THE ice-cream was the worst part, says actor Wagner Moura. To play notorious (and famously obese) Colombian drug baron Pablo Escobar in new Netflix drama Narcos the Brazilian actor was required to bulk up in a hurry. Which meant a trojan diet of frozen treats. He winces at the memory.
“I was this little skinny guy,” the now quite bulky 39-year-old recalls.
“And Pablo obviously was not like that. I was dubious. You read all this stuff about actors putting on weight for a part. To me that was not acting — it was eating. And at first it was enjoyable — ‘oh, all this ice-cream’. Then your body starts to change. You realise that, actually, it’s not much fun at all.”
The true life story of Escobar is even more extraordinary than the formerly slender Moura’s transformation into the pudgy walrus he resembles on screen. Born into lower-middle class respectability in Colombia’s second city of Medellín, by the mid-80s Escobar controlled some 80% of the cocaine supply to America. He was preposterously wealthy — once named seventh richest man in the world by Forbes magazine, with a network of mansions across Latin America, the US and Europe. At its height, his drugs empire was estimated to generate $60m per day.
So powerful was Escobar’s “Medellín cartel” it threatened the legitimacy of the Colombian state. When confronted by the forces of law and order Escobar offered a choice of “plato o plomo” — silver or lead. If a bribe was not accepted, violence was the inevitable alternative. Escobar and his associates gunned down Government ministers and senior members of the military and judiciary and were responsible for the death of thousands of civilians, killed by the car bombs he unleashed with impunity.
Yet to some in Colombia this portly outlaw with a taste for under-age prostitutes and an all-day marijuana habit (he made a point of never touching cocaine) was a folk hero. From independence, a cabal of ruling families — pale of skin and patrician of demeanor — had run Colombia uncontested, with ordinary citizens reduced to bystanders in a sham democracy. Regarding himself as Colombia’s Che Guevara, Escobar built schools and soccer pitches and often simply handed over wedges of cash to the poor of Medellín. To this day, he is a revered figure in certain corners of the city, even as many in Colombia despise him for crystalizing the caricature of their country as a lawless narco-state.
“He was a contradiction,” says Moura, a celebrated actor in Brazil where he starred in hit thriller Elite Squad. “He was a big murderer, an assassin. At the same time, he was someone who loved his kids and his wife – was very generous to the poor. Someone who dealt in cocaine but liked to smoke marijuana. He was very human – very, very complex.”
Escobar was in many ways a child trapped in an adult’s body –and his violence had the quality of a tantrum.
“To the end of his life he was like a poor kid that wanted to be accepted and loved,” says Moura. “To have the child within alive is very important to certain professions – if you are an artist, for instance. In Pablo’s case, his child made him very charismatic, very interesting. At the same time, it was extremely destructive. ‘You’re not going to play with me? Okay, I’m going to smash the whole place up.’ That was the kind of child Pablo had inside him.”
Fast-paced and action-packed, as a TV show Narcos contains multitudes. There are echoes of Miami Vice in its scenes of American DEA agents shooting it out with drug dealers in Florida while the evocation of street life in Colombia is believably gritty. That the dialogue is in both English and Spanish adds to the authenticity, though this caused problems for Wagner who, from Portuguese-speaking Brazil, had only a smattering of Spanish going into the project.
He was also mindful that the programme-makers had a responsibility to truthfully tell the story of Escobar’s Colombia. “I didn’t want to be one of those shows where the good American cops come to South America and clean up the mess,” he says. “If that had been the concept I wouldn’t have done it. What is made clear from the start is the the normal concepts of good and bad go out the window. It is very complicated.”
Indeed, Escobar’s atrocities were soon matched by the elite anti-drugs unit Search Bloc, which killed with impunity as it sought to take down the Medellín cartel.
“When you’re in a war-zone and you’re being hunted yourself, what do you call it when you retaliate?” American actor Maurice Compte, who plays the head of Search Bloc, said in a recent interview. “When I was growing up, there were people who idolized the Pablo Escobars of the world; and all roads in Miami in the ‘80s always led back to Escobar. You could not have a conversation without mentioning him in some form. He was an incredible businessman and he was ruthless. I saw what it did to my family. I saw what it did to other people’s families. Violent is a relative term when you’re in a war.” Narcos opens in the mid ‘70s just as Escobar is building his empire in earnest. Wagner hopes Netflix will renew the series, so that it can trace the arc of Pablo’s rise and fall (spoiler alert: Search Bloc finally tracked down and killed Escobar, with tacit American help, in December 1993) But what of the response in Colombia? After so much death and destruction, many there would presumably have rather glossed over this terrible period in their history.
“I’ve been spending some time in Europe promoting Narcos and have been struck at how open people are with they past, particularly Germany. They don’t try to hide it. ‘Bad things happened — we have to know that it was true,’” says Moura.
“In Latin America people want to forget. Next year, I am to direct a film about one of the first rebels to stand- up to the Brazilian dictatorship. People say ‘let’s forget it. Let’s have an amnesty’. I don’t think it’s healthy. Better to have things out in the open — so that it never happens again.”