Q&A: Michael Peña and the Birth of the Drug War

In “Narcos: Mexico” Michael Peña plays real-life DEA agent Kiki Camarena in the1980s spinoff to Netflix’s “Narcos”. Photo Credit: Netflix
One of the Leads of Netflix’s Spinoff of Colombia Drug Drama “Narcos” Talks
About the Move to Mexico and the 1980s

Arturo Hilario

El Observador

The term “narcos” has become synonymous with the seedy and violent world of the drug cartels in Latin America, and most recently Mexico. Within the confines of the television series “Narcos”, it has since 2015 encompassed the essence of the Colombian cartels, most notably the Medellín Cartel headed by the almost mythical Pablo Escobar.

But before the reign of Escobar hit its peak, Mexico was known for its illegal production of Marijuana in its Northern region. The new show “Narcos: Mexico” is a spinoff of the Colombian story which focuses in on the rise of the now defunct Guadalajara Cartel from the eyes of its currently incarcerated mastermind Félix Gallardo, played by Diego Luna, and DEA agent Kiki Camarena, who is played by Michael Peña. 

This show is peak 80s, with references to “Scarface”, disco music, and some very interesting patterned shirts. It also has a captivating story which the past series has definitely been known for.

Recently Michael Peña took some time to chat about the series and him stepping into the very real and tumultuous story. Minor spoilers are ahead, but if you wish to not know the outcome of the series before watching it, be forewarned the internet is full of headlines that will break down the mystery at a glance.

To start off, could you give us some insight into the plot of the show and what’s happening when it starts?

Well, it started in Colombia and now it’s based instead in Mexico. Pretty much it tells the story of two tales. It’s telling the origin of the DEA in Mexico, which didn’t have a strong presence in Mexico, especially in the 80s, because there wasn’t a need for it to be honest. And it also tells the story of the eventual godfather of the cartels, which is Miguel Félix Gallardo (played by Diego Luna). That is the story of the Guadalajara cartel, the rise and the fall of this cartel.

You’ve brought a few historical figures to life now, like Cesar Chavez. What was your experience with bringing Kiki Camarena to life?

It was a little tougher than I thought because you read the scripts and stuff and you read that [the character] is very focused and deliberate. And there’s ways to go about it, which is like the ‘movie star way’ to play it, which is like, “I’m going to save the world”, kind of thing. To me, I guess I’m not good at that. I need it to be a little bit more specific. And for me the thing that really [affected] me was when I talked to Mika Camarena, Kiki’s wife. Basically, what she told me, because I [asked], “Why would someone do this? What made him tick? Why would somebody put themselves in harm’s way to do this stuff?”

And she said he just really didn’t like it. There was injustice and he couldn’t sleep. It’s like, they were at a party and some guys were smoking weed and they were being disrespectful and he’s like, “You gotta stop”, and ended up getting beat up. But that guy got arrested for assault as opposed to just for possession. To him that was worth it because those guys were ‘bad hombres’ you know. Another reason I really liked to play this part was that he was important to America. A Mexican American dude was an important part of the war on drugs and it’s a Mexican American that made a big splash. So, in my eyes he’s a well-to-do Mexican American that definitely did the right thing.    

The past seasons are very intricately written and paced accordingly. The end product is lavish and takes place in many regions. How was the filming schedule for this like? Do you have any memorable moments from that experience?

To be honest with you it was a tough shoot. In the series “Narcos”, the place really plays a big character like Colombia played a big character. The guys definitely did a great job with it, filming it and whatnot. I was excited for it but at the same time it was a lot of work. I had to travel to Queretaro, San Luis Potosi, Guadalajara and just keep traveling, traveling, traveling. I’d travel out on Sunday night and get there to work in the afternoon, and then come back Saturday morning and then have to do it again Monday. So, it’s been tough but at the same time you always know that it’s worth it. So, I was just glad seeing the first two or three episodes. I was like, “Ah, they did right.” Because also, when I saw the first two episodes I had never seen it before. After I talked to [writer] Eric Newman I was like, “Wow.” They captured Latin America better than most movies, so I knew it was important going into it.

As a period piece of the 80s how was it like stepping into the clothing and sounds of the era?

I don’t care what [an] actor says, any actor, when making a period piece – we’re not used to the clothes, it’s uncomfortable. You wear your pants really high up, and I don’t know a lot of people that wear their pants to their bellybutton, you know what I mean? That’s an interesting feeling. The material is different. I don’t have skinny jeans, but I don’t have baggy jeans at the same time, and there’s a lot of those. So that was really interesting. But at the same time after a couple of weeks of wearing it you got kind of comfortable in it and it made it feel like the part a little bit more.

What should people watching the show “Narcos: Mexico” for the first time be prepared to see?

What’s good about it is that if you are first watching this thing, I think what you should know right off the bat is that the first two episodes are really good episodes, but they set up the world, and then from three on it really starts cooking. The bottom line, regardless of the subject matter, it’s just really good storytelling. I think the guys just did a phenomenal job of it, and I think people are in for a treat because there’s a lot of great Mexican actors. Some that you wouldn’t even know of like Joaquín Cosio, that dude is so good. And they just get to enjoy those performances. Tenoch Huerta is another one, there’s a lot of great actors.

“Narcos: Mexico” is now streaming on Netflix in its entirety.