“Let me break it down for you: 4,000 soldiers. a 250-man team of Colombia’s elite forces, tens of thousands of rounds fired, seven dogs and four f—ing helicopters. Pablo Escobar was surrounded in the middle of f—in’ nowhere. There was no way he was getting out of this one, right?”
The premiere of season two, like all other episodes of Narcos, opens with that familiar drawl of Boyd Holbrook’s Steve Murphy. As one of the show’s stars, he plays the real DEA agent who, along with Javier Pena (Pedro Pascal), was responsible for taking down Pablo Escobar. But as the narrator of the Netflix cartel series, Holbrook is like a helpful friend who puts a fast-paced bilingual drama into perspective for the audience.
“I definitely thought long and hard about it,” Holbrook tells The Hollywood Reporter about creating his Narcos voice. “Hopefully what I made the choice on was a good choice.”
After living in Colombia for about eight months per season, Holbrook is now back in the States with two seasons of Narcos under his belt, the latter of which saw the death of the Medellin cartel leader recreated on screen. Here, the actor talks to THR about why the series was the most difficult thing he’s ever done and what the show’s season three and four renewal means for his character (the real Murphy left Colombia shortly after catching Escobar.)
You have a different process than the others, because you film the show in Colombia and then come back and relive it all do the voiceovers. What’s it like to not only star but also be the voice of this show?
it’s always a little bizarre. Going back through it, you’re like, “I remember that.”
How did you settle on your voice and the way you wanted to narrate?
I took a lot from Wagner [Moura] and Jose [Padilha] and the style of their Brazilian film, Elite Squad, which is where our aesthetic of Narcos comes from. Aside from that, I knew that it was going to be heavy voiceover for 10 hours, so I didn’t want to be super country where it’s a caricature and gets annoying to listen to. But I knew that, unless you’re bilingual, there’s a lot of reading and engaging, so I wanted to kind of sedate you and get you into a meditative state. The audience is already doing so much, so I don’t make them work any harder. That was the thought process.
Many have compared the style to Ray Liotta’s narration in Goodfellas.
I think Ray Liotta in Goodfellas is the best ever. Given that it was two hours, it was a little bit more theatrical, and I mean that in the most positive way. I definitely thought about that and saw how that was used at a certain time period, so I kind of based my decisions off a longer extent and period.
Season two saw you go through a spiral in the beginning, and then rise out of the ashes. How do you compare Murphy’s journey to season one, when, as everyone called him, he was the wide-eyed gringo?
Yeah, right? Well, I was really happy this season to get more to do. I’m really impressed with how well season two has come out, because the first season we kind of pioneered filmmaking in Colombia and the second season we just made it work. We developed a system and it worked really well. This is a story about Pablo Escobar so that’s the main character and there’s a sort of real estate that you get in the size of your part. But this year I was very happy to have more to do.
Last season’s finale began a shift in Murphy, where he realized the lines are blurred and there really aren’t any good guys. Is Murphy a good guy?
Absolutely. I think he’s an incredibly ambitious and noble guy who did something really courageous. He’s got a lot of balls. With the show in season one and season two, you see Pablo rise to king status and — I think Pedro said it really well in that it’s got a Shakespearean quality, in that season one, he rises to power and season two, you see him spin out of control to his demise. I don’t know if I’d say he’s trying to turn over a new leaf, but Escobar sees what he’s not seeing before and that’s his family. The coin flips for me and Pena in that the lines get very blurry, so we kind of go into the dark side, comparative to what Pablo made us get into.
Oh my God, it was a surreal trip. Such a trip. I talked to Steve [Murphy] a lot about that. He got a lot of flack over that picture because he’s smiling in the photo, but for me, it was a really interesting thing to do. To say: “Well, how did you get there? How did you get to that moment?” It’s very interesting.
How much time did you spend with the real Murphy and how much of your character is based on him and how much is invented?
We spoke a ton. We got to get into Quantico for a week. It’s pretty awesome. You do scenarios and tactics and run around shooting rubber bullets at each other. It was pretty cool. I spent a lot of time talking to him about that, what his life was like at that period. It was very informative but at some point, you can never truly be somebody else so you have to kind of throw it away and do your own thing.
Do you guys do all of your own stunts?
For the most part. There was one time last year when we were running on these roofs and it was pretty dangerous because these are comunas and they’re mostly handbuilt, so running around on these roofs is probably not the smartest thing to do. But that was probably the only time.
Physically, what was the hardest thing about filming?
I dropped like 30 pounds down there. You’re constantly working and missing meals. You’re away from your family, and you’re doing it for like eight months. It was very exhausting. But it was well worth it.
Filming in Colombia is what makes the show so authentic. What was it like to immerse yourself in this show?
