Alberto Guerra on ‘Griselda’, Vintage Fashion, & The Enduring Appeal of True Stories

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Already a mainstay of Mexico’s entertainment industry, Cuban-born actor Alberto Guerra has reached new heights with his role in Griselda. The Netflix miniseries was inspired by the rise of Griselda Blanco (Sophia Vergara), a key player during the Miami Drug Wars of the 1970s and 80s. Per the opening credits, notorious drug lord Pablo Escobar once called Blanco “the only man I was ever afraid of.” Alongside chilling one-liners, the six-episode arc paints a stunning picture of old Miami, filling the screen with gritty glamour as it chronicles Blanco’s rise. Think: pastels and sunshine by day, gore and discord by night.

For Guerra, the role was a chance to build a fantasy. “We don’t know much about the characters,” he tells me, “you don’t know what they did on a day-to-day basis.” Still, the plot — Griselda’s ruthless ascent through criminal ranks, Dario’s desperation to save his family — are a piece of history. The miniseries performs a delicate dance between fiction and reality. It’s a historical narrative, to be sure, but not a biopic. Guerra finds this dichotomy to be a perk of the genre: “Audiences tend to look at history and try to find a way to make it entertainment,” he explains. We talked about Dario’s dazzling retro-laced wardrobe, the enduring appeal of true stories, and — in his opinion — why so many viewers connected with Griselda.

Photo by David Suarez.

How much did you know about the Blanco family and the Miami drug wars before the role?

Well, not much. I did have to do research for a previous show; it was called Narcos. I had to do research on the history of drug trafficking in Latin America, but we didn’t get to the point of the US, so I didn’t know much about it.

Once we started getting the scripts, I didn’t want to get involved into the whole historical, ‘real’ side of it. I wanted to keep to the characters that were written into this story. I think it helped, you know? As we were shooting the show, I was learning a lot about the history [drug trafficking] — what really happened and all of that — but I didn’t want to let the facts and history affect my work. I wanted to just start from scratch and build the character up.

“It’s our job to do good show, you know? We’re not doing a documentary. We wanted to take advantage of the time, the 70s and 80s. They were really glamorous times.”

Alberto Guerra

The aesthetic choices definitely develop the fantasy side, too. Being a period piece, you have a lot of 70s-inspired costume choices: bold prints and colours. What did you think about the style choices in the show?

Great! I think Andrés Baiz, the director, he did it all. He has a beautiful, really clinical eye when it comes to the details — the wardrobe, the cars that he wanted to use, the production design, the music of the show, the way he wanted to shoot, the work he did with Armando Salas, the photographer of the show, — it was beautiful.

Just because you’re telling the story of this… dark side of history, of modern history — for us and for the US as well — I don’t think you have to show it oddly. It’s our job to do good show, you know? We’re not doing a documentary. We wanted to take advantage of the time, the 70s and 80s. They were really glamorous times.

Alberto Guerra

We don’t know much about the characters, the real life people. We don’t know much about them in their private moments. We know what they did, what happened, and the chronological facts, but you don’t know what they did on a day-to-day basis. That’s why we were free to do these characters.

When I approached the character, I knew I wanted to get something that was sort of stylish, but would resemble this guy. He’s a monochromatic guy at the beginning, and he doesn’t take fashion too seriously. But then again, it’s the 70s, so everything you put on looks good when you look at it from today’s perspective, right?

Absolutely. We see that flashier side to Dario, especially when he’s with Griselda, and they’re coming on good times, making money. Then, he starts to tone it down a bit after they separate. Those costume choices correlated with his character development. Was that something you thought about?

Yeah, we definitely talked about that. I think it was about episode four — at the end of four, beginning of five — we have time lapse there. We wanted to redirect the character: he became softer, he was a dad, and he was worried about other things. He was enjoying not having to kill people anymore, because he didn’t want to. All of those things affect the way that he dresses.

We wanted him to have this feeling of the ‘new rich’ in the 80s in Miami. He starts to dress with silk shirts and starts wearing jewelry. There’s a big difference between what he became after they were successful, and what he was before.

“The beauty of building characters, and playing these roles, is that you’re playing people that think so differently from [yourself]. They’re not me, they don’t have to think like me, they don’t have to do anything that I consider ‘right.’”

Alberto Guerra

Are there particular periods that resonate with your personal style?

That’s a good question! I don’t know. Probably the 90s, early 2000s — you know, baggy pants and Vans and stuff like that. Now that I’m getting older, I’m starting to dress up a little bit more. I have a five year old son, and from time to time, he reminds me that I’m still dressing the same way that he is — and that’s not a good thing.

