While Sofía Vergara was delighting millions of viewers for more than a decade as Gloria Pritchett on Modern Family, she was thinking about Griselda Blanco.
For 15 years, Vergara pored over the life of the woman known as the cocaine trade pioneer — who also earned the nicknames “The Godmother” and “The Black Widow” — for transforming the drug trade from Colombia to the United States, making her biggest mark in Miami, in the 1970s to the early 2000s.
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Narcos boss Eric Newman had also spent time thinking about Blanco. The executive producer behind Netflix’s hit drug cartel franchise says he always wanted to tell the Colombian queenpin’s story and even considered bringing her into the Narcos fold while working the flagship series and spinoff Narcos: Mexico.
“The challenge that I found immediately with Griselda [Blanco] is that her story is so compelling; she’s such an anomaly,” he tells The Hollywood Reporter. “She’s someone who needs some real explaining to understand, given how male-dominated that business is. She needed her own space, her own real estate separate from Narcos.”
So, Blanco never made an appearance in the Narcos universe, which ended its saga in 2021. Then, right as the final season of Narcos: Mexico was launching came the announcement that Newman, who has an overall deal with Netflix, would be teaming with Vergara on a Griselda Blanco project.
Vergara would not only executive produce with partner Luis Balaguer, but also step into the role of Blanco — making a dramatic turn for her first role since wrapping Modern Family. Along with Newman, Narcos creative team Doug Miro, Andrés Baiz and Carlo Bernard would also executive produce and Baiz would direct all six episodes.
“Sofía reaching out and wanting to be Griselda is sort of the impetus of this exploration. Her conviction, her passion, her need to do this, was infectious, and drove all of us,” says Newman in a chat with THR about the final result: Netflix’s six-episode limited series, Griselda, which is now streaming. Below, Newman goes behind the team’s creative decisions to transform Vergara into the cocaine Godmother, explains why he isn’t surprised the series got hit with a lawsuit before its release and has an interesting answer about pitching a narco story with a woman at the forefront.
You called Griselda a “cousin” to Narcos when first discussing the series with THR. You said it exists outside that franchise because it was Sofía’s passion project. Yet watching it, I found myself thinking that it was ripe for crossovers or cameos. Did you ever consider putting it in the Narcos universe?
As I’ve talked more about it during this release process, I’ve come up with what I believe is a better word for what it is. I don’t know that it’s a cousin as much as a descendant. And being able to bring some of my favorite people — like Andy Baiz and Doug Miro — into making Griselda, and being able to apply things that I learned making Narcos, certainly served me. I always wanted to do Griselda at some point in some way, whether bringing her into Narcos or doing our own version of it. The challenge that I found immediately is that her story is so compelling; she’s such an anomaly. She’s someone who needs some real explaining to understand, given how male-dominated that business is. She needed her own space, her own real estate separate from Narcos.
And so Sofía reaching out and wanting to be Griselda — which is sort of the impetus of this exploration — was the perfect point of departure. Like, “OK, great, we can move forward into what’s next for all of us as creators, give her her own platform and really do that story justice.” Where we’re not spending quite as much time on the geopolitics and the socioeconomics, and some of the things that we were bound when telling the Narcos stories. There’s no voiceover in this show; there’s no archival. And while there is a law enforcement point of view, it’s a much more intimate telling.
And it’s a much more intimate telling for Griselda. Narcos was a bigger canvas and required a lot of storytelling to fill it all, and this was a much more focused approach, which I really enjoyed. Coming out of Narcos, evolving into this felt like the right thing.
Griselda Blanco’s story is so vast. Like everything you do, there are many parts of her story that seem too unbelievable to be true.
Was that the most challenging part of figuring out how to tell Blanco’s story in six episodes? For example, in the end, you flash-forward through the latter part of her life and note that she died in 2012 at age 69. Did you ever think there was a second season in there?
Yeah, of course. We’re always making sacrifices. Stories that we would have liked to have been able to tell within the Griselda story. She had a life between her release from prison and her death. She had, obviously, a life leading up to her Miami tenure. In the earliest days, Doug Miro and I sat upstairs in an office across from the Narcos office and went through, with Sofía’s input, what we call kind of the greatest hits. The things that we know that Griselda did. And to be honest, what guides us at that point is not so much wanting to incorporate any one story or another, but to try to create the moments that explain those events.
When she goes and makes this definitive, bold, declarative statement with the Dadeland [Mall] shooting, what led her to that? Obviously, we don’t have the benefit of talking to Griselda and frankly, even if we did, I don’t know how valuable it would be. My experience having told the story of criminals a number of times is that they tend to tell a story that wouldn’t necessarily make for great viewing. Because, we are all heroes in our own story. But what was challenging was explaining some of the things that she did and maintaining the sympathy we needed to keep an audience going through it.
