After two seasons of exploring the rise and fall of Colombian drug kingpin Pablo Escobar and another dealing with the infamous Cali Cartel, the fourth season of Netflix’s Narcos moves to Mexico to chart the rise of the Guadalajara Cartel. Ahead of the season premiere, actors Diego Luna (who plays drug lord Felix Gallardo) and Michael Peña (who plays DEA agent Kiki Camarena) and executive producer Eric Newman talk about creating a world that’s as authentic as possible and being careful to humanize but not glorify these characters.

ON HOW THEY APPROACHED THEIR ROLES

Diego Luna: I found Felix very interesting because we have this stereotype of a drug dealer, that’s he’s from a little town, more like a rancher, he likes to stay in the town and bring wealth to the town and build gigantic houses just where he had his poor little house and stay there. And this guy is willing to sacrifice everything and leave everything behind. He moves to the big city to belong to a different community. He wants to be seen as a businessman. He’s one step ahead of everyone. I think that’s exactly why he managed to create what he created. Because he saw this more as an organisation, as a corporation that had to work all together, where the system was more important than one person. He made people that hated each other work together and protect each other. He understood that it was about getting every level of power involved – the politicians, the police, the military, politicians on the other side of the border, banks. He managed to organise all of these. So he’s quite smart and for an actor, that’s interesting to play. I have a lot of different levels, different tones to play with.

Michael Peña: I was reading a bunch of things. He (Kiki) died and you can look at him on Wikipedia or Google. There were people who were interviewing his wife, James Kuykendall – his boss, people who knew him, but never interviewed him. So I said, instead of doing that, I’m just going to talk to Mika Camarena (his wife) and Kuykendall and that’s what I did because I couldn’t quite figure out what made him tick. On paper, it almost seemed like he was this super cop and when I talked to them, they said that he was just very focused. He was a very focused individual, he was very intense. It affected him, when he saw things that weren’t right. He wanted to make a difference. He’s a special kind of individual.

ON HUMANIZING THE CHARACTERS, YET NOT GLORIFYING THEM

Eric Newman: I had originally begun developing Narcos as a film many years ago, in the mid 90s. It was a very difficult movie to get made, because at its centre was Pablo Escobar – a character who is capable of tremendous evil, is by most descriptions, a monster. It’s very difficult to tell, in two hours, the story of someone like Pablo Escobar, where you can humanize him, in a way where you can sometimes forget that he’s a monster and maybe empathize with him, certainly relate to him in some areas. It wasn’t until I got into business with Netflix and experienced the creative freedom that they offer that I was able to tell his story in a way where audiences could understand him. I’ve made no excuses for him, but perhaps explanations. If you look at television, even something like Sacred Games, which I love – these characters are capable of great evil, but at the same time, you watch Nawazuddin Siddiqui’s performance and you see the humanity there and it makes all the difference. I have the same answer every time someone asks about glorification – there’s always a risk. Our characters, without exception, meet incredibly unhappy endings. They end up in prison or dead. They’re also seen perpetrating horrible crimes. If somebody can watch someone blow up an airplane and kill 150 innocent people, as Pablo Escobar does in season 1 and somehow be inspired and somehow feel, “I want to be that guy,” that’s not someone that I think we can help. If you actually watch the show, it’s not a criticism you would have. I don’t think anyone would accuse us of glorifying these men. I do believe that it’s very important to humanize them. I think that the mistake that we make in the world now is we brand someone a monster, which means he or she spraying forth from the womb as a monster and that’s not how it happens. How it happens is a confluence of circumstances, environment, disparity between rich and poor. There are a lot of reasons why these people are created. If you spend your time looking for monsters, you’re going to miss the guy that rises up behind you and becomes a monster.

Diego Luna: I don’t necessarily like him (his character Felix), but you cannot judge a character while playing it. You have to create a three-dimensional character and you have to find what triggers his choices and humanize the character. We all feel the same and we’re all driven by love, by guilt, by jealousy, by ambition. It’s just that there are a few people willing to cross a line that I am not. This guy is one of them…We are coming in to tell you about a story that happened in the 80s, that is the foundation of the crisis my country is living today. That it brought a mess, it brought so much violence and loss. To me, it’s a very sad story we’re telling. And I live in that country, where 2,50,000 people have been killed in the last 12 years. So there’s no way I’m here to tell you, “Look how cool the narcos are.” That’s not the way I roll, that’s not what I’m looking for. But I also hate when they talk about these people as if they were just two-dimensional characters, where there’s just good and bad. If we get to that rhetoric, it’s very dangerous. The good and bad thing, it polarizes things, it radicalizes positions. It’s important that we realize that there’s so much in between, so many layers that we have to attend to. I’m not worried about glorifying these guys. If you see the 10 episodes and you want to belong to that world, then you should be checked. There’s something wrong with you. It’s a very dark world and one thing I would like people to think about is why these people are choosing that life, what is pushing them there.

ON THE IMPORTANCE OF AUTHENTICITY IN FILMMAKING

Michael Peña: If you go to Mexico, all the actors in the telenovelas are light-skinned, green eyes and blonde hair and I’m like, “What kind of Mexican is that?” It’s foreigners who come in, who are very light-skinned and they get all the jobs. At least in America it’s changing. At the end of the day it’s a business, it’s whatever people want to see. It’s good for us that now I think people are accepting and they want to see different kinds of stories and different people in them. I think that it’s important (that my characters have Latino names) because say, if it was an Indian actor who went to America and started getting parts and then all of a sudden he was John Roberts, which happens. Sometimes you get more work but I wouldn’t feel good about it, me particularly. Just because the times are changing and there are more Latinos getting jobs, I feel like it’s my duty.

Eric Newman: I believe the most important thing, and I’ve thought quite a bit about this, is authenticity. I believe that audiences all over the world, no matter how removed they are from the setting of your story, recognise when something is real versus when something is an approximation or worse, something manufactured – we’re shooting in New Mexico and pretending that it’s Colombia. I think that the world has gotten a little smaller in terms of information – not always a good thing, sometimes it’s a bad thing but I think in terms of the stories that we want to experience and the worlds we’d like to visit, I think we have a broader appetite for it. We stay as local as we can and I don’t believe anyone would’ve let us make Narcos in Spanish, in Colombia. Netflix embraced those two ideas that most companies would’ve actually killed for us.

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