A storm cloud opened up over Central Park on the night of June 16, 2014, drenching the 1,800-or-so theatergoers who had packed the DeLacorte Theater to see director Jack O’Brien’s take on Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing. But a certain sect of those in attendance were no ordinary Shakespeare in the Park devotees, inspired by something stronger than inclement weather, who after the play eagerly clutched not playbills but glossy photos of Oberyn Martell, the “Red Viper,” who just a week prior came to his skull-crushingly violent end on HBO’s fantasy mega-hit, Game of Thrones. That night, the villainous Don John would be played by the man behind Oberyn Martell, Pedro Pascal, who even then at 39 was still coming to terms with superstardom. “That was my second time doing Shakespeare in the Park, but the first time I even had a couple lines. And a speech!” Pascal, who has lived in New York for more than 20 years, remembered recently with an Oberyn-esque grin.
“I felt the reaction to Oberyn pretty instantly, with people coming to see Much Ado and waiting afterwards with pictures from Game of Thrones. It was cool to just kind of have strangers start smiling at you or give you the thumbs up on the train. I was lucky to be in New York and see it unfold in the city that I had lived in for so long and really feel its impact. It’s something I’ll never forget, actually.”
The actor and I were sitting in a cavernous, multiroom apartment that, did it not overlook Gramercy Park, could be mistaken for a set straight out of Thrones (the couple who owned it, an elderly broker and his wife, were thankfully more Stark than Lannister). Through the doors to our left was a massive stone fireplace, visible from the Winterfellian oak table in the dining room, past which was a bathroom with a floor made up of exactly 4,613 pennies. An interesting location for an interview, I remarked, as we settled in a side foyer completely filled with hundreds of oil paintings.
“Interesting is definitely one of the words,” Pascal replied, eyeing the two food bowls lying on the ground next to us. As it turns out, even the Red Viper is allergic to cats.
But “interesting” is definitely a word to describe the career trajectory of Pascal himself, actually, a Tisch school of the Arts graduate who spent years as a prolific but relatively unknown theater-and-TV double threat, before his one-and-dead season of Game of Thrones catapulted his name into higher-profile roles, namely Netflix’s Narcos, currently in its second season. Pascal plays real-life DEA Agent Javier Peña who, along with his partner Steve Murphy (Boyd Holbrook), was embroiled in the years-long manhunt for Colombian drug-lord Pablo Escobar (Wagner Moura).
It was during rehearsals for Much Ado About Nothing that Pascal was offered the role of Peña, just days before Oberyn Martell was set to take on the colossal Gregor “The Mountain” Clegane in the seventh episode of Game of Thrones’ fourth season. “[Narcos executive producer] Eric Newman was simultaneously disappointed and gleeful when I told him I was available,” Pascal remembered. “He was excited I could play the part but disappointed he knew I’d be losing the fight to the Mountain.”
Since then, Pascal has been working nonstop, spending a mere 36 hours in L.A. after wrapping Narcos Season 1 before flying to Beijing to film Yimou Zhang’s The Great Wall. Then, back to Colombia for another season as Javier Peña—a grueling schedule, the actor was trying to describe to me but kept getting interrupted by buzz after buzz, message after message on the cell phone sitting in his lap. He eventually excused himself to look at the glowing screen.
“Oh, right, right. Of course. It’s because [Narcos Season 2] just premiered,” he said after a moment, putting the phone back on silent. “I was like, ‘What is this?’ My phone never goes off as much as this.”
There’s something about Pascal—maybe that he appeared on Late Night With Seth Meyers just the night before, or that he would be flying to Beijing the next morning for The Great Wall reshoots or simply that the exceedingly polite actor kept apologizing for how genuinely fatigued he seemed throughout our interview—which makes that statement hard to believe.
Pascal came to New York City in 1993, despite spending the bulk of his childhood in Orange County, California, raised by parents who fled the military dictatorship of their native Chile shortly after his birth. Finally, across continents and countries, an 18-year-old Pascal landed in NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts. “New York nearly killed me,” he says, laughing now, about his first days in the city. “I genuinely can’t believe I stuck it out.”
