Narcos: Mexico’s Michael Peña reveals the advice Kiki Camarena’s widow gave him
“I don’t consider myself a terribly funny person,” Michael Peña tells me, as we sit to talk about Narcos: Mexico in Bilbao.
If you’ve seen a film Michael Peña has appeared in, it doesn’t matter what Peña himself thinks—the man can make you laugh. From Ant-Man (2015) to American Hustle (2014), there aren’t many scenes that Peña didn’t steal.
He may not think he’s funny, but that doesn’t mean he doesn’t know he’s trying.
“In all of my parts, I try to put in a lot of humor. I guess that’s what I’m known for now. When I study scripts, I rehearse in my head, play it out and play it out, and think, oh, this might be funny. Comedy and humor are two completely different things. Comedy is when you’re obviously going for a joke, and humor is more observational and very real—the way people are in real life,” says Peña.
In Narcos: Mexico, now streaming on Netflix, Peña plays DEA Agent Kiki Camarena, a real-life agent whose story became legend in the long, ongoing story of the US law enforcement battle with the cartels. Fans of the show will remember that even in the Escobar seasons of Narcos, Camarena was mentioned, both as a hero and a cautionary tale.
Camarena and Peña are very different people. To play him, he had to drop the humor entirely.
“There’s no room for it in this one. I think it’s too fast of a pace. When I did try it, it didn’t feel natural—it felt forced.”
The role proved challenging, especially Camarena is not still alive for him to learn from, and there is not much material out there available for Peña to pour over.
“Everyone that I interviewed and everything I read about the guy was always second hand, because they never interviewed the man himself,” says Peña.
To get a sense of who the man was, Peña went to the person who knew him best—his widow.
Who better to sum it up than Mika Camarena?” Peña says.
“What was that like?” I ask.
“She’s strong individual to be honest with you. She was very supportive. The man went through some terrible times at the end of his life being tortured and killed and she was able to stay strong through that,” he says.
Peña was in awe of the both of them.
“He almost seems like a superhero in a way where you don’t find many people in today’s world who are out to get the bad guy so the good people can live in peace. He joined the military, was a firefighter, and he was always a man of service—just very dedicated. That’s another reason I couldn’t apply as much humor as I wanted to.”
“I asked him what made the guy tick, and she said, you know what, it was simple. He just wanted to get the bad guy. As an actor you tend to overthink things, but I think that was really the driving force,” Peña says.
What happened to Camarena, Peña thinks, is that he pushed too far himself because he didn’t get enough support from those above him.
“It reminds me a bit of Apocalypse Now how Martin Sheen’s character was looking at Marlon Brando’s character. He became obsessed because he was telling people what was going to happen. Kiki was telling people that he saw the vision of this empire being built, he saw the signs, and the consequences of it, and nobody would believe him. When nobody believes you and it’s in plain sight you can get obsessed rather easily.”
Born in Chicago to Mexican immigrant parents, Peña was never really aware of what was occurring south of the border with the cartels.
Camarena, too, was a Mexican American. According to showrunner Eric Newman, that was a key part of what drove him.
“Kiki Camerena felt this obligation to go down to Mexico to fight something that was tarnishing the reputation of his people,” says Newman.
For Peña, Narcos: Mexico opened his eyes to a world he was nearly entirely unfamiliar with, because unless you really go looking, you won’t learn much from American media.
“I’m not a very political guy. All you see is the tip of the iceberg, you know what I mean? You don’t see all the history and the domino effect of you changing one thing. The cartels, in order to exist, had to have a lot of complacency. There are a lot of moving parts, which is why it’s a great subject for drama on a TV show because so many things have to happen for this empire to be built. It can be brutal sometimes. You can really go into a dwindling spiral of knowledge,” Peña says.