Midway through the new prison drama, Shot Caller,there’s a sight that’s almost as fantastical as anything in Game of Thrones: Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, a.k.a. Jaime Lannister, squat-pressing another burly inmate in his cell as part of a DIY workout session. Somehow, in the midst of what’s otherwise a very gritty and grounded jailhouse story, the sight of the actor working out with a human “dumbbell” sends the film’s improbability factor into overdrive. According to Shot Caller‘s director, Ric Roman Waugh, though, this is precisely the kind of resourcefulness that inmates in the American prison industrial complex have to resort to when bulking up. “That’s what they do in prison,” Waugh tells Yahoo Movies. “Twenty-five years ago, they took the weight piles out of California prisons because the guys were all getting too big. Do you think they’re going to stop working out? No! They went, ‘I’ve got a different way to bench press. Get on my shoulders.‘”
For his part, Coster-Waldau didn’t question the believability of the moment. Neither did he call in a stunt guy to carry the… um, weight of the scene. Instead, he squatted down, invited co-star Keith Jardine to climb on his shoulders and then preceded to raise and lower the nearly 200-pound former MMA fighter-turned-actor. “He was very gentle with me, actually,” Coster-Waldau says, laughing. “He knew that he could kill me in a heartbeat.” In the film, the human squat-presses are only one small part of the intensive training regimen that Coster-Waldau’s character, Jacob Harlon, undergoes during his multi-year stint in the Big House, which transforms him from a well-off businessman into a hardened convict.
It’s worth nothing that getting in shape isn’t a lifestyle choice for Jacob. Instead, it’s both a survival mechanism and a prerequisite of belonging to the white supremacist gang he’s fallen in with for protection rather than any strong belief in their racist ideology. “Some of these gangs are like little armies,” the Danish actor explains. “If you don’t do the workout, you get punished. And they use each other because they’re not allowed to have dumbbells, because they can use them as weapons. So they come up with all these amazing workout routines that are so tough.” Of course, being a Westerosi warrior already demands a certain level of fitness, but Coster-Waldau upped the intensity of his workouts for his prison stint. “There are these crazy burpees you see in the movie where you do three push-ups and then a burpee. I did 60 of those, and I was puking!”
Little details like the existence of human dumbbells are just some of the facts that Waugh has acquired during his nine-year, three-movie residency in the American penal system. A former stuntman, he drew on the drama surrounding a real-life prison scandal for his 2008 feature, Felon, starring Stephen Dorff as a new fish and Val Kilmer as a battle-scarred jailhouse veteran. Five years later, he provided Dwayne Johnson with one of his meatiest dramatic roles in Snitch, playing a father who goes to extreme lengths in order to protect his incarcerated son. “What really strikes a chord with me with these stories is putting your protagonist in these situations where there’s only a left or right turn, and there is no reverse. That’s what prison gives you. I’ve had people say to me, ‘I wouldn’t want to stab people and murder, and so maybe I would just let myself get raped once.’ And I would think, ‘What makes you think it’s once?'”
Coming from Denmark, which boasts a markedly different prison environment, Coster-Waldau availed himself of his director’s extensive knowledge of what the general population faces in an American lockup. “Learning the history of the gang system inside the prisons and how that came about kind of shocked me,” he says. “I always assumed that the gangs originated in the streets and spilled into prison. To find out that a lot of these gangs originate from prison and are run from inside was mind-boggling. It was also shocking [to learn] that America locks up more people per capita than any other developed country in the world. Why is that? No country can afford to waste that kind of human resource. They European prison systems aren’t perfect or anything, but I look at the numbers and we just don’t lock up as many people.”
Currently playing in limited theatrical release and on VOD, Shot Caller marks the end of Waugh’s unofficial prison trilogy… for now, at least. His next assignment is Angel Has Fallen, the third chapter in the Gerard Butler-led franchise about trouble-prone Secret Service agent, Mike Banning. Having already battled terrorists inside the White House and on the streets of London, Banning now has to keep Air Force One aloft after its seized by trigger-happy gunmen. It’ll be the biggest-budgeted film Waugh has directed yet, but the confined setting of an airplane, even one as big as Air Force One, does make it a natural evolution from his training ground in claustrophobic jail cells. “They’re letting me redefine [the franchise] to where it’s a personal journey for Mike Banning,” Waugh reveals. “We’re getting inside Mike Banning’s head and understand what makes him tick. That’s where Gerry wants to go with the franchise, and that’s what really excited me because if you look at the movies I do, they’re always an intimate, insular look at things.” We can’t wait to see Butler do his own human-on-human squat-press.
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