Pablo Escobar died in a shoot-out in 1993, but remains such a compelling and complex figure in Colombian crime that he poses at least two problems for anyone contemplating a biopic. One is how to condense the large, messy life of Escobar, a vicious, unpredictable criminal, still revered by some Colombians as a drug-running Robin Hood, into a multiplex-friendly running time. The other is finding an actor equipped to portray both Escobar’s dispassionate toughness and his manipulative charisma.
Andrea Di Stefano (Eat Pray Love) has chosen to avoid the burden on biography by writing and directing a fact-studded fiction where a pretty teenager introduces her new Canadian surfer boyfriend (Josh Hutcherson) to “Uncle Pablo”, played by Benicio del Toro, whose ripe portrait of Escobar as a slovenly cocaine king is his best role since Che in Steven Soderbergh’s movie of the same name.
During the 1980s, Escobar was responsible for 90 per cent of the cocaine imports into the United States, creating a $30 billion fortune. A ruthless killer but also a devoted family man, he used some of his wealth to benefit the Colombian people, but also created a surreal estate with an exotic zoo and dinosaur sculptures.
“Escobar had two faces,” says Del Toro, who has an executive producer credit on the film. “He was a family man who seduced a whole country. He helped the communities, built neighbourhoods for poor people, gave them housing, built many soccer fields. He understood people in a poor country. At the same time he brings it down; Pablo became a Robin Hood who also bled the country out.”
Del Toro is crisply dressed and leaner than he appears in Paradise Lost. On his right hand he has a chunky silver ring that would be the envy of any well-to-do Colombian.
Despite the success of Che, his last venture into biography, Del Toro says he was initially uncertain about tackling Escobar. “It’s a little intimidating when a character actually existed,” he says. In the end, Di Stefano’s enthusiasm for the project won him over.
Del Toro watched all the documentary and news archive footage available about Escobar before filming but says he never sought to do an impersonation. “Eventually you have to throw all the research out and just be a character in the movie, and this is not a documentary,” says the 48-year-old actor. “Pablo Escobar didn’t speak English and Josh’s character isn’t from real life. But we needed a door to the story. He represents many of the people who will watch this movie.”
Did he find out anything about Escobar that especially tickled him? “Well, although he smoked a lot of weed, he didn’t do cocaine,” says del Toro. “Also he was a huge Elvis Presley fan. He even went and did the Graceland tour.”
Paradise Lost isn’t his first movie set in the drug world; Del Toro first came to global attention as smalltime crook Fenster, part of a drug heist gone awry in The Usual Suspects. It was a minor part – Fenster was one of the first to die – so the actor decided to have fun by devising slurry mangled speech patterns, based on Dustin Hoffman’s Mumbles in Dick Tracey, and stole the show.
At 40 he confirmed his value as an eccentric talent worth watching when he played Johnny Depp’s druggie travelling companion Raoul Duke in Fear And Loathing In Las Vegas, bulking up 40lbs on a self-prescribed diet of doughnuts. “So I’ve played the guy who deals the drugs, a junkie who takes the drugs, a casual user – and then the guy who tries to stop it, in Traffic,” he says. “Now in Paradise Lost I play the guy in charge of it all.”
Had he noticed that many of his movies send him into illegal drug deals? “I’m aware of it,” he says. “But these stories are relevant, in the way that gangster movies are relevant to their prohibition era. The war on drugs has been going since the 60s. A friend of mine in Drugs Enforcement Administration once told me that the supply and demand for drugs hasn’t changed since then. I don’t have answers but the key probably lies in getting violence away from drugs. Legalising some of them might be an idea to explore.”
Del Toro moved to America with his family from Puerto Rico when he was 12 years old after his mother died of hepatitis after a long period of illness. “The performances I would do to make her laugh were probably my first acting efforts,” he once wrote.
He was studying business at the University of California, San Diego, and planning to be a lawyer when a first-year acting class made him rethink. He moved to New York to study with Stella Adler and played a slew of small TV and movie roles.
Then, in The Living Daylights, he was cast as James Bond’s youngest ever villain at the age of 21, opposite Timothy Dalton. Even Del Toro doesn’t think it was one of the better Bond movies, but it was still a big deal. “I really thought that I’d made it,” he says. To celebrate, he blew almost half his paypacket on a painting. “I thought that I was going to be the next Bond and I didn’t work again for a year and a half.” However, he still has the painting.
Ever since, Del Toro’s signature unpredictable, vaguely sinister shtick has made him a go-to actor when films seek villainy. Last month he was reportedly offered the top baddie role in Star Wars: Episode VIII in 2017. However, there will be no confirmation from Del Toro until a deal is sealed.
Latino actors still get typecast in Hollywood he says, but “it’s a little better than when I first started, because we have more Latino filmmakers showing they can tell stories, and more Latinos in positions of power will provide opportunity to Latino actors”.
He has produced several projects and in 2013 tried his hand at directing for the first time, steering his Escobar co-star Hutcherson through a short section of the portmanteau film 7 Nights In Havana. He’s on the lookout for other opportunities. “It’s hard because my bread and butter is acting and if I direct there’s not going to be a lot of bread and butter, but I’ve gone to the best film school anyone could have hoped for. I’ve worked with some of the best actors in the business and some of the best filmmakers in the business.” n
• Escobar: Paradise Lost is on general release from Friday