Meet Narcos new DEA agents Michael Stahl-David and Matt Whelan

The actors who play Narcos newcomers Chris Fiestl and Daniel Van Ness talk about playing real life characters and exploring a different side of Colombia

How did you prepare for your roles?

Matt Whelan: We were lucky to have the real Chris Fiestl as a resource. We could pick his brain about anything DEA related – we learned a lot about how he would conduct his business and the mind set he would have to be in to do so.

Michael Stahl-David: While I was in Arizona I decided to do an escape room with the real Chris Fiestl, just to have a sense of what he was like under pressure. Even though it’s a game he’s a competitive dude. Seeing his energy in that environment was something I was keeping an eye on and remembered when we were doing our raid scenes. Really it was a lot about learning how careful they had to be operating in Cali. They were worried, not that they would be killed, but that the Cali Cartel would always know where they are so they wouldn’t be able to get any surveillance done.

I decided to do an escape room with the real Chris Fiestl

What steps did they have to take to stay in the shadows?

MS-D: There was no going out, no drinking or partying. Whenever they were out during the day it was always sunglasses and a hat. Of course, they’re going to stand out, but just so they couldn’t be photographed well. Sometimes it was hiding in plain sight.

MW: And these guys were big dudes. They were both over 6ft.

MS-D: They didn’t exactly blend in.

Whelan and Stahl-David with Pedro Pascal (centre)

Is playing characters based on real people easier than playing fictional characters?

MW: Generally you have a lot more to draw on, you have a real person you can research and look into but for my character I didn’t really have that. He’s a real person but there’s almost no information about him.

MS-D: How did it compare to playing a famous person? We both played famous people then played these. [Matt] played Hugh Hefner, and I played Bobby Kennedy – and that’s scary. A lot of people have an attachment to that person. The accent’s very specific, you’ve got to nail it.

MW: And they have a huge presence in the media and everybody knows them.

What do real DEA agents think of Narcos?

MW: We hung out with members of the DEA who are active in Bogotá right now. As far as I know they really enjoyed the show. They said something about not showing your badge off, ‘Don’t be too cocky about your badges.’

MS-D: Yeah, if someone sees your badge they’ll kill you.

We hung out with members of the DEA who are active right now. They really enjoyed the show

What was their attitude about the ongoing war on drugs?

MS-D There are no easy answers. When there’s widespread inequality and a market, this is going to exist. How do you deal with the underlying social issues?

MW: The agents on the ground were passionate about their job.You have to look at the entire structure, from where it begins to where it ends up.

MS-D: It was like they were fighting a losing battle in a sense, but that it was a fun battle to fight and a battle they needed to fight. They don’t have any illusions about the fact they’re going to be able to stop narcotrafficking.

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Is it important for the stories to show the relationship between the drugs trade and the US?

MS-D: I think it’s important to have a show that allows for the nuance and the dark side of the American involvement as well. There might be a lot of people who are trying to do the right thing but there’s also the consumption is happening largely in the US. I think Narcos shows the cynicism of some of the characters fighting a battle you can’t really win – so what is it actually about? There’s no easy answer to this problem.

MW: This was a really tough time in Colombia so there has to be a little respect in telling the story.

MS-D: What I always try to talk about is how much it’s changed. This was an exciting time to be here because even though we were revisiting this painful and difficult time, Colombia was having a peace process that was historic. Almost like the opposite of a brain drain, a lot of young Colombian entrepreneurs who were educated abroad were coming home and starting businesses.

For anybody reading this if you meet a Colombian, maybe don’t say to them, ‘Oh Colombian? Escobar!’

What impression did you have of Colombia beforehand and how did that change?

MS-D: I think I had an outdated stereotypical impression of Colombia, super dangerous. To come here and to travel freely, rent a car, stay in hostels, it was incredible how easy it was and shocking how friendly people were. I was really impressed. There was a time we met a guy in Cali. He said, ‘You shooting Narcos? I was a bodyguard at Escobar’s prison.’ But then he went to India and became a yogi. Now he’s a vegetarian cook. In a funny way he was a metaphor for the country – this guy who in his youth had gotten caught up in that and then [became] this very funny, very sweet hippie basically.

What other reactions did you experience from Colombians while filming?

MS-D: It’s a painful time for them that they’re not exactly excited to revisit – it’s not what they want to watch at the end of the day

MW: But it’s an important part of the history of the country and why it has become like it is today.

MS-D: That was something I would hear: we have to know this story, we can’t hide from it. So there was mixed feelings. It’s a controversial show here but there was never hostility directed at us for doing it. They just don’t necessarily want to watch it. You don’t want a single story to exist about any place. For anybody reading this if you meet a Colombian, maybe don’t say to them, ‘Oh Colombian? Escobar!’ If you’re from the United States you don’t want to hear people say, ‘Oh the US? 9/11, right?’

The third season of Narcos is available now on Netflix. Read more about the show in an upcoming edition of The Big Issue