Two years ago, Wagner Moura was having lunch with his friend José Padilha, when the director popped an unexpected question: "How about playing Pablo Escobar?" Though a well-known Brazilian actor, Moura, 39, wasn't an obvious choice to portray the cocaine kingpin in the American-produced series Narcos, which debuted on Netflix on August 28th. For one thing, he'd need to gain 40 pounds, and he didn't speak Spanish.
But Padilha knew the tender and thoughtful Moura could transform himself. He had directed Moura in 2007's Elite Squad and its sequel, Elite Squad: The Enemy Within, the highest-grossing Brazilian film ever. To play a military police captain, Moura submitted to boot camp with Rio's elite police. "Many actors gave up and said, 'Fuck it, I'm an actor. I don't have to be here,' " Moura says. He stuck it out. When one of the cops threatened his newborn son, Moura gave the aggressive response the camp had cultivated: He punched the guy so hard he broke his nose.
For Narcos, Moura gained the weight ("Anyone can gain weight — that's not really acting"), visited the site of Escobar's former ranch (only to find it had been turned into a theme park for kids, "like a Colombian version of Disneyland"), and perfected his Spanish ("in a classroom with Japanese teenagers and German businesspeople"). But he didn't let go of his tenderness. Narcos tells one of the past century's grisliest tales, but its strength is the humanity Moura, a recently appointed U.N. Goodwill Ambassador, brings to Escobar — a man who killed thousands of people in his tenure as the head of the Medellín cartel, spent $2,500 a month on the rubber bands used to wrap his money, but also recorded himself reading children's books and smuggled the tapes to his family when he was in hiding.
As a teen, Moura watched newsreels of Escobar's death — "I remember a big, fat man on the roof of a house, and bombs in Bogotá" — and felt the pressure of playing someone who figured in living memory. He read "everything that was written about Pablo," and spent time in Barrio Pablo Escobar, the neighborhood that the cartel leader built to house the poor, where many residents still see Escobar as a sort of guerrilla Robin Hood. The result: His performance is a masterpiece of charismatic ambiguity. "Netflix never wanted to make this show about good American cops that go to a third-world country to save poor people from a bad guy," says Moura, whose next project is directing a biopic on Brazilian revolutionary Carlos Marighella. "This concept of [who is] good and who is bad is always being played with."