreciates her sacrifice.
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