Spoilers for Narcos season three ahead.
In the third season of Netflix’s Narcos, Cali Cartel security chief Jorge Salcedo never utters Al Pacino’s famous Godfather III line — “Just when I thought I was out, they pull me back in!” — but he might as well have. The mild-mannered surveillance whiz is so good at his job that when cartel boss Miguel Rodriguez Orejuela hears of Salcedo plans to go straight, he nixes the idea outright. Before long, though, the family man who’s convinced himself he’s not part of a ruthless cocaine network sees his boss brutally murdered and inherits his job. The only way out: becoming a DEA informant himself. Vulture spoke with Swedish actor Matias Varela, who masterfully plays the real-life Cali figure, to learn how he drew inspiration from Johnny Depp in Donnie Brasco, improvised a way to telegraph his character’s extreme paranoia, and got his first acting lesson from Swedish star Stellan Skarsgård.
I was surprised to discover you grew up in Stockholm, and are fluent in Spanish because your parents are from Spain. How did you get this part?
I was in London doing Assassin’s Creed and got a chance to audition. Then I Skyped with showrunner Eric Newman and had another session with the main director, Andy [Baiz]. After talking to them, they had me do another audition, and a month before shooting began a year ago, I got the part.
Did you research the real Jorge Salcedo before auditioning? How much did you know about him?
I did have some time before I put myself on tape to look the guy up. Of course, there was an array of stuff about him. So I dove straight into that and tried to learn as much as possible. [But] I still wanted to do my own thing. Eric told me [he wanted my] version of the man, and not to get too caught up in trying to mimic him. So that’s what I tried to do. But it was still nice to have a little bit of meat on the bones — to know who he was and what he was all about.
Was it intimidating to play a real person?
It’s a double-edged sword. It’s of course a real challenge to play a real person. You feel like you want to do the man some justice. There are a lot of people that still know him, so you want to do a good job, especially because he’s [still] alive and most likely to see this at some point. So I felt a different kind of responsibility than I have when I’ve played fictional characters. I did feel some pressure, to be honest … I never had an opportunity to work at this level before with such a big part. I did watch Johnny Depp in Donnie Brasco alone in my Colombia hotel room twice, a couple of nights before I had my first scene, thinking I was him. [Laughs.] Which of course is pathetic. I was trying to pump myself up for this very big task that was bestowed upon me. [Laughs.]
Jorge is a victim of his own success. He’s got big plans to start his own security firm, but Miguel won’t let him go. I read that Miguel actually recruited the real Salcedo. Is that why he has no choice but to stay?
I guess so. I think it was a bit of a challenge for him to make the decision to try and leave, and that in his heart of hearts, he knew it wasn’t going to be that easy. I think — at least the way I portrayed him — in the back of my head was always the notion that most likely, I will end up dead. That I will have to try and get myself out of this predicament, if not for me, for my children and for my wife. I think that that was the main ambition: to try and honor the family. That said, I think he was counting on ending up dead.
Why does he always check the front gate of his house before he leaves?
[Laughs.] That’s funny that you bring that up. That’s something the director and I thought of that first day we were shooting at the Salcedo house location. I think of it as a tic. For me, it was a physical way to emphasize his paranoia. Whenever the audience sees him, I always wanted to remind them that he’s constantly under pressure. He always needs to check his back because his life is not his own. He’s not even safe in his own house. That little gate pull was a clever way, I thought, to give the character some complexity.
The turning point for him comes after Miguel’s son David executes his boss Cordova. Do you think he ever regrets his decision to become a DEA informant, given how much danger he puts himself and his family in?
Yes, I think so. I think that must’ve been a very complicated question for him. As I portrayed the character, it’s almost on a daily basis he asks himself if he’s made the right choice or not. If I had to guess, I think the real Salcedo — and my character — realize there’s no turning back. But most definitely there are a lot of moments, especially from episode five and forward, where he really is questioning himself. Also, he knows these people. Even though he doesn’t like them too much, they’re still family. He still feels like he’s betraying them, even though he’s doing the right thing sort of. It’s a very complex thing.
Was the real Salcedo nearly asphyxiated by Miguel?
I couldn’t answer that. But I’ll say this: I wouldn’t be surprised if something of that fashion occurred. In that world, stuff like that did happen. So I wouldn’t be surprised if that is inspired by true events.
After he survives that near-death experience, he’s almost killed by Cali henchman Navegante outside the cartel bookkeeper’s safe house. Did he really kill Navegante, and was he responsible for saving the Pallomari family?
The real Salcedo was never convicted of killing anyone. He’s always said he was innocent of murdering anyone. Myself, I think he did it. The man did disappear. It was definitely a very interesting scene to do because it gave him another dimension. All of a sudden he was doing something that he promised himself he would never do. For the character, it was very important to have him betray his own beliefs.
It started when he threatened the gas inspector.
Yeah, actually, that’s straight on point. That’s where we see change in him. When we were doing it, it was important to portray it in a way that it’s not 100 percent clear if he’s comfortable or not doing it. I wanted the audience to feel like, “Wait a minute, who is this guy? Now he’s doing stuff he said he would never do.” And he’s doing it successfully. It was interesting to have that duality.
He did really save the Pallomari family though, right?
I heard that he didn’t, and I heard that he did. I’m not sure exactly what happened. But for the character, it was a way of redeeming his prior actions, washing away the blood from his hands.
The real Salcedo had a degree in mechanical engineering and industrial economics. At the end of the season, we see him in witness protection, working as a car mechanic and waiting for fast food. Do you think he ever regretted becoming an informant?
For sure, I think he did. But also I think he regretted getting involved with the cartel. A lot of people who got caught up in that life came from the streets, from poor backgrounds. And they found a way of making a life for themselves in the narcotics trade. He had a life. He did it for some other reasons: because of greed, to feel like he was worth something. I think that must’ve weighed very heavily on him once he went into the witness protection program. The fact of the matter is, he ended up the way he did because of his own choices. Nobody pointed a gun to his head and said you have to come work for us.
I read you got your first acting lesson from Stellan Skarsgård because you wanted to get into the same drama program as his son Gustaf. How old were you?
I was a very confused 15-year-old boy who didn’t really know what to do with myself. And I always had the dream to become an actor. Gustaf, being my friend since I was 13, was making the decision to join that school at that point. And his father did help me with the text.
Did you know who he was?
Yeah, I knew who he was. I didn’t comprehend to which level, of course. At that time I lived a life where, [because] my parents are Spanish, we lived a bit outside the Swedish society in a way. I’m really grateful to have had a person of his stature, of his talent, guiding me that early in life. I think that maybe I wouldn’t have ended up the way I’ve ended up, if I didn’t have that friendship with Gustaf. That was very crucial for my career, for my life.
How much time did he spend with you?
It wasn’t a big thing. It was maybe a couple of days. He had me read the text. At first — I’m not going to lie to you — I don’t think at first he wasn’t convinced. But when I came back a couple days later, I had really applied [myself], tried to learn the text, and master the words [to not only] get a notion of what was said on the paper, but what was said between the lines. When we met again at his home, he said, “I think you got it. I think you got it.” That’s all he said. And then a week after I did the audition — even though my grades were really bad — I managed to get into the school.
Have you heard from him since your career has taken off?
Yeah, of course. He’s always been around. He’s my best friend’s father.
What’s next? Do you still live in Stockholm?
I do live in Stockholm most of the time. That said, because I’ve been shooting quite a lot for the last four years outside of Sweden, I’ve been all over the place. I spend some time in L.A. because that’s where the business is. But my home address is in Stockholm for now.
This interview has been edited and condensed.