We jumped at the chance to listen in as Game of Thrones co-creator David Benioff got the low-down from actor Pedro Pascal ahead of the launch of Season 2 of Narcos on Netflix. The pair let us in on how Pascal ended up on Game of Thrones, walking the line between reality and fiction in Narcos and working on upcoming Chinese epic The Great Wall.
DAVID: Hi Pedro. So what's the best way for us to destroy your career once and for all?
PEDRO: I figured you would know, that's why I asked you to do this interview.
DAVID: I feel like some good anti-semitic commentary could do it.
PEDRO: I'll leave that to you.
DAVID: I can't do it, I'm Jewish! Shall we begin at the beginning, Pedro? Tell me - how did you escape from Orange County?
PEDRO: Well we moved there in '86 or' 87, I was turning 12 and I had to attend Corona del Mar High School from 7th to 12th grade. I don't know how else to tell it other than the 7th and 8th grade being truly dark years in sunny Orange County - which inspired a blossoming drama nerd. After the 8th grade, I just didn't fit in. My sister did though.
DAVID: I know your sister, she's really fun and cool.
PEDRO: I wasn't fun and cool. Or I just didn't know how to fake it yet.
DAVID: I'm picturing one of those California schools where everyone's beautiful, and everyone's tanned and you - were you a punk rocker back then?
PEDRO: No, I was just the kid crying because, like, Empire of The Sun didn’t get nominated for Best Picture… everyone was like, 'What the fuck is wrong with you?'
DAVID: Which is a crime, by the way, it's one of Spielberg’s best movies.
PEDRO: I was the one buying the soundtrack, and people would catch me on my walkman listening to that weird Danish song from Empire of The Sun. So my mom found out about a performing arts programme - Orange County School of the Arts - that you had to audition to get in. I ended up going to high school in Long Beach and commuting like 40 minutes every day and essentially spending four years outside of Newport Beach in a more middle-class kind of environment. I got into NYU – I begged my parents to let me go, and I won that fight so I ended up in New York in '93 and sort of got stuck here.
Coat: Lanvin; Trousers: APC; Boots: APC
DAVID: So what happened in '93? You started getting jobs, did you get an agent quickly? What was the path?
PEDRO: I started auditioning right away and I signed with some representation while I was in school. I graduated and I didn't get hired for anything at all – I was a waiter, I was getting fired left and right. Despite not fitting in in Orange County, it had definitely made me quite sheltered. Seriously, I got fired from maybe 17 places in about a year and a half.
DAVID: All restaurants?
PEDRO: Restaurants, cafés, coffee shops…
DAVID: Was it incompetence, or being rude to management, or showing up late? What got you canned?
PEDRO: All of the above. Incompetence mostly.
DAVID: And was it around this time that you met Sarah Paulson [American Horror Story]?
PEDRO: Yeah, she was one of my first friends in New York. That's where I was really lucky, in New York I made a sort of family of friends right away. It definitely built a great foundation in New York City and they're still my friends to this day.
DAVID: So, aside from Christian Bale in Empire, who were the people you were watching and thinking, 'Fuck, I wanna be like that guy?'
PEDRO: I was watching everything. I started to consume voraciously very early as a viewer and a reader. It's funny, as an actor, once you get some exposure people ask you what are your interests? What do you do? And you feel like such a loser, because you're like I don't do anything! I'm not athletic, I haven't developed any intense interest in, like, scuba diving, or spelunking – I still just watch TV and read books and that's how I was as a kid. When I couldn't make friends in Orange County, I started reading and renting videos voraciously. And I got into the classics, I had an early obsession with Marlon Brando, James Dean, and reading American and English playwrights, like Pinter. Which, come on, I didn't understand at all. But it was still very entertaining to imagine myself as one of the characters on the stage. So Empire of the Sun was only one of a basket of Spielberg movies that totally shaped my imagination.
DAVID: Are you campaigning for a job with Stephen Spielberg right now, or...?
PEDRO: (laughs) Definitely
DAVID: Nah, after he hears the anti-Jewish stuff, it's over. Not gonna happen dude.
PEDRO: Just keep trying to force anti-semitism on me.
DAVID: So now, you're in New York, getting fired from 17 different restaurants. What was your first big acting break?
PEDRO: That's what's funny, I never got a big acting break I guess, in the way that that seems to be understood by the general public. I stuck it out in the theatre and wanted to follow in the footsteps of the people I was inspired by. I was attached to the idea of someone who came from New York theatre – Al Pacino, Meryl Streep, Robert DeNiro, that whole crew. Unfortunately that romanticism kept me in New York, killing myself trying to pay rent. Finally I got an off Broadway play at Theatre Club - where your wife, Amanda Peet, had her play introduced. I'd say that I stopped waiting tables by the time I was 30? Kept things going, did all the Law & Orders, all the cop shows, The Good Wife, and managed with cheap rent to keep the theatre thing going.
