Inside the Mind of El Chapo With ‘Narcos: Mexico’ Star Alejandro Edda
When Alejandro Edda showed up at the federal courthouse in downtown Brooklyn on Jan. 28, 2019, he didn’t turn heads — not at first. The 37-year-old actor is not a household name, and in real life he doesn’t much look like the man he depicts in his best-known role to date, the man he was there to see in the flesh: Joaquín Guzmán Loera, the notorious Mexican drug trafficker better known as El Chapo.
Edda had already appeared in the first season of the Netflix show Narcos: Mexico and had filmed part of the second. Now, as prosecutors were making their final arguments in the blockbuster criminal trial of El Chapo, Edda wanted the chance to observe El Chapo up close.
For those of us covering the trial day-in and day-out, the days had begun to blur together, a seemingly nonstop marathon of freezing early mornings lining up outside, hours of testimony alternating between bombshell allegations and the terminal drudgery of expert witnesses droning on about technical minutiae. So when word of Edda’s arrival started to spread, it was as if an electrical current zapped through the crowd of reporters.
We weren’t the only people excited at Edda’s arrival. When El Chapo entered the courtroom that morning, blowing a kiss to his beauty-queen wife in the gallery and glad-handing with his lawyers, one of the attorneys whispered something in his ear. It was clear what news he’d delivered to the imprisoned drug lord: El Chapo broke into a wide, excited grin and whipped his head around to get a glimpse of Edda. Flashing the actor a smile, El Chapo waved with a boyish excitement. El Chapo’s desire to make a movie out of the story of his own life was by then well known, and he seemed thrilled to see the guy tasked with bringing his story to life.
It’s been nearly two years since a jury found El Chapo guilty on all charges, and a year and a half since a judge sentenced him to the mandatory life in prison, after which he was whisked away to a supermax black hole in the high desert of Colorado. There, he spends 23 hours a day in a lonely cell, subject to strict “communications management” rules that allow for visitation only from his lawyers and his twin daughters. But the spectacle of El Chapo continues: In a few weeks, his wife, Emma Coronel Aispuro, is scheduled to be sentenced after pleading guilty to aiding in her husband’s cocaine empire; his sons remain at large in Sinaloa, including 31-year-old Ovidio Guzmán López, who was briefly captured and, after a botched raid in his hometown of Culiacán led to all-out urban warfare, released by President Andres Manuel López Obrador; and El Chapo continues to appeal his sentence, likely his last shot at ever seeing the outside world again.
Meanwhile, Nov. 5 will see the premiere of the third and final season of Narcos: Mexico, in which Edda will reprise his role, with a narrative focused more heavily on El Chapo than ever.
I spent more than two years reporting on the life and times of El Chapo, an effort that culminated in the book El Chapo: The Untold Story of the World’s Most Infamous Drug Lord (Atria Books, 2021). It is a work of journalistic nonfiction that explores the networks of corruption linking organized crime and the governments of Mexico and the United States. But at the heart of the book, as in Edda’s work, is a character study of a man who, despite his notoriety, had until recently been something of a shadow. So, ahead of the new season, I spoke with the Edda about how he researched the role, his trip to Brooklyn federal court that day in 2019, and his favorite drug-war ballads, or narcocorridos, that he played on repeat to get in the zone on set.
How did the role of El Chapo come to you?
It was really a surprise, because I never auditioned for this role. Since the very beginning of Narcos — like, Narcos Colombia — I auditioned, and it was one line, one episode, a guerrilla character. I never heard back. I kept coming back — 2015, ’16, ’17, ’18 and nothing, man. For four years I went to that room, read for 20-plus different kind of roles, never got anything. And I don’t know what it is, man, I don’t know if it’s God scheming or the universe, the cosmos, the stars, but the last audition, I believe I auditioned for [DEA agent] Kiki Camarena, and for [drug lord Rafael] Caro Quintero. And then I remember going to my car and the moment that I opened the door, I had to kneel a little bit because I was throwing up. And I start crying. You know, I was going through a divorce in my personal life. My kids were in another country. It was a mess. And I just turned and I looked at myself in the mirror, cleaning my tears, and I said, “You know what? Fuck this! I’m done! This is it. I’m done. This is hurting me in every level.” I kind of let go. And two weeks later my team called me and said, “Netflix called us and they want to offer you the role of El Chapo for a four-year deal.”
How did you prepare going into the role?
I didn’t know how I was going to portray this. I don’t think I look like the guy. The only thing is that I was short in size. I’m five-foot-seven, he’s five-foot-six. I’m like, “OK that’s cool.” You know, in Hollywood you’re pretty much alone. You’ve got to figure things your own way. So, I presented myself as who I thought this guy was, did my research, and just said, “OK, God, help me, and let’s do it.”
