Wagner Moura

6-Wagner-MouraAt the height of his infamous career, Pablo Escobar controlled the cocaine trade in the U.S. and, according to Forbes, was one of the ten richest men in the world. More than two decades since his death he continues to inspire books, movies and TV series, among them Netflix’s critically acclaimed Narcos. From Gaumont Television, the drama, now in its second season, stars Brazilian actor Wagner Moura as the Colombian drug lord, chronicling his epic rise and fall and telling the stories of the DEA agents tasked with bringing him down. Narcos marked the first international TV production for Moura, who has been well known to Brazilian audiences for years thanks to shows like Tropical Paradise and feature films such as Elite Squad. He tells TV Drama about his approach to embodying Escobar.

TV DRAMA: How did you first hear about the prospect of playing Pablo Escobar in Narcos?
MOURA: It came from my friend José Padilha, who is the director of the show. He asked me what I thought about playing Escobar. He hadn’t spoken with Netflix when he invited me to do it. I said, I’d love to. Right after I spoke with him I flew to Medellín, because I felt I had to be there. The show was supposed to be in English at the time, but even so, I thought I had to go to Colombia and learn Spanish. So that’s how it began. I actually didn’t know much about Pablo Escobar. I remember very clearly the image of him dead on a rooftop when he was killed. And I remember seeing the bombings in Bogotá on TV and the war between the Cali and Medellín [cartels]. So I went to Medellín and studied Spanish and lived in the city where Pablo grew up. It was a very intense experience. I spent two years living in Colombia. I gained 40 pounds [for the role]. It was an important period of my life.

TV DRAMA: How did you go about trying to understand who he was and what his motivations were?
MOURA: Everybody in Colombia knows someone who knows someone who knew Pablo or wrote a book about him. There are a lot of books about Escobar. Books by journalists—very accurate biographies—and by people who knew him, which are fun to read because they give a more intimate [perspective]. I honestly think I read everything written about Pablo Escobar and modern Colombian history. But I did all of that in order to then forget it and create my own version of Pablo. I think at the end of the day that’s what actors do. It’s the way you connect your emotions and feelings with a character. I didn’t try to imitate him or walk like him or talk like him. You can watch a lot of footage of Pablo Escobar on YouTube, but I decided I had to create my own Pablo. And that’s what I did.

TV DRAMA: How did you approach dealing with the nuances of his personality? He could demonstrate brutality in one moment and then be a devout and caring husband and father.
MOURA: He was a very complex person, and that’s great for any actor. Pablo wasn’t like the other drug dealers from the ’80s or even from today. Pablo wanted more. He wasn’t happy just being the seventh richest man in the world according to Forbes magazine. He wanted to be loved. He wanted to be accepted. He wanted to break this barrier that exists in South American countries between the elite, the few that have a lot of money, and the majority of the population. Pablo wanted to be the president of Colombia. That says a lot about him. He was a great character—and he really existed. And what I tried to do—and this was a big concern not only for me but for everyone on the show—was be as respectful as possible with the history of Colombia and as accurate as we could with what happened there in the ’80s.

TV DRAMA: Tell me about your relationship with José Padilha.
MOURA: We are very good friends. I did his first film, Elite Squad, which is an important film for me as well. And then we did the sequel, Elite Squad 2, which made the biggest box-office [revenues] in Brazilian history. They are both very political films, about how the police act in Brazil. We both like politics and we both like films, and we get along very well together. I wasn’t the obvious choice to play Escobar. I was skinny, I didn’t speak Spanish; he could have easily chosen a Colombian actor to do it. But for him, I think it was important to have someone he could trust, who could understand how he worked, who could support him on set. It is a great relationship. I’m going to direct my first film now, in Brazil, and Padilha is my biggest influence. It’s also a political film, about a Brazilian guerrilla who fought against the dictatorship in the ’60s and ’70s.

TV DRAMA: Narcos is frequently held up as the model for what an international drama can be today—it’s made by the U.S. arm of a French studio for a global streaming platform with a diverse set of talent on- and off-screen. It’s in both English and Spanish. Did that make the atmosphere on set different from any of your previous work?
MOURA: This for me was the greatest thing of all. Brazil is very isolated in Latin America because we speak Portuguese, so we don’t have a relationship with the rest of the countries [in the region], which is crazy because we have the same issues, we are neighbors, we are culturally similar. Brazil consumes its own culture. So for me, working with actors from Colombia, Chile, Argentina, Mexico, it was like a dream. For the first time I felt that I was a part of something other than just being Brazilian. I was Latin American and we were talking about something that resonated a lot with all of us, which is the drug trade. Narco-trafficking is a big reality in our countries, the countries that produce and export drugs. That’s where the war on drugs is taking place: Mexico, Colombia, Peru, Bolivia.

There is this other thing you mentioned, which is Netflix and the way Netflix is making original content globally. A film like Beasts of No Nation, for example, which is about African kids in an African country going to war, it connects with me because I’m a human being. That’s what connects all of us. Netflix is [leading] a great revolution. It’s cultural globalization. It’s great that American audiences are watching shows with subtitles like Narcos. It’s something Americans aren’t used to. Netflix is producing original content in other countries. They’re doing something in Brazil in Portuguese. They did something in Mexico in Spanish. It’s so important that someone in Germany can watch something spoken in Portuguese about Brazilian life. [TV shows like this] can become global in a way that cinema never allowed. Unless you go to a film festival, it’s difficult to watch in a theater a film that is from another country and in another language.

TV DRAMA: Tell me about season two. Pablo is in a very different place now, essentially running for his life.
MOURA: We’re going to see Pablo in a way that we haven’t seen him before. It’s about a man losing his power, money, allies, sicarios, almost losing his family as well. So it’s a different Pablo actually. The difference between season one and two is season one is more epic in the sense that it covered 15 years of Pablo’s life. So it’s a season that tries to explain to people how the drug trade works and how the DEA got involved and how the cartels operate. The second season is more dramatic. It’s about the drama of the characters. It’s about what this guy, the biggest capo in the world, is going to do when he’s being hunted by everybody. Also, the DEA characters Peña and Murphy [played by Pedro Pascal and Boyd Holbrook, respectively] go through very tough moral conflicts as well. In order to catch Escobar they start to become something like him. Narcos is not a regular cop show with the American good guys who go to South American countries to kill the bad guys. It’s more complex than that.

TV DRAMA: Now you’re directing your first film. Do you have any other projects on the slate that you can tell us about?
MOURA: After Pablo, I have to spend a year [not acting]. I’m happy I’m going to direct a film. I feel that anything I’d do in the next year or so would be contaminated by Pablo Escobar or the way I played Pablo. First thing was I had to lose weight, so from the 40 pounds I gained to play him I’ve already lost 30 or so. I have to spend some time just doing other things. [Narcos] was a very intense experience for me.