Listen, David, I become very inarticulate talking to you because I know you're smarter than me. It was a big mistake to have this interview. In fact I'd like to cancel it right now and get someone else. Can we get Dan [Weiss, Game of Thrones]? Wait no, get me one of the kids. (laughs)
DAVID: Anyway, as this is happening… do you have some friends who are starting to succeed or fall by the wayside?
PEDRO: Well, Sarah [Paulson] was one. She got her first job and she never really stopped. She got a guest spot on Law & Order which amazed all of us – we couldn't believe it. To me that was a very early success that I envied and that inspired me, but I bet if you talked to her she'd say things are finally coming together this year. Which is insane, but I bet that's how it feels. My first off Broadway play in New York was with Oscar Isaac, freshly out of Juilliard. He seemed like a comet to me, totally leaving me behind. Shooting with Leo DiCaprio, Ridley Scott, then you talk to him now as well and he's like, 'Yeah, this year things are coming together.' This is going to sound so corny but it's extremely comforting when people you care about are successful. Whether it's happening to you or not, it feels good when it's happening for someone you love and respect.
DAVID: Gore Vidal said, 'A little part of me dies every time a friend succeeds.'
PEDRO: Yeah, but not the two friends I mentioned. (laughs)
DAVID: Did you ever have doubts? Did you think about going and doing something else?
PEDRO: I think it came down to a very simple thing – realising that I'd stuck at something for so long, I'd made the grind and the uncertainty into a familiar thing and it wasn't too scary any more. The desire to do it started to shape my identity at such an early age, starting with that childhood fantasy of wanting to be in a Spielberg movie – literally lying and telling people that I was the silhouette of Christian Bale in the Empire of the Sun poster. Which is part of why I didn't make friends.
I started to realise that I didn't know how to do anything else… That I was fated to be that 73-year-old in the Law & Order casting room furiously trying to remember the words for a 4-line role. That still very well could be me.
Jacket and shirt: John Varvatos
DAVID: How did this Game of Thrones thing come about? The people want to know. It's an interesting story.
PEDRO: I was helping this kid that I was mentoring, and he put himself on tape for this amazing part on your show, which I was already watching. I was initially curious because the script contained one of the most important spoilers for most of us. Some of us kept punishing ourselves by watching your show to see if something terrible would happen to Joffrey. But I had that satisfaction ripped away from me when I was helping this kid tape and reading for Oberyn. As I kept reading, it's embarrassing to admit, but I connected to it so completely that it lit this crazy fire in me. I felt instantly attached to the character so I was totally focussed on my representatives getting me the material and taping an audition. I was pretty convinced that because I wasn't known and didn't have a European passport, that there was no chance. So I called the first friend I made when I moved to New York and was 18-years-old, Sarah Paulson, one of my closest friends, who is best friends with your wife Amanda. I called her and told her that I'd just put myself on tape for this part that no one's gonna see. She didn't even let me finish asking – she insisted that I send her the audition and she and Amanda showed it to you that night.
DAVID: Even after we hired you, you didn't believe you had the part? I kept hearing back from Sarah [Paulson] – 'He doesn't think he has the part.' We were flying you to Belfast for a costume fitting and you still didn't believe it.
PEDRO: This is great because it backs up my story... no one had told me! Maybe my agents were nervous, I obviously was nervous and I found it a little hard to believe. Having been in the game as long as I have, there have been a lot of close calls and I could tell the good ones from the bad. And the kind of parts that could change things. It obviously had so much to do with how popular the show is, but it was such a good part – thrilling and terrifying at the same time to be able to get a part that good. They don't come around very often.
DAVID: There's no one like Oberyn on the show and he does his own thing. That was something you brought beautifully to it. When you came to that first meeting, you still didn't think you had the part and I guess we hadn't signed the deal yet but you would've had to get up, pull your pants down, and shit on the desk not to get that part because the audition was so strong. I was still hearing through Sarah that you didn't think you had it...
PEDRO: Come to think of it, I did pull down my pants and shit on the desk.
DAVID: We weren’t going to tell that story though...
PEDRO: When you sent me to London and were pouring goop on my head and making a cast of my shoulders, head, face, I still didn't believe 100% that I had gotten the part.
DAVID: You did get the part. What was your first scene?
PEDRO: My first scene was with Peter [Dinklage]...
