The Narcos: Mexico star lets us in on the secret to great storytelling.

Michael Peña Wants to Paint You a Mental Picture

To consume pop culture in 2018 means to live in a near-constant state of Peak-TV-induced FOMO.1 There are only so many hours in the day, and yet so many of them seem to be taken up by people reminding you of the never-ending deluge of excellent, critically acclaimed television you still have to catch up on. Have you finished The Haunting of Hill House yet? What about Homecoming? Did you watch Maniac?2 What do you mean you still haven’t even started The Wire?

Basically, you’re either an early adopter on a show, or it sits there on your watch list indefinitely, quietly racking up seasons and episodes and critical raves, the same way all those red Netflix envelopes you were “going to get around to watching eventually” used to stack up like New Yorkers.3on the side table where you put your mail. So if you haven’t gotten to the first three seasons of Narcos yet, Netflix’s Emmy-nominated original series about drug cartels vs. DEA agents, don’t worry. You’re not alone.

But that also shouldn’t stop you from firing up Narcos: Mexico. After spending three seasons exploring drug trafficking in Colombia pre- and post-Pablo Escobar, the show’s resetting for its fourth season with a new cast, new storyline and a new cartel.4 Set in the 1980s, the pseudo-spinoff charts the rise of Mexico’s infamous Guadalajara Cartel,5and boasts an impressive, Peak TV-worthy cast that includes Michael Peña as real-life DEA agent Kiki Camarena and Diego Luna as his drug kingpin counterpart Félix Gallardo.6

With Narcos: Mexico still so fresh, I spoke to Peña about what it meant to him to film in Mexico, what makes him such a scene-stealing storyteller (See: Exhibits A, and B), and how he’s handling the pressure of Peak TV.

TITLE: Before we start, I have to level with you. This is the first season of Narcos I’ve watched. I still haven’t seen the first three.

MICHAEL PEÑA: Oh, whoa. I think that might happen. You get some new viewers. But this is a standalone [season]. You can start with this one.

Also, there’s just so much TV out there right now. Which I’d imagine is great for you as an actor, but man, it can be tough to keep up.

[Laughs.] Yeah. I mean, it’s also good for me as a viewer, because I get to watch a whole bunch of great shows.

What are you watching right now?

F Is for Family, with Bill Burr? Oh man. I don’t know why I think that’s so funny, but it really is. And then me and the kid and my wife, we just saw Disenchantment, on Netflix. And, you know, there is a lot of television, but I think the reality is, there’s the right amount of television that pertains to you. And I think the more you’re on these streaming services, the more they can use that algorithm to funnel the right kind of shows to you.

Plus, I think a story like this just works better as a TV series. There’s so much ground to cover. You really need the full ten hours, as opposed to trying to squeeze it all into two hours for a movie.

Yeah, you couldn’t even do it in three hours. Just like with any other show that has eight or ten episodes, the first couple of episodes are there to paint the world and set up the story. Just like in a book. And then, from Episode Three to Ten it starts really cooking.

It’s also basically Drug War 101 in those first few episodes about how the Mexican cartels came to power. How much did you know about this story going in?

In all honesty, I didn’t really know too much about it. I knew just whatever the news and Wikipedia would tell me. But unless you read a ton of books on it, on all the different points of view, you can’t really ever truly know a subject. But on the show, they have a team of writers, and not only that, a team of people that just do research, that are able to dive into the story a lot more. Because the only thing that we see [on the news] is the outcome. We don’t necessarily see the process, and what fuelled that outcome.

You’re playing a real person here, Kiki Camarena. And I don’t know if this is considered a spoiler — because it’s part of history and you can read all about it on Wikipedia — but his story doesn’t exactly have a happy ending…

No, I think everybody knows that. I think they just don’t know when it’s going to happen.

So, given that, what was your research like to get to know who this guy was? Did you read up on him, or talk to his family or people who had worked with him?

I tried to do a lot of research on him, and the problem was, there were a lot of people that wrote about him after he died. Everything that I read about him was somebody asking questions about him; they never had direct contact with him. So there’s only so much that they can get. His viewpoints were only looked at from a third-party perspective. Because you always want to, especially as an actor, you want to try to find out what makes a person tick. And I just couldn’t get it from reading about him.

So I had a call scheduled with Mika Camarena, his wife, and she was able to tell me something very simple: that he was just a guy who really didn’t like injustice, and did everything in his power to stop it from occurring. Especially when you saw something as evident as this empire growing. He tried to warn as many people about it as he could and nobody would pay attention to him, and I think that fueled a fire as well. You would become more obsessed with it. You see an empire coming to fruition, you can imagine all the havoc that this will bring about to this country — to both countries — and he just didn’t want that. To him, he was fighting the good fight.

