With each season of Narcos, the American creators of the popular Netflix series are inching closer home. The first two seasons (2015-’16) were set in Colombia and traced the rise and demise of drug lord Pablo Escobar between the 1970s and the ’90s. The third season, which was aired in 2017, examined the Cali cartel, which moved in on the business after the collapse of Escobar’s Medellin cartel. The fourth season is set in Mexico, and will explore the network that operated from Guadalajara in the 1970s and ’80s and controlled the supply of marijuana, heroin and cocaine to the US and the rest of the world.
The 10-episode season, meant to be consumed at one shot like a hit of cocaine, will be premiered on November 16. It has a protagonist-antagonist dyad with deep Mexican connections.
Mexican star Diego Luna plays Miguel Angel Felix Gallardo, who is in the process of building a narcotics empire. His main adversary is American actor Michael Pena, who is of Mexican extraction in real life, as Kiki Camarena, a US Drug Enforcement Administration official who moves himself and his family south of the border to get a better grip on Gallardo’s activities.
Luna is known in arthouse circles for his roles in Alfonso Cuaron’s Y Tu Mama Tambien (2001) and Harmony Korine’s Mister Lonely (2007), and among Star Wars fans as the leading man in the 2016 spin-off Rogue One (2016). In Narcos: Mexico, the 38-year-old actor portrays a character who is suave and ruthless, watchful and reckless. The real-life Gallardo is in prison, serving a lengthy sentence.
“He is not a producer, and he is more of a politician,” Luna told Scroll.in during a press event in Mumbai to talk up the series on Monday. Miguel is an ex-policeman who uses his understanding of social hierarchy and human nature to scale his way up the ladder. “He sees an opportunity and puts together a team, and he has to get every level of power involved in the process in order to feed the market,” Luna said during a brief interview. “He is the middle man, but also the guy who benefits from a need.”
Luna was accompanied to Mumbai by Michael Pena and the Narcos: Mexico creative head Eric Newman. The trio had flown into Mumbai on Saturday from Singapore, where Netflix announced a slew of projects aimed at conquering the vast Asian market. Although Netflix does not share viewership data (it claims to have 125 million viewers around the world), the streaming platform has made it clear that India features prominently in its plans.
Among the shows announced by Netflix in Singapore over the Diwali weekend was a haunted house-themed series to be steered by Kahaani director Sujoy Ghosh and the acquisition of eight films, including Leena Yadav’s Rajma Chawal and Sachin Kundalkar’s Cobalt Blue.
At a panel discussion in Mumbai, director Shakun Batra and actor Alia Bhatt attempted to draw out the links between India and the illustrious actors on the stage. Luna had a ready connection even though he didn’t want to dwell on it – his maternal grandmother is Scottish and was born in India, and he is reportedly well-versed with the Bhagwat Gita and has a spiritual guru.
But he didn’t seem to want to discuss that. “I don’t see how this connects to Narcos,” Luna said on the stage. He said that he had told Shakun Batra about this after having downed four vodkas at an informal gathering the previous evening. “I am going to keep it to myself – it’s deeply personal,” Luna said.
Luna was more than willing, however, to stick to the script and discuss Narcos: Mexico. A preview of the first four episodes reveals the creation of an empire on the ruins of governance. Luna’s Miguel is the man who moves smoothly from the back of the queue to the front. Miguel is described at one point as the “Rockefeller of marijuana” – an apt description of his ability to use his contacts with a corrupt governor and unite warring groups for the common cause of increasing the bottomline (the show calls the union the “OPEC for weed”).
On stage during the panel discussion, Luna drew parallels between the workings of the Guadalajara cartel and the current situation in Mexico, where escalating drug wars have resulted in hundreds of thousands of brutal deaths and disappearances and created a culture of torture that challenges the screenwriter’s imagination.
“It’s very personal because it is the foundation of the mess we are living in today,” Luna said. When the drug trade took off in his country, he was a child. “My father was probably hiding this Mexico from me,” Luna said. “When the 1990s came, I started having an opinion about the violence, an understanding of how crucial the 1980s had been, of how something got built, worked fantastically and fell apart. Today we are living in the horror of it.”