DAVID: I remember we were shooting abroad and I was watching the dailies so I emailed you and you were like, 'Thank god, I thought I totally blew it.' Maybe that's your secret – if you ever realise how good you are, it'll ruin you.
PEDRO: I still don't believe you and it's an illness – a psychological illness. I remember panicking a bit on my first day because there wasn't any way I could fulfill the potential of that scene having come to it so early and then you emailed me. You didn't say 'great job' but I'd say you're a pretty busy man with a pretty large cast and complicated locations and you took the time to write me a very generous note that settled me into the whole experience. I’m very grateful.
DAVID: Well I know it can be intimidating working with Peter. People don't know about his violent side...
PEDRO: It's tough when he throws benches at you and stuff like that.
DAVID: So moving on into the real life drama of Narcos. How did that come about? Did Eric Newman just see Game of Thrones and think, ‘Shit, I need that guy,’ or did you audition?
PEDRO: I think someone at Netflix saw the scene that we just talked about. Eric, our executive producer on Narcos, was initially extremely disappointed that I was available. He, anticipating the big fight with the Mountain while trying to cast his show, was extremely upset that I was available to play Javier Peña. A bit of a spoiler. It came at me very fast and it was the first time I'd been offered something without having to audition for it. There was only about 12 hours to decide whether to do it.
DAVID: How closely does your character adhere to the real life person [DEA Agent, Javier] Peña?
PEDRO: I think he actively keeps his real experience there secret – whether that's because he did more than what we're telling? Or less? I want to be able to interpret a character that was actually there on my own terms as much as possible. The things that are the most interesting to me, and the audience, are ways to move through [the story] with more ambiguity; without seeing things in black and white. More than good guys fighting bad buys. With the show, they're making a very authentic visual experience. In the playing of it, you're very much a piece in this visual landscape and I think you would stand out if you tried to control it.
DAVID: Have you ever gotten feedback from him and he's like, 'Oh, I'd never smoke with my left hand,' or something like that? Or is he hands-off?
PEDRO: He's totally hands-off. We call each other and he'll be like, 'This cute girl at the Mac store asked me if I could give you her number when she found out you were playing me in Narcos', 'This cute girl at Starbucks asked...'
DAVID: He's just telling all the girls that he's been immortalised on Netflix.
PEDRO: He's been very supportive and available at any given moment to talk about it – he’s so chilled. I think we could take it in any direction with the character – put him in a wheelchair, make him a serial killer, and he'd be like, 'Yo man, it's just TV.' Cause he knows no one really knows what happened.
DAVID: So now bring us to China and another director you were very excited about working with. Tell us the story of The Great Wall.
PEDRO: So, as we've covered so extensively in my movie nerd-dom, I was introduced to Zhang Yimou pretty young. I saw Raise The Red Lantern and The Story of Qui Ju and Shanghai Triad in the movie theatre. So I didn't take my agents very seriously when they brought up the project that was me, starring alongside Matt Damon in this huge Hollywood and Chinese cinema collaboration. I was wrong – it turned out to be true and they offered me the part. I went to China for nearly five months and shot the movie with Zhang Yimou, Matt Damon, Willem Dafoe, and Andy Lau.
DAVID: Was that terrifying? To be directed by one of your idols?
PEDRO: I was really nervous at first but I wrote him an email. I felt like I had to confess – it felt stupid to play down that I'd never imagined I could work with someone I admired to that degree. I think I saw Shanghai Triad like, four times in the movie theatre – I took my mom, I took my friends. He was a filmmaker that I really studied and prided myself on knowing. It was the 90s and he was making some of the best independent films that are out there. Then suddenly everyone was like, 'Have you seen Hero?' and I was like 'DUDE, I've seen SEVEN movies before Hero!', you know? So I wrote to him and told him, and when I got to China, one of the producers gave me an envelope – this beautiful envelope and I pull out a response from Zhang Yimou that he had hand written in Chinese characters on this elegant paper. It was like a piece of art. I have it framed, actually. It was him thanking me for my note and for being involved in the movie. The guy's a class act. He's as kind as he is talented. So he beat you and your email...
DAVID: I was going to send it to you in Chinese characters but then I realised I didn't know Chinese and it would have just been gibberish.
PEDRO: The only way you could've won is by sending a singing telegram.
DAVID: So five months in China sounds almost as good as three months in Belfast. Not quite, but any adventures there you can tell us about?
PEDRO: I travelled around like a tourist whenever I got the opportunity. We spent so much time shooting and I got to pal around with Matt Damon because as everyone knows, he's a real jerk (laughs).
DAVID: Yeah, famously terrible.
PEDRO: A notorious bad guy in the industry. He and his wife adopted me into their family and took me through the experience and I had the time of my life. We were tourists together whenever we got the chance – we went to Hong Kong and I went to see some friends in Bangkok. I can't tell you about that weekend.
