For years, Hollywood has been trying to bring the story of the notorious Columbian drug lord Pablo Escobar to the screen. Javier Bardem, Edgar Ramirez and John Leguizamo have all been rumoured to play him, and it was even a plot line on Entourage. But whilst movies were struggling to get off the ground Netflix swooped in with Narcos, a lowkey but riveting series following Escobar’s rise to power and the two DEA agents hell bent on bringing him down. The show was a fast word-of-mouth hit, and a second series is dropping next month.

The role of Escobar went to Wagner Moura, a relative unknown (to English speaking audiences). A Brazilian former journalist, Moura made his name starring in the Brazilian police thriller Elite Squad and its sequel, that were directed by Narcos producer José Padilha, as well as the Matt Damon-lead Elysium. With the first series coming out on DVD and Blu-ray this month, we caught up with Moura, to talk about playing Pablo, learning Spanish and this year's Olympics.

What drew you to the role of Pablo Escobar?
The first thing was the relationship I had with the director of the show José Padilha —we had worked to together on his to previous films, and we established a very strong collaboration and relationship. So when he was invited to do Narcos, he just decided I was his choice for Pablo Escobar. I thought it was a great thing to do for an actor, though I didn’t know much about Pablo at the time. The first thing I did was that I flew myself to Medellin even before knowing that I was considered to play the part, just to be there, and of course to learn Spanish, because in Brazil we speak Portuguese. That was the first thing I had to do and it was great actually, because that put me into the character’s universe.

How difficult was it for you to learn Spanish?
It was very challenging, I’m 40 years old, I brought my kids to live in Columbia with me and in two or three months they were speaking perfect Spanish, but for me it was really hard. When we get older languages aren’t the easiest thing in the world {to learn}, but at the same time it was very important for me to have a relationship with that universe. I felt like I was learning the language of the character in order to play him. It was so intense, and I started from the very beginning. It was a very complex journey.

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Did it freak you out that your kids picked up Spanish quicker than you?
Oh yeah that’s one thing about kids, all they want to do is learn new things, and they learnt really fast. They’re keeping their Spanish and I make them to watch Netflix in Spanish.

people will always be fascinated by the lives of others that lived above the law, do you know what I mean?​

 

When you studied the role of Pablo, did you view him as the archetypal-villain or was there something more to it?
My goals at the beginning — and every time I play a character, especially with a character like Pablo — was to find the grey zone. Not the black or the white. Find out who he was, what made him human. There’s so many things written about Pablo that I have read, basically everything that’s been written about him both in Spanish and English. He’s a very complex person as well. He was a very generous man. Of course he was one of the meanest men that ever existed, but at the same time he was a family man, he was concerned about the people in his hometown. He was one of the biggest drug dealers in history but at the same time he wanted to be the president of his country, which was crazy. So it was a character that wasn’t difficult to find humanity in.

It’s ironic really that even though he was a bad person, characters like him captivate us as an audience, and as human beings.
Yeah I think so. He wasn’t the common kind of drug dealer that’s for sure. He could’ve been dealing drugs forever if he wanted to, if he was satisfied in being the richest man in the world. But the thing is Pablo wasn’t satisfied with that, he wanted more; he wanted to be loved, he wanted to be accepted, he wanted to break this great big social gap that all these South American cultures have. The elite has a lot of money and the majority of the population doesn’t have anything. And yeah, there’s this fascination that people have — people will always be fascinated by the lives of others that lived above the law, do you know what I mean? If you see the old American westerns, it’s all about that, it’s about the fascination we have about people who doesn’t have to obey the same rules we do.

You actually filmed in Bogota, Pablo’s old stomping ground. What was the experience like? Was there any apprehension in going there at first?
It’s one of the greatest experiences in my life, I brought my family to live there, I spent two years there. My boys and my wife spent six months living with me, they went to Colombian schools. It was, for us, the kind of experience you want to have, because we in Brazil are very isolated in South America—we are this big country that speaks Portuguese and consumes its own culture. Working with actors from Chile, Argentina, Columbia and Mexico I felt for the first time I belonged to something actually bigger, I felt part of something, I’m Latin American. Because Brazilian’s feel that they are Brazilians, they are not part of a bigger thing, which is weird.

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How did you go from journalism into acting?
I started acting before I studied journalism, when I was 14-15 years old. At some point in my life I was working as journalist and going to the theatre at night to work on stage — at some point just the theatre became stronger in my life and I just stopped working as journalist. But it was very important to me, everything I learnt in university, all of that was really important to me as an artist actually and I love journalism. Some of my best friends are journalists from when I was studying and working at a newspaper, so it’s something that existed as a part of my life.

Brazil is going through some political turmoil right now, but you are also hosting the Olympics — how do you feel about that? (This interview took place just as the games were about to kick off)
I think it’s just a bad timing to have an event like the Olympics in Brazil now. This is probably the worst political and social moment of the country since the dictatorship we had back in the 1960s. Our president was Dilma Rousseff, and I didn’t vote for her or support her—I don’t she was a good president. I think she was a very incompetent president, but what happened Brazil a couple months ago was something close to a coup-dé-ta (In May, the Senate voted to hold an impeachment trial for Rousseff, and suspend her). The same political forces that ousted our president in ‘64 — the press, the conservative parties, the dealer men — were the ones who did the same thing now. It’s illegal, and they convinced the population that what happened was legal.

Working with actors from Chile, Argentina, Columbia and Mexico I felt for the first time I belonged to something actually bigger than just brazil

 

So considering that, it’s bad timing, I was happy that Brazil was going to host the Olympics, I think four or five years ago I would’ve been cool with it, but now it’s just a bad moment. I think that it’s going to be great anyway — everything in Brazil usually ends well.  The party is going to be great, the people are going to love it, but we’re just going to have a lot of problems because it’s the worst moment in our history to host.

Narcos: Complete Season One will be out on DVD & Blu-ray August 29. Season 2 drops on Netflix September 2.