Michael Kovac/Getty Images; Lifetime
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January 18, 2018 at 04:25 PM EST

In the new Lifetime movie Cocaine Godmother: The Griselda Blanco Story, Catherine Zeta-Jones transforms into the titular Colombian drug lord, who was linked to hundreds of murders in the 1970s and ’80s. The actress first learned about Blanco while watching the 2006 documentary Cocaine Cowboys, which featured interviews with individuals involved in the drug trade, many of them still in jail. “They kept mentioning this woman,” Zeta-Jones said. “Griselda, Griselda Blanco. And these men who were very dangerous and very powerful in that dark, dark, world were speaking of this woman like they revered her and still, after all these years, feared her.”

Zeta-Jones was surprised that she didn’t know more about Blanco. “We know about Escobar, we know about El Chapo now, we know about these key figures in this world,” she said, “but we never hear about this woman. Who is this woman?”

The actress had been working to develop a Griselda Blanco project for years before it finally found a home on Lifetime. “It was one of the most amazing experiences of my life as an actor,” Zeta-Jones said of portraying the famed cocaine queen-pin. “It instilled in me why I wanted to be in this business; it was never for the red carpet or sunglasses. For me, it was being a character, and to find those women and find those characters that I could really be under the skin of.”

Zeta-Jones, who is Welsh, also addressed her decision to play a character of a different ethnicity in Cocaine Godmother. (Her casting has drawn criticisms of whitewashing online.)

“This is just the way I see it, and people can take what they want from it: I am a Welsh actress, who doesn’t happen to look like what you think someone from Wales would look like,” she said. “I have my own language; I speak Welsh. And so, for me to wait for a role that is fit for the way I look physically, that is not a Welsh role, where I don’t use my accent—I never use my accent. Have you ever heard me use my accent that I’m speaking with right now?”

Zeta-Jones added, “This happens to be the third Hispanic I’ve played. I played the lead in Zorro, and I screen-tested with six Hispanic women, and I got the role. I don’t know what to say. And I was a complete unknown at this point; it wasn’t because I had a name or box-office value. Four of the actresses are my contemporaries to this day. I played a woman of Spanish descent in Traffic as well. I have to take [the roles] I believe I can embody. I can’t be the person to fight against a very big issue, and I won’t take on that role. There have been so many actors who have played ‘against type.’ That’s sort of what we do.”

The actress said she’s aware of the criticism Hollywood has faced when it comes to lack of diversity, and how far it has yet to go. “I’m all for diversity, and diversity across the board. Not just color, race, sex — everything. I want to see more diversity behind the camera. This is a white man’s business, and now, hard to believe after all of these years, we’re finally trying to break that glass ceiling.”

Cocaine Godmother: The Griselda Blanco Story premieres Friday on Lifetime at 8 p.m. ET.

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