What kind of research did you do? How did you go about finding out who El Chapo was, how he carried himself, how he talked?
If you’re from Mexico, like myself, you know the man, but I’ve never been interested in the subject, per se. I’m from [the central Mexican state of] Puebla. And Puebla, we were not into the narco culture. I was not also a politics kind of guy who’s interested in those things.
So, you do what you have to do, which is get your own research. The Chapo [meeting] with Kate del Castillo, the actress, the Rolling Stone interview with Sean Penn, I start gathering things that were out there for me to see. The Rolling Stone interview, the video, he’s 58 years old, so his voice is not the way that I was portraying him, at 31. Luckily there’s this little clip after he gets arrested in Guatemala and then [extradited] into Mexico. This is where I could hear his voice at that age. And I’m like, “There we go.” I have that little clip and I just kind of practice it. I look at myself in the mirror and I’m going over and over the scenes.
And then, of course, I go through the whole class of books. Los Señores del Narco by Anabel Hernández, she described El Chapo perfectly for me. She will write a page of the traits that he had — the charisma, the love for music, the way he reacted upon his family, friends, women, his physicality, his sense of humor. And then you have Rafael Rodríguez Castañeda, he wrote, El imperio del Chapo. Those were my bibles during the first season.
Do you work straight off the scripts or do you improvise at all?
There are, I believe, American writers writing the episodes; someone in Mexico translates them. But when you see what I’m saying on the screen, it’s pretty far from what the American writer had in mind. So I don’t know if they hated me or loved me on that, but I said, “Hey, guys, listen, you know, with all due respect, nobody is from Sinaloa in that Netflix room or wherever you are.”
So you have to sort of Sinaloa-ize it?
Oh, are you kidding me? Of course. I have my own kind research that I called — it’s music, it’s corridos [a style of narrative ballads popular in Northern Mexico]. And my friends from the region, from Sinaloa. Talking to the real people and listening to this, to their rhythm of voice, to the bad words they say — and you’ve got to talk to people that lived during the Eighties or Nineties, because otherwise it doesn’t work to talk to, you know, new people.
Because you have to talk like they did back then?
Exactly. And bad words that they used.
“¡A la verga!” [a profanity used in Mexico to express excitement, anger, disdain, or pretty much any strong emotion]
Yeah, exactly. But you have to use the past bad words, not the new ones that the kids are using these days with the whole “¡A la verga!” and all that shit.
Having personally spent a lot of time in Sinaloa, I do find that the way that the characters on the show talk, they sound very similar to real-life narcos in Sinaloa, especially the older narcos I met there.
It’s a very rich language. I love the accent.
It’s almost like a different dialect of Spanish.
A hundred percent, man. That’s why I like them. And then they come up with these rhymes and these, like, very philosophical expressions. They are very sexualized, too, and I’m just like, “Wow, these guys are just a genius of the vocabulary.” Every single day, in my trailer, at the makeup room, in my hotel room, I was listening to ranchero, corridos, music of that region.
Who are some of your favorite artists?
Well, you have Tucanes de Tijuana. You have Los Tigres del Norte, who are like legendary corrido big bands, right? They tell you the story, and if you listen to them, you can learn from them. And then you have Chalino Sánchez, which is a classic. They are writing not because they are inspired, no. They know those stories, so they are actually now just putting them together into a music piece.
It’s like an oral tradition, an oral history.
Exactly! So if any actor out there is going to portray a narco role, I always suggest they go for the music.
Did you watch the drama El Chapo on Netflix? Or did you not want to?
I did not. I’ve heard great things about the show, about the performance of Marco [de la O], the actor. I met Marco at a film festival and I remember telling him, “Man, actually, you do look like that guy. You’re exactly like him!”
And you don’t as much, in your normal life.
I definitely don’t look like him. I don’t even talk like him, anything. It’s funny. When [I’m] walking in Mexico City with Gorka Lasaosa, who’s a Spaniard playing El Guero Palma [in Narcos: Mexico], people will stop him and say, “Oh, can I have a photo with you?” And then the person who wants the photo gives me the phone. “Can you take it for us?”
So they never recognize you?
Never! But as soon as I get out of that trailer room, then the voice comes out and…
How long does it take to make you look like El Chapo? What do they have to do?
