Against The Ice Star Nikolaj Coster-Waldau On His Real-Life Survival Thriller [Interview]

Nikolaj Coster-Waldau heard "winter is coming" on "Game of Thrones" for years, but apparently decided that he hadn't had quite enough ice and snow. In his latest film, "Against the Ice," now streaming on Netflix, the actor faces off against the icy wastes of Greenland with only a single companion and a pack of sled dogs. "Against the Ice" was a passion project for Coster-Waldau, who co-wrote the screenplay with Joe Derrick, based on the memoir "Two Against the Ice" by explorer Captain Ejnar Mikkelsen. 

In 1909, Mikkelsen and a crew of Danish explorers set out to prove that Greenland was one solid land mass. The United States claimed there was a split in the land, and that the portion on the side of the split closest to the North American continent was U.S. territory instead of belonging to Denmark. If Mikkelsen and his crew could prove that Greenland was whole, then the entire thing would be Danish territory. After a failed attempt to trek into the arctic with one of his champion explorers, Mikkelsen set out to try again. Unfortunately, the only person willing to join him was the ship's inexperienced young mechanic, Iver Iverson (Joe Cole). The two faced insurmountable odds but managed to discover the proof they need, only to realize that the trip back might be much harder than they expected. "Against the Ice" is both a survival movie and a psychological thriller, and a tale of friendship in the face of rising existential dread. It's also absolutely gorgeous to look at, with great steps taken to ensure the film had a properly icy authenticity. 

After checking out the film, I sat down with Coster-Waldau via Zoom to talk about filming conditions, his relationships with his human and canine co-stars, and what inspired him to undertake such a challenging experience. 

This interview has been lightly edited for clarity. 

'Everything we are is basically our own subjective experience'

So first off, this is clearly a labor of love — what about this story made you want to tackle writing a screenplay?

Well, there was a couple of things. I read the book that it's based on, "Two Against The Ice" by Ejnar Mikkelsen, and I really loved that. I've been looking for a story set in Greenland for some time. My wife's from Greenland, I've been coming there for the last 25 years and it's just the most magical place. So I thought, I've never seen it really on film. Then when I read the book, I was like, "Wow, this is an incredible book." First of all, it was exciting. It's an unbelievable story of survival, but it had something that I thought was really unique in terms of these stories, because it's set in this vast epic landscape. Then the same time, the second half is more or less this psychological thriller in this pressure-cooker of a situation.

I thought that was really interesting. Two very different characters. Most of these explorers are alpha males, like Ejnar Mikkelsen. They know everything and they're focused and they're on a mission. And then you have this other character who was none of that, and he just happens to be there by complete accident. And then he has the audacity of volunteering to go on this crazy — obviously he doesn't know it's going to be this crazy journey, but still he has already seen that this is dangerous and still, he just has blind faith in his captain. I thought that was beautiful. Then thirdly, there's a description that he has in his book of how they were both affected mentally that I thought was really moving and interesting.

After I read the book, we started doing research, we found this recording of these two old guys, it's from 1970, they're 90 and 84. Two old friends talking about back then. You can see the difference in them. You can still see the young men they were once. They talk about the journey. "Oh, you remember when you saw your grandfather sitting out there?" "Oh yeah. We went looking for him for days, didn't we." "Do you remember, we talked about what if a girl suddenly appeared and then, do you remember the postcard?" "Yes. And you picked three girls and I picked one." And then suddenly Mikkelsen says, "Yeah, and that was the one time you really disappointed me, when you let me down."

He says it with such clarity. You could just sense that there was so much more there, that this was not just a little thing, that these women had become so much more. That's where we really got inspired, where we thought this could be so interesting to go down that rabbit hole. Because he talks about it again and again in the book, that they see things that aren't there and they know they're not there, but they see them, so they are there. And that whole thing about the mind and everything we are is basically our own subjective experience.

'You can actually see what it's like up there'

In the film, the Arctic is almost a character itself. What was it like filming it in those conditions, and did you learn any survival tricks of your own along the way?

Stay warm. That's important, and not wet. But that was, from the get-go, we wanted to shoot everything in the Arctic and we wanted to everything to be in-camera. We didn't want to use computer generated images. We wanted it to be there, because there's no reason not to if you have the opportunity. There's so many gifts you get from being in the elements that you could never recreate.

