El Patron Brasileño
How a budding Brazilian actor became the World’s most notorious Drug Lord.
The legend of Pablo Escobar began with a dilapidated pair of sneakers. Growing up in the slums of Medellin, Colombia, Escobar was not raised in the presence of affluence. Food was often difficult to come by and Escobar had to work in order to raise enough money for his mother and him to survive. To make things worse, clothing was considered a luxury that he could not afford, so Escobar was often made fun of at school due to his dirty and out of date sneakers. One day, after seeing her dear son, Pablo, return home from school in tears, Escobar’s mother made a decision. That night, after tucking Pablo into bed, she broke into a local clothing store. The next morning Escobar walked to school with his chin held high and a brand new pair of sneakers on his feet.
When Brazilian actor Wagner Moura was cast as the notorious drug kingpin, Pablo Escobar, in the Netflix original series Narcos, he had some big shoes to fill. Nearly forty pounds under Escobar’s weight at the time of audition, and burdened with the intrinsic roadblock of an inability to speak Spanish, Moura somehow convinced the casting director that he was capable of portraying Escobar. In the two seasons since the director’s decision, he has delivered a magnificent performance. Inventing his own idea of what the former Forbes list narcotrafficker was like, Moura was given complete freedom to improvise the mannerisms that made Pablo Pablo (taking short tokes of a poorly rolled blunt and exaggerating the exhale, religiously fixing his jeans and t-shirt combo, the habitual scowl on his face making Escobar seem perpetually contemplative). The 40-year-old Brazilian actor may look and act the part now, but this was certainly not the case prior to his accepting of the role.
On June 27, 1976, Wagner Moura was born to Jose and Alderiva Moura in Salvador, Brazil. As a child, he never had to work to provide for his family, nor was he picked on because of his clothing. Moura graduated from the Federal University of Bahia with a degree in journalism, but quickly decided that he did not want to write for a living. After garnering minor roles in Brazilian productions such as Abril Despedaçado (Behind the Sun) and O Homem do Ano (Man of the Year), Moura began to establish himself as an up-and-coming actor seeking a lead role. His big break came with the movie Elite Squad, Brazil’s highest ever grossing film, in which he portrayed a captain in Brazil’s special operations unit. In order to fully understand the lead role he was cast to play, Moura spent over two months enrolled in a special operations training facility, undergoing the same rigorous training regimen that real Brazilian cadetes were subjected to. Here we are given an early insight into the tool that enables Wagner to completely adapt to any role he plays: his unwavering commitment.
“I was not the obvious choice for the role…I had to learn a language,” explains Moura in a recent interview regarding his casting. Brazil’s native “lengua” is Portuguese, a sister language of the Spanish that is spoken in Medellin. Even so, the role of Escobar could not be played without the intricacies of the Spanish language being fully understood. So, Moura enrolled in a university. During his time in school, he also drastically altered his physical appearance to better match the slightly more robust Escobar. When he showed up for filming in early 2014, Moura was a whole 40 pounds heavier and he had developed an exquisite Colombian accent. However, imitating the world’s most notorious drug lord is not just about looking husky and speaking the native tongue, every action, word, and thought must be Pablo Escobar. That is to say that the only way to produce a compelling portrayal of such a polarizing figure is through complete metamorphosis into that individual. Adhering to the example set originally by Russian actor and director Konstantin Stanislavski, Moura employs method acting as his tool for role dominance. Moura’s “Narcos” performance is so captivating because it is not just another on-screen depiction of a formerly wealthy historical figure, it is an actual adoption of an alternate persona. By combining sociological, psychological, and behavioural aspects of Pablo Escobar into his portrayal, Moura doesn’t just act like Pablo Escobar, his commitment leads him to actually become Pablo Escobar.
For the entire first year of filming, Moura lived in Colombia without his family. He missed his wife and children terribly, but, like Escobar during his time spent away from his family while evading Colombian authorities, Moura understood that his work demanded more attention at the time. As the first season came to a close, he continued to carry the same energy that Pablo had festering inside of him his whole life. “Bad energy,” he recalls. However, understanding that he was playing a man who made incredibly important decisions, Moura employed a more contemplative, rather than outwardly belligerent, nature in his portrayal of Escobar. In every episode, his speaking lines have a rhythm and a cadence. They are seemingly well thought out and almost always delayed, an effect that adds to both the suspense of the series and to the idea that Escobar is constantly thinking about how he can remain one step ahead of his enemies. Moura’s lack of impulsivity in his depiction of Escobar stems once again from his commitment to the role. Taking up transcendental meditation as viable method of stress relief (a natural side effect of playing the world’s most wanted drug trafficker), Moura realized that it added to Pablo’s appeal on the show to appear pensive, so he incorporated the exercises into his time between scenes. Very few people have actually seen Pablo Escobar talk, so Moura’s habitually thoughtful appearance has had a truly lasting impact on nearly all Narcos fans, and in combination with his typical scowl, it has made for an incredibly realistic impression.
