'Den Of Thieves' Star Gerard Butler On Becoming Big Nick [Interview]

Gerard Butler is more often than not the biggest guy in the room. Or at least in his movies. Whether he's going after the justice system, protecting the president, or delivering Shakespeare, he's going bigger than everyone else...and he's usually ripped. In Den of Thieves, playing a bull of an LAPD cop, Big Nick, he looks like a mammoth compared to some of those past roles.

The character's size isn't the only reason Butler disappears as Big Nick – it's also his attitude. Christian Gudegat's directorial debut has one of Butler's meatiest roles to date: a deeply flawed, isolated and dedicated cop. We spoke with the actor about how he wanted to play Big Nick, the transformation he made with the role, and some of his favorite actors.

Below, read our Gerard Butler interview.

You did quite a bit of research for this film. From the discussions you had and what you learned about Big Nick's job, what about that lifestyle did you want to communicate or portray?

For me, I think trying to communicate that modern-day warrior. This guy who's a silver-backed gorilla. What that means as a policeman, what that means and how he reacts with people. How he chews up every space. How he dominates people. He dominates the mood in a room physically, emotionally. And the impact that can have around him, that can have against his enemies and it can have with his family, both the negative impact, the positive impact. But just what it takes to be a person that lives in that space, that operates to that level of danger and brilliance and professionalism.

Then also examine a side of him being so impulsive. Being damned of consequences and he acts, and to hell with it. I love that because it allowed me to surprise myself and feel completely unpredictable and also know that you're surprising the hell out of an audience as well. Where am I going to take this? Loving the fact that you don't know. He thinks outside of the box. Anybody else would play on a chessboard but I'll take a gun and shoot you in the brain, you take my pawn, I'm going to shoot you in the head. It's like you never know what he's going to do, and I just felt like an interesting psychology to climb into.

The character tells his wife it's all street theater, but it makes you wonder how much of it is street theater and how much of it is really him. He seems at odds with himself.

I think that's bang on. There comes a time where you can't really justify the actions he's taking anymore, and I feel like his journey through this movie is, all right, I've gone too far. Because people have put up with it until now, but then you don't realize until it's too late, and he's lost his wife and he's lost his kids, and he can't see anymore that it is street theater because there is a certain amount of addiction and enjoyment in the way he lives that life. Yeah, it's bruised him, it's beaten him up, but at the same time, he's also eating up that adrenaline. That's hard when you leave that to go home, and how do you be the sweet dad who's in a good mood all the time, and how do you be consistent for your wife? And how do you be a loyal, dear husband? It's hard. He's feeling the brunt of that now.

I was surprised by how much the movie takes its time, especially with his loneliness. Even the scene with Big Nick at the beach isn't quite what you expect.

That's what I loved about this script, and in fact, that beach thing, we did some additional photography and we shot that then, was to really try and show the moment before the big showdown of the effect that that was having on the character. They had a chance to examine where they're at, and then appreciation for what is about to go down. That's always great when you can see a character sit with themselves and go, what have I done? That had to be a big thing with Nick.

It's one of the things that I found interesting and surprising about this movie is, yeah, it's action-packed and it's fun and it's full of surprises, but it's also very emotional and it lets you breathe with the characters and take a journey with them, and see the more intimate, subtle challenges that they go through as well, as they go head to head on the battlefield.

Den of Thieves TrailerEven though this is Christian Gudegast's first movie, you said he was one of the most prepared directors you've worked with. What created the trust between you two?

Christian has been a very good friend of mine for many years now, and we worked on a few different projects, some that he'd written, some that I'd developed and produced, and actually, I had him write a draft of London Has Fallen. The whole time, we were trying to pull this together, but without a doubt, there's a risk that you take with a director who's first-time, no matter how close you are with them because you never know. They can speak a great game but they might not end up doing a great job.

