Francisco Denis on Playing an Infamous Drug Lord on “Narcos”

Plus: His thoughts on immigration, working for Netflix and more.

“He is a gentleman,” says actor Francisco Denis about his character Miguel Rodriguez, the infamous Cali cartel drug lord on the Netflix hit Narcos (season three now streaming on Netflix). But gentleman-y isn’t exactly how audiences would describe the leader of the “most powerful crime syndicate in history” according to the US Drug Enforcement Administration.

Based on the real-life eponymous criminal who was extradited to the United States and put in jail in 2005, Rodriguez’s character will not appear on the fourth season of the show, which will begin shooting in Mexico in a little less than a month. Denis, however, will remain busy. Working on a few LA-based projects, the actor is also preparing for his own feature film, a political comedy about the corruption and chaos plaguing Venezuela, where he was born. In a candid conversation, Denis opens up about playing a drug dealer, the success of the show, and the current political situation in the United States.

How did you land the role of Miguel Rodriguez?

Usually, I don’t work on TV shows. I act and direct in my own theater company and have acted in around 20 films in Venezuela. It was a big surprise to me when casting director Carla Hool called me to ask if I wanted to play in Narcos. I had never heard of it, I decided to watch it before answering her. I was really impressed and I sent a casting. They liked it and now I’m here.

Did you expect season three to follow the arc that it has? Were you surprised by any plot points?

I didn’t know what to expect because we received the script just a few days before the first day of shooting. That was very difficult for us, it created an anxious environment for the actors. One thing that I was surprised by [EDITOR’S NOTE: spoiler alert] was the final sequence, where Miguel tries to kill Salcedo and then escapes.

How does it feel to play a drug dealer, an inherently unlikable role?

The fact that Miguel is a drug dealer is not what makes him appealing. There are very boring drug dealing characters in film. Of course, it’s a challenge to play somebody who was real and with so much power. Imagine: You can do and have whatever you want. As an actor, that gives me a lot to work with. I researched a lot before playing Miguel and what I found most interesting wasn’t his power but the opposite: that he was reserved, serious, not funny and introverted. That contrast is what makes him appealing.

What’s it like working for Netflix?

I think Narcos is one of the most successful shows on Netflix. It was a risk for [the network] to make a show in Spanish and in which people have to read subtitles. I hope, as a Latin American actor, that it gives us a wider range of roles that we can play in international cinema.

What are your thoughts on the current political situation in America, especially in terms of immigration policy?

I’m not a citizen of the US, but what I can say is that immigration is inevitable and a result of colonialism and the politics of capitalism. It’s a human phenomenon, for people to look for something better for their families and themselves. Like many people in Latin America, I don’t agree with any politics that aim to close borders but, rather, in the importance of creating multicultural, multiracial systems of integration.