In Netflix’s new series Narcos, Wagner Moura plays megalomaniac Medellín drug lord Pablo Escobar, the narco terrorist who organized his competitors into a cartel that took on the Colombian government and, ultimately, the DEA, guided by the philosophy, “Better a grave in Colombia than a cell in the U.S.” It’s a performance that’s all the more compelling for its understatement. Vulture caught up with the Brazilian actor from his home in Rio de Janeiro about learning Spanish for the role before getting the part, and why he won’t gain weight again if Netflix orders a second season.
Since you worked with Brazilian filmmaker José Padilha [Narcos’s producer and director of the first two episodes] on Elite Squad and its sequel, was it a given that you’d play Escobar?
We are very good friends and we’ve worked together many times. We went to lunch one day, and he was talking about a lot of projects — he always has like four or five going on. And one of them was Narcos. That was the one I really liked. Though we have such a good relationship, whatever he wanted me to do, I would jump in and do. When he confirmed the show was going happen, I flew myself to Medellín even before I got the part, and I just stayed there.
When did you find out you had to learn Spanish?
I don’t remember any show that has two languages, so I really thought [Narcos] would be in English. [But] even when I thought it was going to be in English, I felt I had to learn Spanish. But I was going at a slower pace — I was just going to learn it because it was the language the character spoke. Then, when they decided it was going to be in Spanish, I went to university. It was the most difficult thing I’ve ever done in my life. But doing it gave me such a great connection with Pablo, and Colombia, and it was important in playing him.
So you had a formal education in Medellín.
I was in a classroom with a lot of foreigners. And at the same time, I was walking around to a lot of different places Pablo had been, talking to people and listening to their accents. I lived in an apartment near the university. I went to the Barrio Pablo Escobar, the neighborhood that he built for the poor, and stayed there and made friends. I went to the stadium of the soccer team he supported. I was just trying to learn Spanish and learn about Pablo. It was pretty intense.
But you had scripts to practice with?
Nobody knew I was there, not even José. Once he called me and said, “Dude, where are you?” “I’m in Medellín!” [Laughs.] “What? What are you doing there?”
You must have a very understanding wife!
Oh, yeah, she’s great. I arrived in Colombia in February, and then we started shooting in September, and we stayed there till April. [My family was] flying back and forth; they would come to Medellín and to Bogotá to see me, and they would go back to Rio. I would fly back to Rio, too, so I would see them every month.
When did you get the part?
I remember I met [producers] Eric Newman, Chris Brancato, and José [in Bogotá]. And then I met [Pedro Pascal, who played] Javier Peña. They were there to search for locations. And José said, “Guess what? Wagner Moura is here.” And we met in a restaurant or something. José said, “So this is the guy I want to play Pablo.” And I remember they were like, “Oh, cool.” But [I think] they were looking at me and thinking, This guy doesn’t even speak Spanish yet. [Laughs.] I think they were a little scared.
You also pulled a De Niro and gained 40 pounds.
Yeah, yeah, but that was something that I thought had to do. Of course, there is De Niro, and there are [other] great actors that change their bodies in order to play a part. And I respect that a lot. I don’t think that gaining weight is … anyone can gain weight. But the thing about Escobar was, he was fat! If he wasn’t a real person, I wouldn’t have done it. It sucks; you have to change your body. It’s not good at all. This is the last time that I’ll do that. It’s not healthy.
Did knowing that members of his family are still alive add to the pressure of playing him?
It’s already a lot of pressure: Escobar is the most well-known Colombian in the world. In the beginning, I was kind of embarrassed to say what I was doing there. But the Colombian people were really supportive. They were concerned because it’s a very controversial topic, very political. So we had to tell it right. The real heroes of the story are the Colombians — the people who survived, all the people that stood up to him. We tried to be very respectful.
How did you get into the head of someone with such delusions of grandeur, he thought he could go from drug kingpin to president of Colombia? And, when that didn’t happen, killed everyone who got in his way?
There are so many books about Pablo in Spanish, especially in Colombia. Everybody wrote a book about him: the waiter, the guy who fixed his car. So it’s very interesting because you wind up having so many different points of view. I was able to have a very precise idea of who [he] was. There was a book written by his brother, and one by his son. Of course, a lot were written by journalists. And I was in Colombia talking to people. Everyone knows someone who knew Pablo, or who died [as a result of him]. So I was able to really understand who this guy was, and to understand what was going on [in Colombia] politically. And then I forgot all that; I threw [it] in the garbage in order to create my own Pablo.
One of the things that I pushed the writers [on], was the relationship he had with his family. Because for me, that was a very strong bridge [to him]. I had to be away from my kids and my wife. That was a situation Pablo lived for almost ten years of his life. He was hiding, and away from the people he loved. That’s why he died, actually; he was killed because he was caught while talking to his kid. But even for the bad things that he did, I had to look at the bad things inside myself.
Is the corrupt Colombian TV-news reporter Valeria Velez (Stephanie Sigman) based on someone who’s still around?
She’s based on a very smart journalist called Virginia Vallejo, who wrote a great book — one of the best books — called Loving Pablo, Hating Escobar.
There’s already talk of a second season. Have you kept up your Spanish, and are you going to wear a fat suit?
[Laughs.] I have to have a fake belly! I made a lot of friends in Colombia, so we will always talk, [and] I’m trying to keep up with Spanish. The first season, I [also] had a dialogue coach with me all the time. So if we have a second season, I hope to have this guy again.
When will you find out?
Netflix doesn’t allow us to say. I think they want to announce it. I find it difficult to believe there won’t be a second season.
’Cause he’s not dead yet!