To audiences around the world he is best known as Jaime Lannister, the rakishly handsome Kingslayer of Game of Thrones whose vices include pushing children out of windows and sexing his power-drunk sister.
So it comes as quite the shock when you catch your first glimpse of Nikolaj Coster-Waldau in the new movie Shot Caller. The svelte scoundrel has been replaced by a swole inmate, his face obscured by a horseshoe mustache and his torso blanketed in ink. The words “WHITE PRIDE” are emblazoned in big black letters across his back.
Meet Money, the leader of a gang of neo-Nazi convicts and the titular shot caller. It took the 47-year-old Dane three months of heavy lifting and protein consumption to gain 20 pounds of muscle for the role, which sees him engage in prison-yard scraps with men twice his size.
“I thought I knew a lot about working out, but putting on mass just requires you to eat so much. I was eating all these protein-filled meals, shakes. I just ate a lot of fish and meat,” says Coster-Waldau. “Jaime doesn’t have to be buff, thankfully. He’s just a sister-lover.”
Coster-Waldau got so ripped that on one of the Canadian posters for Shot Caller, the film’s marketing department was caught having superimposed his head onto the body of Dwayne Johnson, as featured in the poster for director Ric Roman Waugh’s earlier film Snitch.
“Somehow, they just decided to use one of the posters of Snitch for Shot Caller. It’s clearly the same body, they just put my face on it,” he laughs. “Now that the cat’s out of the bag, I can confess that I’ve been Dwayne Johnson’s body double for some time.”
While Coster-Waldau ate a lot of meat and fish to help him bulk up, he didn’t go nearly as far as his Thrones co-star Jason Momoa, aka Khal Drogo, who can be seen later this year as Aquaman in the superhero team-up Justice League.
“Jason Momoa was always carrying around chicken in his pockets, because he had to bulk up like crazy,” says Coster-Waldau. “I was out drinking with him one night and he just pulls out this big plastic bag of chicken and starts eating it!”
As Waugh’s movie delves into the backstory of Money, we learn that he was once a successful finance guy by the name of Jacob Harlon with a loving wife (Lake Bell) and young son. One night, after a few drinks, he accidentally ran a red light and crashed his vehicle, killing his friend in the backseat. In lieu of a trial, Jacob pleaded guilty to a reduced charge, receiving an 18-month jail sentence. When he arrives in prison, however, he finds himself surrounded by violent offenders in a race-segregated hellscape, and is forced to join up with the white supremacists—including Shotgun (Jon Bernthal) and Bottles (Jeffrey Donovan)—in order to survive.
Shot Caller was filmed in the old Penitentiary of New Mexico, an abandoned jail on the outskirts of Santa Fe that was once the scene of the most violent prison riot in U.S. history: the 1980 New Mexico State Penitentiary riot, in which 33 inmates were killed, 200 more were injured, and seven correctional officers taken hostage were viciously beaten or raped. Waugh, who went undercover as a parole agent in California to prepare for the film, also shot his previous prison drama Felon on the premises, and used real-life ex-cons as extras.
Waugh wasn’t the only one who went above and beyond in preparation for Shot Caller. In addition to his body transformation, and the four hours in makeup to apply his tattoos, Coster-Waldau interviewed several ex-cons to gain insight into his character—including a reformed white nationalist.
“I met a guy who was 19 when he was locked up for the first time as a nonviolent offender, and he ended up as a shot caller. But he came into it—like Jacob does—completely unprepared for this world of violence. He was just a kid,” says Coster-Waldau.
The man’s numerous Nazi tattoos had since been covered up, although traces of them, including one on his neck, remained.
“I asked him, ‘Well, you’re a white supremacist.’ He said, ‘No I’m not. You don’t understand. It’s business. We’re just gangsters. These tattoos are a uniform we use to scare the enemy,’” remembers Coster-Waldau. “I said, ‘So there’s no one who’s into the ideology?’ and he replied, ‘Well, you can find a few guys, but most are just gangsters and inside they’re all scared.’”
As a teenager, the man was busted boosting cars but was thrown into a maximum-security prison teeming with murderers and rapists.
“I was not a nice guy. I was a punk. But I wasn’t violent when I got in. I learned how to be violent very quickly, because I was not going to be a victim or be abused,” he told the actor.
One of the defining moments of the movie comes when Jacob has to kill someone for the first time, stabbing a fellow inmate with a handmade shiv. It is, according to Coster-Waldau, “the moment of no return,” where we see him transform into Money before our very eyes.
Coster-Waldau asked the ex-con whether he’d experienced a moment similar to that one.
“Yes,” the man said. “The first time I had to stab someone, I was just petrified. I was so afraid—but I was more afraid of what would happen to me if I didn’t do it.”
Then he added, “But once I did it, and the blood started flowing, I felt empowered. I was in control.”
That first stabbing in Shot Caller—ordered by Bottles—adds seven years to Jacob’s sentence, and when he’s finally released, he appears to have lost all semblance of his former self. With the help of Shotgun and a new protégé (Emory Cohen), Money is organizing a blockbuster deal to sell stolen weapons to a Mexican drug cartel. It is only later that we discover Money is doing all this to protect his estranged wife and son from a neo-Nazi boss who holds the felon firmly under his thumb.
“He has a tattoo of ‘White Pride’ on his back. We were very specific to have it be ‘White Pride’ and not ‘White Power,’ though there were a lot of extras on set who had those. Because Money’s not really a white supremacist,” says Coster-Waldau.
While the Thrones star is aware that the film will receive added interest in the wake of Charlottesville, where a group of aggrieved neo-Nazis marched with tiki torches—and one of their own plowed his vehicle into a crowd of counterprotesters, killing 32-year-old Heather Heyer—he stresses that Shot Caller “isn’t American History X at all” but is rather “all about survival.”
“One of the things about the movie that people will hopefully question is how the whole rehabilitation part of locking people up is nonexistent. We’re losing entire generations and wasting so much money,” he says. “Yes, I believe that if you break the law you should pay the price, but when you put in nonviolent offenders with very violent people, that’s a recipe for disaster. They have to become violent to survive or they’ll be traumatized a different way—as victims.”