DAVID: When you're talking to Matt Damon, are you ever not thinking, ‘Here I am, having a conversation with Matt Damon.'
PEDRO: It took a while. Initially, in getting to know him, the jet lag helped – I was so out of it. Matt came to say hi, and we were doing all these scenes together so he just said, 'Hey man, let's be friends,' and I was just like... Okay sure! Whatever you say!
DAVID: Is it fair to say you've supplanted Ben Affleck as Matt Damon's best friend?
PEDRO: Yeah. I'll make room for Ben, I guess.
DAVID: You and Matt need to write an Oscar winning script to really make Ben jealous.
PEDRO: That would be the next thing... To end my career instead of anti-semitism.
DAVID: So when is The Great Wall out?
DAVID: Originally when you were cast as Oberyn, there was controversy that you weren't Latino enough. What do you make of the controversy around Matt Damon in this film? Is it about him being a white guy?
PEDRO: Yeah, him being a white guy is very...
DAVID: Incontrovertible? No one can deny that Matt Damon is a white guy.
PEDRO: No one can deny that. It's not an issue of him not being Latino enough, that's for sure. But his being white has very specific context in terms of the plot. I think that the arguments should be made after the movie comes out, instead of a one minute and 20 second trailer. I'm sure very good arguments can still be made from both sides in terms of ethnic representation but this is a Hollywood creature feature combined with epic Chinese cinema and it's ultimately helmed by this visionary director who is Chinese.
DAVID: One of the greatest living directors.
PEDRO: Shall we say, the Spielberg of China?
DAVID: And if he wants to work with the whitest guy in Hollywood, who's to say no?
PEDRO: Exactly! (laughs) This is a Chinese crew, and there are big Chinese stars and newcomers playing heroic roles in this movie. What people are given is just a film that's called The Great Wall with Matt Damon, and basing the argument on that. But the movie needs to be seen.
DAVID: Yes, that sounds like good reasoning to me. I do think it's hard to deny that you're not Latino enough though. So you're born in Chile and your parents had to flee after the CIA-sponsored coup – if the coup hadn't happened, you would just be Chilean. It's almost like the CIA fucked everything up. What do you think about that?
PEDRO: Are we actually giving credit to the CIA?
DAVID: Maybe you would've never become an actor and all the things that led to Game of Thrones may never have happened.
PEDRO: I would have made it happen. I would have crawled from Santiago, Chile all the way to you, to knock on your office door and be like, 'I will be your champion.'
DAVID: Where is your character from in The Great Wall?
PEDRO: España. Which is exactly where my ancestors were from.
DAVID: No one can argue with that. Where's Matt's character from?
PEDRO: He's English.
DAVID: Does he have an accent? Is he speaking Chinese in the movie?
PEDRO: No, he's not speaking Chinese. He is English – it's 1100 AD so whatever that accent is.
DAVID: He has an Old English accent? This is sounding pretty awesome. I don't think anyone would know how that would sound. Probably it sounds just like Matt Damon, that's what I think.
So, have we covered all the bases? Have I left anything out that you want to talk about? Your political stance - does everyone know about your pro-Trump agenda? What's it like being one of the few Hollywood actors who supports Mr. Trump, can you tell us about that?
PEDRO: (laughs) My combover is very much modelled on the earlier part of Trump's hair career. What are you going to do, David? Are you going to move if Trump –
DAVID: This is a Pedro Pascal interview! No one's interviewing me here, buddy. So I'll be asking the questions.
PEDRO: Do you really think it's not going to happen?
DAVID: I really think it's not going to happen.
PEDRO: I just got into an argument with a stranger literally five minutes before you called. I was getting coffee and they asked my name so they could put it on the cup and call my name when it was ready. And he was like, 'Oh, vote for Pedro,' – first time I've heard that. Then he was like, 'Yo, I'd rather vote for you than either of the two candidates that we've got.' I was like, 'Dude, really?' – this was a mixed race guy making the coffee – I was like, 'Do you really believe that? Do you dislike Hillary so much that you would consider voting for Trump?!' And that sort of reignited my terror. It feels like such a no-brainer, but here's this hard-working mixed race guy at Starbucks who is undecided! That scares the shit out of me.
DAVID: Well I hope you talked some sense into him.
PEDRO: He just kept saying, 'I don't know about Hillary,' and I said, 'What don't you know?' 'Oh, I just don't trust her,' but he didn't have any real answers about what makes her different from other politicians that you do believe in and do trust.
DAVID: That feels pretty good, I think we covered everything.
PEDRO: I think we covered too much.