As an actor, you’ve got to be able to find the humanity in any character, no matter how despicable. And for Benicio Del Toro, who stars as infamous Colombian drug kingpin Pablo Escobar in the fictional “Escobar: Paradise Lost,” the trick to doing that turned out to be spending some quality time with his own infant daughter.
Is there any sense of trepidation in taking on such a well-known or notorious historical figure?
Hell yeah, I think it’s very difficult. I mean, I had trepidations about doing this role, especially because it was fiction. But what I liked about it was wherever we could make it truthful to who he was, we would kind of ground it in truth. And then also I liked the angle that the movie had, which was kind of looking at him from a point of view of a family man — at least at the beginning, as he’s introduced in the film he’s kind of a likeable man. So those moments are true.
The scene where you’re in his daughter’s playhouse while threatening Josh Hutcherson’s character on the phone is a fascinating juxtaposition.
Absolutely. That was one scene that was kind of, “Whoa, interesting” when I read it. The fact that he’s in a doll’s house with his daughter and he’s trying to get someone killed on the phone — with the kid right there and using the kid to buy some time so we can get him? Yeah. (laughs)
It’s a very impressive performance, very terrifying.
I didn’t mean it to be that way, but if it works it works. (laughs)
What’s terrifying about him is how nice and sweet he seems while he’s perpetuating this business. How did you approach that?
Well, I have a 3-year-old named Lila, a beautiful girl, and when she was about 6 months I looked at her and I realized that we were all babies — fragile and full of life, in a way. Everyone was that at some point, even the baddest people in history. Fragile. Even the baddest guy in history, Hitler, at some point was a kid who probably liked to fly a kite, you know? So I do believe that some people, even if they’re bad they can have aspects that are good. The problem is that with Pablo, the violence and the anger and the rage in him overwhelmed all the good and killed the potential of the good guy in him. And I think that we all have the capability of being bad to an extent, but we do have a conscience. But we all have that capability. If you’re in a situation where you have to survive, you might have to kill your pet to eat it because you have no food, you know? I’m just saying. The thing is that I think his depth of conscience was shallower, and I think that his anger or his violent side was deeper. So all those elements put together with power and smarts — because he was a very intelligent man — then you have a perfect storm.
The film addresses something that’s usually left out in talking about him, which is that he did have a lot of popular support in Colombia.
Yes, he built soccer fields. He built whole neighborhoods for the poor. He had enough money to do it, and he brought in housing to a lot of people. He was a supporter of sports for the youth. All of that, you know, doesn’t outweigh the maddening method to the other side, but you have to include it when you talk about him because he’s not just a bad guy in a comic book. And I think the fact that he did those things made it easier for people to look at him as a Robin Hood or a hero. He never called himself Robin Hood, people started calling him that. In Latin America, when there is a disparity between those that have and those that do not that is wider than in other countries, anyone who helps the people will get some kind of support, you know?
I also found it fascinating how matter-of-fact his niece is about the money coming from cocaine.
Yeah, yeah. (laughs) “Just don’t do too much!” He wasn’t a cocaine guy. I don’t know, but in my little bit of research he was not a cocaine user.