Warning: Light spoilers for Season 2 of Narcos below:
While Wagner Moura’s Pablo Escobar is undoubtedly the star of Narcos, Netflix’s masterful chronicle of the South American drug trade, Boyd Holbrook’s DEA agent Steve Murphy is the lens through which viewers get to know the cocaine kingpin. Calling me from his home in upstate New York—”I’ve been building it for seven years”—the actor opens up about narrating the series as the man intent on finding Escobar, his character’s darker turn for Season 2—which premiered September 2—and how he trained to become a DEA agent (it involved getting shot in the head).
HarpersBAZAAR.com: How familiar were you with Pablo Escobar’s story before you started working on Narcos?
Boyd Holbrook: Not really. I knew he was involved with cocaine but it wasn’t until I really started hanging out with the real Steve [Murphy, the inspiration for Holbrook’s character] a lot. I got educated that way. It was crash course. You learn as quickly as possible.
HB: As narrator of the series, did you feel any pressure as the one actually telling Pablo Escobar’s story? It’s all witnessed through your eyes.
BH: I don’t know if you’ve ever seen this film called Elite Squad, which, actually Wagner [Moura] is the one narrating that. José Padilha, one of creators of our show, that’s where the style comes from. It has a heavy narrator. But I thought about it a lot. You [the viewers] have to work for the show, unless you’re bilingual. It’s a really aggressive type of filming, it’s engaging, you’ve got to read. So I tried to do something that would not sedate but sort of put you underneath the current, and zone you out within the show.
HB: How challenging is it for you to both narrate the show and star in it?
BH: Well, the first year was pretty rough because between takes they would throw a microphone in my face and be like, “Okay, we need you to do this!” So we were actually just figuring out how to do it. I even did it for two or three months after we stopped filming. This time, I only had one episode left to [narrate] by the time we wrapped. We were much better.
HB: Your character was a lot more jaded this season. Do you feel as though you transitioned to a darker place in Season 2?
BH: Oh yeah, that was the general idea for the creators of the show. You see Pablo rise up to this king status in an almost Shakespearean way and then the second season, it’s sort of unraveling. Basically it flips the coin for Pedro [Pascal]’s character and my character, Javier and Steve Murphy. It’s a very gray place.
HB: Tell me about working with Pedro, who plays your partner on the show. What kind of relationship did you form?
BH: Before the first season, we really just did it in one night. We went out and got some drinks and got some good steak, and then about a week later I had this idea that we should do some sort of training. So we studied at Quantico for a week, with the actual cadets that go through a 19-week course doing raids and all this stuff; basically shooting each other with rubber bullets.
HB: What was that experience like?
BH: Fucking crazy as hell [laughs]. I mean in one scenario, I dropped my gun. You actually have a gun on you and they’re blanks, but it makes the exact same sound, just as loud. I read this scenario wrong and this guy comes out like, “Who the fuck are you? Why are you in my house?” I was like, “Whoa, whoa, chill,” and then another dude came out, pulled the gun off me and sat me down and shot me in the back of the head.
HB: Do you think it really helped you get in the frame of mind to play Steve?
BH: Absolutely. I didn’t really need anything other than that [laughs]. You know in a second that you can lose your life, so that kinda brought it down to the ground floor for me and [I] let the script do the rest of the work.
HB: You worked with the real-life Steve Murphy, who consulted on the show. How did you end up meeting him?
BH: I got his contact number—wasn’t really shy about it—and I went down to his house to visit him, sat with him and talked with him extensively. I was trying to mimic his voice for a while, but there’s a lot pressure to play a real-life person and at a certain point you just have to say, “Well, I’m always gonna be me.”
HB: What was the craziest thing you learned from him?
BH: Gosh, I don’t know. It was really not even him, it was just what Escobar was doing—the massive amounts of car bombs, just killing people left and right.The amount of people he killed was insane.
HB: What was it like shooting that final showdown, the last scene of Season 2?
BH: Oh man, it was the coolest. Me and Wagner had never worked together [until that point]. That was one of the last days of working so it was a nice payoff, in the end.
HB: Can you tell us anything about Season 3? Do you know if you’re returning yet?
BH: Well the show has been picked up for two more seasons. It’s called Narcos so it’s about narcotics. It’s really interesting; Pablo was taking [the drugs] to Miami and then when the Cali cartel took over they were like, “Screw this, just give it to Mexico and let them get it across the border.” So you see the evolution of people like El Chapo, stuff like that. It should be a really exciting season.
HB: How has being on the show changed your career?
BH: Immensely. Netflix is in every country except China and North Korea. Enough people have seen the show. I mean, I’m in Patagonia and people recognize the show.
HB: Do you do the whole binge-watching thing yourself?
BH: Absolutely. I just crushed Stranger Things. It’s got one of my favorite actors, David Harbour. And obviously Breaking Bad and stuff like that.
HB:Season 2 of Narcos was released on September 2, as was your latest movie Morgan, which is a sci-fi thriller. You also have The Free World, a romantic drama, coming later this month. What attracts you to such strikingly different roles?
BH: I wasn’t raised up with any opportunities to get into this scene. It’s taken me a long time to get work, so that’s why I like to play really different characters that are really foreign to me. I want it to be something great and I want to have a great experience.
HB: You play the villain in the next Wolverine movie opposite Hugh Jackman. What can you tell us about that role?
BH: He’s an innovative engineer and he’s a big fan of Wolverine. He just wants to hang out with him [laughs]. There’s a lot of surprising stuff in it.
HB: What else is coming up for you?
BH: Right now I have a company where I’m trying to get projects off the ground. Me and my partner Madeleine Sackler, we just shot our first feature in a maximum security prison where about 95 percent of the cast were incarcerated men. We’re editing that and there’s a doc going with it. Right now I’m kind of burned out from traveling and working so much, so I just want to stay and work in an office for a while.