Nikolaj Coster-Waldau's Jaime Lannister on Game Of Thrones has become hardened over the last seven seasons by the politics and war of Westeros. But the actor's character Jacob in the film Shot Caller, in select theaters and On Demand, finds himself hardened by the real-life violence and fear that stems from the U.S. prison system. An affluent businessman imprisoned after he kills his friend in a drunk driving accident, Jacob completely changes his identity by joining a gang in prison in order to save himself and his family. And while the intense prison drama is not based on a true story, Coster-Waldau tells Bustle how he can understand the devastating decisions his character makes.
"[The film] has that thing about it [where] you go, 'Oh this could happen to any of us.' I mean, I don't want to believe I would get behind the wheel if I had a glass of wine, but it could happen. Or it could happen to a friend of mine," Coster-Waldau says in a recent phone interview. "And the consequences that seem so crazy when you start at the end, then when you follow the journey — well, it makes sense."
Shot Caller begins with Jacob — or "Money," as he's known to his gang — being released from prison after serving 10 years. The movies then flashes back and forth between the present and the past to show how this swanky Californian businessman with a loving wife and son went from a guy getting a DUI to one of the leading members of a skinhead, white supremacist gang.
"I just find it fascinating because he's not a bad guy. And a lot of these guys [in prison] are not bad guys," Coster-Waldau says. "You put nonviolent offenders ... into prisons with very violent people." And it's sometimes true: the U.S. Federal Bureau of Prisons has different security levels based on the crime perpetrated, but there are some examples of nonviolent felons being placed in high-security prisons with violent offenders, like what happens in Shot Caller.
"Then suddenly either you become violent or you become a victim. And none of those choices are nice," the actor continues. "But maybe you understand why some say, 'OK, well I'm not gonna be a victim.... I thought that was just interesting to see a guy who is not a criminal, but then he becomes one, and it's not out of choice, it's just circumstance and it happens in a way that I believe it. Given those sets of circumstances, I can't 100 percent say that I couldn't walk in a similar path like he did."
What helps Jacob be relatable despite his unbelievable surroundings is his backstory, in which he willingly pleads guilty to involuntary manslaughter and takes full responsibility for killing his friend. "He's absolutely ready to serve time, to be punished," Coster-Waldau says of his character. "And absolutely, he makes a terrible choice when he decides to, if you will, shake hands with the devil and join a gang. But given the circumstances, I understand it. And it has nothing to do with anything but suddenly living in a world of extreme fear. And I think fear will eat your soul."
The fact that fear can lead to bad decisions and divisiveness is one of the reasons why the Game Of Thrones actor was drawn to the project. "Often we're focused on dividing us into 'them' and 'us.' And we do it on a national level, we do it on a religious level, we do it on all kinds of areas of society where we clique up and we kind of push others away that don't seem to be like us," Coster-Waldau says. "And, of course, one of the most extreme ones is if you commit a crime and you become a criminal ... well, you become one of 'them' and you're no longer one of 'us' and you're no longer welcome with us."
"We're very good at judging each other," he continues. "And I think we have to loosen up when it comes to [judging right and wrong opinions and ideas] and understand. Empathy is important. Let's just be a little more emphatic towards each other."
This idea of empathy is significant to Coster-Waldau in real life, as well as in the roles he takes on, including that of Jaime on Game of Thrones. "I'm attracted to human stories, to human beings," the actor says. "And sometimes people that make wrong decisions and bad choices can be more interesting to follow in a story than the person who does all the right things all the time."
While Jacob's trajectory in Shot Caller is extreme and the consequences may seem "so crazy," as Coster-Waldau says, you may still, like the actor, find yourself identifying with the character. And no matter if you can relate or not, you'll be engrossed seeing how Coster-Waldau transforms because of Jacob's tragic situation in the horrifying and gritty Shot Caller.