Five years ago, a Chilean mine collapsed in the Atacama Desert. After 100 years of miners digging deep into the Earth’s surface in search of gold and copper—and the profit that they yield—33 men worked their way down to continue the job, only to find themselves trapped 2,300 feet underground. This particular collapse, and the televised rescue attempts that followed, gained international attention, and are now the subject of Patricia Riggen’s film The 33. The outcome of The 33 is one you likely know; you may recall the image of emaciated, soot-covered men as they were raised out of the mine’s depths and reunited with their families. What happened underground, however, is the story you did not see, and is the one The 33 seeks to tell.
Among those portraying the miners are Antonio Banderas, Lou Diamond Phillips, and Miami-based Colombian actor Juan Pablo Raba, who after years of consistent work in the beloved Latin American format of the telenovela has made a fast, far-reaching American debut. In August, Netflix’s Narcos hit the Internet, with Raba as Gustavo Gaviria, cousin and right hand man to Wagner Moura‘s Pablo Escobar during the violent rise of the cocaine trade in ’80s Colombia. In September, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. premiered its third season with Raba as Joey Gutierrez, the first openly gay character in the Marvel universe. Now, in The 33—the first role in which he speaks entirely in English—Raba takes on a struggling, alcoholic miner named Darío Segovia, and his understanding of the subject matter is clear.
“Miners are absolutely forgotten,” Raba tells us. “That’s why we refer to [this] as a miracle tragedy. In all of the world, what happens is you have a collapse, they will do some kind of rescue mission, and after four days, they say, ‘Everybody is dead,’ and that’s it. The real miracle here is not only them surviving, having the will to organize themselves and work against the odds to stay alive, but the families who stuck together and made the government stay there and not leave them to die.”
While Raba took a break from filming Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. in Los Angeles, we spoke over the phone about The 33, his home country of Colombia, and Pablo Escobar.
HALEY WEISS: How did you get involved in The 33?
JUAN PABLO RABA: I was already living in Miami; my wife and I had made the decision to come and live in the States, so The 33 was my first American project. It was a regular audition. I received one first audition, which I know didn’t do well at all, the director even told me about it. I think the director didn’t even bother to see it. It was a general audition, there was no specific character, and I knew it was wrong from the first minute. So, time goes by, they move production, and I think probably a month and a half later they call me and say, “Listen, could you audition again?” And I’m like, “I don’t know. I already did the first one, I know you didn’t like it.” What happened, and what was really exciting about this, is I had been losing a lot of weight for a role in another film that I was preparing for. I had this photo shoot where you could see all of that dramatic loss and I shaved my head and everything. My manager sent those pictures to the producers and the producers were really excited like, “Oh my god, is this the same guy who auditioned two months ago?” The director, Patricia [Riggen], saw those pictures and said, “Okay, I’m willing to audition him again.” I remember it was October 31st, Halloween day, and I went to the audition room with all of my makeup, my shaved head, and all of that weight loss. I had a makeup artist, a very good friend of mine, do all the makeup as if I was really inside the mine. That was the audition that actually got me the role.
WEISS: The real men were trapped in the mine for 69 days. Did you spend a lot of time together as a cast to get into that mindset?
RABA: I think that was one of the most amazing things about this [film]. We did all the research; we went into mines, we did a little bit of mining work. The group really started getting strong once we were in the mine. Since there was no reception, nobody brought any kind of technology down into the mine—no cellphones, no iPads, no nothing. So we literally talked; it was an old school movie. We talked and we talked and we talked. Antonio [Banderas], he was the leader in the film and also in real life. He had the best stories. He had worked with so many filmmakers, actors, and stars, that he just had so many amazing stories, as Lou Diamond Phillips also had. We got to share so many experiences and become strong as a group, and I think that really plays off in the movie.
WEISS: In preparing, did you speak with the real Darío Segovia?
RABA: No, and I think that was a very smart call by director Patricia Riggen. As an actor, when someone tells you you’re going to portray a real life character of course your first instinct is, “Okay, I’m going to go talk to him. I’m going to learn about him.” But she was very specific about this; her instructions were, “Please do not approach any of the miners.” And this is the reason: We have to tell a story and the story we’re going to tell is a movie. She did three years of research and she put into the script stories of the 33 miners and their families, but you can’t in a two-hour movie portray 33 lives because, to be honest, every life is a movie. She honored all the stories of all the miners, but every character is kind of a potpurri of different lives, different stories, and different anecdotes. My character, Darío Segovia, I think of him as an homage to all of the miners who suffered from some kind of addiction while they were in the mine. Because, of course, it was not only alcohol, there were all kinds of substances around. They all had gone through huge ordeals because they had to touch rock bottom, literally and metaphorically, in order to survive the tragedy.
