While the first three seasons of Narcos explored the rise of Pablo Escobar in Colombia, Narcos: Mexico tells the true story of Kiki Camarena (played by Michael Peña), a driven Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) agent who worked to bring down the Guadalajara Cartel, established by rising drug lord Félix Gallardo (played by Diego Luna) in Mexico in the 1980s.
Narcos: Mexico, which premieres on Nov. 16, will explore the origins of the modern drug war by going back to its roots, beginning at a time when the Mexican trafficking world was a loose and disorganized confederation of independent growers and dealers.
Witness the rise of the Guadalajara cartel in the 1980s as Gallardo takes the helm, unifying traffickers in order to build an empire.
When Camarena moves his wife and young son from California to Guadalajara to take on a new post, he quickly learns that his assignment will be more challenging than he ever could have imagined.
Global News spoke to Peña about being part of a Netflix original series, the atmosphere on set after the unfortunate death of a location scout for the show and much more.
Global News: How does it feel to be part of such a popular Netflix original series?
Michael Peña: I mean in retrospect now it feels good. It feels cool. You try not to think about those things when you’re doing it and you try to just do a good job. That’s how I feel about it, especially when I was filming and it still hasn’t come out yet. I don’t know what the critics are saying or anything like that or what people are saying which is probably more important (laughs). We’ll have to wait and see like how it’s received.
Can you tell me about your character in Narcos: Mexico?
I play Kiki Camarena. He’s a guy from the DEA that started off in the infancy of the DEA in Mexico. The reason that it was so young is because (they) really didn’t need it. The presence of the DEA in Mexico wasn’t very necessary because the cartels hadn’t formed out and it wasn’t that big. But this guy thought that things were going to change and it’s going to be an issue. That’s who I play and he took it upon himself to do some things to get them noticed.
How do you try to make your DEA character different from the other DEA characters in the past seasons of Narcos? Do you put your own twist on it or do you try to follow the script?
I try to definitely put my own twist on it. I talked to Mika Camarena who’s Kiki Camarena’s wife, just to see what made him tick. I always want to try to make your characters relatable. When I was in acting class, that’s what you studied: what is a universal truth, and universal themes and stories, and whatnot. And I always try to make it relatable. This guy, he had the drive and he wanted to catch the bad guys. That’s something that Mika told me — that’s just the way he was. He wasn’t that much more complicated than that. He really just wanted to catch the bad guys and he wanted the rest of the people to live a good life and not be victims of this kind of thing.
What was your favourite part about filming this project?
It was shooting in Mexico because the storylines were really good and very strong. I knew what I was getting myself into with these guys. I felt at the time when I got the role like I saw the first two seasons of Narcos; the third season hadn’t came out at the time. So I knew that the writing was going to be cool. This is season one in Mexico. Viewers know that normally the first two episodes are setting them up for the entire season. And then from three to 10 really starts cooking. The first two episodes are good but you got to give it three episodes and you’ll really be hooked. Most binge watchers, myself included, they’ll give a show three episodes to really get into it, especially if it has good word of mouth. Like for me it was, Wild Wild Country. After the third episode, I was like, ‘Oh man, this is great.’ But sometimes you need to give it a little bit more anyway.
That’s actually good to know because I only watched two episodes of that series so I’ll have to give the third one a try.
Normally it’s a set-up. The first two episodes are normally the set up of the world and it’s similar to the first chapter of a book. You’re never going to get blown away. You’ve got to get to the middle.
Narcos has such a huge fan base. I even watched the whole thing a second time and turned off the subtitles and was able to use the show to help teach myself Spanish.
Oh wow! There you go!
It was very helpful and entertaining. Do you hope that everyone follows the series as it switches from Colombia to Mexico? And do you feel a lot of pressure on yourself knowing that this series is switching locations and starting a whole different series on its own with Narcos: Mexico?
