'A Lesson In History': 'Narcos' Director And Actor On Show's Authenticity Jose Padilha, director of Narcos, and Javier Pena, one of the DEA agents portrayed in the show, sit down with NPR's Lourdes Garcia-Navarro to talk about how narco-terrorism makes for good television.
NPR logo

'A Lesson In History': 'Narcos' Director And Actor On Show's Authenticity

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/447688088/447688089" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
'A Lesson In History': 'Narcos' Director And Actor On Show's Authenticity

'A Lesson In History': 'Narcos' Director And Actor On Show's Authenticity

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/447688088/447688089" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript


How do you make a notorious drug lord into a character that people want to follow for an entire season of television and beyond? "Narcos," a Netflix original series, tells the story of Pablo Escobar - his life, his loves and his homicidal history. The show blends original news footage with an almost journalistic style paired with a multinational cast. It even brings in consultants from the DEA, the very people who helped bring Escobar down. We are joined today Jose Padilha, director of "Narcos," and Javier Pena, one of those DEA agents portrayed in the show. Thanks so much for being here.

JOSE PADILHA: Great to be here. Thanks for having us.

JAVIER PENA: Thank you for having us.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: So I'm going to start with you, Jose. Escobar, he is one of the ugliest characters of the 20th century. What interested you about his story?

PADILHA: You know, he's one of those characters that are way bigger than life. Escobar, to me, was a megalomaniac. Even before he started dealing cocaine, he thought he could be the president of Colombia. People say that when he was 21, he usually said to people, I'm going to put a bullet in my own head if I don't make $3 million in two years.

They're like, he was so, like - he had dreams of grandeur, dreams of power, and he stumbled into cocaine. And so you have to picture a psychopath megalomaniac who believes he can be the king of the world who actually becomes the king of the world (laughter) and is the biggest drug dealer of all time, period.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Yeah, Javier, the other half of the story centers around your real-life experiences as a DEA agent in Colombia. You and your partner, Steve Murphy, consulted during the creative process. Tell me a bit about that. How did that come about, and what drew you to the story?

PENA: Yes, well, one of the producers, Eric Newman, called us. And one of the things that really convinced us to get involved in this project is Jose, Eric, Chris Brancato told us they were not going to glamorize Pablo Escobar. Some people still think he's that folk hero, you know, he had that Robin Hood aura about him in Colombia, in Medellin. But at the same time, you know, we coined him. He is the inventor of narcoterrorism.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Jose, OK, I'm not Colombian, so you're a bit lucky here because (laughter) a lot of Colombians were very...

PADILHA: I like Colombians, you know?

GARCIA-NAVARRO: I like Colombians, too, but they were upset about the casting of a Brazilian in this role. And there's been a lot of complaints, I'm sure you've seen, about the accent that Pablo Escobar has. Tell me a little bit about what made you cast a Brazilian in this role and if it matters.

PADILHA: Right, it doesn't really. I have to make a choice as a director. I could make all the accents right, cast everybody from Colombia, or I could draw on talent from all over Latin America and just ask the audience to go in with the trip. Forget about the accents and follow the great performance of people from all over Latin America. So I stick with the choice. I think it was a good choice. As for Wagner - Wagner Moura who - the actor who's doing Pablo Escobar, right - he's just an amazing actor.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Yeah, I guess it wouldn't have mattered, but one of the most interesting choices for me, as a Spanish speaker, was that you actually filmed a lot of this in Spanish. So this is a major show that half of it is actually in a foreign language.

PADILHA: Well, I - this was the very first thing that I - when I went to Netflix with Eric Newman, one of the things that I said right off the bat was people who speak Spanish between themselves should be speaking in Spanish and people who speak English should be speaking in English. Let's do a show that reflects the way things actually happened down there.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Javier, when you look at this show and you see sort of what's come out of it, does it seem really true to life to what you experienced when you were in one of the darkest periods in Colombian history?

PENA: Yes, it does. And, you know what, I tell a lot of people, you know, this is a lesson in history. This really happened. You know, he was a stone killer. You know, there's a great conversation that, you know, when we were doing some telephone intercepts. And Pablo's talking to his wife, telling her how much he loves her. In the background, you hear a guy yell.

And he tries to cover the phone and he tells the people, cover his mouth. And then he just starts talking to his wife - yeah, I miss you. I love you. And it's this type of person, you know - I mean, he killed thousands, you know, lots of police officers, you know? And he did the Avianca bombing, the airline. He invented the car bombs, you know, put them on busy streets, he put one in a bookstore where kids were buying books.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Let me ask you something. Why did you decide to frame the story the way you did, having Javier Pena and Steve Murphy be these central characters - DEA versus Pablo Escobar?

PADILHA: The idea is to take this broad viewpoint on the history of the cocaine trade. By taking this viewpoint, when you see season after season of "Narcos," you see Pablo's becoming important and then Pablo's downfall. Then you see the Cali cartel getting the cocaine into America. Then they get the Cali cartel. After you watch this, one after the other, to the POV of a DEA agent who is fighting this war over and over again, it's a recurring war. It never ends.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Wait, I just need to understand something. Are you talking about the next seasons of "Narcos?" We're going to see (laughter)...


GARCIA-NAVARRO: (Laughter) Tell us a little bit about that.

PADILHA: Well, I mean, we are going to follow up from where we left (laughter). You know, Pablo Escobar escapes from La Catedral, as he did in the real world, and you would think that a lot of people thought, hey, Paolo Escobar escaped from jail. This is a defeat for the police. It's a defeat for the DEA. But actually, there was a little bit of a celebration. Oh, he escaped from jail, now we can kill him. That's what happened.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Is that true?

PENA: And that is true - oh, yes - when he escapes, it's like, wow, we're going to put the band back together again and we did. Yeah, we celebrated, of course, 'cause we knew this time we had a good shot of getting him.

PADILHA: So, you see, only in Colombia, when a drug dealer escapes jail, the police celebrate.

PENA: (Laughter) Yes. We had another chance, yes.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: There we go. Jose Padilha is one of the creators of "Narcos," a Netflix original series, and Javier Pena, a former DEA agent. Thank you so much for talking with us.

PADILHA: It was a pleasure.

PENA: Me too, thank you.

Copyright © 2015 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.