Alberto Guerra
Photo by David Suerez.

Well, the 2000s are back!

Yeah, they’re back [laughs]. There’s something with age where you begin to— you have two ways: you start worrying about how you dress, or you stop worrying about about how you dress. I find myself somewhere in the middle there. I still have to put on a suit now and then, [but] in my day-to-day, I love sandals and shorts. I grew up in the Caribbean, and I still have that in me even though I live in Mexico City. My wife keeps telling me “you can’t go out on the street in Mexico City dressed like you’re on a beach in the Caribbean.”

Grizelda deals with a lot of morally questionable actions. As an actor, how do you convey Dario’s human qualities alongside the high-crime plot?

You have to deal with it from an actor’s perspective; it’s not up to me to judge the character. I do understand what he does, and I do understand from my own human side that it’s wrong. It’s totally wrong, and it affects me as a human. As an actor, I can’t let it affect me, because it’s not up to me to judge it. I have to stand up for my character and I have to make it honest.

The beauty of building characters, and playing these roles, is that you’re playing people that think so differently from [yourself]. They’re not me, they don’t have to think like me, they don’t have to do anything that I consider ‘right.’ When you look at it like that, it doesn’t affect you that much. It affects me in a way that… I understand the difficulties that it has brought Latin America and the US, the entire world — all of this, the drug trafficking, and the war on drugs, and all of that — but it’s the same as thinking about politics. Every other major aspect of modern society affects us. It doesn’t especially affect me just because it’s drugs.

Alberto Guerra
Photo by David Suarez.

These true crime stories have reached a wide audience. Working on Narcos and now Griselda, why do you think the genre — these fictionalized versions of true stories — resonate so well today?

First of all, because they are happening. It’s part of our history. Audiences tend to look at history and try to find a way to make it entertainment. During the pandemic, for example, the United States had a million documentaries on on mass murderers and sociopaths and stuff like that. There’s something about the dark side of the human being that attracts us. I know I’m definitely attracted to it. I’m an actor, and I love to play [these roles] because we don’t get to let loose in real life. You have to control that dark side of the human condition. We all have it. It’s inside of us, all of us. No one is exempt from it.

When you have a [fictional story], you have a license to do all of these things that you’re not supposed to do in real life. As an audience [member], you have a license to watch all of these things that you’re not supposed to like, but it’s okay. This is for entertainment.

“It’s not a perfect beautiful world, so we can’t only have perfect, beautiful stories with happy endings. As long as you make it a good show, or a good movie, and as long as you’ve been respectful and truthful, it’s okay. You should be telling all of these stories. They’re an important part of our history.”

Alberto Guerra

I don’t think we should be judging entertainment for portraying reality as it is, you know? It’s not a perfect beautiful world, so we can’t only have perfect, beautiful stories with happy endings. As long as you make it a good show, or a good movie, and as long as you’ve been respectful and truthful, it’s okay. You should be telling all of these stories. They’re an important part of our history.

If you think about it, there’s a lot more stories about wars around the world; like World War One and World War Two, there’s a lot of stories, movies and shows about that. I think the major part is not glorifying that. If you get to see Narcos — or any other show that I’ve ever been involved in, at least — you can see that we’re not judging, we’re putting it out there. And you see how it ends for most people: you see drug dealing and you see drug abuse, and you see how all of these things turn out bad. There’s never a happy ending to any of that. So, we’re not glorifying it, but we tell the truth.

Alberto Guerra
Photo by David Suarez.

What do you think happens to a person when they’re dealing drugs and they’re making $300 million a month? For a little bit of time, it’s an amazing life with cars and stuff like that. But if you get to see the long run, it’s really hard for all of them.

Exactly. So you’d say it’s about the dangers of those lifestyles?

Exactly. And there’s another important part of it: if you take a look at Griselda — as a role, as a character, as a person — this is a woman that didn’t have any other tools in life. She did what she knew how to do: grab her kids and chase a dream of a better life.

She didn’t end up doing it, because the only thing she knew how to do was dealing with cocaine, with drugs. But if you look at it from that perspective, we can all agree that, I don’t know— we would probably all do whatever it took [to give] our three kids a better life.

Griselda is now streaming on Netflix.

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Jose Reber

Jose Reber is a professional writer based in Wisconsin. He guides editorial teams consisting of writers across the US to help them become more skilled and diverse writers. In his free time he enjoys spending time with his wife and children.

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