At this point, we’re just reminiscing—about a different New York, a whole different lifetime, with Game of Thrones and Narcos still decades away and a baby-faced Pascal getting his first “big get,” straight out of college in 1999, a part in Joss Whedon’s Buffy the Vampire Slayer that lasted roughly until the second commercial break. “Season 4, Episode 1,” Pascal yells, almost immediately. “I played Eddie. Poor, dead Eddie. Doesn’t even survive past his first week as a freshman.”
But it was the following years, spent pinballing between theater, the requisite one-off appearances on New York’s crime shows and, according to him, getting fired from “upwards of 20 restaurants as a waiter,” that keeps him grounded these days.
“I am a huge viewer. A voracious viewer,” he says. “I’m a moviegoer and a television watcher. So looking back now, I love having been on all the cop shows that shot in New York City, all the Law and Orders, The Good Wife, CSI…” He trailed off, leaving much unspoken: getting cast in a 2011 Wonder Woman pilot that never made it to air; a number of bit and ensemble parts Off Broadway and beyond throughout the 2000s; an appearance as “Goth Guy” in the 2001 TV movie Earth vs. The Spider. Say what you will, but the man hustled, even making time to get hooked on a rapidly growing HBO drama called Game of Thrones. He considered himself a fan when, in 2014, he walked into an audition for the series’ fourth season.
“I could see what was on the page, I knew the part I was getting, and it was obviously an opportunity to play a great, great part. So I knew, if I got this, right? It would change things for me.” He pauses, his dark eyes briefly lighting up at the memory. “And it did.”
Like the Eddies of Buffy the Vampire Slayer’s past, the hypersexual Dornish Prince Oberyn Martell wasn’t long for this world—only eight episodes in all, from the moment he was introduced opposite Peter Dinklage to the moment his head quite literally exploded—but the response from fans was palpable immediately. Gone was Pascal’s relative obscurity, replaced by rave reviews, massive ratings and no shortage of sexually explicit fan fiction. One of my very first assignments for this newspaper was writing about r/GayForOberyn, a forum on Reddit for straight men to parse out their lust for the character. “It didn’t feel natural to me at all,” he remembered, about the sheer level of attention. “Of course, I had never experienced that level of exposure, even though I’d been acting since I was 20 years old.”
That wave of attention has lasted far beyond Oberyn’s demise, a testament to Neflix’s reach. According to Pascal, he’s recognized on the street from playing Javier Peña just as often as he is from Thrones. A large part of it, putting aside the high quality of both series, is down to Pascal himself; he somehow plays a DEA agent with a similar, simmering but latent sexuality to Oberyn but toned down enough to feel grounded in reality. In a breakneck, often-graphic series like Narcos, Pascal still manages to be its pulse.
Taking the part of Oberyn, however, did not mean one day looking the flesh-and-blood character in the eye. “Originally, my time meeting Javier was less about getting information out of him: It was more like sharing a few beers or hanging out,” Pascal remembered. “Or talking about Game of Thrones.
“I don’t know what was in my hesitancy,” he continued. “It was probably shyness, in terms of never having played somebody who existed and who was alive and breathing and sitting right in front of me.” Over the course of two Narcos seasons, Pascal said, he’s since gotten Javier to open about his time in Colombia, hunting the most wanted man in the world. “A lot of the time the stuff he tells me is crazier than what’s on the show. We don’t have the budget for what happened in real life.”
He’s not wrong. About a year ago, just before the series premiere of Narcos, I met with the real-life Javier Peña and Steve Murphy—to this day the most chilling conversation I’ve ever had—to hear stories of a Colombia more dangerous than Westeros, during a time when both men had a $300,000 price tag on their heads. “Kidnappings were a common things,” Peña told me.
