January 19, 2018
by Carla Hay
In the gritty crime drama “Den of Thieves” (written and directed by Christian Gudegast), an elite unit of the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department named the Regulators is on a mission to bust an elusive gang of bank robbers called the Outlaws. Gerard Butler plays “Big” Nick O’Brien, the leader of the Regulators, whose rule-bending ways to get what he wants blur the lines between who are the “good guys” and who are the “bad guys.” Pablo Schreiber plays Ray Merriman, the leader of the Outlaws, whose crew members include Enson Levoux (played by Curtis “50 Cent” Jackson), Bosco Ostroman (played by Evan Jones) and Donnie Wilson, played by O’Shea Jackson Jr. Here is what Butler and 50 Cent had to say during a roundtable interview with me and other journalists at the New York City press junket for “Den of Thieves.”
When did you first hear about “Den of Thieves” and how were you cast?
50 Cent: I read the script for the first time six years ago. I met Christian [Gudegast] … and he had an idea of what he wanted the film to look like already. Remember “Smokin’ Aces,” with the bright colors. That was the initial look of the [“Den of Thieves”]. I wanted to be in that because I wanted to be in “Smokin’ Aces” too.
When I got a chance to read the [“Den of Thieves”] script, I thought it wasn’t predictable. I can appreciate a heist film, particularly the action excites me. And then it had a whole feel where there was more to the characters. A lot of times in a heist film, it’s just the film.
Butler: I read the script way back then as well. I was good friends with Christian, and we were already working on a few projects, some of which he had already written. In the middle of this, he said, “I have this script I want you to read called ‘Den of Thieves.’” It was actually back in 2012.
It was at time when I think I had just finished “Olympus Has Fallen,” and I was being very lazy with scripts. I let it sit there for three months. I had two scripts. My agent kept asking me, “Have you read ‘Den of Thieves’ and have you read this other movie?” I said, “No, I haven’t read it.” And I finally read it, and So I called my him and said, “This is so good! Why didn’t you tell me?” He said, “I have been telling you for three months to read the script!”
Even though I was good friends with Christian, I found myself being nervous when I went to see him. Originally, he wanted me to play Merriman. I love the role of Merriman. [He’s like] Steve McQueen, as he doesn’t say much, but he’s so captivating. But “Big” Nick was my guy, and I knew that was the role that I had to try and score and really get my head into. So I went, and I found myself getting nervous and stuttering. And so, from that day, he said, “You want ‘Big’ Nick? ‘Big’ Nick is yours.”
But the problem after that was that it took a while for the movie to get made. It was with a certain company, and they weren’t doing particularly well. The second they got out of the picture, we were ready to make the movie. And it all just unfolded, and we got a chance to tell this incredible story.
Gerard, you mentioned that you were nervous about meeting with Christian to talk about the script, but people have seen you do a lot of badass action films before. Why were you nervous? Was it because the character was hard to read?
Butler: No, it was just complete immaturity on my part. The second I like something, I get nervous. Human nature. I just really wanted to do it. And suddenly, the negative part of my head starts saying, “Oh, I’m sure Christian probably has somebody else in mind for the role.
But what it literally turned out to be was six years of us talking about. When you try to make a movie, it doesn’t mean that you’re trying to make it every day; it comes back around every few months Christian and I had so many dinners where we would sit and talk about this movie and what “Big” Nick and what he meant.
And I remember Tucker Tooley, who’s one of our producers, said, “You and Christian have talked this movie to death.” I said, “I don’t remember! It’s been six years of these discussions!” But sure enough, I did remember. I would get so amped up.
He’s made such a great movie. Christian’s such a fantastic director. He explains things to you because he understands. That’s one of the reasons why the script is so great, because the way he describes things in the script, you’re there. It’s actually very easy to perform because he leads you so beautifully.
One time, he was explaining to me this particular part of the story about “Big” Nick, and we were in Benihana, sitting and talking. [Christian] said to me, “See the way you’re holding that glass? That’s ‘Big’ Nick.” The more I would talk to him, the more I would start to get into ‘Big’ Nick. I then started eating what I thought was raw fish, and I’m eating the whole plate.
