Wagner Moura: Playing Pablo Escobar
Actor Wagner Moura was born in Rodelas, Bahia, in the northeast of Brazil on June 27, 1976. He is married to photographer Sandra Delgado, and the couple has three sons. In addition to being an actor, Moura is a lyricist and vocalist in a band named Sua Mãe (“Your Mother”).
Moura is said to have a sweet and thoughtful disposition. Given his gentle personality, he was asked to undergo serious psychological preparation when he landed the role of the determined and callous Captain (later Colonel) Roberto Nascimento in the first Elite Squad movie – a role that brought him international fame virtually overnight. He trained with a former captain of BOPE, the squad featured in the movie. This preparation was meant to toughen him up for the role and involved incredibly stressful sessions of moral abuse. When, at a certain point during the training, the captain in charge pretended to threaten the actor’s family and particularly his newborn baby, Moura lost control and punched the captain hard, breaking his nose. Everyone realized at that moment that the aggression Moura needed to play the role had finally surfaced. He was ready to portray Roberto Nascimento.
Moura was, thus, already famous when, over lunch two years ago, his friend José Padilha offered him a new role. Padilha had directed the acclaimed movies Elite Squad and Elite Squad: The Enemy Within. Now he invited Moura to portray kingpin Pablo Escobar, the infamous billionaire in charge of the Medellín Cartel in the 1980s, in the Netflix production Narcos. Moura knew this was the opportunity of a lifetime, but despite his excitement, he didn’t think he was right for the role. He was thin and he didn’t speak Spanish.
From the newsreels he had watched on TV as a teenager, Moura remembered Pablo Escobar as a fat Colombian with a typical regional accent. Moura had nothing in common with him; the contrast between the two men was startling in all respects. After all, Moura had recently been appointed a UN goodwill ambassador.
Moura enjoys a challenge,though, and he didn’t want to disappoint his friend Padilha. Harder than gaining the extra 20 kg required for the role – which Moura dismissed as unimpressive since it wasn’t acting – were the inevitable comparisons with the real Escobar, given the extensive amount of footage, photos and interviews featuring the drug dealer available everywhere. They would make it easier for Moura’s detractors to trash his performance; on the bright side, the documentation would be of great help to him when building up the role.
Narcos debuted on August 28, 2015. I’ve already watched Season 1, and I can say that although Moura is certainly not my favorite Brazilian actor, I was happily impressed by his performance. The dedication and time he put into preparing for the role are evident. He spent a couple of months perfecting his Spanish, studying in classes with Japanese teenagers and German businesspeople as classmates. He visited Medellín and spent time getting to know the city and even living in the neighborhood built for the poor by Escobar – who, to this day, is considered a kind of Robin Hood by the people he helped. Moura also claims to have read everything he could lay his hands on about Escobar.
Rumor has it the series hasn’t gone down well in Colombia, where the locals have been very vocal in their complaints not only about Moura’s foreign accent but also the different Spanish accents of other cast members. (There are Mexicans and Puerto Ricans playing key roles in the show.) Nevertheless, anyone who speaks a foreign language or a different dialect of a particular language knows it’s virtually impossible to completely mask one’s original accent. Even award-winning actress Meryl Streep, allegedly one of the best performers of different accents, is still ridiculed for the Australian accent she assumed in the movie A Cry in the Dark. The line she kept repeating throughout a good part of the movie, “The dingo took my baby,” has been cruelly mocked and made its way into a number of US comedy shows, including a hilarious episode of Seinfeld.
All in all, most Brazilians are very proud of Moura’s international success and accomplishments and hope he keeps up the excellent work in future seasons of the series.