Eating for Escobar

Wagner Moura (above) did not know any Spanish when he landed the part of Pablo Escobar in the TV series.
Wagner Moura (above) did not know any Spanish when he landed the part of Pablo Escobar in the TV series. PHOTO: NETFLIX

Actor Wagner Moura put on 20kg and learnt a new language to play the Colombian drug lord in Narcos

You can call it the Pablo Escobar diet: Eat whatever you want, put on 20kg and end up looking like a fat Colombian drug lord.

This is what Brazilian actor Wagner Moura did to play the infamous kingpin in Netflix's acclaimed series Narcos, which picked up nominations for Best Drama Series and, for Moura, Best Dramatic Actor at the Golden Globes earlier this year.

Speaking to The Straits Times in Los Angeles, the 39-year-old laughs at the suggestion that he did anything special by packing on those kilos, even though actors are often lauded for such transformations.

"It's very easy - I mean, I just started eating delicious things, it wasn't hard," he says.

Although told through the eyes of American drug-enforcement agent Steve Murphy (Boyd Holbrook), Moura's Escobar is the central character in Narcos, which follows the rise of the ruthless Medellin cartel from the 1970s to the 1990s, when it controlled the lion's share of the world's cocaine market.

I gained 20kg... this is not acting, this is eating. I don’t want to do this again.

ACTOR WAGNER MOURA on the weight he gained for the role

Forbes magazine named Escobar on its list of the richest billionaires in 1987, with a net worth that, by some estimates, grew to as much as US$30 billion, making him the wealthiest criminal of all time.

Headlining the gritty series about him - which has been compared to esteemed narco-dramas such as The Wire (2002-2008) and Breaking Bad (2008-2013) - exacted a toll on Moura.

"It's hard now. I now feel that this is not my body, that this is Pablo's body, which is a weird feeling," says the actor, a major film and television star in his native Brazil.

"I gained 20kg, which is a lot, and now I feel really heavy and sometimes have a lack of energy, which is not good. My blood numbers are really not healthy. And I think people are like, 'Wow he gained a lot, what an actor!' But this is not acting, this is eating. I don't want to do this again."

He will not have to keep it up for long, though - Escobar was shot and killed by Colombian police in 1993, which puts a limit on how long the character can remain a part of the show.

Executive producer Eric Newman has hinted that Season 2 will likely show Escobar's death, and other producers have suggested that future seasons could explore other drug cartels. One thing that will stay consistent is the show's message that the so-called "war on drugs" launched by the United States government and law enforcement has been highly ineffective and in fact has bolstered the drug trade in Colombia and other countries.

"I think both sides acknowledge that whatever we're doing isn't working," Newman says.

"The tactics we show law enforcement using in our show have, much like the war on terror, yielded more public support for the trafficking business and has likely created new dealers and sicarios (hitmen) than it has prevented.

"And it has done absolutely nothing to diminish the flow of cocaine in America because they've found another way. So hopefully that comes across in the show."

The series has been a big hit for the streaming service Netflix internationally and widely praised for its faithful retelling of a troubled period in Colombia's past, which Newman says it takes pains to never glorify.

But it has come under fire for the mish-mash of accents on display in the many Spanish-language scenes, which has been a bugbear for many fans in Latin America and Spain.

Coming in for the most criticism was Moura. A native Portuguese speaker, he did not know any Spanish when he landed the part and had to take intensive language lessons, even travelling to the city of Medellin to learn paisa, the dialect spoken in that province, Antioquia.

Yet viewers from the region - and even as far away as Spain - took issue with his efforts, saying that while his Spanish was mostly flawless, his regional accent was not convincing and thus he failed to fully capture Escobar's origins.

Newman defends the star, noting that it is a difficult dialect for any Spanish speaker to master. "It's different from the Spanish spoken around the rest of Colombia - people in Medellin sound very different from people in Cali or Bogota."

Moura takes the criticism in his stride and reveals that learning a new language has opened doors for him as an actor.

"I didn't speak a word of Spanish before and it was the most difficult thing I've ever done.

"I'm almost 40 years old and it's not the best time to learn - I see my kids learning languages and they are really fast," says the father of three, who is married to journalist and photographer Sandra Delgado.

"But now I can speak another language and it's great. I'm now planning to work in Argentina and Mexico, where they do great films."

This new ability and the experience of shooting on location in Colombia have also made him feel more like a member of the Latin American community.

"In Brazil, we are very isolated from the rest of South America because we are this big country that speaks Portuguese and is surrounded by Spanish speakers and we consume our own culture, so we don't feel like we are Latin Americans.

"Doing Narcos and being in Colombia, I never felt I was a foreigner - I felt welcomed and I felt that this was my history as well."

•Narcos is showing on Netflix.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 26, 2016, with the headline 'Eating for Escobar'. Print Edition | Subscribe