[Rudkøbing] was 40 people. It was tiny. It’s still tiny. But I don’t live there anymore. I’ve moved north to Copenhagen. But that’s life, isn’t it?
In Ric Roman Waugh’s Shot Caller, Nicolaj Coster-Waldau plays a white collar family man-turned-white nationalist convict, following a DUI-related involuntary manslaughter charge.
First, a full rewind: Coster-Waldau’s big break arrived in 1994 with Ole Bornedal’s Danish thriller Nightwatch, the springboard to the director’s 1997 U.S. remake of the same name starring Ewan McGregor and Patricia Arquette. That’s all but a distant memory now. As Jaime Lannister on HBO’s little-watched Game of Thrones, the 47-year-old Dane is one of the most prized actors on television, commanding a cool two million per season in the series’ seventh go around. He’s come a long way since his native Rudkøbing—just look at his latest film role as Jacob aka Money.
If you think Coster-Waldau has been called upon to do some distasteful things during his tenure on Game of Thrones—incest, attempted child murder—he was never asked to stick a drug-filled balloon up his ass, and with so much conviction, as he does in Shot Caller. When we’re introduced to Jacob, he’s being released from a maximum security prison, hair slicked back and sporting a handlebar moustache. Soon, we flash back ten years to him living a clean-cut financier life, happily married, and—as he’s about to find out—a DUI away from landing in the clink. The narrative continues to flip back-and-forth this way, adding new perspective to Jacob’s post-prison plans and how an unassuming suit became a muscular, tattooed white nationalist called Money. To be clear: toeing the white power line is but a ploy to protect himself and his family. It’s the longest con.
Shot Caller hits select theaters and On Demand on August 18.
You really are the man of the hour, Nikolaj. I’d imagine it’s relentless. You must be fielding questions about Game of Thrones just nonstop. It’s overwhelming, no? Does it ever die down?
I mean, yes, it does die down. Right now, of course, it’s intense with the show airing and we’re only seven episodes deep. But, you know, I try to stay away as much as I can. The truth is, you don’t really say anything about the show because you don’t want to give anything away. Usually, the questions are about the future of the show and that becomes a very short conversation. [Laughs] And I guess with season seven, we all just got used to it by now. It’s easier to deflect.
And if you’re watching, you don’t really want to know. That totally ruins the experience.
So with all these doors opening up to you, what was it that attracted you to Shot Caller?
Well, you start with the script. I was blown away when I read it. I identified with the guy. It’s the kind of story and movie I like myself. It had this feeling of going back to the great movies of the ’70s: talent-driven stories that also resonates on a moral level, if you will. It pains you, but it also gives you pause with thought. And I had met Ric [Roman Waugh], the director, a couple years before. We had a really great meeting and he had told me he spent a couple years in the prison system while doing research for Felon. So I trusted that he knew this world. When we met, I could just feel his passion and how important it was for him to get the world right and the details right.
I learned that Ric started out as a stuntman, which is obviously a great foundation in his approach to the action. And he also wrote Shot Caller. That must help you, right? It’s conceivable that you could ask him pretty much anything about Jacob and his motivations.
Yeah, that was the thing. Also, again, he knew so much about the prison system from the work he did for Felon. I just can’t imagine anyone else directing this script. He was able to guide not only me but all the actors and crew—the make-up artist to the costume coordinator—into the tiniest of details. He really knew this world inside out and understood it. Authenticity is so important to Ric. Luckily, for most people, this is a world that they don’t know firsthand. Luckily, most people haven’t been to prison. But I think he was able to capture the feeling so you believe that this is an authentic portrayal. I think that speaks volumes about his commitment and the way he works.
There are nuisances to your transformation, which looks sort of insane on paper. On a superficial level, you look dodgy. What was it like seeing yourself like that for the first time?
It’s a costume. It reminded me of theater school 27 years ago and being in class using all these Italian masks. You put that on and it would change your whole physicality. It’s kind of the same thing. When you put on a costume—here, of course, the ink and the facial hair—it transforms you. It changes the way you look and your face, and on top of that, I spent a lot of time bulking up so my body looked a little different as well. It’s all part of it and it helps you. It helped me believe that I could be this guy. Ken Dias was the make-up designer and he just did an amazing job with these tattoos. It’s one of those things because people are now so used to seeing tattoos. Ken pulled it off.
Your character gets caught up in the rivalry of gangs. He goes into survival mode and bundles up in white nationalism. Be it good for the film being more topical or bad in driving potential viewers away, what has been on your mind in the aftermath of Charlottesville?
