WAGNER Moura has lost the double chin and is working on the pot-belly. As he walks away from two years of playing cocaine kingpin, Pablo Escobar, in the Netflix hit, Narcos, he is deep into what he describes as “detoxification”. You don’t shrug off a character such as Escobar with a finger click. Week by week, day by day, you shed his skin.
“Losing weight is not only about losing weight,” he says. “It is about losing Pablo. I lived two years with this body that is not mine, this energy that is not mine. It is a process of detox. I have to get rid of the spiritual, psychological, physical aspects of Escobar. ”
Netflix is releasing season two of Narcos, an action-packed chronicle of the rise and bloody downfall of the (dangerously obese) South American drug lord once ranked the world’s eighth-richest person by Forbes. His empire, at its height, challenged the legitimacy of the Colombian state. The first series, an addictive mash-up of Goodfellas and Scarface, was a surprise hit — and anticipation is high ahead of its return.
“I tried to look at Pablo as a person — not as a villain, not as a Robin Hood, but as a man,” says 40-year-old Moura of the challenge of truthfully bringing to the screen an international criminal. “He was a very bad and mean person, but very complex, very interesting, as well. There is also a moral and ethical duty that you have to consider. This is a very recent story. The history of Colombia is divided into the time before Pablo and the time after Pablo.”
Moura, a Brazilian who had to learn Spanish for the part, understood that a Pablo Escobar drama would be controversial in Colombia. That Narcos is an American production with a mostly non-Colombian cast merely added to its divisiveness. Even before filming had begun, many in Bogota had condemned it as crass and exploitative (no matter that Escobar’s story has fuelled a mini- industry of Colombian drama).
“I wanted the Colombian people to like this series,” says Moura. “Of course, we had a lot of criticism there. They are sick of Narcos stories, sick of showing their passports and hearing jokes about cocaine… At the same time, this is part of their history. They can’t run away from it. What I didn’t want was for this to be perceived as the stereotypical story of American cops coming to the rescue and cleaning up this mess in South America. We were at pains for it not to fall into that cliche.”
To prepare for the part, Moura ate ice-cream and read extensively. “In the Spanish world, anyone who knew somebody who knew somebody who knew Pablo wrote a book about it,” he says. “The amount of material available was enormous.
“We filmed in Medellin, where Pablo is from. The scars were very recent. People my age can remember the bombs going off. However, at the end, I had to put the books away and forget about all of that and create my own version of Pablo. As an actor, that is what you need to do,” Moura says.
It is story that requires little embellishment. From his base in the regional capital of Medellin, Escobar presided over a fiefdom that eclipsed the GDP of many sovereign states. When Colombia — heavily pressured by the United States — belatedly cracked down, he unleashed hell. Bombs exploded across Bogota (whose middle classes Escobar despised as snobs and collaborators); judges, police, and politicians were assassinated with impunity.
In Medellin, anyone who stepped out of line ended up face down in a ditch. It was a war, with thousands of casualties on both sides and lots of blame to go around (the government’s elite anti-drugs squad were hardly heroes, with a shoot-to-kill policy and a penchant for torture).
Narcos year-one blended dramatic and documentary elements. The background details of Colombia’s drug trade were provided via voice-over and archive footage — a trick lifted from Scorsese’s Goodfellas. Alongside Moura, it starred former male model, Boyd Holbrook, as an American Drug Enforcement Administration officer sent to Colombia to help weed out Escobar, and Game of Thrones’ Pedro Pascal as his local liaison. The result was a fantastic mash-up of gangster movie and Wikipedia article — amid the often gratuitous sex and violence, the viewer gleaned much about 1980s Colombia and the impact of Washington’s war on drugs.
Season two is far leaner and specific to Escobar, says Moura. He is on the run and, with his loved-ones, targetted by the authorities. He is on the back foot (it is no spoiler to reveal that, as his empire began to draw the ire of the United States, the push-back was severe).
“The first season is more epic — it covers 15 years of Pablo’s life,” says Moura. “It was a case of, ‘Okay check out how this is how the drug trade works’. The second season is more ‘the last days of…’ It is focused on characters. Pablo is trying to keep his family together. The powerful Pablo is gone. He is someone who is losing his power. It is interesting to see someone in that position at emotional breaking point.”
Playing Pablo has made Moura more convinced than ever that the prohibition of drugs is a tragic mistake. Not simply because it empowers criminals in wealthy countries, but because of the violence unleashed in the developing world.
“The war on drugs is a big flop,” he says. “Especially the countries that produce and export drugs. The war on drugs takes place not in the United States, but in Mexico and Colombia and Bolivia and Brazil. They are the place where kids in poor neighbourhoods are being killed in a horrible way.
“I’m not saying drug use isn’t a big deal — but it should be treated as a health problem, not a police problem.”