Hours, hours. And, man, in the first season, the first [task] was to discover the look, like, “OK, what kind of wigs [do] we put on him and how much weight are you going to put on Alejandro, what are your ideas?” Everybody’s sending pictures. That took time. But then El Chapo starts changing, too. So he has a different kind of hairline and…
He gets a little bit of a belly, right?
I got the belly. That’s all for real. And then in this third season I finally got the famous mustache, which is real, too.
One of my favorite parts of the new season is a scene where you re-enact shot-for-shot a famous depiction of El Chapo: the clip that you mentioned using to get the accent right, that June 1993 press conference after his first arrest.
You saw that scene? How did that look?
It looked incredible.
So when this scene was written, I called [showrunner] Carlo [Bernard] and shared with him the clip. And I said, “Listen, when you’re writing in this scene, it’s loosely based on that. Why don’t we just shoot it like that?” He was like “Alright, cool. I dig it.”
It was great. It looks exactly like the press conference. It’s so cool.
Oh, man! That’s so good to hear. I didn’t even know if it was going to make the cut.
The first time you and I met was during the trial of El Chapo. I was covering it for Rolling Stone and you showed up one day. Tell me about your decision to do that and how did it go for you?
I went two days. On the second day I escaped after lunch, because it was just getting too messy, man. I was not used to this kind of, um, how do you say in English? I mean, you guys were doing your job, which…
Yeah, the reporters, we were kind of mobbing you, right?
Man, it was nuts! I was in the eye of the hurricane! I’m a naive person. I’m a happy-go-lucky kind of guy, so me going to New York, to the trial, [all about] my acting craft. I wanted just to research the guy. I didn’t want to be, you know, part of the whole media talking about, “Oh, this guy wants to make himself famous,” because I heard all of those things.
I just started by just reading Twitter, and [Vice News reporter] Keegan Hamilton and Alan [Feuer] from the New York Times were [live-tweeting the trial]. So I texted them via Twitter and they replied very kindly. So when we were talking about it, I asked, “Am I allowed to go?” Like, regular people can go? And they both told me, “Yeah, man, you’ve just got to get in line very early, you know, bring a fat jacket because it’s cold.”
What was it like to see him up close?
Sometimes, believe it or not, in Mexico, we used to think — not any more, but we used to think he was a myth, this sort of legend that nobody knew if he existed or not.
I don’t know if you could tell this, but he does seem like he has some plastic surgery in his face or nose. Some narcos tend to do that, change their appearance, you know? So I was thinking, “Is this, like, a real human being?” And the moment that he walked into the room — I think it was my first time seeing him — a lot of things happened in my body. After that, the thought of him being someone fake or someone that is not him, it never crossed my mind. I was like, “Oh, my God, that’s the real man.” He looked in good shape for being 61. He looked slim, he had his hair all black, no white hair, a suit. I’ve never seen El Chapo in a suit with all these hundreds of photographs. So all of that was quite odd, quite interesting, too. And the fact that he was just paying attention and very calm and thinking…
Yeah, he was very alert, right? He saw everything.
Very alert and very patient. I just had a two-day experience [in court]. But it was enough to really feel this character.
How did that help your understanding of the character and your ability to inhabit him?
It helped a lot. I remember coming back [to] set after returning from Brooklyn, and I feel more confident of my work. I could stretch it now. I could have more tools that I saw vividly. His left knee shaking, or what hand he uses to write, because he was writing a lot. Definitely it made me feel more trust about my choices as an actor.
His lawyers told him you were there, right?
That’s right. The moment that he came out and almost went to sit down, the lawyers stopped him and then pointed at me and then said to him [makes whispering noises]. And then that’s when he stood up and smiled, remember? And he waved.
He seemed really excited.
Superexcited. And that’s when I went, “Oh, shit! I did it!”
He’s looking right at you.
Yeah, man! And then the judge, you know, “Hey guys, this isn’t Comedy Central,” or whatever. And I didn’t even know the reporters behind me, but they were shaking my shoulder like, “Oh, my God! He waved at you! Oh, my God!” I’m like, “What’s going on?”
What was it like to have this infamous person looking right at you and acknowledging you?
Well, it definitely wasn’t comfortable at, at all! I couldn’t hold him, I couldn’t hold my —
The eye contact?
Yeah, I had to look very slowly to the front, because, well, I’m not going to smile back at him, like, “Hey, what’s up!” No. I mean, it was something else.
So the new season starts in the late 1980s, early 1990s, after the fall of Miguel Ángel Félix Gallardo and the old guard in Guadalajara. What can people expect from El Chapo in this coming season?
El Chapo is thinking he can be a leader. Now he knows that he has it within [him]. He knows that he could be the next boss. And in the scenes that he appears, we wanted to see that, the matureness not only of him becoming a little older in age, but also mentality and strength.
