‘Narcos: Mexico’ Star Diego Luna: It’s Not Fun Playing The Pablo Escobar Of Mexico

The Mexican actor is as charming and crush-worthy as the villain he plays on the Netflix show.

When Wagner Moura was done portraying infamous Colombian drug kingpin Pablo Escobar on the Netflix series Narcos two years ago, the Brazilian actor said the strongest thing he felt was relief, relief that he could finally shed some fat (he packed 20kg for the role) and leave behind the exhaustingly brutal psyche of a narco-terrorist. 

And now, it’s Diego Luna’s turn to carry the weight of playing a real-life criminal.

On Narcos: Mexico, now streaming on Netflix, the dope action moves from Colombia to Mexico, with Diego Luno playing Miguel Ángel Félix Gallardo, the El Padrino (the Godfather) of the Guadalajara Cartel in the 1980s. Ant-Man’s Michael Pena co-stars as Enrique ‘Kiki’ Camarena, the DEA agent assigned to take down the person many considered as the Pablo Escobar of Mexico.

Friends as foes: Michael Pena and Diego Luna at Netflix's See What’s Next Asia showcase at Marina Bay Sands on Nov 8. The two have worked together before, in 2014, when Luna cast Pena in his second directorial feature, 'Cesar Chavez', the biopic of the American labour activist. 

“I had little fun playing [Gallardo],” says Luna, matter-of-factly. He was speaking to a group of journos at Netflix’s recent See What’s Next Asia showcase at Marina Bay Sands, which was also attended by Pena and Narcos showrunner Eric Newman. 

During the 15-minute interview, Luna recounts his experience breaking bad on the Netflix show (the day before the interview, news broke that he’s in another streaming show, a prequel to 2016's Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, where he reprises the role of rebel spy Cassian Andor).   

Up close, Luna is laid-back and every bit as charismatic and crush-worthy as the scoundrel he plays onscreen. Luna may have a tough time channelling Gallardo, he sure had no problem imbuing him with swagger and charm. But Luna doesn’t want to take too much credit: Gallardo was a charm machine in real life.

“He had to be charming,” says Luna. “He sat down with people who wanted to kill each other, and he convinced them to work together. He organised a system where they divided the country into territories, so everyone would be working for and with each other. 

"You need to be charming to do that. To convince people to do what they think they will never do. He was a lot like a politician, in a way. The guy who tells you what you want to hear. Sometimes he had to be frightening, other times charming. He had this ability to be a really nice guy and then be horrible, and back to being nice again. And that’s why he’s also unpredictable.”

Here are five more things we learnt about Narcos: Mexico

On researching to play Miguel Ángel Félix Gallardo, the Pablo Escobar of Mexico…

“I didn’t want it to go out there and get too close [to the people who knew Gallardo]. We are talking about the ̕'80s, so this is very recent. On the show, my character is definitely one of the bad guys, but he’s also working for someone else, and those people are politicians in my country, and they’re still there. 

I wanted to be very cautious about where I would get all my material and all my information, and I decided to just take it from books and articles written about it. To me, it was clear that it’s from an era that is very well documented. 

"There are so many documentary films to watch. There’s this amazing book, El Cartel de Sinaloa — written by Diego Enrique Osomo, who’s a friend that I read and loved. There was enough information out there. 

"We have to be very careful [with the research] because you’re talking about [real] people’s lives. Every material I read is material that has existed even before I did this show; it was already known to everyone else.”

On being miserable playing a drug kingpin…

“I had very little fun [portraying Gallardo]. It’s a challenge as an actor to portray a character like him. He is a guy who’s willing to leave everything behind. This guy lives in Sinaloa, but moves to Guadalajara to create the cartel because he sees an opportunity there. 

"So he leaves his wife and family behind in Sinaloa. He’s willing to sacrifice his friends. I believe he is quite a lonely man. To me, it’s the opposite. The relationships I make in my life are the most important and I need to take care of them.  So yes, there’s a big difference between this man and I, and I like that.  It makes me feel okay with who I am (laughs).  

"But the interesting part of this show is that it analyses the [drug trade] phenomenon and how it’s not just about good and bad guys. It’s set in a world of people making wrong choices. 

"It’s a world where people live in grey areas. It’s not black and white. For something like this to happen, the level of corruption is extensive. It has to reach every level of power. 

"This story looks at how the cartel works and how it needs politicians, the police, the military on both sides of the border, and a [global] market to make it work. And when you talk about that complexity it becomes interesting. 

"[Even though I didn’t have fun playing Gallardo], as an actor, however, I can tell you I enjoyed a lot acting with the other actors whom I admire a lot, and there are fantastic people that people don’t know around the world. Many of them work a lot in the Mexican industry and that’s it. Finally, now, their work is going to be seen around the world.”

On Narcos: Mexico being the first TV show he’s done in a looong time…

“This is the first time I’m doing a TV series, so I had to adjust because I’m used to doing cinema and theatre, and the TV I did as a kid was very different from the TV we’re doing these days. 

"I used to do telenovelas where in one day you would shoot a whole episode; for Narcos: Mexico, we shot one episode in 13 days. So that gives you the freedom to explore [the character] and do a job that celebrates quality in a different way. 

"I had to adjust because as an actor [in a film], you have two hours to tell the story of a character; on this one, you have 10 hours. So you can [experience a full gamut of emotions], and make out an interesting arc for your character. 

"It was a process that I was glad to be part of with a great team — amazing actors, great directors, Eric Newman is a fantastic producer and showrunner, and writers who are always there to explain to you what’s going to happen later. It’s quite a different approach to anything else I’ve done in the past.” 

Rich in details: Luna’s favourite scene from 'Narcos: Mexico' is a wedding party in episode 3. “There’s a very intense moment because [my character] Felix is dealing [with a delicate business situation] while the whole wedding is happening. You see all the characters interacting and it just reminds you of the richness of the project we’re doing. I’m not saying richness in terms of production budget, but in terms of the characters involved and the scale on which we’re telling the story. It’s a pretty amazing scene.”

On TV being more exciting than the movies…

“TV is taking the risks that cinema is not taking anymore. The studios and big companies, mostly in the US I would say — because it doesn’t apply to Mexico — are not willing to [invest money to tell daring stories] in film. 

"While on TV, they are exploring new things, letting young voices tell their stories. There are four directors working on this series. One is Andrés Baiz, a Colombian guy who’s been involved with the series since the beginning. The other is Josef Kubota Wladyka, an American guy who’s also involved from the beginning. 

"There are two new directors from Mexico: Amat Escalante, who won Best Director at Cannes in 2013, and Alonso Ruizpalacios, who won Best Screenplay at this year’s Berlin Film Festival. 

"They are filmmakers who joined the series because of the freedom TV gave them, and because of what they can do and bring to the table, and the toys they can play with. It’s exciting times because on TV you can try things that films don’t allow you to. 

On how he thought about directing an episode of Narcos: Mexico

“I’ve thought about it, but the problem is that I am in every scene. I think there are very few people in the world that can act and direct at the same time. As an actor, I want someone there to look at my work with some distance, and give me a second opinion on to enrich my performance. 

"And as a director, that’s the most difficult thing to do. I’ve directed three times — 2010’s Abel, 2014’s Cesar Chavez, and 2016’s Mr Pig — but I cannot imagine being [in front] and [behind] the camera. You need perspective; you need to see it from afar. But everyone is different. 

"There are great actor-directors who can [pull that off] — Woody Allen and Clint Eastwood proved that. I just don’t know if I have what is needed to do that.”


Narcos: Mexico is now streaming on Netflix. 

Photos: Netflix 

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