It totally changed my life, and I really mean that. It was the most difficult thing I’ve ever done. The amount of work and how ambitious the show is, because it is so ambitious. And then, to do it. It takes a lot out of you but it was extremely rewarding. I grew. For an actor, to go to work every day is a really rare occurrence. You may work on a film for three months max, and then you’re off, so you have to find another job and then work another three months. So to go to work every single day, those 16 to 18 months, was incredible. Repetition is everything.
How was filming season one different than season two? Did it feel more like you were coming home?
Yes. Season two was much easier mentally, physically. I brought my dog down and I brought my family down a couple times. I went scuba diving. The first season I kind of just endured it because I was so out of my element and the second season I really embraced it and had a lot better time and enjoyed all of the things that Colombia has to offer.
That’s perfectly in line with your character too. Is your Spanish better than Murphy’s?
Slightly, slightly. (Laughs.) But [the journey] is pretty much verbatim.
What was your favorite scene of the season to shoot and why?
I really liked beating the shit out of that guy in the bathroom. That was fun. But to be honest, the final episode, shooting with Wagner. Wagner and I, I think I was in the same room with him when he was running for public office, but we hadn’t worked together. Everyone was asking when we were going to work together and I always knew the whole story. So that final sequence with Pablo’s death and being able to work and be around Wagner in that way, because we had been so separated, it was cool. Pedro never got to work with him.
When you filmed it, you work from your character’s point of view and being dead-set on catching Escobar. Then when you watch the season, you see him humanized. How do you feel towards him now?
That’s the good, cool tricky part of filmmaking and adding in the stories. I do not condone any single thing that he’s ever done, other than the fact that he made so much money he really did change peoples’ lives, providing running water and plumbing and stuff like that. So there was complexity at first. He is still responsible for creating an industry, a multi-billion dollar industry, and the evolution of the drug trade. So he has not done many things, in my opinion, that are good for humanity. He’s a very complex character, diabolical. He’s a complete psycho.
The real Murphy left Colombia shortly after catching Escobar. Narcos was just renewed for two more seasons, so can you say anything about your future with the show?
We’re still working it out. Steve didn’t retire from the DEA until, I believe, two years ago. He was very active in the DEA for a long time so I’ll leave that up to you to find out. If nothing, I think this show has an incredible opportunity now because Pablo’s not around, but that’s the really interesting thing. He was delivering drugs straight to Miami, personally. And once he died, the Cali Cartel who took over his power was like: “Screw this, let’s just give it to Mexico and let Mexico deal with it and get it across the border.” And that’s the evolution of El Chapo and things like that. There’s a really great opportunity for this show to have, and that’s always been the plan for [executive producer] Eric Newman — it’s called Narcos, it’s not called Pablo Escobar.
The series is an international success but Murphy is the American way in. If this were the end of the road for you, isn’t it hard to imagine the show without you as the English-speaking voice?
I think there’s so many opportunities for the show to keep the aesthetic, the look, the feel and the hyper-realism. And they have a lot of material left there.
But then the Murphy-Pena team would be broken up. Murphy anchors Pena, even if Pena wasn’t letting him in the loop, his presence seems to make him feel a need to do the right thing. What would happen if Pena didn’t have Murphy?
Yeah, well there’s so many anchors in this show. It’s just really interesting how every character works off each other and I think that’s really where you’re going to see the show evolve, is creating these new relationships.
You have a slate of films coming up – how did you find time to do them during Narcos and what are you doing now?
I wrapped Narcos and I had three or four days off and I went to Ireland and did Morgan. And then I had a week off and went straight into The Free World. And then I had a week off and I went straight into Narcos for eight or nine months. And then I had four days off and I went into Wolverine. I’m constantly prepping other work while I’ve been shooting other stuff and that’s a really tricky thing to do for me. Thank God I don’t think it’s bit me in the ass yet, but I really want to spend just as much time working, but on fewer projects and bigger roles. Right now, I’m upstate and just chilling, reading stuff. I may not work until the year is over with. I have a company called Madbrook and my business partner just finished her first shoot in an active maximum security prison where 95 percent of the cast were incarcerated men, Jeffrey Wright’s the lead. So we have a lot of work, we’re prepping and developing a lot of stuff with the options, book rights and life rights.
It seems like Narcos will go on for a while. If there was an option to not live in Colombia for eight months, but have Murphy involved from the U.S. or something, would you consider that?
Yeah. There’s many conversations going on about all of this stuff. So we’re letting it play out. The thing that we have now is that we’re in a good position, with the success of the show. So I think that’s given us a little bit of slack.
Narcos season two is streaming now on Netflix (head here for more info) and keep up with all of THR‘s show coverage below.