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After 10 episodes of the re-set Mexican saga, the final scene of Narcos: Mexico‘s first season saw McNairy step in front of the camera to reveal himself as the narrator who had been guiding viewers all along. But his introduction left much to be desired. In the scene, McNairy is called only “Walt” and it’s implied that he has landed in Guadalajara with a ragtag group of DEA agents to run Operation Layenda, the real-life task force that would seek justice for the murder of one of their own, agent Kiki Camarena (Michael Peña).
But it’s not until season two (which released Thursday) that viewers truly get to know McNairy’s Walt Breslin, a leading man the actor was able to craft in secret.
“It was an advantage to be able to lay down the voiceover and find the cadence and the humor, or the sarcasm, in the character before I actually went down to go play him,” McNairy tells The Hollywood Reporter of the unique approach. The actor, who was filming HBO’s True Detective at the time of season one, says it was his idea to keep his voiceover identity a secret for the first nine episodes, “as to create that allusion of: Who is telling this story? And, why are we hearing a voice that we’re not seeing?”
McNairy follows in the Narcos footsteps left behind by Boyd Holbrook, who played DEA agent Steve Murphy and who narrated the first two seasons, and Pedro Pascal, who played DEA agent Javier Peña and who narrated season three. (Peña was the starring DEA agent in season four, or Narcos: Mexico season one, with McNairy narrating.) Now, as the next DEA agent-in-charge in the burgeoning Mexican drug war in the late 1980s, Walt is a bit of a cowboy-idealist who lands in Mexico vowing to carry out a revenge-seeking mission in a different kind of way.
Below, in a chat with THR, McNairy talks about stepping outside of his comfort zone to find himself in the role, unpacks the politics that remain topical today when it comes to the war on drugs, and explains that final scene with Diego Luna and why there could be much to explore with Walt if Narcos: Mexico comes back for season three: “I would love to dive deeper internally into his personal life and see those demons that he’s pushing down below get to a place where they surface.”
You had the unique experience of being the hidden narrator of Narcos: Mexico — even your casting wasn’t announced before the season released. What was it like keeping your involvement a secret last season?
I had been meeting with [showrunner] Eric Newman about coming on the show since two or three years ago. Once we knew that I was coming on the second season of Narcos: Mexico is when the voiceover opportunity came about. I was on True Detective at the time and they allowed me to head down and go shoot that last episode of last season to introduce the character. I remember being in the recording studio and saying, “Hey, are ya’ll going to put my name on the first nine episodes?” They said, “Yeah, we kind of have to.” And I said, “Why don’t we not?” They said that if I was OK with it, then they were. So I think it was sort of a group decision to not give me credit for the voiceover, as to create that allusion of: Who is telling this story? And, why are we hearing a voice that we’re not seeing?
I remember looking in the credits to try to figure out who you were — and you weren’t there!
There you go.
Had you ever done anything like that before in your career?
No. That was the first time that I was on a job and hopping over to other jobs. I shot a small part in [Quentin Tarantino’s] Once Upon a Time in Hollywood and that was also during the production of True Detective. For me, I never hop back and forth between jobs, so that was a first.
Narcos: Mexico wasn’t officially renewed for a second season when you signed on for season one. At what point did you know that you would be starring in season two?
Yeah, there was always talk of that. And, as much as they didn’t know, I think they did know that they were going to do a second season. They were just really ahead of it to know six months in advance who they were going to use. Personally, I usually don’t get cast until two or three months out, so this was the first time where I actually had the prep time and the time to think about what I was going to do six months down the road.
Boyd Holbrook kicked off the role of Narcos‘ narrator in season one. How did you go about finding your narrating voice?
I relied a lot on [executive producers] Doug [Miro] and Carlo [Bernard] and Eric [Newman]. I can’t tell you how specific and detailed they were about the voiceover. It wasn’t something where we just went in, laid it down and slapped it in there. We spent a lot of time rewriting it and trying to get it right. And so, in the process of that, I was able to discover the character with them and they sort of held my hand through the recording of it. It was an advantage to be able to lay down the voiceover and find the cadence and the humor, or the sarcasm, in the character before I actually went down to go play him, which was a blessing.
What excited you most about getting to then bring him to life and embark on this season two roller coaster?
This was a side of the DEA that they hadn’t done before on the show. Or that they hadn’t shown. They hadn’t shown that the DEA is breaking a law; that the DEA is kidnapping and killing people. In the past, the DEA was sort of a cat-and-mouse [game], where they’d get all the way to their guy and they wouldn’t be able to arrest him. This was a fresh take on the DEA part of the show and that was what really got me excited about coming onto it — that it wasn’t going to be doing what you’ve seen in the past [on Narcos] with the DEA guy or guys. I love shooting down there in Mexico. I love the locations and the filmmakers I got to work with. In regard to my comfort zone, this role for me is something I haven’t really done before. I was a bit lost going into it and felt like I had to find my way on a week-to-week basis.
Unlike past seasons, Walt is an amalgamation of several real DEA agents and isn’t based on one person. Who did you talk to and how did you research the role?