No, I don’t feel any pressure. I guess that’s more for the showrunners and writers and maybe the lead. They have Diego Luna and a bunch of really talented Mexican actors to tell a different side of the story. At the end of the day, it feels like the subject is more the main character’s and more cocaine (laughs) because cocaine travels. And so I think it’s more about that subject than it is.
But I didn’t feel any pressure, to be honest with you, because it was a brand new. It wasn’t like I was taking over anybody’s job, you know what I mean?
Yeah, for sure. It wasn’t like you were taking over anyone’s job or anything.
Yeah, exactly. It wasn’t like anyone got fired
We leave the pre and post-Escobar world and go back in time to the late 1970s, early 1980s. What should the viewers look forward to seeing?
The story is really great, I think. Also, these Mexican actors a couple of them like, Joaquín Cosío. To be honest with you, I didn’t know too much of his work. And then when I saw Narcos. I was like, ‘Wow, this guy’s a freakin’ great actor!’ And then there’s this guy, his name is Tenoch Huerta. He was amazing, too. People in the cast, some of them I had to Google and see their IMDB pages because I thought I knew a lot of Mexican actors but I really only knew a few. So I think the viewers are really going to be surprised at all the amazing talent in this new season.
Did the news of the unfortunate death of a location scout for this new series make you nervous to film? And how did his death impact the set and production?
No, it didn’t make me nervous to film because you have to hear all the circumstances surrounding it. And unfortunately, that person went into a really bad area by himself and started taking pictures. And I think it was unannounced, which is never a good deal like nobody in Los Angeles would go into like a crime-ridden portion of L.A. and start taking pictures because that would seem really weird. And you’re like, ‘No no no, guys, you don’t understand. I’m an artist.’ Those people won’t be like, ‘Oh, OK, cool, cool. Yeah, you get the pass.’ Especially when, I think, that there were some kind of crimes that just happened in that area between the cartels and then they want to go take pictures. That’s not advised in any way shape or form for anybody.
I loved your character in Ant-Man and The Wasp. I was laughing every time you were on the screen especially with the truth serum. Where do you get your comedic inspiration?
Every time I do any kind of humour, I think of it more as humour than comedy, to be honest. Because in the first Ant-Man, I remember I was just doing improvs just running my mouth with things that I thought were true to him. You don’t know what’s going to end up in the movie. The things I use, I get it from real characters in real life.
When I was imitating somebody when I did 30 Minutes or Less, I was imitating somebody. When I did Eastbound & Down I was imitating somebody — a captain of a cruise ship. And then when I saw a documentary on pimps and I was like, ‘Wow, that’s an interesting character.’ And that’s when I did the one for Observe and Report.
So I basically imitate real people. And when you do that it’s almost like imitating your parents in a way. You kind of know what they’re going to say in a situation. For me, it’s a little easier to envision the humour around it. If you take a guy like the guy from Ant-Man, for instance, if he all of a sudden starts talking about his gray hair and he’s like, ‘Man, I’m getting grey hair right now. I don’t know if I should do hair club for men or something more permanent.’ That would be funny because it’s real and it’s like it’s a dilemma (laughs). And just being truthful, to me, would be funny.
What advice would you give upcoming actors or actresses who want to make it in Hollywood?
Be a fan of movies. Me and my family, my wife and my kid, we actually watch movies on the weekends. We ask my kid every weekend to pick a movie to watch just like my mother did with me. We were in Australia and some of the best times that I’ve had in Australia were watching movies and seeing them laugh. It’s great to have an audience’s perspective. And I just love watching movies. And then just try to be good enough to be in them. Acting is not easy. So if you have a dream you have to do everything that you can to be good enough to be put into movies.
If you could describe the first season of Narcos: Mexico in one word, or a hashtag, what would it be?
Entertaining or #Bingeworthy.
(This interview has been edited and condensed.)
Narcos: Mexico premieres on Friday, Nov. 16 at 12 a.m. ET/PT.