There is a plethora of TV and movie projects about the life of Colombian drug lord Pablo Escobar, and Netflix enters the fray on August 28 with Narcos, a 10-episode series chronicling the rise of the drug king, the creation of the Medellin cartel, and the DEA agents — Javier Peña and Steve Murphy — who were part of Search Bloc, an informal task force created in 1992 in Colombia and dedicated solely to bringing Escobar down.
Because of its 10-hour format, Narcos is able to deal with the complexities of the drug world, the characters involved on both sides of the equation, and the combined efforts of the United States and Colombia to end the illegal trade. It was important to executive producers José Padilha and Eric Newman that the Colombian contribution be included in their telling of the story because many more Colombians – good cops and innocent victims — than Americans lost their lives in the struggle to bring Escobar to justice.
"The guy's a king in so many different ways, a saint to some, a villain to others," Pedro Pascal, who plays Javier Peña, told Bio at the Netflix Television Critics Association press day. "I had my naive impressions of it all growing up in the '80s and the way it's been fed to us through entertainment and movies like Scarface. But in this, you go in and you really see the details of how he rose and how he ran things."
Escobar, who is played by Wagner Moura, and the other members of the cartel had no idea that cocaine, which is cheap to produce and highly addictive (the result being incredible profit margins), would result in so much money so quickly. But Escobar was smart and didn't keep it all. Even as he amassed his fortune, he spread the wealth among the poor, building schools and housing projects and donating money to civic causes to win over the people in Robin Hood-like fashion. That doesn't belie the hundreds of cops he had murdered, or all the innocent victims that died, including those aboard Avianca Flight 203, which was blown out of the sky in Escobar's attempt to assassinate a presidential candidate — and it turned out that the man wasn't even on board.
Then there is the American side to the story. With cocaine pouring into Miami, havoc ensued and the body count rose. So much so that the decision was made by President Ronald Reagan to fight the supply in Colombia, not the demand in the U.S., which is when the war on drugs began.
Pascal, who is Chilean but grew up in the U.S., thinks South Americans have more of an understanding of the Escobar era, so to make sure he got an accurate perspective on his character, he visited Quantico in Virginia, along with Boyd Holbrook, who plays Steve Murphy, where the two met with their real-life counterparts and did a little training.
"They had their fun with us actors — these little schmucks that come and think they're going to be cool DEA agents — and held guns to our head and stuff like that," says Pascal, who is best known for playing Oberyn Martell, aka the Red Viper, on HBO's Game of Thrones. "We met. We hung out, and shared some stories. It's the first opportunity I've ever had to play somebody who is actually alive, and he's somebody who was down there, really on the ground floor of things, and he's Mexican-American, so he's fluent in Spanish, and he really got into the investigation."
One of the things that Pascal learned from meeting Peña and talks with Padilha, was that the best way for Peña, who retired in January 2014, to get his job done and to catch Escobar was to not think about clear definitions of right and wrong, which means there were grey areas.
"There was just one goal: Take that guy down, and, however, that gets done, you discover along the way," says Pascal. "The kind of circumstances and people that you need to become intimate with to get closer to your target, you can't really judge or position them in any specific way because it isn't terribly useful to you."
Narcos has an international feel to it with actors from all over Latin America — Mexico, Brazil, Chile, Peru — and from the United States and Spain. Plus, it was shot in Colombia.
"I think one of the most exciting things about the show is that we did shoot it all down there, because having gotten to see some of it, Colombia is as much the main character as Escobar and the people hunting him," Pascal says. "It's like physical beauty and almost like an intimidating physical presence, has so much to do with the way the stories played themselves out."
Spoiler Alert: Escobar was shot and killed on December 2, 1993. It has never been determined if the fatal bullet was from the gun of the Colombian National Police, or if Escobar committed suicide when he knew he was cornered.
All 10 episodes of Narcos will be available on Netflix on Friday, August 28.