Luis Gerardo Méndez almost didn't get the role that has thrust him into the international limelight: an earnest but flawed police officer obsessed with the unsolved killings of young Mexican women amid drug cartel turf wars in the hit Netflix series "Narcos: Mexico."
After a successful audition and meetings with the show’s producers, a call from his agent interrupted his premature celebrations.
“They really love you, but they said you look like you just came out of a Pilates class; you’re too skinny for the role,” Méndez recounted. “I said, ‘Are you kidding me? I’m an actor, I can change my body. I don’t see the problem with that.’”
A determined Méndez pledged a full physical transformation to inhabit the role of Victor Tapia, a police officer in 1990s Ciudad Juárez trying to investigate a mounting series of killings of women amid brutal drug cartel turf wars, the dueling roles of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration and Mexican officials and the corruption and shortcomings of the criminal justice system.
“Being Mexican, all this hits differently,” Méndez, 39, said when asked about the emotional impact of his role.
‘A relevant tragedy’
"I grew up in the '90s, watching all these headlines about Cardinal Posadas Ocampo," Méndez said, referring to the shocking killing of a Roman Catholic cardinal who was caught in a crossfire as a cartel gang tried to kill drug lord Joaquín "El Chapo" Guzmán at the airport in Guadalajara, Mexico.
"But in the specific case of the women getting killed in Juárez, I think the creator of the show, Carlo Bernard, and the writers have done an extraordinary job," Méndez said. "The reason that this storyline is in the last season of 'Narcos: Mexico,' is to talk about the consequences of drug trafficking. I’ve been in conversations with friends in the U.S. and Europe about drug trafficking, and I hear, ‘Oh, they are killing each other because they decide to work in that business, that’s on them.’ And it is not exactly like that."
“Drug trafficking, violence and crime destroy the social fabric of the place,” Méndez said, describing what was taking place in Juárez as the drug wars intensified. “It’s not just about the people working in the business, but the women and families working around that universe, and that’s the reason we wanted to talk about this, because it is a relevant tragedy that still happens right now.”
In addition to the constant battles between drug cartels along the border, "Narcos: Mexico" delves into a dark, unresolved chapter in the history of Ciudad Juárez. In the 1990s, hundreds of young women and girls who worked at local factories were brutally murdered. Their bodies began to appear in the deserts surrounding the city across the border from El Paso, Texas. Many of the victims were teenagers. The crimes gained notoriety when a movement of local working women, at personal risk, began raising awareness of the issue and demanding answers.
A 2018 report published by Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights and the Center for Women’s Holistic Development said that from 1985 to 2014, more than 47,178 women were slain, with the only known motive being because they were women.
A recent report from Amnesty International explored the reasons these crimes have gone unpunished as well as Mexico's failure to prevent them. It cited several factors, including a lack of resources to follow even the most basic forensics protocols — something Victor, the police officer, grapples with on the show.
"As an actor, having the opportunity to put a voice to those events and to that incredibly painful tragedy is really moving," he said. "It’s not so hard to connect with those emotions because I see Victor Tapia as the eyes of the entire Mexican people realizing the storm that we are in right now and how hard it is to get out of that storm."
Becoming Victor Tapia
To become the modest but stubbornly driven police officer, Méndez underwent a deep physical transformation, gaining over 30 pounds. He recalled the mental challenges, constantly questioning the meaning of things, for a police officer in Mexico and for himself.
To find the right approach to the character, he said he spent weeks with his longtime acting coach debating concepts of right, wrong and integrity — themes explored in "Narcos" amid the messy realities of law enforcement, drug trafficking and government corruption.
The issue of integrity proved especially complex as he fleshed out his role of a police officer deep in drug trafficking territory, doing what he had to do despite trying to make a difference.
Méndez worked with a second coach to refine the physicality of Victor.
"I never talk about this part of the process, but there’s an acting coach that works with you to find an animal that helps you physically build the role, and we found this gorilla," he said. "That was the energy we wanted for Victor Tapia. If you look closely, the way he walks and moves his hands might give it away."
Méndez also spoke at length to a police officer who worked in Juárez in the late '90s, the time at which "Narcos" is set.
"I spent hours on the phone with him," Méndez said. "He shared all these stories and things that happened to him, and he inspired the accent of Victor Tapia, a very unique accent by the way, but it's the exactly the way this guy talked to me over the phone."
Méndez also drew inspiration from what he observed as a child. He explained that his late father, a doctor, worked closely with Mexican police officers in the '90s.
"I knew the way these cops act, what they look like, how they behave," Méndez said. "I immediately got the point."
A childhood love
Méndez said he always knew he belonged in the spotlight and the world of film. He said he remembers making movies and building sets as a child with his little brother and cousin using Playmobil toys. He said he still gets that playful feeling on a movie set.
"It’s the same thing we were doing when we were kids," Méndez, who's now one of the most praised actors in Mexico, said. "Different budget, of course! I think that’s fascinating. When you are a kid and you connect with something, and you love what you do, things just happen sometimes."
Méndez has his own production company, which is creating content for Paramount+ Latin America, including "Los Envíados," a series created by Oscar-winning director Juan José Campanella. Méndez will also star in John Hamburg’s upcoming comedy "Me Time," along with Kevin Hart and Mark Wahlberg.
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