Michael Peña Dishes on 'Narcos: Mexico' role as Kiki Camarena: 'I Wanted to Find Out What Made the Guy Tick'

It was during the 1980s when one of Mexico's deadliest cartels rose from the ashes to establish the country's biggest drug trafficking organization, the Guadalajara cartel. As kingpin Félix Gallardo's spawn of growers and dealers blossomed, so did the U.S.'s efforts to prevent narcotics from reaching American soil.

The cartel's rise to fame and the Drug Enforcement Agency's extreme measures to stop it will be heavily detailed in the first season of Narcos: Mexico—the latest installment of the streaming network's Narcos franchise. The series uncovers the true story of the cartel, its leader and the unsung hero whose bravery and resilience helped shape the DEA and the war on drugs, Kiki Camarena, played by Michael Peña.

Just as fans saw in the first Narcos, which followed Colombian drug lord Pablo Escobar for three seasons, Narcos: Mexico won't lack in blood and tragedy. Peña, who previously embodied Mexican-American civil rights activist Cesar Chavez in the 2014 namesake biopic, noted the role of Camarena didn't come without its challenges, including some particularly eerie feelings he experienced while filming some of Camarena's most excruciating moments suffered at the hands of the Guadalajara cartel.

Narcos: Mexico debuts on Netflix on Friday. Check out Newsweek's interview with Peña below.

How did you get involved in the project?

Eric Newman, the showrunner, approached me about three, maybe four years ago and said, "Hey, we're thinking about a Narcos Mexico, and it's in a completely different place, a completely different cast." He told me about the character Kiki Camarena, he went through what he did for the war on drugs, especially early on. Needless to say, I was pretty excited at the possibility of portraying this man.

Did you feel any pressure taking on the role of an actual person compared to a fictional character?

I didn't, just because it wasn't like I was playing somebody that everyone knew so well. Any type of research I did basically said the same thing about him. No one knew much about Kiki. All the books and the articles that were written about him were after he passed. People would say what they thought of him or what happened, but no one actually interviewed the guy himself while he was alive. I wanted to find out what made the guy tick, and I did a lot of research and thank God I spoke with Mika [Camarena, Kiki's wife]. What she was able to tell me was that he was a guy that just wanted to do good. He was a Marine. He worked locally. He was a police officer, and then he became part of the DEA. He was the kind of guy who just wanted to keep the streets safe. He saw the possibility and the signs of an empire being built—this narcotics empire—and he wanted to put an end to it because he saw what it could possibly become.

Was there anything you were shocked to learn about him during your research?

Just the way he went undercover and put himself in situations where there was a lot of potential danger and having to act on certain things was fascinating to me. I do this for a living. I act. I pretend. But his stakes were much higher. Like he did it and he was facing life and death.

Some of the shots from the trailer hint at the danger he faced. How was it filming those scenes?

It's an eerie feeling I have to say. Here I am, an actor portraying this guy, and I know everything he went through because of what the writers have given me. At the end of the day you know you're pretending, but when you get on set and you have to portray the kind of things that he went through and you're involved...it doesn't leave you with a great taste in your mouth to know that the Mexican government looked the other way at times. It was part of a cover-up. It was unwanted press at the time for them. You're just in awe when you read this and realize what happened to Kiki.

Why do you think people are so fascinated with the Guadalajara cartel or stories about any cartel for that matter?

To be honest with you, it's a really just the universal theme of the good guy versus bad guy kind of thing, and I think that's something that's always gonna be around. If you look at the 1970s and the fascination with the mob, The Godfather, and then Goodfellas in the 80s and things like that—that's what was on the news. John Gotti was apprehended and the mob bosses were going down. Then you found out how they actually did things, and that's when they became popular. So it's much of the same thing here [with Narcos: Mexico] with some of these guys being apprehended and people finding out the ins and outs of their story. It's a perfect story for drama.

In light of the death of location manager Carlos Munoz Portal, did you guys take any extra precautions while filming in Mexico?

We did, but it was what they were planning on doing anyway. They were planning on having guys come in and take care of us from the time we got off the plane in Mexico. Bodyguards and stuff. But to be honest with you, I felt pretty safe over there. I didn't feel like my life was ever threatened or anything.

What was the experience like working with Diego Luna?

The first time we worked together he directed me in Cesar Chavez, so it was really cool to see him as an actor instead of him telling me what to do all the time.

He didn't try to revive his director habits while you guys were filming?

No [laughs], he didn't try to direct me on this one. I wonder if he had the instinct to just be like, "Oh, if you could just do this one thing."

Have you seen the show yet?

Yeah. It's awesome. It's funny because you read the script but you never know how they're gonna cut it, what storylines they're gonna lean on. I think what the audiences are really gonna love is the really strong performance by these Mexican actors. These guys do a really, really good job with their characters. What's cool about Narcos is it's with some of the best Latin actors. The first seasons were the best Latin actors from Colombia, and now it's the best Latin actors in Mexico. These actors do bring something that nobody else can.

What are you hoping fans take from the Narcos: Mexico series?

It's meant to entertain, and it just so happens with everyone that I talk to. It starts a dialogue about what's going on with that country. To be honest with you, there's a lot to blame. There wasn't a huge presence of the DEA in the 1980s because it wasn't a huge cartel problem. They were stripping brown weed and stuff like that. Looking at that, no one thought there's gonna be some huge empire that one guy who just got on the job is going to build. The [DEA and Mexican government] could have done something about it long beforehand, but hindsight is always 20/20.