I’m chewing and thinking, “This is quite chewy for raw fish.” I’ve been doing it for about 40 minutes, and when I’m on my second plate, he said, “What the fuck are you doing? That’s chicken.” I had eaten two plates of raw chicken, which was supposed to be cooked [at the table]. When the chef came to start cooking it, he was like, “Where’s the chicken?” I had eaten it all, being “Big” Nick!
How do you prefer to be prompted in your scenes by directors?
50 Cent: I like for them to know what they’re asking me to do. Sometimes, the director will give notes, or they’ll explain it, and it won’t be as informative as you’d like them to be. Make an adjustment, fine. But please let me know exactly what the adjustment is. The guys get into the roles so well … We trained ahead for two weeks. The physicalities and movements were all down pat by the time we got there …
I’d sit at the monitor and watch … So I was watching the movie instead of being in it. I was having so much fun at the same time. I appear to be a workaholic because I’m enjoying myself. We made it fun. We were enjoying ourselves the entire time, but it is still technically work.
Butler: What was amazing was that every single person who was cast in this film is the ultimate alpha male. If you look at this man here [he gestures to 50 Cent] and me, Pablo, O’Shea—we’re all big guys with a lot to say. And yet, you couldn’t see guys bond more in this movie, and everybody having a great time together, and treating each other with a lot of respect, and giving their all. So it was a lot of fun.
Then you had Christian, who—even though it was his first time directing a movie—the guy’s a master. It was like he had done it a thousand times. What I loved about him is that he loved to see people experiment—anything we did that was different.
I was actually the boring one, in a way. I was like, “We already have a long script. We already have a phenomenal script. Sometimes, let’s not have people experiment too much, and get too far away from I know works great on the page.” But I love that he had the confidence to encourage us to do that.
50 Cent: A lot of times, writer/directors, especially on their first time, they fall in love with their words because they spend so much time on it. For six years, we kept going over it. When you write a song, it has your instincts involved … and it could be done in 30 minutes and ready for the world to listen to it.
With a film project, they write it over and over … until they try to make it perfect. When you actually start doing it, your performance choices allow you to make more adjustments … That’s what Christian did really well—he actually watched and listened and gave directions at different points that allowed us to make it great.
How important do you think it is to make your characters more likeable?
50 Cent: I think that it’s important to this story, how the characters have been developed and how you perceive the character. Sometimes I’ll play a guy who is so nasty. Like in the “Power” series, I play Kanan. Less is more. If you don’t see him love anything, you don’t have compassion for him; he’s a monster. If [audiences] don’t see things they can relate to, they don’t accept the character.
Butler: I think that a lot of the most memorable characters are the ones who are messed up. They’re discolored or a bit lost; they can be venomous or bullies. There are a million different colors you can have. I think you can judge that and put it against an audience but make sure you don’t judge and step too far, because there are certain things a character can do where you can lose an audience, and you don’t want to do that. And that was the danger with my [“Big” Nick] character with his unfaithfulness and coming home late in the house. He’s still the lead character and the protagonist and you want to be on his side somewhat
But you can also give truthful assertion of who he is. He’s a cop, and at the end of the day, he’s trying to bring down the bad guys, but that involves some low-life activity. And he’s made the decision that “If I’ve got to beat the worst, I’ve got to be the worst. I’ve got to be worse than them. I’ve got to eat those guys up.”
And that takes a toll on your life, you know? That’s what comes out. A lot of Nick is just playing at being a bad guy. At the end of the day, he’s kind of a big kid. And sometimes, in those moments alone, you realize that he really finds it hard.
Is he a classic definition of what it means to be a man? He’s not a man. He’s a terrible father. He’s a terrible husband. He’s not necessarily a man of his word. However, he’s good at his job, he’s loyal amongst his friends. But other than that, he’s an addict, he’s full of fear, and he’s such a damaged human being. And then at times, it comes up and bites him in the ass. And in the end., he’s just a scared kid.