'Narcos' Star Pedro Pascal on Returning for a More "Insidious" Season 3

Pedro Pascal in Narcos season 3 -Still 3- Publicity-H 2017
Courtesy of Netflix

When the second season of Narcos closed the book on Pablo Escobar's (played by Wagner Moura) story, it wasn't clear if the man responsible for bringing him down, Javier Pena (Pedro Pascal), would be returning for season three.

The real DEA agent, who consulted on the Netflix series for the two-season chapter of Escobar, left Colombia in late 1994 almost a year after Escobar's death. The season two finale, however, set the character Pena up for a return when he is recruited by his CIA contact to shift the DEA's drug war from Escobar and Medellin to the cartel that rose in his place: Cali. 

Knowing the chronology of Pena's involvement in Colombia, Pascal admits he was surprised when he read about Pena's Cali recruitment. Though Narcos is a dramatization, the Netflix series (which returns Friday) has been described as 50-50 fiction to nonfiction and attempts to stick to the true order of events.

"I read the script for the season two finale — where Pena comes back at the end and people think he is getting fired but then is weirdly promoted — I was just like, 'What! What do you mean? I’m coming back?'" Pascal now tells The Hollywood Reporter. Pena's partner, agent Steve Murphy, also left Colombia shortly after Escobar's death and moved his family back to the U.S. Murphy, who was played by Boyd Holbrook, does not return for the third season of Narcos. His character's promotion meant Pascal would be stepping into the lone, starring DEA role and taking over as the English-speaking narrator for the show.

Below in a chat with THR, Pascal explains how he found his Narcos voice and why viewers who enjoyed the stranger-than-fiction aspects of Moura's Escobar should prepare themselves for the gentlemen of the Cali KGB: "You’re just not going to believe the shit that went down."

Last year, the real Javier Pena told me he wasn’t involved in the hunt for the Cali cartel. So I was happily surprised to see that you were back for season three.

It was a surprise to me, too!

What kind of liberty was taken with the real timeline in order to bring your Pena back?

By the end of season one, Escobar is escaping from prison. We can’t manipulate the timeline too much from there, so we knew that we would be messing with the authenticity and experience of the show if we tried to stretch out Pablo beyond season two. I knew the characters Steve Murphy and Javier Pena were very much threaded into that two-season outline, but beyond that I had no idea. So I kind of had to feel it unfold while we shot season three. I didn’t really know if I’d be stuck behind a desk, if I’d be chasing anybody, if I would go completely good or completely bad, or stay alive like the real Pena. It was totally open territory as far as what my character was doing because he wasn’t there. Though they did implement him into real events and actual actions of those that were, which is cool. But I had to find that out as it went along. I would ask, “So somebody did do this?” And they said, “Yeah.”

The real Pena was a consultant on the first two seasons and you worked closely with him. Does it feel almost like a new role to not be sticking to someone’s real account?

That’s was what was so nice. I was able to take the skin of a character that, at that point, I was so familiar with, and then go into new territory with the character and place. He finds himself as a sort of fish-out-of-water by circumstance in season three, even though he’s gone back to the place he’s so familiar with. It has a totally new face, it has new enemies and new responsibilities, and it was nice to be able to figure it out as I went along in the way that the character does. That was just lucky — and suited to my lazy nature. (Laughs.)

Chris Feistl, whom viewers will meet, is the season three version of Murphy and Pena and is the real agent credited for bringing down the Cali cartel. He is also a consultant on the show this season. How much did you immerse yourself with Cali's story? 

I actually never met Chris [until the show's NYC premiere last week]. I spent a lot of time with Michael Stahl-David [the actor who plays Feistl], who did meet Chris, later in the season. It’s interesting because I was going back to work and I had been to Colombia before I ever did Narcos. I have very close family friends living there and my experience of Colombia is in such contrast to the story that we are telling in Narcos. It’s like going home for me. At that point, I really knew my shit. I knew where my favorite breakfast was, my favorite cocktail. That’s what I was doing in season three (laughs): I’ve done my research, just give me the script! But if I examine it, there’s something that’s emotionally challenging to always be in that kind of research. It’s a very violent history that we’re looking at and for a lot of people, Colombia is a completely changed place. For others it can be argued that a lot of the same stuff is going on. But when you build a very affectionate relationship to the place that you are in, I feel protective of it and so the life that I live there is a very normal one and exists in such contradiction to what we’re telling. Even when we go into the rougher neighborhoods, because it’s all location-based shooting, it’s nothing but completely supportive people and just a great environment all around. I guess I’m tired of the perception and always reading about the violent past.

