Luis Gerardo Méndez was a young man growing up in Aguascalientes when the events portrayed in Narcos: Mexico were on the local news. The son of a doctor who worked in a Mexican police station, he was aware of the crimes of the drug cartels in his country and experienced the response they had on his community. When he was offered a role on the final season of the hit Netflix series, he took the opportunity.
"This season in particular hits close," says Méndez. On the show, he plays Victor Tapia, a Juarez police officer in the 90s who begins investigating the disappearance of a local girl. Although the character is fictional, its plot is based on the real murders of countless young women in the city at the time. "The situations and criminals portrayed are still relevant," he says. "We all worked hard to be as sensitive, respectful and authentic as possible."
Although Méndez was naturally slim, he gained 25 pounds to look more like a Juarez cop at the time. Men’s Journal spoke to the Mexican actor about the two-year process involved in making the final season of Narcos: Mexico.
Courtesy of Netflix
Men's Journal: What did you think when Narcos first landed on Netflix?
Luis Gerardo Méndez: I was a huge fan before I joined the cast. It's my favorite Netflix show since that first season, with Wagner Moura as Pablo Escobar. I was blown away by the exceptional camera work and also thrilled to see so much incredible Latino talent in a production that had so much studio support. It's so exciting for me now to have a role on a program that I respect so much. The show is explosive and of course has all this incredible filmmaking. But it also affects what was going on politically, socially and economically – and still is.
Narcos: Mexico deals with topics that are still very topical. How familiar were you with these storylines?
This final season is about all of these headlines that I saw on the news in Mexico in the 90s – with politicians getting killed and all these crazy things that happened. But with this show, even I get a deeper understanding of all the elements and politics that went on behind the scenes.
The stories on this show are very much based on the reality of the time. For example, my own character this season is this policeman who finds all these young women murdered in Juarez, where he is stationed. That was a big story in Juarez back then – and it's still happening, by the way. Ten women are killed every day in Mexico.
This started in the 1990s due to all of the drug cartel activity. There were no consequences because the police were so busy elsewhere. Narcos: Mexico doesn't just show the bad guys in action and the explosions. It also explains the consequences of everything – including the consequences of consumption. If you smoke weed in California, you won't harm anyone. But if you do use cocaine you need to know what some people did to get this product there.
How did you find out about this role and that they wanted you?
The producers of Narcos: Mexico called me two years ago to offer this lead role for the final season. Of course, I was really excited when they told me I was perfect for the character. I went home partying with lots of mezcal with all my friends, and about two hours later my agent calls to tell me they wouldn't use me for the role. They thought I was great, but I looked too fit – like I just got back from a Pilates class.
They said I don't really look like a cop who worked in Juarez, Mexico in the 90s. I thought, "Are you kidding me?" I started pleading with them, telling them that I would do whatever it took and that I could change my body. If necessary, I would just increase the weight.
They said, "Are you sure?" Yes, I was sure of it. So I was able to convince them. They never gave me a number – but I can tell you I gained about 25 pounds. Maybe more.
Courtesy of Netflix
How did you go about gaining weight?
I knew I needed professional help in gaining weight. t wanting to destroy my body, I spoke to a couple of nutritionists and trainers to get as much information as possible first. Then I started eating about 7,000 or 8,000 calories a day – a little more than my usual 2,000. There was a lot to eat. At first, it's fun to eat all of the ice cream, pasta, and pizza. But after four days it's over. I ate a lot more of what I would normally eat. I also drank these 2,000 calorie shakes between meals.
When I signed up, of course, I thought I would only have to go on like this for six months. But then the pandemic came and it lasted a year and a half. I was locked up in Tulum and ate everything I could get my hands on. I usually take good care of myself so it was a really interesting and challenging experience – seeing what this type of weight and constant eating can do to your psyche. As for my character, I wanted to make sure I could portray the burden on my soul. Every night this guy walks into a dangerous world with all this economic pressure on him.
The character also has to throw people around and gets a decent dose of action. What kind of physical exercise did you do other than calorie intake?
