Quick: Name the Emmy worthy actor that can give a thoughtful interview with anecdotes about meeting J.K. Rowling after being strapped to a rotating gondola all day on set. If you said Pedro Pascal, then you’d be correct. The actor, currently working on the Kingsman sequel, had a pretty tough day on set when we finally got to chat, but proved to be as eloquent and thoughtful as you’d think. Entering into mass public consciousness with his breakout role as Oberyn Martell in Game of Thrones, the actor has upped his game as DEA Agent Javier Pena on the Netflix show Narcos. Pedro and I spoke why he chose the role, the lengths he and the crew went to get the story right, and how Netflix is the perfect place for the show.
This is my first cross-continental Emmy interview so this is exciting. Now I have to tell you before we start that I am still not over how Oberyn died on Game of Thrones.
Neither am I.
You could have just killed the Mountain. I think the battle was enough to let everyone know the horrible things he did to your family.
Learn when to shut up has been my lesson in all of that
Then you went from that to Narcos, an interesting transition from this big budget fantasy Medieval epic with dragons to a real life story. I’m curious what initial drew you to the part.
I think what initially drew me to the part to be honest with you was that it was original content for Netflix. There was very little time [for me] to decide whether or not I was going to do it as the circumstances set themselves up in my favor for this role and this project to be an offer, and I had very little time to consider whether I should do it or not. I think primarily it was a no brainer because of the network it would be streaming on. From my perspective as an audience member, I find that some of the most creative and original content is coming from there and it’s a place where artists are really getting the opportunity to create with very few limits in terms of storytelling, aesthetics, and merging the style of cinema and television in this very innovative way. I was familiar with Pablo Escobar; I’d been to Columbia before, I visited with my family as a kid, i’ve worked in Columbia so I had a better lay of the land than other people involved. I was quite nervous about playing someone who is alive and whose shoes I would have to fill. I was playing Don Jon in a production of Much Ado About Nothing in the park and I remember I would have to call Javier Pena, the real guy, and having to talk with guy who was there from the beginning. But it wasn’t a situation where I thought “what am I interested in next?” it was more the luck of the draw.
One of the more interesting things about the show is that, I call it a kind of docu-narrative series. When I first turned on the pilot I wasn’t expecting documentary style footage or the voice over. Does that kind of structure help you as an actor?
There’s something very liberating in the doing of it where despite whether or not it will get caught by the camera, you have the freedom to be in this environment, in the scene, and in the skin of your character. I think that the challenge is that you can’t let that reality go whether the camera is on you or not because there’s such a fluid aesthetic for the show. The camera is moving through the physical landscape and it does similarly with characters in a scene. I noticed that if I wasn’t really in it and believing it…there’s was no phoning it in or faking it. Whatever you were doing needed to be caught on camera and needed to be authentic and so there’s a freedom there because it isn’t as technical as something like Game of Thrones where the light has to hit you in a particular way; it’s more freeform and yet at the same time…you need to be truthful.
I think that shows with Narcos. I was reading an interview that you gave with the New York Times about the preparation you had to do for this role. I found the bit about the drug sting hilarious.
Yeah the tactical simulation.
What do you think made you so good at that?
I mean it was absolutely crazy, I felt so nervous about going. I felt so ashamed about not having the child’s excitement about training in Quantico with our real counterparts…I had kind of a child’s fear/nervousness. I remember thinking to myself “these guys are going to have fun with us,” especially when they started setting up these tactical simulation assignments. It was a massive crash course in what trainees are given…it’s like an acting class really. What happened was this. Boyd [Holbrook, who plays Steven Murphy on the show] goes first and we are given a piece of paper with a mission. So he comes back and he’s pale as a ghost and shaking. So I go, “What happened?” and he says “It’s fine, you’ll be fine. Good luck.”