The Cali cartel is run by four godfathers: The Rodriguez brothers Gilberto (Damian Alcazar) and Miguel (Francisco Denis), Pacho Herrera (Alberto Ammann) and Narcos newcomer Chepe Santacruz Londono (Pepe Rapazote). How do you compare Cali to the first two seasons with Escobar, and what do you say to the portion of the audience who are wary of what Narcos will look like without him?

The sad answer to that is that it’s so much without Escobar. Escobar was a sole king of an empire and if anything, narco culture is even more represented by the chapter of the Cali cartel. It’s so much more insidious and so much more in the pockets of more elements of society that you can only discover by getting deep in. Escobar is by no means an easy target, but he was one target. And he was definitely a visible one. Cali is different. It’s expansive. These are businessmen. They’re very acclimated into the society that they’re controlling. They had more money than Escobar, which means more cocaine. They are the richest cocaine bosses of the world. The irony is that we lose Pablo and then you get more cocaine. It’s a much more complicated enemy, as far as the DEA is concerned. And to fight it, you have to invent it and discover as you go, instead of narrowing your focus and strategy against this one target. You are constantly making lefts and right turns, or just running right smack into walls as far as the Cali cartel is concerned. It’s a completely different beast.

You also return without your partner, played by Boyd Holbrook. The premiere does not address Murphy's absence, it just moves on. How does it feel to be the main thread tying the seasons together?

Yes, I’m alone! I’m a familiar face and it’s just the next phase. Murphy wanted a life, in real life. The Murphys did adopt two Colombian girls and to be together and raise a family it meant he obviously couldn’t do this anymore. I don’t know if he officially retired after Escobar was killed, but he went back to his family. And that’s the simple story that’s being told as far as that’s concerned. But you never know, they could always bring him back.

The relationship between you two was one the fans enjoyed. Do you find that with the two new DEA agents, Feistl (Stahl-David) and Daniel Van Ness (Matt Whelan), or are you more like their mentor?

They’re the new guys and I’m the parent. As the actor who has been there for two previous seasons, it was easy to show them the ropes. I told them where they had to go and what they had to try, and it was definitely that kind of dynamic. I got to sit back and watch them get themselves in trouble and ask a bunch of questions while figuring out the lay of the land, and I think Pena does that. Interestingly, they find a way to take that lonely part of Pena and really expand on that, which I love. In the way that he would [conduct] surveillance from such an alone place and make decisions very much on his own, against his own authorities. That was interesting because Pena would either hide in Murphy’s shadow or in the shadows of the city in the past, and this season leaves him more exposed.

Murphy fell into more of the “good guy” role and you were more on the bad end of the spectrum. How would you characterize Pena this season?

What’s more interesting to me, and I’m not totally in control of this, but that this is a person who lives in a gray world and understands that the world functions like that. In season three, if there is some sort of a role of a good guy or a morality behind what he’s doing, it’s almost egocentric in that he’s back for some redemption because of how much he fucked up in the second season. He's there to expose corruption because otherwise to be a part of the thing that you’re fighting against and to work in tandem with it, is something that he cannot reconcile. In that respect, I think that’s where he sort of draws the line for a character that doesn’t seem to be drawing too many lines.

You also take over from Holbrook as the show's narrator. How did you find your voice?

That was the hardest part, actually. Because I was like, “Pena doesn’t want to talk to anybody. He’s not one to explain.” So there’s a reluctance in the role that he is in and a reluctance to the authority and responsibility that he has, and for me as an actor there was a reluctance to be the voice of the show. It was interesting to work with our executive producer Eric Newman in terms of getting the right tone. I think Boyd did it really, really well. But this one had to be different. The way you think about it: it’s information and I’m just sharing it with you. The character is sharing this very practical information. Not from a completely neutral place, but is just saying, “Come into this world with me. You’re safe because you’re with me. Even though no one is safe.”

Is this a self-contained story? Will season three be Cali’s chapter and does the end bring a conclusion?

I don’t know what they’re doing for season four. And that’s the truth. But Cali is definitely a solid chapter, as far as the third season is concerned.

Did you personally miss Holbrook this time around and do you think he’ll enjoy the season?

Yeah. I hope so. I think he will. It is really interesting for everyone because we know a lot less about the Cali cartel. People knew more about Pablo and couldn’t believe the stranger-than-fiction events that took place under his reign. Similarly, and more so, because we know less and because they were much more well-hidden, you’re just not going to believe the shit that went down with Cali.

All 10 episodes of the third season of Narcos will be released Friday on Netflix.