I went down and spent some time with James Kuykendall, played by Matt Letscher [in season one]. He lives in Texas down in Laredo on the border. I drove down there and spent some time with him and his wife. He was the most beneficial because he was actually telling me stories about what the DEA was like during the 1980s. Compared to when I spent some time with the DEA office in Los Angeles and they were telling modern-day stories. Now, they’re going after methamphetamines and fentanyl; they don’t even really look at cocaine or marijuana anymore. So the stories that they told were just different. Obviously, cartels have gotten worse since then. They’re more horrific and violent, in regard to the time period. And the writers clearly have done so much research. A lot of the questions that you have, those guys are very quick to point you in the right direction or give you the research that you need. They did a lot of the work for you.
Walt comes in hoping to do some good, but ends up being thwarted at every step. What did you learn about the real agents who fought the war on drugs?
I had chalked DEA agents up to be these sort of clean-cut law enforcement guys. What I learned is that they’re not. They have their personal issues — which was something that I was interested in — and hearing that the DEA has programs for agents who are alcoholics or who get into drug abuse, you realize the stress of this business and that those guys have some of the same problems as what they’re fighting against, which I think gets developed into the character of Walt. Here’s a guy who is not a clean-cut law enforcement guy; he’s got a lot of demons of his own that he’s not dealing with. And that was sort of a discovery of the character: that he’s a really damaged individual who’s not dealing with his past, and it sort of meshes together between his personal vendetta and his professional vendetta. Where is that line? I think that’s what gets him into trouble, knowing he’s doing awful things but trying to find justification for them. “This is the war on drugs and I’m fighting against this,” on top of the internal issues that he’s having. And I leave a lot of that up to the writers for writing such a dynamic character.
Operation Layenda turns out to be a failure in seeking justice for Kiki Camarena and to this day, the real Felix Gallardo doesn’t take responsibility for it. But this season shows how Felix’s (Diego Luna) decision to kill Kiki ultimately led to his downfall. Does that provide some justice in the end?
In the end for me, no. For the character, no. It feels like he finally got his win and he finally got what he wanted [with Felix behind bars], but what he did was create a much bigger problem for everyone in the world. He didn’t help anything. He took somebody who was organizing all this and keeping it clean, and you get rid of that person then there’s no organization and it just turns into chaos and violence. At the end, they’re both victims to the drug war. Even when you get what you want, you didn’t get everything that you wanted. So it’s nice to see these two — your antihero and so-called hero — they both lose in the end. They don’t win.
Walt is certainly defeated by the end of the season. Have you spoken about continuing your journey on Narcos?
We spoke briefly about it. I had a great time working on the show and with everyone involved. If that did come to fruition and if they did want me to come back, I would gladly do so.
What would you want to further explore with Walt, if you came back?
I feel like we just breached the surface of the character, so I would love to dive deeper internally into his personal life and see those demons, or those issues that he’s pushing down below, get to a place where they surface and he has to deal with his reality and the damage that has happened to him over the years.
Your final scene is a conversation with Diego Luna’s character, where Felix explains to Walt what’s to come next in the Mexican drug war. Why was this a fitting way to wrap your characters, if this is the end, and what was it like to finally film a scene with Luna?
I was a big fan of Diego’s, so I thought, “Oh, this is great. We’re going to get to work on the show together.” And, inevitably, we don’t ever work on the show together! We never see each other. I think it was the last scene he shot, maybe the second-to-last scene that I shot. I loved that that scene sort of humanizes the two people. It’s two guys in a room just talking to each other. I loved how they wrote that scene. Similar to the scene with Pablo Acosta on the roof, it really humanizes these people when you take them out of their craziness and it’s just two people talking to each other, which I thought it was really needed. It’s two guys who can fight and fight and fight and, they both lost. And we sort of leave it at that. What’s the point? Maybe that is opening it up for another season or has intentions for that, but we’ll have to see.
This season highlights America’s role in the drug trade by showing the CIA working with traffickers and pressuring the DEA in return. How responsible is America and have we made up for what we’ve done in the past?
It’s tough. America is the almost No. 1 biggest market for the drug trade. They are the guys that are purchasing it. The bottom line is that it’s corruption on both sides: Through the U.S. government and through the Mexican narcos and Mexican government. If anything, what you take away from that is that yeah, there’s corruption on both sides. Operation Layenda happened and so just as much as they were doing stuff that was illegal down there, the DEA was doing stuff that’s illegal down there. It shows that it’s this war and we’re not quite sure that the powers-that-be want this war to end. Is it driving the economy that a lot of people have their hands in? I don’t know.
The trial of Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman (who is portrayed by Alejandro Edda on the show) was happening as you were filming. Have you as a group heard any reaction from the real narcos who are portrayed in Narcos: Mexico?
For me personally, no. And I don’t think for anybody else either. There was never any sort of repercussions, I guess, for us doing the show. But I don’t live down there so I’m not as close to it as some of the others.
What impact do you hope the second season can have on the global war on drugs?
It’s always your hope and intention that it will help to shed some light on the issue or fix an issue, but that’s always up to the viewers and you never know. I do think that’s the reason everyone involved is doing the show — for the outcome, not the glory of it or to glorify any of it. It’s to shine a mirror and shed a light on it, to know how awful and horrific this is. What happened to this country and all these innocent people is something that I hope people take away from watching the show.
Interview edited for length and clarity.
Narcos: Mexico season two is now streaming on Netflix. Bookmark this page for THR‘s show coverage.
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