Spoilers for Narcos season three ahead.
Turns out ridding Colombia of its drug cartels in the 1980s and ’90s was a bit like whack-a-mole. Which is why the Narcos season-two finale not only depicted the ignominious death of Pablo Escobar on a Medellín rooftop, it also set up the gritty Netflix drama’s next target: the Cali cartel that stepped in to fill the void. The show also hinted at the return of Pedro Pascal’s exiled DEA agent Peña, who’d been shipped Stateside ahead of Escobar’s execution due to his dealings with the drug lord’s southern rivals. Not only is Pascal back as the tainted anti-trafficking operative, Peña’s now the boss, promoted to Bogotá’s DEA attaché. With his partner Murphy gone, he’s also become the show’s narrator, introducing us to a new kind of coke kingpin. Led by Gilberto Rodríguez Orejuela, the four “gentlemen of Cali,” as he and his partners were known, rubbed shoulders with the country’s elite while running their drug smuggling and distribution networks like a Fortune 500 company. “You have to be crazy, stupid, brave, and lucky all at the same time” to go after Gilberto, Peña tells us. So of course he does, despite the fact that Gilberto is negotiating with the government for the cartel to self-surrender. Ahead of the series’ September 1 return, we spoke with Pascal on the phone from California, to hear why Peña’s Colombian return is his shot at “redemption,” how jumping off a Curaçao apartment balcony was no big deal, and his upcoming Burt Reynolds homage in the Kingsman sequel.
Earlier this year, you said that during your lean years, you were “desperate to be typecast” just to have work. What’s it like to have had Narcos essentially do a reset, and for you to get top billing and be the voice of the show?
It is an amazing thing because a lot of hard work goes into making the show. We’re in Colombia six to seven months for each season. I think the first season of any show, no matter where you are — even an air-conditioned studio in Los Angeles — it’s still hard work. You’re figuring it out and finding your footing. Getting to go back for season three, knowing the lay of the land, and finding all of these new characters, it’s really exciting. It’s the first opportunity I’ve ever had to play a character for this long. But honestly — and I don’t owe anybody anything — the most exciting thing about it is how much more interesting the investigation of the Cali cartel was; it is fascinating. So many people don’t know [the cartel] had more money and more power than Pablo Escobar.
I did some research, and it seems the real Murphy and Peña left Colombia in 1994, and the Cali godfathers weren’t arrested until ’95. So is everything we see regarding Peña based on other DEA agents? Can you separate fact from fiction?
Peña did not head the DEA investigation into the cartel. [But] because the show is built on factual events, everything that my character does in the season happened, was [executed] by someone. I don’t know exactly who. I didn’t venture to find out because I didn’t know if I was allowed to know, or would be allowed to say. So I just stuck with playing Peña, and the treasure of having the character find himself in a position that doesn’t come naturally to him, and being able to creatively invest in that.
“Moral ambiguity” is something we’ve been talking about a lot lately. Playing Peña must’ve given you real insight into that. How does he rationalize his actions? He’s incensed when he realizes he’s been used by his CIA nemesis Stechner as a prop in a staged jungle drug bust, and when he hears the Cali godfathers will get to self-surrender. But he also uses questionable methods to go after them.
When we met him in the first season, he was already in the shit. And he had been there awhile before Murphy arrived. So his lay of the land is more clear to him. And what he is is job-obsessed. He knows that to get the job done, rules have to be broken. So his personal moral code is that lines must be blurred, and [there’s a] means to an end. My personal choice with the character — that they let me sort of subtextually portray — is that he doesn’t necessarily think it’s right. It’s not that he doesn’t have a moral compass; it’s just that he improvises right and wrong to get the job done, if that makes any sense. He can even know it’s wrong, and is still going to do it because there’s a goal.
And now he’s the boss so he’s sort of …
So he can’t function in the way he knows how. And that’s what’s so interesting: He has more responsibility, [yet] he has more people to answer to — his hands are more tied. He doesn’t exist in the shadows in the way that he previously was able to. So to figure out a way to do it his way, in this new position that he is in, was really fun to figure out.
Does he abuse his new power? To get a wiretap on the cartel’s money launderer, Franklin Jurado, and his wife, Christina (Kerry Bishé), he threatens a DEA agent, saying, “Think where you want your career to be in five years.”
Yeah, exactly. And that’s part of his improvisational skills. He sees what he needs to do when needs to do it.
In the scenes of him chasing Franklin through the streets of Curaçao, you’re panting heavily — and it looks like you really jumped off that building balcony. Did you do your own stunt?
Yeah, I mean figured it out. They had a stunt guy, and I thought, I hope I don’t get in trouble. But maybe there’s a little bit more you can get away with when you’re out of the country, and you’re doing a television show that is streaming. I didn’t think he should looked skilled, have skilled moves. I thought, This guy is hitting middle age. This guy does not go to the gym. And yet there’s a mad, dangerous rush of adrenaline when he’s close to getting something done. So I think that he should stumble, and I think that it should look real; I think he should limp after.
