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Diego Luna on Narcos: Mexico and Playing a Notorious Drug Lord

Diego Luna.
Diego Luna. Photo: Getty Images

Spoilers below for Narcos: Mexico.

For Diego Luna, playing drug kingpin Miguel Ángel Félix Gallardo in the new season of Narcos: Mexico is extremely personal. The new season of the Netflix series, which premieres today, shifts locales to chart the mid-1980s rise and eventual unraveling of the mastermind behind Mexico’s first multimillion-dollar cocaine cartel after DEA agent Enrique “Kiki” Camarena (Michael Peña) was kidnapped and killed. Though Luna was a kid when Camarena was abducted in Guadalajara, he remembers the violence that resulted and that continues to plague his country. “I’m still trying to understand how to talk about this project,” he says. “It’s been an intense process to reflect on that time from this perspective that, clearly, I wasn’t seeing.”

The series tracks the ruthless trafficker known as El Padrino (a.k.a. the Godfather) as he unifies a confederation of pot growers and dealers, corrupting law enforcement, politicians, businessmen, and the army along the way. Gallardo and his associates, Ernesto “Don Neto” Fonseca and Rafael Caro Quintero, went on to run a syndicate that controlled not only the supply and price of weed across North America, but later, all of the cocaine from Colombia — aided by a complicit Mexican government.

Less focused on how closely the series hews to precise facts, and more concerned with “making sure people are aware of what has to happen for cocaine to get to them,” Luna sees the series as “a good chance to open up the conversation [and] tell people this story of Mexico belongs to all of you.”

Earlier this week, Vulture spoke with Luna — who appears in Barry Jenkins’s new film, If Beale Street Could Talk, and is set to reprise his Rogue One role in a Star Wars prequel series — and he told us why he felt it was “more important” to do the show after Narcos location scout Carlos Muñoz Portal was murdered in Mexico, why we’ll never know the complete Camarena story, what it was like to work with the season’s surprise guest star, and his big emotional finale with Michael Peña.

You’ve said the Narcos: Mexico cast is the “dream team” of the Mexican film industry. But how did you feel about playing a notorious trafficker after a location scout was shot to death ahead of filming?
Well, I gotta say — and I’ve been trying to say this in other interviews, but they squish my answer and it never reads the way it should — but let me try to explain because I think it’s the opposite. After what happened, it was more important to do the series.

First of all, it happened way before I was even hired. It was when they were prepping. I read the news and it was horrible to read that had happened in my country. That it was so close, because [Carlos Muñoz Portal] was well-known in the industry. We’re all a family, and the news hit me as it hit everyone doing cinema in Mexico. But what happened to him wasn’t related to the making of the series. It’s just a reflection of the country we’re living in, a country that is [experiencing] rampant violence that is getting to every level of society. You have to understand that in the last 12 years, there have been more than 250,000 people killed. I truly believe that this violence is not our violence. This is the violence of a strategy that is not working around the world on the war on drugs. Because of where we are, we happen to be the big gate between the countries that produce it and the market.

You’ve said you chose not to interview people about Félix, instead reading books and watching documentaries. What did you decide his motivation was? In the show, he says that he doesn’t see something for what it is, but for what it could be. Is he a megalomaniac?
[Laughs.] He wants to be seen as a businessman. He wants to belong to a part of society that he doesn’t belong to. I think that’s what motivates him. He’s not the typical drug dealer, the stereotype of the rancher that stays in his little town and builds the biggest and most horrendous house, and uses money to fix the plaza and the church. This guy left his hometown behind and moved to Guadalajara to build his empire. He bought a hotel, a restaurant — that sector that also involved the politicians who had power in Mexico. He wanted to belong to that community, I think. He worked closely with the governor [of Sinaloa].

Speaking of the governor, he tells Félix that success doesn’t change who he is, which pains and then shocks Félix because he considers him a surrogate father. That disapproval seems to motivate him even more.
That’s when it’s not anymore about pleasing the father. I think that moment is very important for the character psychologically. The loss of his “father” is the crucial moment for him becoming a man. He’s gonna show his dad — and everyone else around — that’s not true.