We wanted to go more inside his head and inside of the [psyche] of these people, right? These people are victims of their own circumstance by being born in the Golden Triangle, we’re talking about [the] Sixties, Seventies. The only thing you could do is sell amapola [a regional colloquialism for opium], or work in the poppy fields. So that’s your only income, your father’s income. And then, [El Chapo’s] father is not a respectful father, so you now have to go work on your own by selling weed.
So then, for me, “OK, what was his mentality during the Seventies, and then what was his mentality in the Nineties and in the 2000s,” which is the whole Chapo era. I wanted to see, where does that click in him? Where did he have the nerve or the audacity or even the creativity of coming up with these ideas — the tunnels, the cans of jalapeños [to smuggle cocaine in], and even, his nickname was El Rapido. I mean, El Chapo was just a normal nickname, because he’s short, but El Rapido because he was quite fast. If you were doing that, you must be good at what you’re doing.
You have so much energy in your performance on the show. When you’re playing El Chapo, it’s almost like he’s constantly buzzing. He’s sort of bouncing on his feet and he seems like he can barely contain himself. Where did you pick up on that?
It is very cool that you notice it. In a way, my acting technique and preparation techniques, I tend to bring that up. You know, is this character, active-minded, physical-minded? In Anabel’s book, Los Señores del Narco, some of the traits that he has, I’m like, “Oh, OK, I’m close to that.” I do enjoy the things that they are describing in him. Charismatic? Myself, I’m a charismatic guy. Energetic, the love of music and dancing. I’m thinking, “OK, this is right down my alley. The producers were right picking me.”
How did you navigate the tension between this friendly guy who likes to joke around and likes to have fun, but who is also someone who is willing to commit really serious acts of violence?
I get the episodes one by one, so I don’t know what’s really in store for me. So I was nervous, because, like you said, I can play being the good friend and dancing and blah, blah, blah, jokes. But when it comes down to the dark stuff, how am I going to approach that? The funny part is that there’s not that many moments when you see El Chapo, at least since Season One and Two, going through something dark. And my [approach] was, what do these people love the most? It’s their families and their friends.
And in Season Two you navigate some loss. El Chapo’s friend, El Cochiloco, is killed and it’s a very emotional scene.
Exactly. Even though that was a fictitious death, because that didn’t happen in that way, as part of the show that hit me. It hit me also the whole betrayal of the killing of the wife and the kids of [El Chapo’s friend Héctor Luis] “El Guero” Palma. I mean, that was nuts. I grabbed to those moments, just to be ready. But there’s not that many dark moments. And then you have these amazing, beautiful scenes of El Chapo making handmade tortillas with his mother. That’s amazing!
Yeah, he was sort of a mama’s boy, right?
Very much so. He was a big-time mama’s boy. He definitely saw his mom as everything. And then his lovers — he had many wives, many kids, which I [was] actually amazed they never put in the show, which would have been interesting because he also lost sons to the [drug] conflict. And that’s tough, doesn’t matter if you’re a bad guy or a good guy.
Have you thought about how actual narcos watch Narcos?
I heard of many people in Guadalajara who are the sons or nephews or daughters or Rafael Caro Quintero and all those guys, all those family members have seen the show.
I had this interesting experience reporting the book. I was in northern Mexico interviewing a guy in prison. And he was, like, the boss of the cell block. He controlled everything. He brought me into his cell, where he had air conditioning and a big bed and a TV. And on the TV, he put on Narcos: Mexico.
Yeah! He started playing the first scene in Narcos: Mexico and telling me which parts are accurate, which parts are inaccurate. It was so crazy.
Who was this guy? Can you not say?
I can’t say his name, but he’s a guy who is very much in that world and has a lot of power in that world. And it was really interesting to hear his take on the TV show.
It’s sort of like how there’s this stereotype of mafia guys in the U.S. watching The Godfather and The Sopranos to see their life on film. And I think there’s a similar attitude among narcos in Mexico, of being curious how it’s portrayed.
I totally agree with you, and we didn’t want to glorify this, you know? That was an objective for all of us. I think that the idea that they wanted to do is really inform and also entertain. Why? Because it’s a TV show. It’s not a documentary. We’re not going out there to interview, like Sean Penn did. I go to hair and makeup. I learn my lines. This is a produced show. So our glorification is not showing narcos with abs and, and 20 girls, you know, in a Jacuzzi. No, man, we’re showing them as people. And, and that’s what my goal was, to show El Chapo to audiences around the globe.
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