Fans of Games Of Thrones may recognize Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, the show’s Jaime Lannister, at the beginning of his new crime thriller Shot Caller. But by the end of the film, he’s virtually unrecognizable. The plot follows clean-cut family man Jacob Harlon, played by Coster-Waldau, who is forced to join a prison gang for protection after being sent to jail for a tragic traffic accident. Out of necessity, Harlon goes from fun-loving everyman to hardened criminal, a transformation that Coster-Waldau had to go all out to portray.
“From the very beginning I thought it was important to show prison had changed this man dramatically,” Coster-Waldau says. In order to achieve this effect, he put on 20 pounds of muscle by adding meals to his diet and enlisting the help of long-time trainer Jesper Mouritzen to create a program that would give him the physique of someone who spent hours in the prison yard every day. The success of that program is evident in Shot Caller’s artwork, which shows off a tatted and powerful Coster-Waldau — a far cry from the Jaime Lannister you’re used to.
Did you spend any time with inmates before filming?
The director Ric (Roman Waugh) has made contacts in that world for while now. So he knew the right people to reach out to. Because of that, we were able to visit a few jails and meet both the inmates and the correctional officers. I learned a lot from those interactions.
Did you meet anyone who was a “shot caller” or prison gang leader?
I did get to meet one guy who was. His story was pretty similar to the one that we are telling here. He was put in jail when he was only 20 years old for a non-violent offense, and he ended up joining a gang to stay safe. These guys look tough, but when you ask them why they do anything, it’s because of fear. You’re ruled by fear.
Did putting on the tattoos help you get into character as well?
The shot caller I met called them his “war paint,” meaning that they’re supposed to intimidate his enemies. Putting them on absolutely helped me get into the mindset, along with growing the beard. My favorite tattoo was one that addressed the passage of time, which is on my lower stomach. This guy named Ken Diaz did them and we spent a lot of time researching ones you would actually see.
Tell me about going through that physical transformation.
Putting on the weight, about 20 pounds, was the hardest part really. I feel like I’m pretty naturally lean and my body didn’t agree with it at all. I was eating all the time. I don’t think I knew how hard it was to put on weight that way. For me it’s a lot easier to get lean. There is something that just feels horrible about eating more than you think you need when you’re already full.
Did you learn a lot about workouts they do in prison yards?
That was a really fascinating element to prison life I learned. If you watch documentaries or footage from the prison workout yards, you’ll notice that when the cameras are around, the inmates will stop training. It’s because they want to keep their regimes a secret. For them, that’s their way to get better than the next guy. Former inmates have written books about their workouts, but nobody who’s inside wants to share them.
Did you learn any exercises from the people you met?
There is one. They called them prison burpees. You do a burpee, then a pushup while bringing your knee up to your chest, alternating knees after the next pushup, then jumping up after the last one. Those were brutal. I got up to 50 of them at my strongest, and the guys were telling me they would do 300 to 500 of them in a row. They should put that move in the CrossFit Games.