Celebrated actor Diego Luna plays Felix Gallardo, one of Mexico’s most notorious drug lords in Netflix’s new season of Narcos: Mexico. As a professional actor, it is an honor; Narcos has garnered over 20 million viewers in past seasons and continues to rank as one of the top ten most viewed shows in the world (Game of Thrones being #1). Yet, as a native of Mexico, Luna faces the challenge of humanizing the character of a man who has established deep social political disruption in his home country for more than two decades.
Since the birth of drug cartels across Mexico, millions have been affected by their operations in every aspect. In their early days, the organized groups went about their businesses independently without much interference with civilians. As the cartel expanded, however, new members were recruited through bribery, manipulation, and physical threats, degrading their individual will and installing fear in communities. These changes led to a dramatic increase in cartel-related homicides across the country, with over 150,000 deaths since 2006, according to the 2018 Congressional Research Service report. Corruption has deeply penetrated supposedly trustworthy institutions, including the police, banks, and government military groups.
Narcos producers and cast must then balance the portrayal of a crisis that has touched the lives of so many while simultaneously producing high level entertainment.
In an interview with Trevor Noah on The Daily Show earlier this week, Luna discusses the importance of watching Narcos not only for pure enjoyment, but also for a deeper understanding of the multi-layered complexity behind the Mexican Drug War.
“When you play a character like [Felix Gallardo], do you have to learn to like him as well?” Trevor Noah asks him.
“No, no, no… I think you should get checked,” Luna answers, chuckling a little. “Yes, of course [his character is likable]. We don’t judge the character. I, as an actor, cannot judge a character, you know. I have to humanize the character. I have to give a three dimensional [performance] so he’s not the bad guy.”
“[But Gallardo] is a guy who makes the wrong choices,” he continues. “He crosses a line I would never cross. But he has a reason. His reasons are the same reasons that move me, you, and anyone, you know – love, jealousy, ambition, and guilt. You just have to make sure you know why he’s making the choices he makes.”
Prior to filming Narcos, Luna spent time researching Gallardo’s character by reading reports, documentaries, and newspapers. Though Gallardo himself is still alive today (and currently serving a 37-year sentence for his crimes), Luna dismissed the notion of meeting the criminal in person.
“I decided not to go [in that direction],” he says in an interview with William Mullally. “I’m just going to work with the material that is already written… But I don’t want to have any contact with them.”
According to Luna, abstaining from meeting Gallardo gave him more room for creative freedom in his interpretation of his character. In his research, Luna found Gallardo a person that possesses the “charming” qualities necessary to build an interconnected network of organized drug activity. While it is important to show the human side of the drug lord’s character (family, friendship, and love life), Luna says, “If you still like him by episode 10…” [he then laughs darkly].
In the end, Luna hopes Narcos educates just as much as it entertains. By telling the story of the people and the decisions made that birthed the drug war, viewers can better understand the scope of conflict and how citizens of Mexico have been entangled and taken down with the mania.
Watch Diego Luna’s full interview with Trevor Noah below.