Monday 25 June 2018

Getting inside the mind of drugs king Escobar

Wagner Moura had to gain weight and learn a new language for his role in Narcos, a hotly anticipated drama from Netflix. We hear how he pulled it off

Spanish on his mind: Wagner Moura, left, with actress Maria Ribeiro and director Jose Padilha at the Berlin International Film Festival
Spanish on his mind: Wagner Moura, left, with actress Maria Ribeiro and director Jose Padilha at the Berlin International Film Festival

Julia Molony

Wagner Moura is a household name in his native Brazil. And he's soon to be a familiar face on this side of the world too.

Later this month, the on-line broadcasting platform Netflix launches it's newest, already-much-hyped original series - Narcos, a cross-border crime thriller set between Miami and Colombia. And Moura, playing the notorious drug lord Pablo Escobar, is front and centre.

Dressed in dark clothes and dark glasses, his hair long, Moura, who is in London on a pre-release promo tour, has a South American gothic appearance which well matches the shows brooding, twilight atmosphere.

While growing up in the north east of Brazil, he started acting in youth theatre when he was 15. "I didn't know what to do, I came from the countryside of Brazil, so I joined this group of teenagers, and I felt - woah, this is what I want to do," he says. There was little or no television or film industry in Salvador, Bahia, but he was quickly drawn into the city's thriving theatre scene. "You could not work on TV, you could not work on films, but the theatre there was extremely interesting. Especially in the Nineties, when I started working," he says. Before going professional, he took something of a detour to study journalism at university, "which was great actually," he says, "not to be in a theatre school, because I think that I found something else that I was also interested in that brought something else to my history as an actor as well."

But after completing his degree, he was cast in a play that transferred to Rio and launched his career. "The play was extremely successful and I started doing movies, and some television. And then I started working as an actor."

Moura has flirted with Hollywood - he took a supporting but pivotal role in the Neill Blomkamp's film Elysium opposite Matt Damon. And opportunities to work internationally are welcome, he says. "in a different way, I guess than a 21-year-old actor that wants to go to Hollywood. I'm almost 40, I have three kids. I have been working as an actor since I'm 15. I don't intend to move to the United States or anything like that."

But it's his serendipitous collaborations with the director Jose Padilha (also the mastermind behind Narcos) that have thus far defined his career. He starred in the Padilha-directed Elite Squad which became an international hit. The sequel - Elite Squad: The Enemy Within went on to break box office records in Brazil. Moura threw himself headlong into the role of Special Op's police chief Lt. Capitao Nascimento, to the point where at one stage, the high-emotion he summoned on set during filming overspilled. He made headlines in Brazil when it was reported that he had punched an acting coach whose character-building provocations went too far.

But it's not something he's proud of, he admits. "We had this coach on the set," he explains today. "Very intense - an actor's coach, preparing the whole cast. And they thought that in my real life I was too calm. And I never thought that I had to be angry to play that character. I would play it the same way I played it without having to be more aggressive in my own life, but he was always provoking me and saying things to me and punching me. And at some point he said something about my baby - I had just had my first little baby at the time. And I immediately punched him in the face. But I'm really not proud of that."

Still, despite the occasional moment of tension on-set, the success of the Elite Squad venture explains, in part, why Padilha was determined to continue the apparently charmed collaboration with Moura by casting him in Narcos, even if Moura himself was not initially convinced that he had what it took to take on the role of Escobar.

"When Jose invited me to play the character it was two years before we started and we were supposed to do it in English," Moura explains."So I thought, 'Ok, I think I can speak English with an accent, that's ok.' But then it turned out that they said, 'let's do it in Spanish.'" Problem was Moura, whose native tongue is Portuguese, didn't speak any Spanish at the time. Another concern he had was trying to match Escobar's hefty physicality (by the time he died, the gangland icon was close to obese). "I was a skinny, very thin Brazilian actor that didn't speak Spanish. I don't know, Padilha is a very good friend of mine and we've worked a lot together," he says, but he admits that at the time, a big part of him was thinking "dude, I'm the wrong choice for this."

But he was inspired by the challenge, not just the language issue, but also the opportunity to take on such a rich character. "He's a myth today because he was very complex. He was probably one of the meanest people who have walked this earth - but at the same time, he was a great father . . . He was great to his friends. His friends and people who knew him when he was a little kid were still his friends when he died. He gave 2,000 houses to poor people so he was a very complex character, but at the same time he was a mean mean person."

Padhila had faith in his lead actor's natural discipline. He offered little guidance, saying simply, "I'll meet you on set. Be ready."

So Moura took a characteristically full-on approach. "It was the craziest thing I have ever done," he says. "Before signing up with Netflix, I flew to Colombia five or six months before the rest of the cast arrived, and I just stayed there. I booked myself into the University on a course for Spanish for foreigners with Japanese teenagers and German guys. Otherwise I wouldn't have been able to play the part."

Moura, who lives in Rio with his wife and sons, admits he found the long commitment involved preparing for and shooting a ten-episode series difficult. "I thought, ok, Colombia is not far. Colombia is kind of near. But it's a six-hour flight. Brazil is such a huge country, it's not close. My wife and kids were very supportive of this, and I have to thank them. They were going back and forth, taking kids out of school and missing some classes. And they would go there and they would stay a week with me and then go back. . . . it was the whole year doing this thing which was hard. If we have a second season, the plan is to take the whole family to Colombia, book the kids into a Colombian school, so they can learn Spanish."

Moura says he's in no way a careerist, and chooses roles according to the experiences they offer, rather than the strategic opportunities, saying "I want to do things that make me learn something, understand something about myself. Or about a reality that I don't know. I want to do things for my life. I want to have experiences. I'm not interested in playing something that's going to have an effect on my career but doesn't have an effect on my real life."

The effect of Narcos on his life, happily, has been significant in more ways than one. "One thing that was really important to me," he says, talking about being a Brazilian doing a film in Spanish. "In Brazil, we always feel that we are very isolated culturally. Because we are the big country there that doesn't speak Spanish, we don't have any relationship with people from Chile, Argentina. And doing this thing in Colombia, and being so well received there - it made me feel that I belonged to something bigger. It was really really important to me. Working with actors from Chile, Argentina, Mexico, Colombia of course and Peru. For a Brazilian it's something really special."

Season one of 'Narcos' launches on Netflix on August 28.

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