Benicio del Toro Source

Pablo Escobar is one of the most ruthless people in history. Growing up poor in Colombia, he rose to become the world’s biggest cocaine distributor, building his vast fortune on the bodies of competitors and bribes of policemen and politicians. At his height, he controlled real estate, billions of dollars, and his own personal army.

As far as historical figures go, Escobar’s story is ripe for a big-screen adaptation. He even went out like a movie villain: In 1993, Colombian forces killed Escobar in a hail of Scarface-esque gunfire. But a good story doesn’t always mean it’s ready for Hollywood.

Previous attempts, including one by Oliver Stone and another by Joe Carnahan, have been left in the dust. Surprisingly, it took the gumption of a first-time feature director named Andrea Di Stefano to finally take on and release the tale of Pablo onto the world. But instead of a straight biopic, the Italian filmmaker decided to attack the project from a unique angle: by observing Escobar’s callousness and power through the eyes of two fictionalized doe-eyed lovers (Josh Hutcherson and Claudia Traisac), one of whom happens to be the niece of the man in charge.

When it came to casting Escobar, Di Stefano had to find a strong actor who could embody the brutality of the late kingpin. His first choice: actor Benicio Del Toro, who knows a thing or two about portraying historical figures, having done so for Steven Soderbergh in the film Che.

“I think he’s one of the most talented actors who ever existed,” Di Stefano tells The Daily Beast. “I really believe that there are few actors in American cinema after the Second World War who can play these kind of characters. There’s Marlon Brando, Montgomery Clift, De Niro, Pacino [and Del Toro].” In Paradise Lost, Del Toro completely embodies the terrifying nature of his real-life counterpart, while also balancing out Escobar’s more charitable side: the one who donated to schools and helped build soccer fields, the one some Colombians still hail as a saint.

I sat down with Del Toro ahead of the premiere of Paradise Lost at the Toronto International Film Festival to talk about his transformation into the infamous kingpin, the horror Escobar inflicted on his own family and people, and the strange duality between being considered a villain and a hero. Del Toro also spent some time reflecting on the overwhelming success of Guardians of the Galaxy (he portrayed The Collector) along with not knowing who Howard the Duck is.

There are many different opinions when it comes to Pablo Escobar. Some consider him a saint, others a murderer. Some both. Where do you go for research when there are competing opinions?
Well, you try to understand those who understand him as some kind of saint. You try to understand why some people go that way, and why they consider him the devil. And then you draw from that. But it is clear why they consider him some Robin Hood and others considered him the devil. The bad stuff he did outweighs the good.

Yeah, on one hand he donated to schools, helped the poor and communities…
He helped the communities, built neighborhoods for poor people, gave them housing, built many soccer fields. He understood people in a poor country. He understood the needs of the people. When he started he was bringing in, not drugs, he was kind of bringing in merchandise; sneaking it into the country from other places. And he started to include whatever his profit was to give a percentage to the workers, and the workers immediately liked him because the guy before him didn’t do that. He just paid the workers a flat fee, nothing really, and he got all the wealth. So Pablo started to share some of the gains with the workers so the workers wanted to work with him, because he was fair.

In the beginning he seemed to be a combination politician/businessman/philanthropist.
Right, and then a killer [Laughs].
Ha, well, yet, that too. His sense of competition quickly turned into eliminating the opposition. And then eventually he made a mistake for his own sake, the fact that he ran for politics. That I think was his downfall. And the rest is history, because he basically declared war on a country.

Then there was the international manhunt later.
Yeah, he brought the country down to its knees. He got the country to do basically what he wanted to do. Because they were trying to extradite him to America. America wanted him but he managed to stop that and he turned himself in. He goes to jail but that was a jail that he controlled.

It’s interesting it’s taken this long to see Pablo Escobar on the big screen. There have been many projects in the works, one of which was from Oliver Stone. Did you and him ever talk about Pablo while you were shooting Savages?
I think we did talk a little bit about it. I think he did have a project, and I actually did talk to him about that project that he had. But it’s all about what angle you’re going to take with Pablo Escobar. And I thought the angle with this project, which is fiction, was interesting. The fact that you could go into this family man and really reveal a charming man or a man you can like, and then suddenly he’s a nightmare. I think that Andrea’s story is grounded in almost everything that we see Pablo doing. I thought that added to this Pablo Escobar story. Because it’s not really his story. I mean, it is his story, but it’s seen through the eyes of someone who’s engaged to his niece. So that was the angle that I think this movie had that made me want to jump into it.

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