I met a guy on Shot Caller—this guy who has a very similar story to Jacob. When I met him, of course, he had all the tattoos. He had some of it covered up and some of it darkened. He had a big swastika right on his neck. He had it all over his body. I asked him about this: “All you gang members—do you really believe in it? Do you read the books? How deep are you in the ideology?” And he said, “Not at all. We’re gangsters. It’s about money. It’s about control.” So I said, “Well, what about all this ink and all that?” He said, “We put it on to put fear in the opponent. That’s why we do it.” It’s the same when you look at Mexican gangs who have all these kinds of tattoos as well—it’s like war paint. I do think you get that feeling when you’re inside [prisons] because it’s scary. It would be wonderful if you could make a movie where race wasn’t a part of it, but it is in prison. It’s completely divided by race. The whites have this white pride bullshit, but that’s the gangs and it’s all about survival. I just thought it was fascinating to hear that it’s not ideology—it’s business. But no question about it: These guys are fucking gangsters. It’s about controlling drugs. It’s about controlling the weapons trade. It’s about controlling the streets. They don’t care about ideology.
You never really know until you’re the one standing there.
I love movies like that where you go, “Oh my god, this could happen to any of us.” And what would I do if I was put in his shoes? How would I react? What would I do if I stepped into a john and saw a guy get raped? What if I was told the same would happen to me if I didn’t stand up for myself? It’s all of those things. It’s almost impossible to answer this question. Yes, it would be wonderful if I could say with 100% conviction, “No, I would never join a gang and I would never resort to violence.” But fear will eat you up. One thing I learned from all the people I spoke to doing research is that you’re just afraid all the time. You can’t show fear, but you’re constantly afraid. When your guard is up, you might not be so rational and do things you might regret doing.
Where did you guys shoot Shot Caller?
We shot some of the exteriors in L.A. because, obviously, it’s set in L.A. Then we shot the majority of the movie in New Mexico in Albuquerque and outside of Santa Fe. There’s this old prison that’s now closed, but it used to be the site of the biggest prison riot in American history where 40-something inmates were killed. They closed it down, which made it possible for us to shoot there.
Were there people on set with you that knew this world firsthand, aside from Ric?
For sure. I mean, we obviously didn’t have any current inmates. But there were extras that had served time and that helps. We didn’t have the budget to ink up 200 people, so the ones who showed up had their own ink. Again, it gave the film its authenticity. But all the main actors were actors. I don’t think any of them had served real time. I don’t know. I can’t guarantee that. [Laughs]
You just lent your voice to The Simpsons, the cultural touchstone of touchstones. That’s wild.
It was a few lines. It was a lot of fun to meet the guys over there. They’re very nice and gracious. They showed me around the studio. It’s been 25, 26 years? Now I feel like I can retire having that.
Is it one of those things where you say yes without knowing exactly what they want you for?
Yeah, absolutely. I just said yes. [Laughs]
Your next film is Domino and it’s directed by Brian de Palma. What can you tell me?
Well, it’s a thriller. It’s a European movie. We’re so lucky that he came in to direct it. It’s an honor to work with someone that knowledgeable. He makes so many great movies. It’s been a great ride.
And you play a cop this time around, right?
Yeah, but this guy’s not just a good guy. That’s the thing: We’re all human beings. We live in a world where we’re very quick to want to divide and put “them” against “us.” We do it between nations. We do it between religions. We do it between sexes. I think it’s important to remember that we’re a lot more alike than we sometimes think we are. Jacob is the story of this guy to show that he’s like anyone else. I’m sure outside of making the stupid mistake of having a glass too many, Jacob probably has the same thoughts as everyone else. It’s easy to judge. We have to be careful not to judge each other too harshly. And, of course, the way we lock up non-violent offenders with violent ones is not a smart thing to do because we create more trouble than we need to.
Can I take you back? Your first feature was Denmark’s Nightwatch, which was later remade. I always wonder what actors take away from projects. What do you remember from that?
I remember quite a lot. It was my first job coming out of theater school. We were shooting a lot inside a morgue and I remember the extras being made up to be dead people. They would just have their hands done under the sheets. So we were shooting one scene that was very intense and, suddenly, we hear this noise. [Coster-Waldau feigns snoring.] One of the corpses had fallen asleep.
You’ve come a long way since Rudkøbing. It’s a really small town in Denmark, isn’t it?
It was 40 people. It was tiny. It’s still tiny. But I don’t live there anymore. I’ve moved north to Copenhagen. But that’s life, isn’t it? We move around. We never know where life takes you.
I can’t even imagine that—40 people. Do you have any ambitions to get behind the camera?
I’m developing a couple of things for the next couple of years, so we’ll see. Fingers crossed!