Portrait of Wagner Moura by Maarten de Boer / Getty Images, 2016
Moura playing the infamous Pablo Escobar.
Things have changed dramatically, however, with his starring role in Narcos, the wildly popular Netflix series about the rise and fall of Colombian drug lord Pablo Escobar and the ruthless American-led DEA operation to bring him down. It’s the kind of charismatic role that can change an actor’s destiny, and the 40-year-old Moura admits this is a pivotal moment for him.
“Narcos has been a very important experience for me—it’s changed my life. I dedicated two years of my life to it; I moved to Colombia, and even brought my boys and my wife there to learn Spanish. Brazil is isolated within Latin America because we speak Portuguese, so it meant a lot to work with actors from Mexico, Colombia, Chile and Argentina and feel more like a Latin American and not just a Brazilian. It was very satisfying to be able to tell a story that connects us all, even though it involves the drug trade.”
In preparing for the role, Moura read every book he could find on Escobar, the ruthless cocaine kingpin whose $30 billion drug empire challenged the authority of the Colombian government itself. He even packed on 40 lbs prior to season two of Narcos, which has Escobar on the run prior to being gunned down by the Colombian police.
“(But) I don’t think that gaining weight is so special—anyone can gain weight. The thing about Escobar was, he was fat! If he wasn’t a real person, I wouldn’t have done it. It sucks, though; this is the last time that I’ll do that. It’s not healthy—my cholesterol went way, way up. The hardest (thing) was learning to speak Spanish and trying to get the Colombian accent right.”
A lean 6’2”, Moura bears little physical resemblance to Escobar, but was lucky that his Elite Squad director José Padilha happened to be the executive producer of Narcos.
“I was Brazilian and skinny, so I wasn’t the obvious choice,” said Moura. “But I went to Bogotá because I was so anxious to do the series. José met with the other producers who were there to scout locations and told them: ‘Hey, you know what? Wagner Moura is here’.
“Later we all met up at a restaurant. José introduced me by saying: ‘This is the guy I want to play Pablo’. The producers were very polite but the look on their faces was more like, ‘What? He doesn’t even speak Spanish’.”
Beyond the physical transformation, the laid-back Moura had to contend with the psychological spillover that came with the part: “I feel relieved that (it’s over). I played Pablo Escobar for two years—it begins to wear you down. You have to submerge yourself not just into his being but into his world and the bad energy that went with it. You start to hate the feeling that comes with the killing, the violence …”
“I’m very proud of the work we did but I’m also relieved that I’m free again to do other things and spend time with my family in Rio, even if it’s always chaos.”
One of the most popular actors in Brazil, Moura has tried to keep his private life as quiet as possible even though he’s recognized virtually everywhere: “It’s very hard for me to go shopping or walk in the street without attracting a lot of attention. I’m also lucky that the (Elite Squad) films have been so popular around the world, because without that kind of visibility, they never would have let me do Narcos.”
Now that Narcos has seen his international profile take a quantum leap, Moura is juggling several offers from major studios. Hollywood will have to take a back seat, however, until he completes work on his upcoming passion project Marighella: The Man, The Myth—a biopic about Brazilian revolutionary Carlos Marighella, which marks his directorial debut, one of his longstanding ambitions. During breaks on Narcos, Moura worked hard at developing the story, which will undoubtedly have major political repercussions in Brazil.
But Moura has never forgotten his journalistic instincts when it comes to using his celebrity to address poverty, corruption and other key issues facing his country. That is why he believes Marighella is a crucial step in helping Brazil confront an ugly chapter in its history.
“I’ve been thinking about this story for the last two years and I’m anxious to start work on it. We had a dictatorship in Brazil that lasted from ’64 to ’85 and an amnesty law that basically forgave all the military officers who tortured and killed people … and we don’t talk about it. I think it’s important to talk about it.”