La Catedral is a massive enclosure. Fully equipped with jacuzzis, poker tables, gourmet chefs, billiards, a movie theatre, prostitutes, and all the cocaine a drug lord could ever want, it could hardly be considered a penal institution by any modern standards. Outside of the quasi-prison, the splintered end of a broken pool stick drips with the sanguine tint of fresh blood. Galeano Moncada’s body lies limp against the tailgate of a delivery truck, his face severely beaten, while his brother, Kiko Moncada, struggles to escape the grip of two of Escobar’s top men. “Pablo, sus un perro hijo de puta…” Moura’s face and teal colored shirt are dotted with streams of Moncada’s blood. His struggled breath can audibly be heard as he says, “goodbye Kiko,” turns, and reenters La Catedral. This scene from season one, episode nine is the screenwriter’s interpretation of the death of two of Pablo Escobar’s most trusted drug consultants, the Moncada brothers; however, it is Moura’s masterpiece. Aside from the fact that this scene represents the focal point from which nearly all of Pablo’s future enemies arise, it is extremely significant as it is the one time up to this point in the show where we see Pablo (Moura) completely lose it. In this emotional catharsis, the viewer witnesses the full extent of Moura’s superb acting abilities as he disregards his meditative nature and erupts in a bloody display of “Pablo power.” It was at this point at the end of season one that Moura had explored all sides of Pablo — the good, the bad, and the ugly. As massive of a burden as it was to play such an individual who was so strongly loved and hated, Moura’s commitment did not waiver. “I felt like I had to see it through.”
There are no spoilers in Narcos. Everyone knows how the manhunt for Escobar will end, but it is Moura’s incredibly persuasive portrayal that leaves the viewer almost rooting for the deceased drug lord. Building off of the character he became in the first season, Moura incorporated even more “Pabloisms” into the second season. Through selfless acts, like the gifting of his dwindling monetary supply to the poor citizens of Medellin or spending a whole day entertaining his children, Moura paints a picture of Escobar that is much more human. “He was a mean, awful human being… but he was not an alien,” Moura explains, “He loved his kids and his wife.” Escobar has and always will retain an association with violence, narcotics trafficking, murder, and even terrorism, but what Moura so subtly does in his portrayal is emphasize that there is no such thing as pure evil. Hinting at the insight he garnered from playing such a polarizing figure, Moura declares, “Contrasts are what make us human… We all have a dark side and a good side.” As corny as it sounds, it was this same introspective nature that fueled Moura’s relief upon wrapping up the second season of filming and finally ending his association with Pablo. While other entertainers (painters, singers, etc.) have the liberty to express their feelings in an external mode, actors don’t have that capability. “It is (acting) inside of our bodies,” Moura recalls, “You give your body this information and it doesn’t know it’s acting.” Forty pounds was quite an onerous load to carry for a role, but the spirit associated with Escobar was certainly more burdensome, and Moura was extremely happy to lose both the weight and his alternate persona.
Nowadays, the movie-making industry is essentially a legalized version of the cocaine market. If you strip away the gang association, the guns, and the exorbitant amount of violence, the Medellin Cartel and Telemundo advocate the same ideology: Go all out or you’re out. Cutthroat by nature and filled with perks that accompany success, both rely largely on networking (that and a whole lot of determination). Like cocaine, movie-making can have an incredibly intoxicating effect on those who chose to partake in the art form, and both industries have been thought of throughout history as a dishonorable means of money making. In both trades, there are those who become successful and then there are those who fall victim to the competitive atmosphere of it all. The few who achieve success are often strongly associated with a higher level of commitment than their peers. In the sphere of acting, commitment is what wins awards, something Wagner Moura could receive a great amount of for his portrayal of Pablo Escobar. Moura’s ability to render his natural persona speechless and completely adopt Escobar is what makes his delivery so captivating. Although he has certainly cemented himself in history as the Pablo Escobar to which all future Pablos will be compared, the impact this role will have on his acting career is yet to be seen. For the time being, Moura has decided to take a step back from acting and focus more on directing, a two part plan which should distance himself from the demanding role he just spent the last two years playing. As a new season of Narcos is expected to come out early next year, it will be very interesting to see the effect that his departure has on the series. Like Pablo Escobar’s adversaries, the still young series has two options, it can either roll over as so many others have done, or continue to pursue the commitment to role playing and method acting that Wagner Moura has so magisterially exemplified. “Plata o Plomo,”… “Money or Lead.”