You have a wind machine, fine, it just blows this direction. But when you're out, we all know nature, suddenly the wind, it's this way, then it's that way. The cold, when it's really cold as it was, it affects everything in your face, it affects the way you speak, all those things. Because that was, as I said, our ambition to make it as authentic as possible, that you can actually see what it's like up there. It blows your mind. Shooting in Greenland, it was challenging, but it was so worth it. The shots we have on the two sleds and the dogs going out on the frozen sea ice with the icebergs stuck, frozen. I haven't seen it before, and I'm really proud of that.

'Machines break down, but the dogs will keep going as long as you feed them'

Speaking of the dogs, what was it like working with whole dog sled teams? Did you learn how to mush at all?

I learned some. Obviously it takes a lifetime to master something like that. And I made some mistakes. They are still dogs, but what's exciting is just to watch them when they get in front of the sleds, the excitement, the power, the farting [laughs], that is just unbelievable. It's just a beautiful thing. And I love the fact that they've used dogs for so long in Greenland. They still use them in Northwest of Greenland because it is the best, the safest, the most reliable way of transporting yourself when it is as cold as it is out there. They don't make too much noise, because obviously up there you go hunting. This is the way, literally, to make a living. Going on a snowmobile or a machine, it's just too noisy. You'll scare everything away.

Also, machines break down, but the dogs will keep going as long as you feed them. So, it was a massive experience. In Iceland, of course we had some great wranglers — great, great people. In Greenland, we worked with local hunters and it was their own dogs. That was also just fascinating to see the trust the dogs had with their owner. They didn't quite trust me that way, but I didn't take offense.

'I've never had a fear of bad chemistry. I have a fear of bad acting'

Speaking of trust, you and Joe Cole had to kind of build some trust because your characters have such a deep relationship. How did you two navigate figuring that out? Not becoming too antagonistic or too friendly, too fast?

Well, Joe joined us fairly late in the process. He's a great actor. I mean, he's just such a great actor. I think sometimes the word "chemistry" is thrown around, but I've never had a fear of bad chemistry. I have a fear of bad acting. And then that was what we just said: We have to find the best actor. Of course we also have to find someone who is willing to make a movie like this, because going into it, we knew it was going to be really tough physically. If you love that kind of thing, it's a dream project, but if you don't, it's going to be hell.

So we need to find someone who was like, "Yes, I realize I'm going to be outdoors all day. I won't be able to go inside. I won't be able to sit in my trailer, but I will be on the most beautiful locations you can imagine." And Joe was all in. So, from the get-go, we became friends. He's just a great guy. So, it kind of just happened, once we started working on the scenes, reading the scenes together, you sense immediately that, "Okay this is perfect, we're going to have fun exploring this together." And we did.

'I think the next one we're planning to do is very, very different'

You're from Denmark, and your wife is from Greenland, and there are lots of great exploration tales there. Are there any other stories of explorers, either real or fictional, that you want to tell?

Well, there is one and he's been described in some novels. If you look up the King of Iceland, there's a story there, which is like a real life, 18th century "Forrest Gump" story. I do like that. So yes, there is that one. But no, I don't have anything ready to go. And I think the next one we're planning to do is very, very different. It's a whole different world, which I think is good. I'll go crazy if I have to shoot everything in the Arctic.

You don't get a ton of screen time together, but how was it working with Charles Dance again?

Oh, it was great. I was so happy that he agreed to come join us on the shoot. We had a great time on "Game of Thrones." And that's why I asked him, because I knew we needed someone with that kind of authority, with that kind of sharp wit, the edge to play the finance minister. He's not, and he should not be, a likable character, but you should still appreciate his intelligence and just the sheer power. Charles agreed to do it, I'm very grateful for that. And he just delivers and he just knocks it out of the park. It was fun filming in Reykjavik for a couple of days. 

Finally, what is your favorite movie about ice and snow? 

I've never thought of that before. When talking about ice and all that, it's not a movie like that at all, but I love Ang Lee's "The Ice Storm," but that's a whole different — it's not set in the Arctic. Oh yeah, I think it's called — Neil Scout, the Norwegian director, did a movie called "Pathfinder," 20 years ago I think. 30 years ago, maybe. Long time ago. That I thought was really cool, because they also shot everything on location and you could tell.

"Against the Ice" is currently streaming on Netflix.