Weren’t the insurance people like, wait we’ve got liability here?
Well, I showed them what I wanted to be done. And it wasn’t that high.
Yes, it was “only” one story, but still, you’re the star!
It was one story, and I’m hanging from a railing, so it’s really just a few feet. Don’t tell on me! It was a stunt double!
Peña’s also a bit reckless with other people’s lives. He’s partly responsible for Christina being kidnapped by Farc guerrillas. Then he gets Medellín Don Berna and the Castaño brother’s private militia to help him rescue her. When he succeeds, he apologizes to her. But she’s not having any, and calls him a piece of shit. Does he care what people think of him?
I think that there’s an interesting story of attempted redemption with Peña going back to Colombia, after getting caught at what he was doing in season two — working with Los Pepes, and opening the door for such incredible violence. And then being sent away, and not being there for the actual death of Pablo Escobar. So there is little bit of a naïve and somewhat delusional intention in going back and finding some sort of redemption, righting the wrong, or fixing his reputation. I think that even though he kind of moves like somebody who doesn’t give a shit about what people think of him, clearly he does.
Was that scene filmed in the Colombian jungle? How was working with Kerry?
Yes, it was five nights in the Colombian jungle for television! I mean, I’m not trying to brag. I’m just saying it wasn’t easy. At least Kerry was with me [laughs]. She’s a lot tougher than I am, I’ll tell you that much.
She just was super into the helicopter ride, and our night shoots in the jungle. She had complete patience, and was having a good time. And I winged my way through it.
Peña’s also willing to put the lives of Cali security chief turned DEA informant Jorge Salcedo and his family in jeopardy. Instead of extracting them, and turning over the investigation to the Colombian defense minister, who he knows is corrupt, Peña lies, and uses Salcedo to go after acting godfather, Miguel Rodríguez Orejuela.
I think that when you have a target, you really lose sight of all the peripheral elements and clear messages of what is right and what is wrong. It’s that dangerous kind of gambling, but it’s not money, it’s lives. I think that he’s sure — in the moment, he is convinced — that this is the only way to get it done. The gamble is he may get people killed. But my intention is to save everybody.
When Peña finds out the Colombian president is also corrupt, the U.S. ambassador tells him to grow up, that he played the system and won. Not satisfied, he gives an on-the-record interview to the El Tiempo reporter. Did anyone from the DEA really do that?
What I do know is the tapes that had evidence of corruption, of $6 million being put into the president’s campaign by the Cali cartel, were obtained and then released by the DEA. There wasn’t an interview, but the tapes were given to the press. I don’t know if it was anonymously. I think it was with the permission of the ambassador, or the powers that be. It wasn’t a rogue decision on the part the DEA.
At the end of the season, we see Peña back on his father’s ranch, watching Mexican drug smugglers cross the river. So will he get sucked back in again, despite the fact he tells his father he’s done? Are you signed for season four?
He’s going to get sucked back in again? They haven’t told me anything. I plead the Fifth.
You’re also starring in the Kingsman sequel this year. Director Matthew Vaughn said when he watched Narcos, he kept thinking, “Who’s this Burt Reynolds guy?” Should we expect a Reynolds homage in your Kingsman secret-agent character, Jack Daniels?
My intention is that it be a 100 percent homage to Burt Reynolds. And if I can accomplish maybe between 50 and 70 percent, then we got the job done. I studied Burt Reynolds’s movies for the part. But I just don’t think that kind of cool can be achieved. It can only be admired and attempted.
Is there a centerfold moment?
Oh, if only. That’s where the percentage [laughs] — let’s not go there. I’m smooth-chested, I have a different torso, and I haven’t really looked at the rest of it. I mean, I’ve looked at my own. Let me Google it, and I’ll get back to you.
You’ve said your good friend Sarah Paulson was instrumental in you getting the Red Viper role on Game of Thrones. How did you guys meet?
We met in New York City in 1993. She had just graduated from LaGuardia High School, and I was starting at NYU. My first friend in college was from Brooklyn and went to school with Sarah. So I kind of got adopted by a posse of cool New Yorkers. And we have been friends ever since.
And I have to ask, how did you end up in a Sia video with Heidi Klum?
Do you want the real story? In about 2002, I moved from Manhattan to Brooklyn, to Red Hook. A neighbor friend of mine worked with Heidi Klum, who I’ve also known for years. And my first break after Game of Thrones, during the holiday hiatus while we were shooting the first season of Narcos, my good friend Jennifer Love came up with the idea of me participating in the video. And I was like, “I would absolutely love to.” Heidi okayed it, and we did it. It was that simple, and it came from babysitting, looking after [Jennifer’s] daughter at the coffee shop on the corner.
This interview has been edited and condensed.