'Narcos' Set Visit: Behind the Scenes of Netflix's Doc-Style Account of a Notorious Cocaine Kingpin

Courtesy of Netflix

A day on the set of the streaming service's astonishing retelling of the rise and fall of Colombian drug titan Pablo Escobar reveals a star eager to pull his weight and a production that sweats the violent details.

This story first appeared in a special awards season issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.

Narcos, Netflix's true-to-life documentary-style account of the rise of notorious cocaine kingpin Pablo Escobar (played by Brazilian actor Wagner Moura), earned raves from critics when it debuted in August. Blending live action shot on location in Colombia with archival footage and meticulous research to re-create the 1970s, '80s and early '90s, Narcos chronicles a period when Escobar's Medellin cartel controlled most of the cocaine that entered the U.S. and Europe and when Escobar himself killed an estimated 1,000 police officers and bribed countless more government officials, judges and politicians. Boyd Holbrook portrays real-life DEA agent Steve Murphy, and Game of Thrones' Pedro Pascal plays his Colombian counterpart, Javier Pena. (Murphy and Pena are consultants on the show.)

"We covered 15 years in the first season because so much happened," says executive producer Eric Newman, who has found a mostly warm welcome in Escobar's homeland. "At first people were suspicious as to how we were going to depict Colombia, but now that they have seen what we have done so far, they love it."

The production of Narcos is complicated, with cast and crew rarely spending more than three or four consecutive days at a single location. "We're in a lot of different places," says Newman. Two days after THR visited the Bogota set, the production moved to Medellin for a few days. Says Newman: "In Medellin there is a certain amount of shame that Pablo Escobar achieved the power he did, and there is some cultural guilt about cocaine, but the people are very proud to have overcome that lawless and dark period. Medellin is now arguably the cultural center of the country."

The shoot is arduous for the amiable Moura, 39, who had to gain more than 40 pounds and spent five months at a Medellin university learning Spanish for the role. A bona fide star in his native country, he starred in the Elite Squad movies (directed by Jose Padilha, a producer and director on Narcos) and appeared opposite Matt Damon in 2013's Elysium. "I didn't know anything about Pablo, and the only thing I remember is the dead body of a fat guy on the roof of a house," says Moura. "And the bombs in Bogota, of course. But I was a kid. Now I think I've read and seen everything that was ever written or produced about Pablo.

"Colombian history is very complicated, and I understand this is a very delicate issue for Colombians," he adds. "We wanted to be as respectful as we could. We didn't want to make this an ordinary cop show with a good, nice American cop who goes to a Third World country to free people from a bad guy."