I know the original Narcos was filmed in Columbia, and you filmed in Mexico City for this season. What does it add to actually be filming where the story’s set, as opposed to, say, just having California double for Mexico?

I don’t think you can do that. In my mind, you have to shoot there. Because even just the first two episodes, I was amazed at how they were able to capture the Latin vibe, the Latin world so well. I mean, better than a lot of movies did! They make the land a character in its own right. Because if you think about it, the land is what produces cocaine — and in a large part, that’s what this show is about, the making and transferring and moving of cocaine.

I also read that the show added a pair of Mexican directors this season. Was that important for you, having that kind of representation reflected behind the camera as well as in front of it?

Maybe it is, just psychologically. Having Amat Escalante and Alonso Ruizpalacios. And Andi Baiz was really great to work with as well – I think he’s directed the most episodes of Narcos to date. And these are all guys who do movies for the most part.7 They do a lot of independent films, so they know how to shoot on a shoestring budget. And this isn’t necessarily a shoestring budget, but we shoot a lot of content, two episodes in a month. That’s a lot of filming. So they know Mexico, they know the terrain, they know how people live. And it was really important to have directors that knew the history of the land. That lived it.

In the first episode you’ve got this great monologue. And it reminded me what a good storyteller you are. I mean, that’s probably the best running gag in the Ant-Man movies.

[Laughs.] Yeah. That’s more Kevin Feige and Peyton Reed though. Because I was doing some improvs — especially with that character, I would just have these long run-on sentences. I created the character, but they created the structure.

Still, it made me think that telling a story is a different skill than just doing a regular monologue. What makes a good storyteller, in your mind?

My first big part was Crash, and I had a very long monologue, man. I worked on it for so long! And then the first couple of things that I did were all monologues, and I was really not very good at it. Then what I started thinking about is that the best monologues for me — I don’t know about anybody else’s approach — is when you can see it. If I’m able to paint a picture. Do it in a way that you can follow it very easily.

And also to pick the important parts of that story, the parts that excite you about it. I’ve worked with younger actors in the past. I would coach them. And some of them are afraid of rehearsal. I’m not afraid of rehearsal at all, because it’s not about the dialogue for me, it’s about painting the picture. And I would ask them, “OK, tell me how you get here.” And they’d say, “Well, blah blah blah, it took me 20 minutes.” OK, well, you said it in literally 10 seconds. Say it again. And then by the fourth time, they’re like, “Ugh, dude, I don’t want to do it anymore.” And it’s like, Dude, this is acting. Do it again. And then the fifth time, they were able to say, like, “Then I made a left at this Burger King. I hate that Burger King, dude. I remember I saw somebody get shot at that Burger King, but anyway.” And I said, “See? It gets more specific in your mind. It gets more and more specific the more you do it. You can see it.” That takes a long time to learn.

You’ve done a lot of great work in ensembles in the past, but recently, between this and Extinction and War on Everyone, you’ve been moving up the call sheet more. Does that change your approach at all, knowing you’re going in as a lead?

Whenever I try to overthink it, it doesn’t end up well. It has to be very practical. A supporting part and a starring part is different in a couple ways: there’s The pinch and the ouch. A lot of times, as a supporting character, you can be a bit bigger, because you’re supposed to offer “the pinch.” And you make the lead actor “ouch.” If you see some of the best movies, it’s the lead actors reacting to the world, to different people. But I think all that comes into play if you study the script and really personalize it. How it makes you feel. Because at the end of the day, everybody’s the star of their own story in life. And in order for you to do that, you have to study enough so that the story becomes personal to you. 

References   [ + ]

1. And yes, I’m well aware that this is — and should be — fairly low on the list of things a person is allowed to complain about, considering everything else that’s currently going on in the world.
2. I’m sorry, but: seriously, you really need to watch Maniac.
3. This video clip isn’t very high quality, but the joke is.
4. That said, there is some crossover, like Jose Maria Yazpik reprising his role as the Lord of the Skies, AKA Amado Carrillo Fuentes.
5. Keep an eye out for a young El Chapo, played by Fear the Walking Dead’s Alejandro Edda.
6. Along with Peak TV alum Aaron Staton. Sans eye patch, unfortunately.
7. Escalante has been awarded Best Director prizes at both Cannes and Venice. And Ruizpalacios’ debut film Gueros won Best Picture at the Ariel Awards, Mexico’s equivalent to the Oscars.