I put myself through a pretty serious exercise regimen because it was about gaining as much mass as possible. This cop is not just any bitch. He's a tough guy who can handle himself and has a few extra pounds to do the job. I made a boxing movie a couple of years ago that really taught me how to punch properly. This time I did it with a different type of body so I had to make adjustments.
Did you undergo technical training in tactics while preparing for the role of police officer?
There is a huge security team that is always on set with us. Since we are surrounded by experts, ex-military and security forces, they were able to teach us how to shoot weapons, bazookas and everything else. Some of them were Israeli army. You helped us with all of this tactical training. Even my driver on set was a former cop in Mexico. He also gave me advice and tips.
How did you explore your character after getting the physicality right?
Each character requires a different type of investigation, but lately I've found that my process requires tracking that actual person in real life. It's not the only way I do it, but it's my favorite way of seeing someone like this in person. Then I study them, learn how to think, move and speak. I did that for this series. I went to Juarez with some friends to find this person – and eventually found them.
This guy was a working cop in the 90s when this all happened. I spoke to him at length to understand his motivations these days and to learn from his own experiences. For example, there were times when he received money in an envelope from someone he did not know. He took the money – which meant he would do whatever had to be done if the bad guys called him over the radio. While I was talking to him, I also tried to make out his accent – because he is a very special one.
In addition to this character, I was able to bring something from my father's life into the role. When I was growing up, he was a doctor who worked in the police force.
Were you able to talk to your father about the role and learn more about his own experiences back then?
I had the opportunity to speak to my father about this role before he died. In a way, this character is an ode to him because I ended up looking just like him on the show. My father acted much like him too. Although he was a police doctor, there were times when he was forced to cross the line as well – go to cells, for example, to beat people who misbehaved.
Once, he told me, he was on a night shift in the station and heard voices coming from one of the cells. They were cops talking about how they were going to rob a bank. My father heard everything but pretended he didn't. Two days later there was a major bank robbery in my hometown. It was a complicated time. You had to know how to handle yourself without getting killed.
Juarez officer Tapia (Méndez) sets off at the border with DEA agent Breslin (Scoot McNairy). “We actually have the same acting coach,” says Méndez. Courtesy of Netflix
You share a great scene with Scoot McNairy, who was one of the main characters last season. What was it like to join the crew and work with them?
Scoot is a fantastic actor. I remember being so impressed with his work in Argo too. We didn't have too many scenes together, but the first one is important. These two guys are across the border in law enforcement – one of them works for the DEA, the other is a cop in Juarez – but they have some very similar fights. Scoot came to my house here in Mexico City and we could rehearse and work on the lines together. We actually have the same acting coach, so there are some similarities in our process.
t only do we have great actors this season, we also have incredible directors. One of them is Wagner Moura, whom everyone knows from his role as Pablo Escobar in the Colombian seasons.
Moura also went through a body modification to gain weight. Did you even have the chance to discuss that?
I remember when we met on set – with the masks and everything. He came over and gave me a hug. I could see it in his eyes. He just said, "Dude, I sympathize with you." He told me it would be torture to get rid of it too. He also told me that I would never go through this again.
Was he right?
I have to say that so far I would agree. I don't think I'll ever want to do this to my body again. Maybe I'll build real muscle and enjoy the healthier way of doing it.
Moura used a vegan diet to lose weight. What was your own process?
The first thing I tried was the keto diet and it really didn't work for me. I learned a lot during this process – mainly that you need to figure out what works for you. t every diet out there is going to give you the right results. I also tried intermittent fasting, which also didn't work because I'm a very active person. I always film something, produce something and run my mezcal brand Ojo de Tigre.
In the end, I did the long road – counting calories and macros. In Venice, where I now live, I combined a stripped-down diet with high-intensity exercise, cardio, and lots of long runs. I would go into the sea for a long time too.
How does it feel to be on such a popular show where people actually speak your native language?
Speaking Spanish on a show like this one is a dream. I've been filming in the United States for the past few years. I enjoy playing in English too, but it's a completely different universe. At the end of a long day of shooting in English, I'm simply exhausted because I don't just act, I have to think differently. It feels right to write stories like this in our language. I wouldn't say it is easy, but it feels more natural and deeply connected.
Narcos: Mexico is now available on Netflix.
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