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It’s easy to see why Josh Hutcherson’s naïve Canadian surfer so willingly moves into first the orbit and then the inner circle of Colombian drug lord Pablo Escobar after his new girlfriend introduces him to her notorious uncle in actor-turned-filmmaker Andrea Di Stefano’s evocative feature debut Escobar: Paradise Lost. The kingpin is charismatic and charming, on the surface a true man of the people. It is only gradually that the young man sees what is behind the amiable mask and what he discovers is horrifying. Benicio Del Toro delivers an indelible performance as Escobar, an intricate turn that reveals the complex man behind the headlines. Getting the Oscar winner was a coup for the fledgling director, but as Del Toro explains in this interview at the 2014 Toronto International Film Festival where Escobar: Paradise Lost had an early screening, it almost didn’t happen. But once it did, it gave Del Toro the opportunity to get under the skin of one of the 20th century’s most infamous villains.

Q: Escobar kind of reminded me of Michael Corleone in this, lethally charming and absolutely lethal.

Benicio Del Toro: That’s cool. I take that as a compliment. We love Al Pacino.

Andrea Di Stefano, the director, contacted me a long time ago, through other lines, not directly, and I kind of said, ‘I don’t know if I want to get into that right now.’ So then the project was floating around and it came back around. I had befriended Josh, because I directed a short in the movie 7 Days in Havana and Josh starred in it. So there was talk, ‘Could this movie be a possibility? Yes.’ And then I remember getting a phone call saying that they were looking at Josh to play the kid, and then I got really excited, because I know him and I like him very much and he’s a very good actor. I just felt like I wouldn’t be completely alone there. That was really exciting.

Q: What was your hesitation about the project when it first came around?

BDT: First of all, it was that the story was fiction. I think at the time, maybe it was a year before we shot the film, I just didn’t feel—sometimes you get projects and you think, ‘Oh, they’re going to do this movie about Escobar, but, really, it’s another story using Escobar.’ Also, at the time, I was maybe busy doing something and just said, ‘I’m not going to do this now. I’m not really completely interested.’ But then my meeting with Andrea Di Stefano, what I really liked about the idea of going fiction was that every chance you got to base the character on truth, we would, and the script does have that, also. Once I got into it, I said, ‘There are interesting angles here that would make it more interesting than just make-believe.’ There’s a lot of things about his relationship with his family, his relationship with the people…Everything that we could, we based it on truth, which was exciting. The script had that and we brought in a little bit more, perhaps.

Q: Given those fictional aspects, how deep did your research go into the actual man?

BDT: I did as much as I could, just to really understand his trajectory. He basically starts—he was bringing in goods from somewhere, it wasn’t drugs at the time. He basically did some sort of union with the workers. He said, ‘We’ll pay you a percentage of what we bring in.’ So all the workers started loving the guy. So he starts like that and eventually he gets more powerful and then he took it to another level and made it really crazy when he went political. He tried to run for office and the other politicians started saying, ‘This guy’s a drug dealer.’ He saw the people that ran the country like other gang members. He declared war on the country and he won, and then it was hell. And there were other gangs taking advantage of this and other drug dealers taking advantage and it just became really gray. Had he not run for office, I think he would probably still be alive and Colombia would not have gone through the hell it went through. But, who knows?

Q: His ambitions were understandable. Politics can be such a dirty business that he probably thought, ‘Why not a drug dealer? Why not me?’

BDT: Well, ‘Why not me? I’ve helped the poor and you been running this for how long? 100 and some years and you haven’t looked at these people and I just built a whole neighborhood here for the poor.’ The people really liked him, because he really gave back. But he ain’t all good! He’s definitely a talented man. He was a great example of a lot of talent gone the wrong way.

I think you’re right when you say, ‘Politics is a dirty business. Another dirty guy, there’s no difference.’ And that’s not true. Two wrongs don’t make a good one—if the politicians he was talking about were wrong, because there were a lot of good politicians that he killed that could have been the hope [of the country]. Actually, the one who said, ‘He’s a drug dealer,’ was the one who had not completely taken bribes from him, and so Escobar went after him and took him down. And then the press, he went after the press. If you were a writer, ‘If you don’t write a good article about me, you’d be careful, I’ll perm my hair and come after you.’ He was like that. It’s very scary. That’s how he looked at it, but he did have some beautiful family values, very much like Michael Corleone. It’s kind of like the same story, just come up and suddenly have power. The lack of being able to give in could make any person in power into a Godzilla. Without compromise, you could just turn into a terrible dictator and run amok. Who knows? With his anger and his strive towards power, he probably could have turned into a maniac had he won and ran the country. Who knows what he would have done?—Pam Grady