An in­ter­view with Shot Caller star Niko­laj Coster-wal­dau


Newsweek - - NEWS - BY MARY KAYE SCHILLING @Marykaye4real

NIKO­LAJ COSTER-WAL­DAU has the best furtive eye roll in the busi­ness. In the first episode of the sev­enth sea­son of Game of Thrones, play­ing the rogu­ish knight Ser Jaime Lan­nis­ter, he ob­serves Cer­sei, his twin and mother of their three dead chil­dren, de­liv­er­ing an un­hinged dec­la­ra­tion of re­venge and world dom­i­na­tion. As he stands over his sis­ter-lover, Jaime’s ex­pres­sion is price­less—de­vo­tion tem­pered by a side­long glance of “Yup, she cray-cray.”

Lan­nis­ter is a clas­sic bad guy. And yet if, as some pre­dict, he will be the fi­nal hero of Game of Thrones, view­ers will buy it be­cause the Dan­ish ac­tor has, with shad­ings of warmth and wit, hu­man­ized a char­ac­ter that has com­mit­ted in­cest, shoved a child from a tower win­dow, and pro­duced and pro­tected a son, Jof­frey, of epic vil­lainy.

It’s a neat trick and one that works well in his new film, which is set not in a fan­tasy land­scape but the Amer­i­can prison sys­tem. What the ac­tor found was that these two bru­tal worlds, rife with mur­der­ous power plays, aren’t that dif­fer­ent, though in the case of Shot Caller, it’s real hu­man be­ings, not fic­tional char­ac­ters, who are do­ing battle. In the film, Coster-wal­dau plays Jake, a suc­cess­ful busi­ness­man who ac­ci­den­tally kills a friend while DUI. Up un­til then, he’s hap­pily mar­ried, with a son, liv­ing a priv­i­leged life in Los An­ge­les. When a judge gives him a stiff sen­tence, Jake is in­car­cer­ated for seven years in a sys­tem that of­fers two choices, war­rior or vic­tim. He chooses the former, and the film dra­ma­tizes how prison’s code of ethics (called “gang­ster school”) even­tu­ally re­places Jake’s, trans­form­ing him into Money, a sol­dier in the Aryan brother­hood.

Coster-wal­dau vis­ited sev­eral pris­ons with the film’s di­rec­tor, Ric Ro­man Waugh, who went un­der­cover as a vol­un­teer with the Cal­i­for­nia Depart­ment of Cor­rec­tions to re­search Shot Caller. “Prison is not like The Shaw­shank Redemp­tion or Or­ange Is the New Black— which is very good by the way. I watch it with my two sis­ters,” says Coster-wal­dau with a laugh. “But you see stuff in­side that’s not that dif­fer­ent from the Mid­dle Ages. That part of so­ci­ety hasn’t re­ally evolved—the way we deal with crim­i­nals. It re­ally is sur­vival of the fittest.”

One rev­e­la­tion par­tic­u­larly sur­prised him. “I’d al­ways be­lieved gangs be­gan out­side prison and then con­tin­ued work­ing for their gangs in­side. But what I learned was that all these gangs started in­side, and they con­trol what hap­pens on the street from prison. They can do that be­cause, of course, it’s not just the in­mates who are afraid. It’s also the guards.”

“Vi­o­lence breeds vi­o­lence—that’s the dra­matic thread of the film,” says Waugh. The di­rec­tor’s in­ten­tion, to hu­man­ize the ex­pe­ri­ence, meant he wasn’t in­ter­ested in cre­at­ing cookie-cut­ter mon­sters. “There’s a tremen­dous num- ber of just hu­man be­ings in prison,” says Waugh, “peo­ple who have lost their way or made a mis­take, and who are do­ing every­thing they can to hold on to the moral code they had.”

Of course, there are also plenty of peo­ple who should never go free again, and Waugh in­tro­duced Coster-wal­dau to one of them. “Nik stared at the devil,” says Waugh. “Luck­ily, that devil was sep­a­rated from him by steel and glass.” He also in­tro­duced the ac­tor to a former shot caller, one of the men who rule the prison gangs. “A lot of the most no­to­ri­ous told me, ‘It’s never the guy that’s 6-foot-5 and 300 pounds that any­body’s scared of,” says Waugh. “It’s the lit­tle guy, be­cause he’s got every­thing to prove to sur­vive. He’s the per­son


who will sever some­one’s head so that no one will mess with him. The one com­mon­al­ity is how ab­so­lutely shrewd and smart they are.”

