There have been a lot of film and TV depictions of Pablo Escobar through the years. What is it about his story that made you want to tell it?
I was very interested in the fact that we were finding the point of view of Virginia [Escobar's longtime mistress, journalist Virginia Vallejo, upon whose autobiography - 'Loving Pablo, Hating Escobar' - the film is based]. That would give us the intimacy and the closeness, to know the man, the person. To understand his impact on not only Colombia but the rest of the world, because she was a witness and also a journalist. I thought that point of view would give us a powerful place to tell the story.
I imagine you’ve been offered the role of Pablo Escobar before. Have you actively avoided playing him - and roles like him?
Yeah, they’ve offered me to play Pablo Escobar, quite a few times [laughs], in many other films and TV series. But I was not sure about it because I never got -- in the scripts I read, or in the submissions -- I never got the depth that i was looking for, in the sense that I wanted to create a real person. Not an iconic or symbolic kind of ‘villain’. He was a human being. I’m saying that not to ignore the horrors he caused, but to understand that we are him and he is us, and we have created him. We are responsible for creating and supporting him and people like him every time we do cocaine and every time we know somebody who is doing cocaine or supporting politicians who are supported by corrupt narcotic money, you know?
And there is nothing cool about it. Other versions, especially TV versions, make it look like it’s cool to be Escobar, but it’s not. It’s horrible. And that’s why I’ve chased my own vision to make it more closer to the real events in order to recognise that he is a person and also to show that he was a monster.
You’ve been backing this for quite some time. What made you persist with it, and why did it take quite a while to get up?
It took a while because it took me a while to find the point of view. Also I wanted to make it in Spanish and that took me a while to put it together. But it got to a point where I was unable to put it together because of the Spanish language and that’s when we stopped and we had to make a decision to go ahead or to cancel it. We made the decision to go ahead because we believed in the story and the characters and we made it in English. So finding the right vision and also the money and the production and the time, it took a while. In the meantime there was this Narcos show and blah blah blah... and we were like, ‘Okay, they are are doing this other version of it; they are doing their own reading of it but we are doing ours. It will be no better, no worse, just different’.
"Other versions, especially TV versions, make it look like it’s cool to be Escobar, but it’s not. It’s horrible."
And you’re working with Penélope again, but correct me if I’m wrong, this is the first time you’ve been together as a couple and working together, isn’t it?
Yes, that’s correct.
Does it feel different working together now, than the other times?
The thing is, when we are working together, we clearly separate what is real from what is fiction. We’ve been doing these things a long time now! I mean, like, 30 years. She started when she was 16, so we know how to distinguish when it’s real and not. And that’s what keeps us sane and ‘healthy’. Don’t get me wrong, we know that it is going to be tough sometimes, especially when you do a scene like the one in the cathedral [in Loving Pablo with an emotional confrontation]. It was a very intense scene, especially for her. We know that it is going to be tough to go back home and just, you know, have dinner [laughs]. But we know what we do, and we know how to leave that energy on set. So we go back home and we take a shower and we keep on living the real life. That is way more important than any fiction.
Good to hear you have your priorities right, there.
Yes, for sure!
Well, it must have gone well since now you’re doing it a fourth time, working with Asghar Farhadi, for 'Everybody Knows' (which will open the 2018 Cannes Film Festival). What can you tell us about that?
Yeah, that was eight months after. That movie came to us different ways. We were approached separately and we are both huge, huge fans of Asghar’s and About Elly, and A Separation. Of course, every time we make a decision whether to work together we sit down and we talk about it because it’s not only about us. It’s about family, it’s about location, it’s about what kind of roles we are playing; what kind of relationship do those characters have? So we don’t feel like we are doing the same thing over and over, you know?
We think that Asghar's movie is so far from the Escobar movie in ever sense. And the relationship between the characters in Everybody Knows is way different in every sense to Loving Pablo and... I cannot tell you much more because they want me to talk in Cannes, as you can imagine.
I won’t tell anyone...
Oh, okay [Laughs]. No, all I can say is that I’ve seen the movie and it’s very powerful. It’s exactly what you expect from an Asghar Farhadi movie. It’s very, I don’t know the word. The word is not ‘emotional’ but... I suppose it’s very 'intriguing', he has an element of intrigue in it that’s so beautifully done and it’s very human. It’s a very human movie, you can feel the people, the characters on screen.
I do love his films. And come to think of it, he also works with his wife…
Yes, actually that's true.
'Loving Pablo' deals with the short lived political career of Pablo Escobar, and that idea of wanting more power, never having 'enough'. I understand it’s very specific to his situation but for me, it wasn’t hard to draw a line to the current occupant of the White House in that regard; watching someone of questionable ethics having established themselves in one area, and then mounting a political run to have a stake in the halls of power... or am I overreaching there?
Aha! Well that’s your reading, and it’s as valuable as any other reading. I think in this specific chapter about Escobar there was a whole plan behind it, about manipulating the poorer classes' votes in order for him to own them and to own their will, to own their support as he did. That way he could extend his power through the most poor areas and have a very desperate working class working for him, for almost nothing. Besides that, he wanted to kill the extradition treaty which for him was the whole evil and the real immediate threat to him. But in the meantime he was building houses and soccer fields and bringing light and water to the poorest areas, which it’s good, it’s great! And it’s far more than any other government did at the time, but there was a plan behind it which was self-serving for sure. I never believed that he was any Robin Hood.
You tend to bring a quiet menace to the villain roles you play. What is the attraction in those characters, and how did the fact this one’s a real person change that?
I don’t know, I think first of all I’m an actor and I have to work! And I have to choose roles from what they offer me, and within those, and i have to pick up the ones that I think have something else besides that. In the case of Escobar the energy was different. Much more than say, No Country For Old Men or Skyfall or the Pirates of the Caribbean when it was a game, a game for kids. It’s a very different energy this time, as it is someone who has killed and has created real horror, and real vengeance. The energy is different. It’s a different responsibility and when you see that some other versions, TV versions or movie versions, that have shown him as an iconic, cool, glamorous kind of guy, you just want to bring justice to the role. Not ‘justice’ I suppose, but you just want to make sure that you are being truthful, and not glamorising a monster.
The bottom line is that when you play a character that is real and has done a lot of harm, you don’t want to make a cool, iconic, glamorous guy about it. Like some other versions have done. You just want to bring some fairness to the pain he created. And that’s why I wanted to play this character because so far I didn’t see that in any other version.
Loving Pablo premieres on SBS World Movies in July.
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Watch 'Loving Pablo'
SBS World Movies, Digital HD channel 32
10:10pm, Saturday 23 May
Also streaming at SBS On Demand
Genre: Crime, Drama
Language: English, Spanish
Director: Fernando Leon de Aranoa
Starring: Javier Bardem, Penelope Cruz, Peter Sarsgaard, Julieth Restrepo, Oscar Jaenada
What's it about?
The film chronicles the rise and fall of the world's most feared drug lord Pablo Escobar (Bardem) and his volatile love affair with Colombia's most famous journalist Virginia Vallejo (Cruz) throughout a reign of terror that tore a country apart.