“There was always car bombs. There was poison at the mess hall. Escobar had dirty cops who would tell him what we were doing. In Medellin, you would have 30 to 50 people murdered every weekend that were all Escobar related.”
“You try and make yourself just an innocent bystander, because you’re just an actor playing a part, but you do have to let in that darkness to play the part as truthfully as you possibly can.”
To be even tangentially involved in this story, Pascal notes, is often sobering. “Being at the center of that kind of storytelling, it affects you,” the actor says. “You try and make yourself just an innocent bystander, because you’re just an actor playing a part, but you do have to let in that darkness to play the part as truthfully as you possibly can.”
Season 2 of Narcos picks up directly after Pablo Escobar’s escape from his lavish, custom-built prison, “La Catedral,” and doesn’t slow down throughout the ensuing manhunt that nearly destroyed Colombia. If Pascal is the series’ pulse, Wagner Maura as Escobar is its bleeding, bloody heart, the most magnetic, quietly intimidating performance you will see from someone who is also wearing a sweater. “I almost wish…” I began to say, before Pascal interrupts.
“Wish that we didn’t catch him and kill him at the end?” he says, which is a major spoiler for those without access to Google. But no, what’s truly unfortunate is that, due to the constraints of history’s narrative, Pascal and Maura never share a scene together. (Javier wasn’t even present the day the DEA finally caught up to Escobar.) “Oh, God, tell me about it,” Pascal sighs, “because Wagner is also one of the nicest people you’ll ever meet, and I unfortunately don’t intersect with him at all. That felt like a tragedy to me.”
One benefit, though, of Narcos’ often-hectic schedule? An opportunity for Pascal to catch up on the series that made him a star, Game of Thrones. Although, it seems, no one had broken the news to Oberyn Martell himself that the series’ return trips to his Dornish homeland were widely considered a letdown from fans and critics alike. “Is it?” he asked, wide-eyed and leaning forward. “Oh, no. I have to continue to support my lineage. My homeland.” I ask if, perhaps, he set the bar too high. “Are you trying to say I set my daughters up for failure?” He laughed. “I hope not.
“The fans are really disappointed in what’s been happening in Dorne?” he repeated, turning to look out at the blue New York sky, almost mock wistfully. Then he smiled, turning back, and all at once he’s Oberyn Martell again, if only briefly. “Well, I mean, you obviously have to give people time to get over a death like mine.”
Just three days before we met, feeling adrenalized and restless after appearing on The Late Night With Stephen Colbert, Pascal stepped out of his car onto 23rd Street and walked the rest of his trip back to Greenwich Village. First, he stopped in Washington Square Park, filled with students as the sun went down. “Around the same time I came here as an 18-year-old to start my freshman year at NYU,” he said, “I remember standing in that same spot.
“It wasn’t until I was just standing [in Washington Square Park] that I realized I had made it in a city that can devour you or make you. And there really is no in between.”
“I felt the two decades impact me in that moment. I was right here in this park all those years ago,” he continued. “So scared of the future, so doubtful that I could actually live the life that I wanted to live. And I’m not one to kind of speculate on these feelings or indulge these full-circle moments, but it wasn’t until I was just standing there that I realized I had made it in a city that can devour you or make you. And there really is no in between.”
I ask if there’s any difference between the Pedro Pascal in that moment in Washington Square Park, the one from the Comic Cons and the late night shows and the one sitting in front of me in a room filled with paintings and cat food. As a way of reply he simply shrugged, boyish: “There is a bit of a luxury to experiencing this amount of exposure not as a young man,” he said. “Because at this point, whether I like it or not, for better or worse…I am who I am.”
Since he is not one to indulge full-circle moments, I doubt Pascal noticed he had just essentially quoted, nearly word for word, a line from Much Ado About Nothing he once delivered, on a wet summer night in 2014, to a rain-drenched audience in Central Park: “I cannot hide what I am.”
Outside, in the sky over Gramercy, there wasn’t a cloud in sight.