Did he really send the governor his son’s severed head?
You mean in real life? No, no. It’s a moment where we remind people that we’re doing a fiction.

Let’s talk about Rafa. When we first see Félix get him out of trouble, he describes him as “an illiterate moron.” Did Rafa really create sinsemilla and kidnap the minister of education’s daughter? And did Félix fly guns to Nicaragua to get him out of trouble?
If you go to books and read the history, most of what’s happens in the series happened, but in a different order. And many things, we don’t know. It’s just guessing because of this corrupted system that doesn’t allow you ever to get to the truth, you know? The main thing is that in the series, the bad guys are always the drug guys. But you realize they are the “bad guys,” because these are the stories [people in power] want us to know. So many [people] that are part of this corrupt system at every level of power are still out there.

[Whether] it happened exactly like that or not, or who did what, there are so many questions about the case of Kiki Camarena. Who knows if we’ll ever [get answers] because of how fucked-up the system is. And how many people are part of the system where they all owe each other something and it becomes impossible to get to the truth. That’s a reflection on what Mexico is as a country — a country where justice means something different.

When Félix goes to Colombia and he’s kidnapped by Pablo Escobar, did that happen? Also, had you seen previous seasons of the show?
Working with Wagner [Moura] was one of the nicest things of this journey because of what he represents for the series. For me, it was really nice to connect with the series — I watched it way before — to see the character up close. He does an amazing impersonation of Pablo — or, of his Pablo.

Did Pablo really kidnap Félix?
[Laughs.] These are questions I cannot answer. You’re gonna have to investigate yourself. That’s exactly why that first screen is [a disclaimer]. If I tell you it did happen, then the next thing is, it didn’t exactly happen that way. So basically, there is an intention of the writers to use real information.

Let’s talk about your big emotional scene with Michael Peña in the final episode. Was it done it at the end of the shoot?
We were so ready for that moment. We spent months getting to know those characters. For me, it was difficult to adjust to the rhythm of TV. But by the end, I was feeling so sure of who my character was. We talked a lot about what that scene meant with [executive producer] Eric Newman and [director] Andi Baiz. It’s a big turn for Mexican history in many ways, because that moment changed everything. It’s also a big turn for Félix because he’s never gonna feel free again. Even though he had taken many lives by then, this one was gonna haunt him forever.

What’s the significance of the painting in Félix’s office? We see it often, including when his wife discovers the woman who sold it to him is pregnant, and during the DEA raid at the end.
It’s a metaphor for the Félix he wants to become — one that is sensitive to art, that can understand it and belong to that sector of society. It’s like imposing something you’re not [on yourself].

Rafa was let out of jail in 2013 on a legal technicality, Neto was transferred to house arrest because he’s elderly, and Félix is still in prison. El Chapo, who got his start with Félix, just went on trial in New York City. Have you thought about any of them seeing this?
No, I never thought about them seeing it. I’ve been always more focused on the other audience — the audience that doesn’t know who they are. The younger generations. I was 6 years old when the Kiki Camarena case happened. I was there in the ’90s when the nightmare started to happen. The violence erupted, and I kind of understand how we got to where we are. But younger generations that live now in Mexico, they don’t get it. They don’t get how things got this bad. It’s for them that we did the series.

What do you hope the Mexican reaction will be?
It’s gonna generate a lot of debate, which is something we need. In Mexico, we need to reflect on how little we’ve done — or how much we have to change in order for our country to be livable. To be honest, I’m more interested in the reaction outside of Mexico. We are experiencing this violence every day. I [hope] the series gets to be seen all over the world and connects our Mexican present that needs to be solved with the lives of people elsewhere. Yes, it’s entertainment, [but] many people are looking for entertainment that challenges them, that raises questions, that invites you to a debate.

It sounds like you feel a personal responsibility.
I do, because I go back on Monday. After all this promotion, the premiere, and all this traveling all around the world, I go back to Mexico. That’s where I live, that’s where my family is. That’s where my kids are. And I wake up in that country that needs such an urgent change.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

Diego Luna on Narcos and Playing a Notorious Drug Lord