In 'Sergio,' 'Narcos' star Wagner Moura plays a Latino who doesn't 'reinforce stereotypes'

At a recent film panel, "I kind of had to study how Latinos are seen in Hollywood," Moura says. "It's pretty bad."
Wagner Moura and Ana de Armas appear in "Sergio" by Greg Barker, an official selection at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival.
Wagner Moura and Ana de Armas appear in "Sergio" by Greg Barker, an official selection at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival.Courtesy of Sundance Institute

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By Monica Castillo

PARK CITY, Utah — Brazilian actor Wagner Moura has now played two men who were known around the world — though they couldn't be more different.

One was the drug kingpin Pablo Escobar in the hit series "Narcos," which made Moura a household name. In the upcoming film 'Sergio," which premiered this week at Sundance, Moura plays the top United Nations envoy in Iraq, Sergio Vieira de Mello, who was killed in an August 2003 massive terrorist bombing that destroyed the U.N. headquarters there and killed 22 people. Like Moura, Vieira de Mello was Brazilian.

“Sergio” explores a number of the challenges the Brazilian diplomat faced in his career spanning 30-plus years. Director Greg Barker’s narrative feature debut adapts the documentary he made on Vieira de Mello a decade ago.

Moura was so intrigued by Vieira de Mello’s story that he signed on as a producer for the movie. In an interview with NBC News, Moura said this is the first of many stories he’d like to share to address the lack of Latinos on the screen. Below is the edited and condensed interview.

Moura: Sergio is kind of known in Brazil, but not as much as he should be. This guy is kind of a personal hero for me, and I’ve been working with the U.N. for a while; I'm a goodwill ambassador for the ILO [International Labour Organization] and the fight against slave labor.

My life has been divided into acting and human rights, so Sergio was something of a strong model for me — he was a man who dedicated his life to human rights. When he was killed, he was the high commissioner for human rights; when he started in the U.N., he was the high commissioner for refugees. He had this strong connection with people that were living in very bad conditions.

I came from a very poor city in the north called Rodelas. I grew up witnessing many bad cases of human rights violations. The crazy thing is that when I was a kid, and I was living there and witnessing that extreme poverty, I grew up thinking many of those things were normal.

When I look at world leaders nowadays — and he was a world leader and was supposed to be the next secretary-general after Kofi [Annan] — I don't see anyone looking at people with that kind of previous experience.

NBC News: What convinced you to produce the film?

Moura: This started with an ambitious idea to produce films about Latinos that don't reinforce stereotypes, especially after having played Pablo Escobar. It’s not that I’m trying to purge or to get rid of [that] – I’m very proud of “Narcos.” It's very important to raise attention on the drug trade, and I'm going to direct the next season of “Narcos” in Mexico now, so I’m still attached to that.

[But] I was in a panel about representation, and I kind of had to study how Latinos are seen in Hollywood. It's pretty bad. Not only are we like 5 percent of the characters — it's not only about the amount of Latinos in the films but the way they are shown in these films.

It's either the sexy Latina or the bad dude. We're a big part of the American population. It's a gigantic community that deserves to be well-represented. I want to make films where I can speak with this accent and be whatever I can be.

NBC News: Did you have any input on the script?

Moura: Greg Barker built a very strong structure where the relationship of Carolina (Vieira de Mello's partner, economist Carolina Larriera, played by actress Ana de Armas) and Sergio was really strong. But I thought the political side of the film could be more descriptive, go a little further with the importance that Sergio had in Iraq and what he was about to do, which was to release that dossier about the human rights violations. Greg Barker and I together brought the film more to the political side to balance that with the love story.

NBC News: Your directorial debut is about the story of a Brazilian writer, “Marighella.” Are there more stories you want to tell from Brazil or Latin America?

Moura: I've been working as an actor since I was 15. I was always very picky in terms of what I'm going to do: 'What's the meaning of this?' 'Why am I'm doing this?' I understood really quickly that my career in the U.S. is full of no's – 'I don't want to do this,' which drives my agents crazy. I have at least 10 projects to produce, like documentaries or shows that I want to produce — to act, to direct, or to bring talent from Brazil, Mexico, people that I love that I want to bring to do things here (in the U.S.)

NBC News: Since you travel away from Brazil a lot, how do you stay on top of everything that’s happening?

Moura: My film, “Marighella,” that I directed was censored in Brazil. We now have a release date, but the film premiered in Berlin in 2019, a year ago. So since 2019, we haven't been able to release this film in my country. You can see how bad things are in Brazil. People compare Bolsonaro with [President Donald] Trump; I go like, "You guys are crazy.' Here in the U.S., the institutions are so strong, the democracy here is so solid. Trump cannot do whatever he wants.

“Sergio” will premiere on Netflix on April 17.

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