The Swedish actor plays the real-life Cali Cartel informant

Warning: This post contains spoilers about season 3 of Nacros, released on Netflix Friday. Proceed with caution.

On the third season of Netflix’s cops-versus-cartel drama Narcos, the story turns its attention towards a new organization: the Cali Cartel. And as the season goes on, it becomes clear that one man is at the center of all this drama: Jorge Salcedo, the real-life cartel informant played by Swedish-born, Spanish-heritage actor Matias Varela.

We spoke to the relative unknown (in America, at least) about his big role, his career (which involved a stint in construction work), and how he so masterfully got into his character’s head. Tip: Tie your shoe laces so tight that your feet hurt. (Note: You can read our exclusive interview with the real Jorge Salcedo here.)

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: So you were a relative unknown in the U.S., and now you’ve got a starring role in Narcos. How did that come about, and how did it feel when you got the part?
MATIAS VARELA: I watched the show as any other viewer, as a fan. I thought it was amazing. When I got the role, it was like winning a lottery ticket, I couldn’t believe it. It took me a couple of days to understand that it was actually happening, because I was such a fan of the show. I watched the show twice. It was incredible, and I didn’t think it was going to happen.

Your character Jorge Salcedo is really the crux of the new season. When you first took the job, did you know you would be such a big part of the show?
They told me that it was a big character, and that it came with a lot of responsibilities as an actor. But I’m a very critical person by nature, so I just thought they told me this to make me feel good, kind of. I didn’t realize it would be such a meaty part to dive into. There are so many actors and storylines and characters on the show, so I thought to myself, I’ll just do my best job and hope it doesn’t end up on the cutting floor! Because sometimes that happens.

Credit: Juan Pablo Gutierrez/NETFLIX

Your character really stands out on the show. What sets him apart from everyone else?
The most crucial part of his existence is that before he comes into the cartel hierarchy, he was somewhat of a more successful person. As opposed to the other gangster characters, he has two degrees. He’s a scholar, an educated man. His father is a general, so he hasn’t lacked anything during his upbringing. He doesn’t come from poverty, which is usually the case for most people in the drug trade. So he’s a little different from the other guys. And he ends up in the situation he ends up by his own choice, which I think is very interesting to portray.

Did you meet or talk to the real Jorge Salcedo?
I did not get to talk to the real man, because he is in witness protection and is inaccessible. [Laughs] That said, there is a wealth of information both through literature — like his own book — plus, of course, tons of information on the internet about that era and, of course, on him and his particular part in this cartel. So there’s tons of information, and I tried to learn as much as I could.

You took a role that could’ve been a little over the top but performed it with restraint. Tell me about how you decided to approach the role.
I thought it was important to make him human but not flamboyant. I felt that there was a responsibility in a way that I haven’t felt before because this is a real person. This is not a fictional character. I felt a responsibility to honor the fact that he is a real person, and because there’s a lot of people around who still know him, because this wasn’t that long ago. So that really made me sharpen up my tools.

And the most important [way] for me to enter the character was trying to find the humanity of the character, the empathy. So whenever the character would ask him to do henchman-like things, I wanted to show the audience how difficult it was for him to do, even though he needed to do it. I wanted him to always seem slightly uncomfortable. When I tied my shoes, I made sure they were too tight so my feet hurt a little bit every time. It was to remind me that he was in a very bad predicament, because he was never really that comfortable.

He goes through a lot this season. What was the hardest scene for you to shoot?
Physically the most demanding scene was when he almost wound up getting killed by the cartel, when he gets the plastic bag that Miguel puts his over his head. That was a really tough scene! It was a real plastic bag, so physically it was very demanding. We did a bunch of takes. It was really tough. It was really hard to breathe! So before takes, I would be gasping, trying to catch my breath. But everyone on set was really respectful of the fact that it’s tough to act with a plastic bag over your head.

So you’re a Swedish actor with Spanish roots. Tell me about how your career has gone – are there challenges of finding roles back in Sweden?
When I started my career, I had a very long hiatus. I did a part when I was 19 or 20 in a Swedish soap opera, but the contract didn’t get renewed. So I ended up on my ass. I had to get a normal job, so I ended up in the construction business for a very long amount of time. So I was in construction for eight to nine years. At that time there were not so many characters in Swedish movies for people of other ethnicities. So it was quite difficult for me to become an actor, because there weren’t so many parts for somebody who wasn’t of Scandinavian heritage.

But then in that time a book came out that was very popular in the Scandinavian region. Like a lot of people, I read it. They made a movie out of it, and I thought, man, the character Jorge Salinas would be perfect for me. So I convinced the director to give me an audition. He gave me eight! He must’ve thought I was really bad. But he ended up giving me the part, and that’s how my career got started.

Narcos is a huge show internationally. Is it starting to hit you as an actor, given how big this is?
It is starting to dawn on me. [Laughs] This is the first time on the international circuit that I have a part that is big enough for people to judge. I did Google myself, against better judgment. And I found that some reviews have come out, and they’re really positive about the entire season. So that makes me really happy. That’s as far as I’ve gotten. That said, I just got to Bogota for the premiere, and I was looking at the list of press I’d be meeting with. And it definitely got my pulse racing for sure. I didn’t even know there were so many countries! So that makes it all feel more real, for sure.

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