Narcos: Mexico isn’t the first time filmmakers have found grim inspiration from the brutalised carcasses strewn on the streets of the country. In 2000, Steven Soderbergh directed Traffic, a triptych of three inter-linked stories about the drug trade between Mexico and the USA. Mexican director Amat Escalante’s Heli, for which he won the best director award at the Cannes Film Festival in 2013, examines the impact of cartel-fuelled violence on ordinary Mexicans. Dennis Villeneuve’s Sicario (2015) looks at an American-led drug operation that has unforeseen consequences when it wades into Mexico.
Narcos: Mexico isn’t only about the drugs, Luna pointed out, but about the manner in which a state abdicates its responsibility and hands over the keys of the castle to drug traders. “The show is about a business that benefitted everybody, about how the country was run as if it were a business,” Luna told Scroll.in. “Politicians were acting like business people, making profits out of the necessity and vulnerability of their people. That hasn’t changed that much.”
Luna’s Miguel is ordinary as well as extraordinary, a man who takes great risks to expand his horizons while trying to shield his family from the worst excesses of his world. “I have tried to portray a real character, a person who is three-dimensional and whom you don’t always understand as a human being,” Luna said. “The show is about people who do good and bad things, are willing to cross a line, and don’t have the same motivations and impulses as we do. Miguel Felix comes from a human aspect.”
And yet, the show has relevance beyond audiences in Mexico, Luna said. “For me, what is most important is what happens to the show outside Mexico,” he said. “Mexico has, over the past 12 years, declared a war on traffickers, a war we are all still losing. This is not something that many know. When we talk about this violence, people think it is belongs to Mexico, but Mexico is only getting the worst of it.”
Diego Luna is one of his country’s most successful cultural imports, alongside his Y Tu Mama Tambien co-actor and friend Gael Garcia Bernal, filmmakers Alfonso Cuaron, Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu and Guillermo Del Toro and cinematographers Emmannuel Lubezki, Rodrigo Prieto and Diego Garcia. Luna runs the production company La Corriente del Golfo along with Bernal. Their previous company, Canana Films, co-produced some of Pablo Larrain’s early films, including Post Mortem (2010) and No (2012), which helped put the Chilean director on the world cinema map.
Bernal and Luna have both directed films too. Luna’s most recent feature was the American movie Mr Pig (2016), starring Danny Glover and Maya Rudolph. The friends burst onto the scene in Y Tu Mama Tambien, a comic-erotic story of two sexually hyperactive teenagers who get lessons in love and life from an older female travelling companion. By then, Luna had already appeared in several Mexican telenovellas. He has gone on to straddle arthouse and popcorn cinema. In Harmony Korine’s Mister Lonely, Luna indelibly plays a Michael Jackson impersonator who is trying to eke out a living in Paris.
In addition to a host of Mexican films, Luna’s credits in English-language titles include Gus Van Sant’s Milk (2008), in which he plays the highstrung gay lover of Sean Penn’s queer rights politician. Luna’s most mainstream role yet is in Rogue One (2016), a Star Wars spinoff that sees Luna in the role of rebel leader Cassian Andor. Luna will reprise his role for a series that will be streamed on Disney+, the entertainment behemoth’s upcoming streaming service.
Home for the increasingly peripatetic actor remains the country of his birth. “Home is Mexico, it’s where I live, where my kids live, where I will go home after I finish promoting Narcos,” Luna said. “That’s one of the reasons I wanted to do the show – I was finally going to work at home. I am happy to be sleeping in my own bed and be able to take my kids to school and pick them up.” Being a Mexican actor with a steadily increasing global footprint is a “great tool to have a level of attention not for what I have to say, but for the issues that matter to me”, he added.
Along conquering new galaxies in Star Wars-linked projects and becoming a regular face in shows destined for streaming devices, Luna hopes to keep appearing in deeply personal, idiosyncratic projects like Mister Lonely and the upcoming If Beale Street Could Talk. In Barry Jenkins’s adaptation of James Baldwin’s novel of the same name, about a pregnant African-American woman who tries to defend her husband from false rape charges, Luna has a small role as a waiter.
“I would do much more if I got asked,” Luna explained about appearing in riskier projects. “The problem is that TV has started to become the place for that world. Cinema is taking fewer risks than ten years ago, and TV is taking over that responsibility. It’s where you find more and more voices exploring a new language. The market for independent film and little movies is just shrinking and shrinking. I hate to have to decide. The great thing is to jump from a little stage to a giant one, from the theatre to whatever sounds different and challenging.”