Narcos star Matias Varela: “The question of culture is a question of poverty”

Spanish-born, Swedish-raised actor Matias Varela talks about class, immigration and his role as Jorge Salcedo in Narcos

Jorge Salcedo is the most morally conflicted character in the third season of Narcos. In preparation were you able to speak to the real-life Salcedo?

That was an impossibility given the fact he’s on the witness protection programme. That said, I had the chance to talk to people who talked to him. This happened in the early ’90s, which means there is a lot of people around today that documented what happened at that time. The internet is our best friend, ask Mr Google anything and he will answer. My research wasn’t only about the cartels, also about the country itself, the people and the music. There’s a little bit more to Colombia than just cocaine.

The main character of the show is Colombia

How important is it that Narcos was filed on location in Colombia?

Being able to shoot on the streets helps you a hell of a lot as an actor. Whenever you’re boring something in the background is super interesting. It really helps you get away with bad acting – that is a reality. And it helps you get into the story yourself. You believe it is happening for real because it is happening for real.

If they had done the show in a different way it wouldn’t be what it is. The main character of the show is Colombia.

Salcedo makes the decision to leave the Cali Cartel, but how do you think he justified working for them in the first place?

That is the most crucial question about the character I portray. He is a man who has been to university, he comes from upper middle class, his father is a general, his wife is a lawyer, a very strong woman. My answer would be greed, and that was his way of becoming someone. There was a big portion of naivety when he went into the cartel. He didn’t comprehend the mechanics in which this organisation actually works. He thought he was so fucking smart: ‘When I’m done I’m going to leave, say thank you guys and take my expertise somewhere else’. That was very naïve.

Is the story of your character the most tragic?

I would say so, for sure. Ultimately it’s a question of class. How do you cope, say no to money or wealth in a country that has cocaine? By educating the young, by giving people the chance to do something else. I grew up in a working class society, as an immigrant.

You moved from Spain to Sweden when you were very young.

My parents were immigrants. I don’t consider myself Spanish or Swedish, I consider myself a human being, that’s it.

Rich Muslims drink the same champagne as the rich Catholics

In the last seven years, my life has had a pretty dramatic change. I know some millionaires now and it’s funny, they do the same things regardless of ethnicity or religious beliefs. They all go to the same schools, drive the same cars, collect the same art. It seems to me the question of culture is a question of poverty. The rich Muslims drink the same champagne as the rich Catholics and the Buddhist and the Hindu.

We live in a time racism is blooming, especially in Europe where it’s more pronounced. You can get a truck and run people over. It’s a question about class, not religion.

That’s why Colombia doesn’t have the same problems anymore, because people are doing better here, the school system is good here, people are getting educated. If you give a person the chance to do good and have a salary – or do bad and sell drugs, I believe most will do good. As long as you give them a chance to do good they will do good.

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

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