8 DAYS is on the phone with a very subdued Michael Peña. How subdued? Let’s just say that he’s light years away from the hyperactive, extremely chatty Luis in Ant-Man.
No, this Michael Peña is closer to the straight-faced everyman he portrayed in Shooter and Crash, kinda serious but still approachable.
The 42-year-old father of one is calling us from LA to plug Netflix’s drug-trafficking drama Narcos: Mexico, one of several projects he’s in this year (the others include 12 Strong, Ant-Man and The Wasp, A Wrinkle in Time, and the upcoming Clint Eastwood-directed The Mule).
Except on the 1980-set Narcos: Mexico, he has the leading role — as Enrique ‘Kiki’ Camarena, the DEA agent assigned to take down the Guadalajara Cartel run by Miguel Ángel Félix Gallardo, played by Diego Luna. (Peña is having one helluva year: he’s also the leading man in the sci-fi epic Extinction, now streaming on Netflix.)
8 DAYS will speak to Peña again two months later, this time in person at Marina Bay Sands where he, Diego Luna and Narcos showrunner Eric Newman are attending Netflix’s See What’s Next Asia showcase.
8 DAYS: How did you get involved with Narcos: Mexico?
MICHAEL PEÑA: I was approached by Eric Newman, the showrunner, about three years ago. We had a meeting and it was a great meeting and he told me what he wanted to do with the show and I was very excited to say the least. At that time, my son was like five years old and there wasn’t a whole lot of watching R-rated content, so I didn’t get to watch too much of Narcos. Instead I was watching Teletubbies and Ninjago. To be honest, [Narcos] is the reason I discovered the world of binge-watching [later]. So I binge-watched the show, which was fantastic; I think I watched three seasons in two weeks. That’s a lot of TV.
What does your research on Enrique ‘Kiki’ Camarena entail?
Once the deal went through and I knew that I was going to do it — cos sometimes it doesn’t work out — I called [Kiki’s wife] Mika Camarena and picked her brains about what kind of guy Kiki was? As an actor, [there’s a risk of overthinking] for a character, making him more complicated than he needs to be. [My approach to playing him] is simple: He’s very driven, he wants justice, he’s a very moral man, he’s very focused, and he is dedicated to doing his job.
How truthful is your portrayal of Kiki? Did you get to improvise a lot even though he was real person?
I heard it’s about 80 per cent factual, which is a pretty good number. It’s hard to improvise when it’s based on somebody’s life, so I didn’t do a lot of it. I definitely like do that when I’m filming. There’s a lot of good things that can come from improvisation if you study your character enough. But for this one, I was kinda sticking to the script.
What revelations did you learn about the drug cartels from making Narcos?
For me, I can’t believe the things the drug cartels [are capable of doing]. To be honest with you, they are pretty inventive, those guys, especially with the way they deal with the lawmakers. I also can’t believe how the lawmakers looked the other way or got a lot of money from kickbacks. It’s pretty amazing and unbelievable that they would do that... I think [the politicians] are the most sinister of them all.
It’s hard to watch the part where Kiki is tortured to death. Was it difficult to shoot that scene? Did you have problems sleeping at night?
No, man. A life of an actor is a little bit different. Say you're shooting something very dark and emotional, but the second they say ‘cut’, I’m over at craft services getting a donut. It’s not as dark as you might think it is. I think the real thing is studying the part and making sure that you do it well. But I am not that kind of actor that takes the character home, so to speak.
What is your take on the war on drugs?
[Even] when you can take away all the narcos, there will still be a way to supply drugs because there is [always] a demand for it. What we have to do it to put the responsibility on the buyer. If you take away the demand [for drugs], there’s no one to sell to. That will stop it. [But] I don’t think America is ready to stop buying.
Narcos: Mexico and Extinction are now streaming on Netflix. The Mule opens here Jan 10.
The interview has been edited and condensed.
Photos: TPG News/Click Photos, Netflix