‘Narcos: Mexico’s Teresa Ruiz Details Struggle to Become Powerful Drug Lord: ‘She’s Not a Hero’ (Exclusive)
By Liz Calvario
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Narcos: Mexico is ready to open audiences' eyes to the ongoing drug wars, and how it all began down South.
The latest installment in the Netflix series tells the story of Mexican drug lord Miguel Ángel Félix Gallardo (Diego Luna), known as El Padrino, as he's chased down by undercover DEA agent Kiki Camarena (Michael Peña) in the 1980s.
"You'll be surprised, it’s like everyone in Mexico has a story to tell about these people, either a [personal] or close friend or a friend of a friend," Teresa Ruiz tells ET over the phone about how this story is more than just another crime drama, it's real life.
The 29-year-old Mexican actress portrays the fictitious character Isabella Bautista, one of Félix Gallardo's friends from Sinaloa, who helps him take his empire to the next level. The role was created for the series but was inspired by a handful of female drug lords, including real-life Sandra Ávila Beltrán, still alive today and known as "La Reina del Pacífico."
"Somebody came up to me one time and they asked me if I wanted to go meet [Ávila Beltrán] and I said no because, well first, Isabella is not only based on her, but also we're creating a different character with a different name," she recalls. "Then talking to Diego, he told me that someone offered him to [meet Félix Gallardo] and then Tenoch Huerta, the guy who played Caro Quintero, too. These people are around and accessible. I was like, 'No, why would I do that?"
Familiar with the history of the Guadalajara Cartel and it’s ruthless leader, Ruiz grew up hearing stories of Félix Gallardo and his associates, but didn’t know all the details until she began her research. “There has been a lot of literature written about [Ávila Beltrán] and I think that was the character that at that time fulfilled what you see on the show,” Ruiz explains.
“In Mexico, [it seems as if] everybody knows somebody that knows them, because the problem is at the core of our society,” she expresses. “So after it was announced that I was going to be in the show, I had a lot of people come up to me and tell me a lot of details about what they remembered and what happened. I read a lot and the [show’s writers] gave me a lot of material. Also, the writers shared with you the character they wanted to create. It’s a tough show to work on because you read so much and so much is still happening.”
Becoming Isabella and finding her humanity was not an easy task for Ruiz, who explains that people might see her as a badass female but to remember that "this character is not a hero."
“I think we’re still learning how to write roles for women with power,” she expresses. “And the writers and creators were very careful. They really wanted to make a character that had power, had her own voice and was going to fight for it. But at the same time, we can’t forget that this character is not a hero. She is a criminal. So to talk about an empowered female who is a criminal, I just had to explore a lot of the ambition.”
“It felt more like an exploration of ambition of how far you’re willing to go, and how ruthless you are going to be about it,” Ruiz continues. “It was a really tough balance to play a woman who has power, because it’s important for women to see this kind of portrayals, but at the same time not to forget that this is not a hero, and that what she’s doing has hurt a lot of people, not just in my country, but around the world. But every time it was such a struggle, because these actions are still affecting people today.”
As she started to bring Isabella to life, Ruiz encountered some bumps along the way, including feeling like she was overdoing it.
“This character has a very big persona. So when I read it, I was worried because I thought, ‘Oh my god, how am I going to portray her without making a caricature out of it?’” she recalls. “Because it was so much about the clothes, and the jewels, and the attitude and what she wanted. And working with one of the directors, Amat Escalante, who’s an incredible director of my country, he asked me, ‘What’s your biggest problem?,’ because we had already shot the first scene at the party and I told him, ‘I just feel so fake. Everything I do, I’m just so fake. The era and the hair.’ And then he told me, ‘Well just remember that every woman learns how to be a woman from their mother.’ And that really clicked with me because my mom she was about that age in the ‘80s. So I just asked her for a lot of her pictures and I looked for that connection, a Mexican female in the ‘80s, what that was and what that looked like.”
“I began to discover how women in the ‘80s in Mexico were,” she explains. “They were wild and unapologetic, and I started to see, not just a lot of her, but of Mexican women in the 80s. It was a really beautiful discovery because every time that I would walk out of a makeup trailer or the fittings, it’s like I would see my mom, or my aunt in that world. In that sense, it was really beautiful.”
As fans see throughout the episodes, Isabella -- who is already the sole female in a man’s world -- begins to be pushed aside as new deals are made between the dealers. Ruiz, in a sense, related to Isabella in being the only woman surrounded by men at her workplace.
“I did struggle thinking, ‘Why am I doing it, and how can I do it better, and really find the female struggle of trying to have your own place in a man’s world,” says Ruiz. “Working with Diego was very much like the beginning of the relationship that you see between Félix Gallardo and Isabella in the show. He was very supportive of me because, as an actress, I was working in a man’s world. Every other character is pretty much male, all the writers are men, and Diego was always on my side, always fighting for this with me, and he was very supportive. He’s incredibly intelligent. We had a lot of discussions and conversations about the subject and we really kind of became like partners, it was really great.”
As far as the real-life story goes, viewers met a handful of recognizable names in the new episodes, including Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzman (Alejandro Edda) -- who was extradited to New York City in January of 2017 and is facing criminal charges related to his leadership of the Sinaloa Cartel -- as well as Pablo Escobar (Wagner Moura) making a cameo as the "King of Cocaine." These men, along with Félix Gallardo have shaped the drug world into what it is today.
“As an actor you have to have the empathy in order to create something that people will relate to, but then at the same time you don’t want to have it because you don’t want people to relate to this,” Ruiz states. “The thing is, we still have a couple more seasons, so you still haven’t seen the end of these people. But the thing about Narcos is that in the end, evil does not prevail. In the end, ambition destroys everything that you worked to build and it’s not just in the show but in history.”
While Netflix has yet to officially announced a second season, Ruiz is already getting back into the role of Isabella. This time, she’s more emotionally prepared to tackle the ruthless woman and credits “those big nails” for getting her into character.
“The nails helped me a lot, actually,” she reveals with a laugh about how she got into character. “Those big nails. The last day when I shot and they took them off, I really felt like someone had died. It was really sad. But it’s good to do a show that has another season, and that you know you are going to come back to it. So you kind of hang it on the wall for a minute and I just put my mind somewhere else because when you’re doing Narcos, everything is Narcos and it’s dark and you’re right in it. And just a few days ago I got all my appointments and there was one for my nails, and I was like, ‘OK, here we go again. Big red nails.’”
But above all else and most importantly for Ruiz, what she wants viewers to take out of Narcos: Mexico is curiosity. “The curiosity of what happened, how the drug problem started,” she says, adding, “I hope that ignites their hunger to learn more because the more you learn where drugs come from, the less you want to buy them illegally, or do them or allow them, because then you know the pain that comes from every line of cocaine, in every illegal blunt.”
“Hopefully it can help create empathy towards all the victims of violence. Also, what I like about it is that the villains in Narcos are not just only the drug dealers, but it also poses the question of what part does the government have in the problem, and the corruption in it? I think it’s a very important question to ask as a society. Every change begins with a question. So hopefully as people watch it they say, ‘What’s up with this?' and 'What’s up with that? Why don’t we look at this?’ And then it grows into changing this problem that is still costing so many lives and is still affecting so many people.