So we never had that contact, but when we were shooting in the Atacama Desert, we got to see them. That was a beautiful experience because I got to know the miner I was playing, and he is a completely different person from me in every way—background, lifestyle, physically—but once we started talking and I asked a couple of questions we really connected very fast, and this is the beauty of art. At the end of the day, he’s just a human being. That’s all we portray, and that’s who we are. We all have the same fears, the same anguishes. We’re happy and excited about the same things. You realize it doesn’t matter how different you are or what your background is; you’re just portraying a human being and you want to make a believable human being.
WEISS: You’ve been on a few telenovelas. That seems like it would be a unique acting experience with such dramatization of the storylines. Did you enjoy it?
RABA: You know what? I did. I always want to be grateful to my telenovela background. I think there is tendency to disparage it and consider it a lesser way of acting or a lesser medium, but I have to tell you, it’s amazing training. The way I see it is that you learn how to solve problems. You have to do 30 scenes a day with absolutely no sequence at all and you’re shooting from different episodes. It’s a mess. It’s not that it’s wrong; it’s just a completely different way of acting and delivering what you do. You have to be focused and smart; it really puts into practice your background. I studied at the Lee Strasberg Theater & Film Institute in New York, that was when I completed my acting training—well, not completed, acting is one of those things that is never complete, you never learn everything—but I think you have to be very smart about the medium you’re working in. You don’t work the same way when you’re doing a drama or a comedy, and it’s kind of the same, you don’t work the same way when you’re doing a soap opera with 30 scenes a day as when you’re shooting a film that’s super precise and you get to shoot two or three scenes a day. [In a film] you get to work for months on your character and you already know a full script; it’s a completely different way of working.
What I didn’t enjoy, and why I started looking for another medium to develop my career and craft, is that telenovelas are very long and very intense. I started feeling like I was getting on a train for a year and getting off at the next station and suddenly it’s, “Oh my god, a whole year has passed. What did I do?” You work, work, work, and then your wife grows, and your kid grows, and your friends are doing their plans and you’re just stuck in the studio for so many hours a day.
WEISS: What was it like to film Narcos in Colombia? I’d imagine that memories of Escobar are still quite fresh there.
RABA: It was one of these projects that challenges you as an artist and as a human being in a very deep way, especially because it’s such a strong story for my country. There’s me the artist, absolutely thrilled to be working with Wagner Moura and José Padilha, who are two amazing Brazilian creators that I admire and absolutely love, and being able to tell the story that we have heard and lived through so many different eyes.
But of course, there’s a part of me, the Colombian part of me, which thought, “Should I be doing this? Should I be portraying these characters, these delinquents, people who have done so much harm?” My uncle was killed by Pablo Escobar. He died in the plane bombing [in 1989], so there’s a lot of mixed feelings. But once I started doing the research, creating the character, and really investigating about everything that I didn’t know, my take on it is that I hope we do more stories. It’s like we haven’t learned from our mistakes. There are so many people who were involved back then that are still around the political scene, and you think, “Oh my god, I can’t believe this is still happening.” We haven’t learned our lesson so we really have to keep on doing the research and exorcise our past through these projects.
I think the real win of this, as a country, is that once I started getting into the role and project, [I realized] it’s not a story about Pablo Escobar, it’s not a story about drug trade; it’s really a political story. Once the show starts developing you get to understand it’s really a political thriller and Colombia is a huge character. I think what we really have to learn now is that we beat this guy, we beat horror, we beat terror, because Colombia was about to collapse as a country. That’s the important thing, that a company like Netflix was able to invest such a huge amount of money, go to our country, talk about one of the most dangerous persons in the history of the world, and do it without a problem. We were there, and we shot, and we never had a problem. There was never a threat; I think that the biggest victory of Colombia as a country is exactly that.
WEISS: What was your understanding of Pablo Escobar while you were growing up? You mentioned your uncle, but were you aware of his activities as a kid?
RABA: Yeah, everybody was well aware. We were all scared. We grew up being scared of it. The school that I went to as a kid, at some point, the word on the street was that he was going to bomb that school. In a very painful way, I compare it to 9/11 in the States. I feel that sometimes when we live in big cities and people talk about war, you always feel like it’s something far away. It just doesn’t hurt. You see it in the news and of course you’re sad about that, but you never feel war until something so terrible happens. I feel that Pablo Escobar took terror and war to the city, to the malls, to the people, to the regular Joes walking on the street, and that was very terrifying, to live that as a society.
WEISS: I hear you’re an avid mountain biker. Is that true?
RABA: That is my real love. Hollywood is just an excuse. [laughs] I love mountain biking; it has completely changed my life in so many aspects. It’s not only a sport; it’s my meditation, it’s my zen. It’s my way to know the world and it’s a way to learn about myself and conquer my own fears.
THE 33 COMES OUT TOMORROW, NOVEMBER 13.