In play­ing a guy who ends up do­ing things he’d have never be­fore imag­ined him­self ca­pa­ble of, Coster-wal­dau “wanted to un­der­stand the vi­o­lence. How do you get to that point?” Fear, was the shot caller’s an­swer. “You’re scared all the time. The first time he stabbed some­one was be­cause he knew if he didn’t do it, the gang would take him down.” What most in­trigued the ac­tor was the re­sult­ing sense of em­pow­er­ment. “He told me, ‘Sud­denly, I was in con­trol, and I hadn’t been in con­trol of any­thing for so long. I en­joyed it.’ So then, he started look­ing for­ward to those mo­ments, which is so scary. But it makes sense to me.”

In 2015, Waugh made the doc­u­men­tary That Which I Love De­stroys Me, about two Iraq vets suf­fer­ing from post-trau­matic stress dis­or­der, and he sees sim­i­lar­i­ties be­tween re­turn­ing sol­diers and ex-cons. “Look, war and prison are ap­ples and or­anges; they’re very dif­fer­ent things and shouldn’t be cat­e­go­rized to­gether. But the rein­te­gra­tion for an in­di­vid­ual who has done a tremen­dous amount of time in a vi­o­lent place—that sense of de­tach­ment and es­trange­ment—is very sim­i­lar. A con­vict who has been in­side for five years or more, his brain has been rewired. Peo­ple don’t re­al­ize that’s where the re­cidi­vism rate comes from.”

In Amer­ica, two-thirds of parolees re­turn to prison, of­ten com­mit­ting crimes that are worse than what got them in­car­cer­ated in the first place. Waugh—who has, with Shot Caller, Felon and Snitch, made three films set in prison—is a critic of manda­tory min­i­mized sen­tenc­ing laws, par­tic­u­larly those for crimes in­volv­ing drugs, which the cur­rent ad­min­is­tra­tion is hop­ing to stiffen again. “I’m not mak­ing ex­cuses for crim­i­nals, but when peo­ple who have com­mit­ted non­vi­o­lent crimes are com­ing out as uber-vi­o­lent gang­sters,” says Waugh, “and when non­vi­o­lent of­fend­ers are do­ing more time than peo­ple ca­pa­ble of great vi­o­lence, there’s some­thing wrong.”

Coster-wal­dau de­scribes the Dan­ish prison sys­tem as fun­da­men­tally the same as Amer­ica’s, “but there are a lot less peo­ple in­car­cer­ated, per capita, and they don’t go away for such long pe­ri­ods of time.” His wife, the ac­tress and singer Nukaka, is from Greenland. There, he says, non­vi­o­lent crim­i­nals “are locked up at night, but in the day you’re free to leave the in­sti­tu­tion. It sounds crazy, but it makes sense. Greenland is tiny, just 55,000 peo­ple, and they’re say­ing, What you did is wrong, but we also know that you will be part of our so­ci­ety in the fu­ture, so you need to stay in con­tact with it.”

Waugh wanted Coster-wal­dau be­cause of his in­her­ent grav­i­tas, as well as his “in­nate abil­ity to bring a hu­man side to things,” but there was a sur­prise div­i­dend. In sev­eral scenes, Jake must re­sort to cre­ative use of his anal cav­ity. “It’s just a part of prison life,” says the di­rec­tor. “It’s the one place you can stash drugs and weapons, so for guys who’ve done ma­jor time, there’s no shame any­more. Nik, it turns out, has a pretty tal­ented butt.”

Coster-wal­dau laughs when I pass along the com­pli­ment. “That’s nice—and dis­turb­ing.”

HARD YARDS: Coster-wal­dau dur­ing the film’s riot scene. The 200 back­ground play­ers were former gang mem­bers and con­victs: “Men who would have killed each other in prison, smiled and pick each other up when I yelled cut,” says Waugh. “It was amaz­ing.”

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