Javier Bardem on Inhabiting Real Evil in ‘Loving Pablo’

We chat with the actor about his desire to expose Pablo Escobar as a true, human monster and avoid the trap of idolatry.
Loving Pablo
Universal Pictures
By  · Published on October 5th, 2018

Pablo Escobar was not a demon. He was not an idol. He was a man. A sociopath for sure, but one born on this Earth and raised by our society. To treat him as something extraordinary would be a betrayal to the atrocities he committed.

The last thing Javier Bardem wanted to do was elevate the man into something more than he was. Watching interpretations of the character in films and television shows like Blow, Infiltrator, Narcos, and Paradise Lost inspired the actor to rip into the humanity of Escobar and expose the reality behind his actions. Loving Pablo is not a folktale; it’s a stunning account of human horror in which we all share some responsibility.

I spoke to the actor over the phone a week before the film lands in select theaters and on VOD. Our conversation begins with the differences between playing a real-life monster and a fictional creature like the ones he’s terrified us in No Country for Old Men and Skyfall. We discuss the challenges of performing as Escobar across from his wife Penelope Cruz, and how those confrontational scenes are hard to shake once over. And yes, we chat about those other Escobars and why it was necessary for him to offer his version.

Here is our conversation in full:

How does playing a real-life scary figure like Pablo Escobar differ from playing a fictional terror like Anton Chigurh?

Well, it’s a different game. The pain he inflicted, it was a real pain to real people. So there were hundreds, if not thousands of victims. Yeah, with collateral victims, yes thousands of people that were hurt and wounded forever because of him. So it’s a different kind of responsibility. And also you have to do the research to understand why he became that … where is the monster coming from, was it something that is related to education, to social grounds, the education grounds, the cultural grounds, I mean, because you have to make some kind of study to create that person that really existed and create. I mean he really existed and made those horrible things happen. So it’s different. When you play the Chigurh character it is more about imagining the whole thing and playing with fiction. He’s just a fictional character.

What compelled you to play Escobar?

Since the early 90s, I was very intrigued by his character. I think he is a very, unique character that changed the world as we know it. He created this thing called narcotraffic. Which today gives trillions of millions of dollars to many people and creates so much pain in the world, and it was his idea. Then Escobar has become this very famous icon, kind of. And I knew since the very beginning what I wanted to portray. I wanted to portray the human being, not because I wanted to justify him or excuse him, but because it’s important for us to understand that we are him and he’s us. He’s not an alien. He was created because we helped him to be created, by society and political background that is corrupted because of drug consumers. I mean, we create this person, he’s not a fictional character.

How do you find that humanity?

Well, you find it through what, I don’t know. In this case with Pablo Escobar, I think, family was his weak point, in the sense that it’s all about the pride, it’s all about wanting to be respected, wanting to be part of a society that rejected him from the very first moment, because he was coming from a very poor background. And all he wanted was to be part of the high society. And since he never got that respect back then he made them suffer. I think what he wanted is to have his kids be proud of him, and in a funny way, that was his, I think, his personal intimate goal. But the way he wanted to pursue that was very evil, very horrible. And I think at the very end of the movie, his end, he understands that his family will be cursed, his sir name will be cursed forever for what he did, and in a funny way, he wants to stop that by letting himself be caught. But of course, he didn’t stop that from happening.

Right now there’s a real appetite for his story. He’s a figure that is currently appearing in a lot of film and TV. Where does that fascination come from?

Well, I think it all came to the TV series Narcos and all of that. And the danger of this is that some of those approaches have raised the character to an icon, kind of glamorous kind of guy. When we were shooting Bogotá, Columbia people were complaining about that, like we don’t want our teenagers wanting to be like Pablo Escobar. That would be a horrible, a most horrible thing to happen. What we wanted to make sure is that this is the portrait of the real Escobar, in the sense of that monster behind the man. Because similar approaches have been a little bit too light or too funny to play with. You know?

Right, but how do you actually achieve that cinematically? How do you prevent that folk hero status?

Well, by making sure that you bring all the aggression and hate, and greed, and emotional detachment that he had towards his victims, and make it organic, and present all his actions and the way he related to people, even to his own kids. Otherwise, a person that is emotionally capable of suffering for others or feeling the pain for others would never do the things that he did. So you really want to make sure that people understand that that kind behavior, that kind of emotional place where he was placed in, it’s brutal, it’s horrible, it’s something that we have to avoid, to touch.

You’ve acted across from Penelope before, but not in situations as quite as ruthless as some of the scenes here. How do you prepare for those confrontations with her, and how do you move beyond them when you’re done filming?

Well yeah, there are especially like two or three scenes, especially the one when she comes to visit me in the jail, that was a very strong scene. I don’t think there’s a way to prepare those, you just have to go there and make sure that we both know that we are going to jump into a functionary world, with fictional characters, meaning we are not them and they are not us, and then allow us to go as far as we are asked to go. And once the scene is over, to really make sure that the other person understands that that was a fictional moment. But the body …the body stays in that realm of emotions for a couple of days, there’s nothing you can do about that.

You’ve played some pretty nasty characters in the past, but this…Pablo is such a real monster. Is he fun to explore? Do you enjoy delving into such a sociopathic personality?

Well, it’s a joy. I mean, it’s a joy to do that, because yes you have to go to dark places. The great thing and the scary thing for any actor is that we are obliged to understand that we are all of them, we have every side of any other human being that you may want to portray, and we have to be in peace with that. Meaning, I haven’t killed anyone, I have some ethics that would never allow me to go as far as Pablo Escobar in many ways. But when you are an actor, you are obliged to go deep and see a part of you that would consider doing that in one moment, in order to put yourself there and make your work organic and honest. Otherwise, you are faking everything. We as human beings are everything. We are Gandhi, also we are Escobar, it depends on how you look at yourself and what do you unleash within you.

Loving Pablo arrives in select theaters and Digital HD and VOD on October 5th.

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Brad Gullickson is a Weekly Columnist for Film School Rejects and Senior Curator for One Perfect Shot. When not rambling about movies here, he's rambling about comics as the co-host of Comic Book Couples Counseling. Hunt him down on Twitter: @MouthDork. (He/Him)