He’s like trembling and he pulls a cigarette out and it’s literally shaking in his hands. That makes me very, very nervous. Basically I’m told to get in the car, drive to this address to like a fake cul-de-sac, park the car in the driveway and buy marijuana from the guy who answers. You’ve met him before…you’re buying drugs from him a second time. I knocked on the door and the first thing he asks me to do is come into the house and I remember thinking that is not on the page! It doesn’t say anything about going into the house, I’m not going into the fucking house. We got into this long argument and now I’m coming up with every excuse in the book to not go in and he starts to tell me I’m making him nervous and I’m like you’re making me nervous. Finally, I’m like well nevermind, let’s forget this…little do I know that he has to sell me the drugs, it’s on him as part of the assignment. So any ways I win, I don’t go into the house. The DEA agents inside were disappointed because what they did to Boyd and what they were going to do to me was bring me into the house, I was gonna be blindsided by the second person who would start an argument with the first, he would distract me and find my gun, a third person would come into the room, and the second person would leave and come back and shoot me in the head. That scenario played out with Boyd and I got an A+ on the assignment.
That is crazy, though I’m sure that was good training ground for the part as after reading about Steve and Javier, they talked about any time you go outside it could be your last day but you still have this mission to try to catch this guy. Something like that, though terrifying, has to be good to get into the mindset.
It’s interesting that they described it that was because definitely in the playing of the character, his reality of being in this world and getting himself more involved to the point of compromising his system of morals, the hyper alertness when we do an exterior scene, always following through with a decision that he doesn’t know what the outcome will be, but has an idea of what the consequences could be. It’s an animal type alertness, that always being hyper aware of your environment and being aware of any misstep is totally part of the playing of it, particularly when the temperature gets turned higher and higher.
One thing that I’m interested in is that you’ve done a lot of theater…do the theatrics of that and this real life character, compare with that of Shakespeare? Because the story of Pablo getting to decide on his own prison and have it guarded by his own men is just insane, but it really happened.
It’s totally stranger than fiction and it’s such a recent history that is so built on these kind of epic sized characters. [Pablo] is a real king of his world. A monster, a loving father and husband, a ruthless murderer, and a savvy business man. To play a character like Javier Pena who has to figure out how do we take this particular guy down. How do we take advantage of the presence that he exists in…while managing the awe of how stranger than fiction it actually is.
Taking a look back on the first season, what was your favorite scene to shoot and what was the hardest one?
One of my favorite scenes to shoot in the first season was one of Pena’s first scenes. We get a better introduction of him in the second episode when he’s with his informant Helena, played by Adria Arjona, I loved meeting Pena in one of his more private adventures. He’s sleeping with his informant, there are real feelings there though both of them are very clearly using each other and putting each other at risk. I feel like there’s such a history lesson in the first few episodes of Narcos with so much being thrown at you, that when you meet Pena, it’s when things begin to settle and become intimate, which is essential to the story. Not just the grandiosity, but the characters and intimate adventures they have in this world.
One of the hardest scenes was…well I can’t really talk to much about the second season…
Sure you can.
[Laughs] You’re like “Don’t let me stop you!” I don’t want to give anything away but…I can’t really identify a scene that was the hardest. I remember being out with Boyd Holbrook in the field and shooting pigeons, and surveillancing La Catedral, the prison that Pablo Escobar basically built for himself and seizing the opportunity to bring some levity to the story and find the humor in Pena and Murphy’s relationship, within the contradictions. We got to share something unexpected of the characters with the audience. That kind of texturing, for me that’s sort of the most important thing. Whether or not it reads is totally out of my control, but it’s a primary goal for that kind of authenticity of character to be a part of the storytelling as much as the events taking place. To remind everyone how actually human it all is and was.
Well to finish, now I’m going to ask you a season 2 question. Where do we see your character going forward in this season?
There’s something to appealing in the first season cause it’s liek a history lesson…there’s so much interesting information to absorb. But look at the timeline, it ends with Escobar escaping from his prison, so the window of his life is just much shorter between that escape and his actual death. With season 2, everything is revved up and it’s much more about the chase and every aspect being intensified to get the job down. Our characters are basically capable of anything to achieve their goals.
I think that’s a good place to leave off. Seems Benioff and Weiss have taught you how to tease the audience.
I learned from the best.