A Colombian adventure

Pedro Pascal reprises his role as agent Javier Pena of the United States Drug Enforcement Administration in the third season of Narcos.
Pedro Pascal reprises his role as agent Javier Pena of the United States Drug Enforcement Administration in the third season of Narcos.PHOTO: NETFLIX

Filming in the country led to unusual experiences for the cast of Narcos

Snake-catchers on location, the best salsa dancers in the world and a romance that led to a new relationship - these were some of the only-in-Colombia-type experiences the cast of Narcos had while filming the new season of the show in the country earlier this year.

As the actors chatted with The Straits Times in the capital Bogota on the day of the Season 3 premiere last week, it was clear they had a blast. The Netflix drama tells the larger-than-life story of the biggest South American drug cartels in the 1980s and 1990s.

With the death of chief protagonist and Medellin cartel boss Pablo Escobar (Wagner Moura) in Season 2, the show returns with a mostly new ensemble cast and a storyline about the rise of the rival Cali Cartel which, after Escobar died in 1991, ran the world's biggest drug ring.

Pedro Pascal, 42, reprises his role as agent Javier Pena of the United States Drug Enforcement Administration, who makes it his new mission to take down the Cali Cartel's four leaders before they can sign a too-lenient surrender deal with the Colombian government.

The Chilean-American star, who in 2014 played Prince Oberyn on Game Of Thrones, had already visited Colombia as a child and again in 2011, when he remembers "getting an impression of a kind of cool hipster scene in Bogota".

Shooting Narcos there for the past three years, he says he has met even more friendly locals, and many of them have gone out of their way to show him around.

The architecture, the locations, the topography and the humidity made you feel that you really were there and in that world... It has a specific Latin American flavour and texture to it - you feel that when you're acting and you see it on screen.

ACTOR MICHAEL STAHL-DAVID, on being able to shoot in Colombia

He also spent time with Colombian family friends and "it was like Sunday brunches, hanging out with their kids, and just living a very normal life - and so my experience of living in Colombia is in complete contrast to the story we're telling".

For the actors less familiar with the country, shooting on location in Cali and Bogota, which wrapped in May, was the perfect way to immerse themselves in the history and culture they were depicting.

Michael Stahl-David, who plays American Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) agent Chris Feistl, says it was invaluable to be able to shoot in Colombia itself, where the real Feistl also took him and other actors on a tour to retrace his own steps investigating the cartel.

"The architecture, the locations, the topography and the humidity made you feel that you really were there and in that world," says the 34-year-old American actor, who starred in the monster movie Cloverfield (2008).

"You couldn't do that filming in Atlanta or anywhere else. It has a specific Latin American flavour and texture to it - you feel that when you're acting and you see it on screen."

The production's commitment to authenticity also meant some unusual experiences while filming scenes such as one where DEA agents meet a potential informant "in these cane fields in the middle of nowhere", he says.

"They had hired these old leather-skinned dudes in boots to wrangle snakes, if any came out of the field," he recalls with a smile.

And while some Colombians may not be thrilled that Narcos highlights an unhappy chapter of their history, the actors believe this season also showcases the country's natural beauty and culture - especially the salsa dancing that Cali is famous for.

"Cali is like the salsa capital of the world," Stahl-David explains. "Tourists come from all over to learn salsa there and go out dancing at night."

He himself took salsa lessons - and these led to him meeting, on a dance floor, a Colombian woman who was a friend of one of the director's wives, and whom he is currently dating.

Another cast member that Colombians' salsa skills left an impression on is Swedish-Spanish actor Matias Varela, who plays the cartel's chief of security, Jorge Salcedo.

The 37-year-old, who has been in films such as Assassin's Creed (2016), says an unforgettable moment "was when we were shooting a scene in a nightclub and the extras were normal Colombian people - and when the assistant director said, 'Okay, dance!', it looked like everyone was a professional dancer".

"It was insane - you can't find extras with that sense of rhythm in many countries in the world. It was 500 people who all literally danced on cue - I was taking pictures of them and I saw extraordinary stuff, the kind of thing you see on dance channels," he says, laughing.

"There's a sense of rhythm and music to this culture that for me, as a European, is very striking."

•Narcos Season 3 is available on Netflix

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 06, 2017, with the headline 'A Colombian adventure'. Print Edition | Subscribe