Knowing Christian, and when we would sit and discuss the movie, I'd never worked with any director who had explained so proficiently, so accurately, so beautifully, a character, a world, a story, a moment. There's a story about me eating raw chicken ... I don't know if you know that story, eating raw chicken at a restaurant, because I would get so wrapped up in his words, and he was actually talking about Big Nick, and I'm sitting at a Korean barbecue, eating what I thought was sushi, and I ate a plate and a half of raw chicken, talking to him, because he's talking about Big Nick, and that lion inside him. And the thing I'm talking about, consuming ... And literally ... And you just get lost in that. And then I know enough, in my experience, to go, if we get anything like that in this movie, then we're going to have a pretty incredible movie. I really abandon myself a lot to trusting this guy, who is like, in a lot of ways, the ultimate man.

You work with a lot of directors who are not particularly masculine, and then you work with the likes of Antoine Fuqua or Zack Snyder or Christian, who really know what it means to be a man and who are tough, and who speak up. They speak big, but they actually are able to back it up. I like to go to bat for my director when I know they've lived it, and Christian has really lived it. He's created this world, and these are his friends, he's friends with these guys. He's friends with these cops, these undercover cops, and he's friends with these UFC fighters and military. So you know he knows what he's talking about.

'Cause he was a first-timer, and he trusts me so much, I could help him a lot in his journey, and he really listened to me, so that was a cool thing, too. There'd be times where I'd go, "Christian, we don't need to do this" or "Let's not examine this area. We actually it a lot better in the script." 'Cause he loves experimenting, which I appreciated, but there were sometimes, you didn't have time, or I thought we were going in the wrong direction, ad he really listened to me a lot, and that was beautiful. I think that was the start of a long-term collaboration that we'll have together because it never says ... It only brought us closer and closer as we worked together. I always trusted that really, he is Big Nick.

Like the fight with my wife, he knew how to be a father and a man, and how to express extreme anger in the most subtle of ways. A man who doesn't want his kids to experience any of what's going on, and that kind of desperation, and there are moments where you go, "Okay, so what's that, then?" And see how he would express himself. And then, the other moments where I go, "I know who Big Nick is, I can take it there." But just the moment to trust that incredible power that he has as a man and a father was pretty cool.

Even on set, it was clear you were making a big transformation as Big Nick. When it came to finding the way he moves, talks, and carries himself, where did you start?

I worked with this great coach, Larry Moss, who worked with Hilary Swank and works with Leo, and he really makes you think about those things, like how do I explain every second of my day? How do I drive a car? How do I get out of a car? How do I look? What am I thinking about when I walk into a room? How do you drink out of your class? Actually, it was something I would talk a lot about with Christian as well. In fact, that time when I was eating the raw chicken, he's like, "Look, see how you're holding your glass? That's Big Nick. See the way you're looking at me right now? That's Big Nick right there."

So you spend more and more time examining the physicality. How do you step out, how do you pull your chair back, how do you bring your jacket on, and you start having fun with it. You go, oh that works, that feels good, and that feels like that silverback that I want to get. Or whether it's a vulnerable moment or the humorous side that he has, he's able to use that physical weight that he has, sometimes to intimidate, sometimes to be humorous. Sometimes just understand the power that you have. So you start playing with that, and yeah, I really liked how that panned out in the movie.

There was something I didn't get a chance to ask you on set, but you talked about your love for Gene Hackman, and just how much personality and intensity he could bring to a role. I'm just curious, what other actors do you enjoy watching?

To me, funnily enough, on the way here, on the plane from Miami, I just watched Cool Hand Luke again. You look at somebody like Paul Newman, who could just bring such intelligence and such coolness and such humor to a role. These are maybe the cliches, but him and Steve McQueen, I love to watch. God, who else? I'm trying to think of people more from that age. By the way, when I say that about Gene Hackman ... Gene Hackman in every movie, he always brought that huge amount of personality. When I was younger and didn't understand it, I just used to go, "Why is this guy so watchable? Why are these movies so brilliant?" But now, you get it. Now, as an actor, when you realize that to be like that, a lot of the time, you have to study those moments. I can respect his performances even more as a grown up.


Den of Thieves is now in theaters.