Michael Peña on Narcos: Mexico and his foray into television
The actor, who plays DEA agent, Kiki Camarena, in Narcos: Mexico that’s streaming on Netflix, talks about the series
Given the exuberance Michael Peña brings to many of his characters — most recently when he played Luis in Ant-Man and the Wasp — you could be forgiven for not realising that he’s a veteran who’s spent close to 23 years in the industry. It’s this reservoir of experience that he often digs into when taking on new opportunities, portraying new characters. He plays DEA agent, Kiki Camarena, in Narcos: Mexico that’s streaming on Netflix. Another actor in his place may have been tempted to make comparisons with Steve Murphy, the DEA character in Narcos’ first two seasons that was played by Boyd Holbrook, but Peña didn’t bite. “I only paid attention to my part. I know how to — or at least I think I do — focus on my part and think about how I can help the series,” he says. Some of the challenges Kiki faces are those that Steve grappled with during the first season of Narcos. “Kiki is fed up with the system. He’s appalled at the other officers acting like lambs, choosing to be blind to the crimes around them.”
Kiki’s hands are tied partly by bureaucracy, partly by his being a visitor in Mexico, a country in which things run quite differently than they do in the United States. “He’s simply there to observe and report. But he can’t help but question things. When supplied with a fake surveillance photo, for instance, he can’t help but notice that in a season of drought, he’s been given a photo of a fertile land,” says Peña. The Mexican setting of this story affects the story profoundly. “Where do you hide in a barren desert? The temperature, the heat, the water needed for survival, the complicit cops, the corrupt government officials… Kiki’s fighting a monster, a Godzilla,” he says.
Much like previous seasons of Narcos, this one too — about the Guadalajara cartel — is based on real incidents. While Peña had done a bit of research earlier, he realised how precious little he actually knew, only after the narration. “And then, I discovered a TIME article about Camarena that helped,” he says. In any case, for this experienced actor, the objective wasn’t to recreate Camarena in flesh and blood, as much as it was to try and understand his psyche. “He’s a driven individual. I’m interested in finding out the source of his drive,” he says. “Some are driven by their need to escape their past. Some are ashamed of their poverty, for instance, and want to play up any money they have.” Which explains why some criminals lead extravagant lifestyles, I offer. “Exactly! As an actor, I have to ask why they do that, and try to understand. That’s my job.”
Save for the occasional foray into television — Eastbound & Down in 2010, for instance — Peña has largely stuck to doing feature films. “I did Eastbound because the creators, Jody Hill, and Danny McBride, are so funny. I just needed to work with them. The script was great too. Narcos: Mexico too has a great script. I try to be part of all these cool stories, you know,” he says, and adds that television has really come to hold its own these days. “This isn’t formulaic content, you know. It’s not a detective series that begins with a crime, introduces its hero who solves it, and then waits for another case, so another season can be mounted on it. These stories are journeys. We take far longer to shoot, and there’s so much more emphasis on the details,” he says.
I lament that Peña’s much-cherished exuberance and humor have no space to thrive in the dark world of Narcos: Mexico. In fact, Kiki Camarena can barely muster a laugh in the whole season. “(Laughs) I think he laughs a bit with his wife and children,” he says. “Humour can actually be integrated into any story, but in Narcos: Mexico, there’s just no time, you know. Kiki is so driven, and if we’d tried to sneak in a few jokes, it would have taken away from his scenes, I think.”