From writer/director Ric Roman Waugh, the intense drama Shot Caller follows the all too real story of what happens when successful businessman Jacob Harlon (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) makes a life-altering mistake and is transformed into Money, a ruthless gangster, just to survive the American prison system. While locked up, he slowly loses his previous identity and his relationship to his former life, which includes his wife (Lake Bell) and son, so that by the time he’s released, his role in his new criminal family is solidified.
At the film’s Los Angeles press day, Collider got the opportunity to sit down with actor Nikolaj Coster-Waldau (who gives what will easily be one of the finest performances of the year) to talk about what attracted him to Shot Caller, the scary reality of the story, meeting with prisoners as part of his research for the role, the biggest challenge of this project, and seeing himself with all of the tattoos. He also talked about what he’ll miss most about Game of Thrones, once it’s all over, and when he’ll learn about the arc for the final season.
Collider: First of all, really remarkable and tremendous work in this film, so bravo on that!
NIKOLAJ COSTER-WALDAU: Thank you!
What attracted you to this project?
COSTER-WALDAU: I think it’s a great story. It’s not a happy movie. Obviously, it’s a piece of fiction, but Ric [Roman Waugh] clearly based it in a very real situation and it has an authenticity which makes it really interesting to follow. You believe that an experience in prison could be like that. And then, doing research for the movie, I met one guy, specifically, who would have been a shot caller himself, and his story was very similar to the story that we have. He was younger when he was put away, but he was a non-violent offender when he was put away and he became extremely violent inside. What is scary is that it’s not some crazy fantasy or sci-fi. The prison system today is so messed up. I know it’s a tagline on the movie, “Some criminals are made in prison,” but it’s actually true. The numbers and the facts are very clear. Almost 70% re-offend, and they re-offend, more often than not, with a worse crime than what they were put away for. And what’s mind-boggling is that it’s not in anyone’s interests. It’s a waste of enormous resources, with money, but also all of these young men and women that have their lives ruined.
There has to be a better way. Rehabilitation is such a tiny part of prison life, and I think that has to change. The funny thing is that there’s even bi-partisan agreement that it has to change, but the question is how. I don’t know how. One of the things I like about the movie, and with stories like this, is that fundamentally, as human beings, we’re very, very alike and a lot more alike than we think, but we have a tendency to divide the world into them and us. In prison, when people commit a crime and we put them away, they definitely become “them.” We don’t want to deal with it because they have chosen to step out of society, so we’re going to keep them out. Even if they serve their time, we’re going to make sure that, for the rest of their lives, they’re going to be branded. I don’t know how to do it in a different way, but I think it clearly doesn’t work.
This movie is an extreme story and his journey is horrific, but it happens. It could happen to any of us. We all would like to think that we would never, in a million years, have a glass of wine and get behind the wheel of a car, but it could happen, and then you could run a red light. In the movie, Jacob is saying, “Listen, I did this. I own it. I have to pay the price, and I have no problem with that.” But the fact is that you can’t just go and be locked up and serve your time. That’s not an option. You get locked up, and then you’re going to go through hell and, if you’re lucky, you’ll come out somewhat of a human being, but you’re probably going to be beyond traumatized, for the rest of your life. That’s ridiculous!
Were you ever intimidated, going to prisons and meeting with prisoners?
COSTER-WALDAU: I was always shocked in prison because it’s a scary place. It’s not natural to lock that many people up like that, in such a tiny place. There’s something disturbing about it. But there was one moment when I was with Ric and we went into this maximum security unit, and there were these glass doors into these tiny little cells. We saw one guy who was a gang member, and he was just standing there looking. His eyes were almost burning. That actually scared me. My mind was like, “He’s locked up. He’s behind glass. There’s nothing he can do.” I’d sat down with other inmates and hadn’t felt threatened, at any point, but then this one guy just scared the bejeezus out of me. The officer who was with us was like, “We should move away now.” I was like, “But he’s locked up!” I don’t know why, but he got a little worried, as well.
What was the biggest challenge of this project? Was this a difficult character to leave behind?
COSTER-WALDAU: My wife would probably disagree, but I don’t think I’ve ever had the need to go through therapy after a part. For me, it’s my job and I find human behavior really interesting. I think that’s ultimately what being an actor is. You explore what it means to be human, and here there was a lot to explore. So, the biggest challenge was connecting the dots. You know that this guy has had a huge change, but hopefully, when you look into his eyes, you do recognize that Jacob is still in there. He’s just forcefully been buried by Money, if you will. That’s what happens. That was the challenge. How do you make sure that you don’t lose the human? On top of that, there were some physical challenges you had to get through. There was a lot of working out and a lot of eating, just to gain some muscle, but that’s just a thing you have to do. I think the challenge was really the psychological journey of this guy.
Was it ever weird to see yourself with all of the tattoos?
COSTER-WALDAU: It’s really cool. I remember back in theater school, 27 years ago, we had mask class with old Italian masks. Once you put a mask on, if you allow it to, it can really transform you, and that’s what a costume does. With both the facial hair and the tattoos, it was extremely helpful for me to believe that I was this guy because I’m very far from being a hardened criminal. But then again, that’s part of the point of the movie. We’re very, very far from this, but at the core, we’re still very much the same. Just these last 20 years, the whole thing with tattoos has changed. Now, it’s almost a surprise, if you see a 20-year-old without tattoos.
What was it like to get to have those moments of Jacob with his family, where you really get a feel for what could have been?
COSTER-WALDAU: I was really happy with the scene with that young kid who played my teenage son, Jonathon McClendon, because it was such an important scene. When Money sees his grown son, it’s such a brief scene, but I’m very pleased with it because it gives you that emotional connection to the guy. You’ve seen this gangster and he’s so brutal and so tough, and he shows no feelings, and then suddenly, it all cracks and you see that he is that guy who broke down when he went to prison, in the beginning. It’s still there. That young man did such a great job. And Lake [Bell] and I spent some time, just for us, going through how they met, what happened before, and all of those things because it carries through the whole movie. It’s such an important part of it. I think Lake is amazing in the part. She does such a great job. It’s so heartbreaking because they had this amazing life, but then you make one mistake and there’s no way back. There is light in the darkness for the son and for Lake’s character, but not for Money. He’s doomed.
The first thing I remember seeing you in was the TV series New Amsterdam, which was one of those shows that just didn’t get enough time to develop into what it could have been.
COSTER-WALDAU: No, and I remember we hit the writers’ strike that year, so we only got to shoot eight episodes. They aired the eight, and then it was over. They always had three storylines – a love story, a present day crime story, and the flashbacks. It was too much to have three storylines in every episode, so we finally got rid of the love story. In the last episode, we found out that she’s not the one, and then they decided to strike. But, I enjoyed New Amsterdam.
As an actor, is it a funny contrast to have something like that happen, and then go on to be a part of one of the biggest TV shows ever, with Game of Thrones?
COSTER-WALDAU: Yeah, but you never know. I remember the year before Game of Thrones, I did a backdoor pilot, just after New Amsterdam, called Virtuality. I thought that was going to go because I thought it was a brilliant script, Pete Berg was the director, and it had a great cast. I thought, “This is going to go forever, or at least a couple of seasons!,” but it wasn’t picked up. And then, Game of Thrones came up and I thought, “Well, that’s interesting, but it’s never going to go.”