Sergio star Wagner Moura, director Greg Barker, and producers Brent Travers and Daniel Marc Dreifuss stopped by the Kia Telluride Supper Suite in Park City, where Collider spoke with the quartet about their Netflix drama, which is set amid the chaotic aftermath of the U.S. invasion of Iraq.
The film centers around top UN diplomat Sergio Vieira de Mello (Moura), whose life hangs in the balance during the most treacherous mission of his career. “It’s a story that has been in my head for a long time,” said Barker, who wasn’t kidding. He directed a documentary, also called Sergio, that premiered at Sundance 11 years ago, the same week that Barack Obama was sworn in as President.
“When I first heard about the real story, I saw it as a movie initially. I made it as a documentary, but I always wanted to return to the subject matter, on an emotional level, as a narrative, so it’s great to be back at the festival all these years later with this incredible cast,” said Barker, who noted how much the world has changed in the past decade, so the context — from Obama’s presidency to Trump’s — is very different. “It’s a film about empathy and hope,” he concluded.
Brazilian superstar Moura noted that Sergio was the third real-life figure he’d played in a row, following Pablo Escobar on Narcos, and Cuban pilot Juan Pablo Roque in Olivier Assayas‘ upcoming thriller The Wasp Network, and said that “the best way to approach playing a real character is to know everything about them.”
To that end, Moura said he has seen Barker’s documentary dozens of times, but “I think an actor has to forget all of that. I created my own version of Sergio because at the end of the day, that’s what we actors do. We have a lot of responsibility toward him, but in a way, he’s also a creation of ours. The documentary was already made, so this had to work as a feature film,” explained Moura, whose involvement with the project was serendipitous.
The story “is kind of an interesting one,” said Travers, “because Daniel and I had been friends and known each other for a long time, but Daniel and Greg had actually been developing a Sergio project years ago, and then Wagner and I were on a separate track. Daniel and I had been looking for projects to do together, and then one day we get a phone call, and it’s like one of your friends calling you up and saying, ‘hey, I wanted to do this as well.’ So we merged our projects, and we had the same vision for the film and the same emotional core to the film, and it was as easy as that. Normally, [competing] films will smother and die, or cancel each other out, and really, that’s not what happened. [This movie] thrived because of Greg’s documentary. We were all behind that, and we were so passionate about the material.”
Dreifuss credited Sundance itself for bringing the team together, and ultimately getting this project off the ground. “I actually met Greg originally at Sundance. I had seen the documentary years prior, but festivals like this also serve that purpose — in addition to all the movies, you meet people that you click with creatively. So we were introduced, and he had made this documentary, and then he was interested in this type of film, and a partnership was born right then and there. A few years later, we’re back here where we met, where it all started, for us, at least, for this particular project. So it’s wonderful to be at a festival where we have this creative energy around us,” said Dreifuss.
Co-starring opposite Moura is Cuban actress Ana de Armas, who is red-hot right now between Knives Out and her upcoming turn in the James Bond movie No Time to Die.
“She’s amazing in the movie and an incredible talent, and it’s wonderful to see what’s happening with her career. The way it came about was very serendipitous. One of our actors, who plays Sergio’s bodyguard, [met] with Daniel, and happened to mention he was having dinner that night with Ana, who was already at the top of our list. So Daniel, in that great producer way, said, ‘can you slip her the script and mention the project?’ That was a Friday, and by Monday she was at my house having read the script, saying, ‘I have to play Carolina. Don’t talk to anybody else.’ So we didn’t know [all this] was going to happen to her, but based on her past work, we weren’t surprised,” boasted Barker.
“Ana is one of the most talented actors I’ve ever worked with,” added Moura. “She has this superstar quality. We all knew she was gonna be huge. She became a very good friend of ours, and she’s adorable, and I’m bummed she’s not here, but she’s working non-stop.” Believe me, Moura wasn’t as bummed as I was, because I’d love to interview her one day, particularly about the Marilyn Monroe movie she just shot with Andrew Dominik. But I digress.
“When we first rehearsed their scenes, we spent three days in a hotel room in Rio just going through all that, and we did the whole chronology of their relationship, from when they met, all the way through, and you could see. We thought, ‘oh my goodness, this is going to leap off the screen, and it does,’ Barker said like a proud papa.
The film also boasts a strong supporting cast, including top character actors Brian F. O’Byrne, Garret Dillahunt, and Bradley Whitford as Paul Bremer.
“He’s not what you’d expect,” said Barker of Whitford’s take on Bremer, the U.S. envoy to Iraq “who kind of messes things up in real life, and can kind of be seen as a caricature in a way.” Barker said that there’s a scene in the film where Sergio is talking to Bremer on the phone, and Whitford showed up “and brought a whole different human connection to the role,” to that point that they had to reshoot the scene.
“I’m one of the producers of the film, so I had a chance to participate in the casting. I had a lot of scenes with Brian in the rubble, which was the most complicated part of the film, both emotionally and technically. We were in these weird positions, and I loved it so much,” said Moura, who was left impressed by his co-stars. “Each of them have very different methods. Ana is led by her intuition. She just goes there, [whereas] Brian studies each line.”
And though screenwriter Craig Borten (Dallas Buyers Club) didn’t make it to the Supper Suite, Barker singled out the scribe with praise. “Craig did amazing work on this. He had a complicated relationship with his own father, and kind of saw his own father in Sergio. What drew me to Craig from when we first met was his emotional connection to the material and his desire to explore Sergio’s inner turmoil. He came up with this ambitious, innovative structure. We were all inspired by The Diving Bell and the Butterfly. I love that movie and the way it plays with time and structure and memory. Craig really cracked that on his first draft, and then we spent a lot of time refining it over the [following] months.”
Sergio will hit Netflix and select theaters on April 17, so watch the interview above, and then check out our Sundance supercut videos, in which dozens of artists offer their theories on the death of Cliff Booth’s wife in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, and which categories they’d like to see added to the Oscars, as well as the TV shows they most recently binged, and the ones they’d love to guest star on.
Finally, we have to thank our presenting partner, the Kia Telluride SUV, which was recently named the 2020 North American Utility Vehicle of the Year. Additional thanks to support sponsors Glenfiddich Scotch, Peroni Beer, Marbl Toronto, mou footwear, ic! Berlin sunglasses and clothing lines, Laundry by Sheli Segal and Orginal Penguin.