It’s one of the great things of television and the longer form. You can see them do horrible things where in a two-hour movie, that character is the bad guy and needs to pay within those two hours. With television, you can live in that moral ambiguity. Is she a terrible person? She does terrible things. So all of the things that we heard about her, the things that we put into the story, had a fair amount of truth to them. Some of them were documented, like Dadeland and some of these other murders that she was a part of. But for us, it was really about explaining why she did those things. And that lent itself very well to telling a story of a woman in this world who has to work twice as hard for the same recognition that her male peers seem to come upon so easily.
Sofía spoke about how no one could believe Griselda could do what she did because she was a woman and a mother. This is a 15-year project in the making for her to get this to TV so I’m curious, after working on Narcos and Narcos: Mexico with men as the starring villains, was the pitch process different with a woman as the main narco?
Actually, no. Because it was so unique. The most obvious answer to what’s different here is that there’s a woman at the center of it. If you know anything about that world, you know how exclusively male-dominated it is and has always been. Not just the narcotics trafficking world, but Latin America. There’s an impossibility here. She is such an anomaly. No woman, despite the occasional story to the contrary — none of which are true — has ever risen to that level of prominence in the narcotics business. And certainly no woman has ever achieved that level of respect, fear, success. And that immediately, for us, made it almost irresistible. Like, how can we explain this?
Sofía’s conviction, her passion, her need to do this, was infectious, and drove all of us. She’s very much the reason for being behind this project. She was convinced that she could do it and that she needed to do it. And in my first meeting with her, I came away thinking: She can do this. And I never doubted from that moment on. I know there are people who are sort of surprised: “How did Gloria Pritchett get to Griselda?” And to them, I would reference Tom Hanks and Robin Williams and people that I knew who were comedic; they were on TV shows. Let’s face it, Bosom Bodies was no Modern Family. Nor was Mork & Mindy. What Sofía does is incredibly hard on that show, and I think even harder because she makes it look so easy. But also, having a woman as a leader in our endeavor was the right thing. Sofía was one of the great collaborators I’ve been able to work with, and I think she made the idea of a woman running a drug empire much more believable to all the people involved when she walked on the set every day and after three hours of makeup was like, “Let’s go.” There was something slightly meta about it.
Let’s talk about the makeup choices you made. As a viewer, I wanted to see Sofía in this role, and not have her totally disappear; Griselda does not look like Sofía. Did you consider going full prosthetics?
We started our makeup process well before we started shooting, obviously, and we went through a couple iterations. Some that looked a lot less like Sofía. I was worried about prosthetic acting; that the performance was just all in the application. And we needed to be able to see her face. She has this incredible weapon — her expressions. And to deprive her of that in latex would have been a mistake. We didn’t feel the need to match Griselda precisely. What we needed was for people to forget they were watching Sofía Vergara. And it was enough of a disappearance that it wasn’t somebody else. It was a shade of Sofía. And it worked really well.
Shortly before the show released, a lawsuit was filed from the Blanco family attempting to stop the show’s release. (Netflix had no comment.) The series is billed as “fictionalized.“
Does this response surprise you, or did you expect it?
I had a similar experience with the children of Pablo Escobar. I can’t comment on this lawsuit; I wasn’t named in it, so it’s not my suit to reference. But I think everyone is entitled to their own take on their parents.
Something I did with Escobar that I’m proud of is that through the 15 years that we covered Pablo Escobar on Narcos, his son was always a child. He never grew up. And we did that on purpose by design. Because, I can’t blame Escobar’s son for the kind of young adult he became in reality. I don’t know much about Griselda’s kid; he was basically a baby during our story. But something the DEA said to us in those early days of Narcos was that Escobar’s kid was present for tortures. The DEA said: We won’t be involved if he’s involved. But I did think that when you grow up with parents like this, I’m endlessly sympathetic to the children of these criminals. Because you live in that sort of impossible world where, everyone thinks my mom is a monster and everyone thinks my dad is a monster, and I have a story to tell. The reality is that we’re a fictionalized account. We’re not making a documentary; we’re not writing a book about Griselda. So, we’re not going to tell a story that’s going to make everybody happy or that people are going to say, “Oh, that’s exactly what happened.”
This is a limited series. Are there any other Narcos descendants left in the brain trust that could come out?
(Laughs.) You know, I always hope so. It’s such an area of interest for me. Painkiller was also sort of about a drug cartel. So I’m always thinking in the space and it’s really just about the character, as it always is. And if I find another one that speaks to me in that way, I love this world.
Griselda is now streaming on Netflix.
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