Executive produced by Brazilian director José Padilha, the Netflix original drama series Narcos (already picked up for a second season) chronicles the gripping, intense and almost unbelievable real-life stories of the infamous drug kingpins of the late 1980s and the efforts of law enforcement to meet them head-on in brutal and bloody conflict. While focusing on the rise of notorious drug kingpin Pablo Escobar (Wagner Moura), American DEA agent Steve Murphy (Boyd Holbrook) provides much of the framework for viewers to learn about the roles law enforcement, politicians and civilians played.
During this exclusive phone interview with Collider, actor Boyd Holbrook talked about why he wanted to be a part of Narcos, all of the research and training he did for the role, his impressions of the real Steve Murphy, working with Pedro Pascal (who plays Murphy’s partner Javier Peña, shooting in Colombia, the biggest challenges of this project, and why he loves to binge-watch. He also talked about his experience working with director Terrence Malick on one of his upcoming films, making Jane Got a Gun, what he looks for in a project, and returning to Colombia soon to get to work on Season 2.
BOYD HOLBROOK: I’d seen José Padilha’s Elite Squad 1 and 2, and I’d seen his documentary, Bus 174. I’d heard that he was working on something and wanted to meet, and I said yes before I knew what the project was going to be. And then, I found out it was Steve Murphy and this really, really intricate world.
This seems like the type of project you would do a lot of research for. Did you do more research for this than anything you’ve done before?
HOLBROOK: Yeah. Luckily, I got Steve Murphy to get us into Quantico and we trained for a week there, with the DEA. They have these fake towns there and they do all these scenarios. It’s pretty intense and really interesting. I got shot with a blank gun in the back of my head ‘cause I basically got murdered during a drug buy that went wrong. That was pretty intense.
Did you go into that training thinking it would be easier than it turned out?
HOLBROOK: I didn’t have any idea what I was getting into going to Bogota, not that it was a bad experience. I was just completely out of my element.
With all of the research you did and the training you went through, was there anything that most surprised you about the cocaine business and the events that transpired among these individuals?
HOLBROOK: I don’t know if there was one specific thing, but I find it very fascinating, how it has developed into an industry. It’s a very intricate world. I couldn’t point one thing out.
This series focuses on the rise of Pablo Escobar, who is a name that many people know, but they don’t know much about him, and it’s all told through the eyes of Steve Murphy. How do you feel that telling this from that perspective influences the story being told? Do you think it helps make it more relatable for people who might not understand the intricacies of the drug trade?
HOLBROOK: Yeah, I think so. It’s a different perspective given. One of the reasons a film about Pablo Escobar has never been made in the two-hour format is because there’s too much information. We got to do a 10-hour film about that, so I was pretty impressed by that. This is from the life rights of Javier Peña and Steve Murphy, so it’s about their conquest of Pablo. Obviously, Pablo is the flashy character and the reason why everyone is there, in the first place, but it’s from their point of views because those are the two people who went down to pinch him.
What were your impressions of Steve Murphy?
HOLBROOK: I was really attracted to the courage that he had to go down there and do that, being completely out of his element. As an actor just doing my job, I was completely out of my element. I don’t really speak Spanish, which is like living in stereo. You don’t really know what’s going on. Knowing that Steve had to maneuver that was really amazing. Things kept evolving for me. I didn’t really have all the questions answered when I went down there. I had to keep figuring out, working on the day and throughout the show.
How do you view the partnership between Steve Murphy and Javier Peña, and what was it like to work with Pedro Pascal on that dynamic?
HOLBROOK: Pedro is a phenomenal actor, and he’s a really good friend. The dynamics from the narrative is that Javier had been down there longer and he speaks the language. He’s got his foot in the door. Steve is assigned to him, so a bit of respect has to be earned from both people. Steve comes down like a bit of a bull and he’s figuring it out, as he goes.
When you’re playing somebody who is still alive and can watch your performance, do you think about that the entire time that you’re shooting, or do you have to get to a point where you just think of him as a character?
HOLBROOK: Yeah, you’ve gotta do your own thing. I was on the fence about whether I should meet Steve before, or just not meet him at all, but I met him and became close with his family. He’s adopted two little girls from Colombia, which shows you the kind of guy he is. He came down to the set and that’s when I realized that I forgot I was playing this person. You do make it yours. You have to personally own it.
Do you feel like getting to shoot this on location in Colombia, without being stuck inside of a studio, really helped you get into the right headspace?
HOLBROOK: Absolutely! We were supposed to do an interior hospital scene in Medellín, and we kept driving further and further and further. I was like, “Where the fuck is this hospital?” We got out to this place and kids were doing wheelies, and people were smoking weed and drinking on the street. It was like we walked into a party, and then we had to do this scene. The brilliance of José is that he chooses locations that just make everything different from what you expect.
What did you most enjoy about the experience of doing this show and playing this character, and what were the biggest challenges of pulling off something like this?
HOLBROOK: Probably stamina. I wanted to go have an experience. I always prefer to have a really intense experience rather than something that’s kind of light and frivolous. You can put up with anything for a month or two, but for six months, it becomes a different beast. So, that’s what I wanted to do, and that’s what I got.
Are you somebody who’s a binge-watcher yourself? Do you like the option of watching every episode at once, if you can, or do you prefer to spread it out more?
HOLBROOK: That’s how I got into Breaking Bad. I caught up with two seasons in two days. Once you start watching something, you just want more and you have it. I think it’s cool.
What was it like to work with Terrence Malick on one of his upcoming films?
HOLBROOK: He’s very elusive and mystical, and all that stuff. I don’t know if I’ll be in the movie. I think I’m in it, but I don’t know for how much. He has a very different approach and he makes very specific films. It was great to work with Terrence and Christian [Bale]. That’s how I got onto the film. I did a couple scenes with Christian Bale in Out of the Furnace, and he told me to come down to do this movie in Austin, with him and Terrence Malick, so I was like, “Okay, cool. Let’s do it.”
You also did Jane Got a Gun, which has had a complicated journey in getting to the big screen. Do you know when we’ll finally get to see that?
HOLBROOK: I had heard September 2nd, but now I don’t know what the fuck is going on with Relativity. I know it’s done, so eventually.
What was that filming experience like?
HOLBROOK: It was cool because I was playing a much different character in that film compared to what you’re seeing in Narcos or what you’ll see in Terrence Malick’s movie. I played Natalie Portman’s brother in Terrence Malick’s movie, and then basically tried to kill her husband in Jane Got a Gun. That was obviously different. I was playing a big creepy. And Gavin O’Connor is an amazing director.
What do you look for when you’re trying to find your next project?
HOLBROOK: I just look for characters that have dimensions. If I don’t see it written on the page, then I try to put it in there somehow. You don’t want to play the same role twice. I always like to work with really good filmmakers and really good actors.
Do you know what you’re going to be working on next?
HOLBROOK: I don’t know. There’s a couple of things that I’m curious about doing. I might just chill out for awhile. I’m not sure when I’m going back down to Colombia yet, but that should be pretty soon.
Narcos is now available at Netflix.