It’s rare for anyone to consciously make errors when speaking, but that’s the kind of thing Michael Stahl-David had to do as DEA agent Chris Feistl on the Netflix hit series, Narcos. The actor’s fluent Spanish was re-worked to make a more convincing “gringo” agent, while offset he was helping other stars order local food and get around town. The trick worked and Stahl-David has pivoted onto feature film. Michael Stahl-David embarks on an incredible journey in his new flick, The Light of the Moon, where the actors tackle controversial social issues about the sexual abuse that follows partying and drinking. The dramatic role is a poignant window into youth culture and has opened the door to even more roles. As we catch up with the actor, Michael muses about playing soccer with a competitive Wood Harrelson, the intensity of DEA agents, and the unforgettable juices of Colombia.
How does speaking Spanish help with shooting a show like Narcos? You must come in really handy for some of the non-Spanish speaking actors.
Speaking Spanish was definitely a huge help—in a number of ways. The role was bilingual, so I had to speak Spanish in character—though I added a more gringo accent since I grew up speaking Spanish and the real Feistl learned later in life. I was able to make friends with locals that much easier—like some Bogotano rock-climbers I struck up a conversation within the local climbing gym who offered to take me out to the mountains to climb real rock that weekend. And I could also do some translating for Matt Whelan who played my partner Van Ness in the show. Once, we were having lunch across the street from set and when I explained to the waiter what we were filming he went off in an excited fast-paced monologue about how he used to work for Escobar as a guard in his private prison when he was 19. He even went and dug out some photos from a zip-lock bag of him posing with an Uzi, before explaining how he later moved to India, became a Buddhist and long distance cyclist, and was now a vegetarian chef—and did we want to visit his monastery outside town. Obviously I said yes. (For pic check Nov 26 2016 on my instagram haha!)
The universe that Narcos creates is so immersive. Is there any local food that you miss when you’re back in the States?
What I miss most food wise is actually the juices. Fresh juice is a staple in the Colombian diet and there are so many fruits you won't find easily in the states: lulo, maracuya, freijoa. Very fresh and super cheap.
Narcos is known for investing in some heavy-duty researchers. What’s it like being face-to-face with DEA agents?
The time I spent with DEA agents was maybe the most fascinating element of the job. I spent a bunch of time with the real Chris Feistl. You take in all the information—what really went down, what he would do in certain situations—but you're also taking in a certain energy. With Chris it was this doggedness, this tenacity, mixed with a jocular ball-busting humor. But there's also an element of paranoia—or just the heightened awareness of danger that comes from spending a long time watching your back, which they always had to do when they were in Cali. We also hung out with some current DEA agents in Bogota. There was a dinner of insane stories with an older agent about interviewing former FARC guerrillas who had intel on modern drug routes. And beers with younger agents who talked about the thrill of blowing up drug labs in the jungle and proudly flashed the switchblades they kept handy... just in case.
With the depth that Narcos invests on the DEA side, there must be some interesting perspectives that you’ve learned. Has the story of Pablo Escobar changed for you at all?
I guess the main way the story of Escobar—and the Cali Cartel—changed for me was that I met so many people who were actually affected by the violence. My girlfriend—who grew up in Bogota—remembers the era when Escobar was setting off bombs and how terrified everyone was. She wasn't even allowed to go to the mall because there was the fear that Escobar would set off another bomb. Getting to know a lot of Colombians you quickly learn how tired they are of being associated exclusively with this period in their history. They want to move past it. So if you meet someone from Colombia, maybe don't say "oh Colombia! Cool! Pablo Escobar!!"
Narcos is a really intense story. How has that role prepared you for the depth and sorrow that comes with a feature film like The Light of Moon?
I shot The Light of the Moon before Narcos, and my approach on that film was not to prepare at all. Nobody is prepared to have their partner sexually assaulted, he doesn't know how to deal with it—he's improvising. And I wanted to bring that same kind of spontaneity. So our prep was just Stephanie Beatriz, Jess Thompson and I getting to know each other and creating a foundation where we felt safe and trusting of each other—so we could go deep.
The theme for the movie is very pervasive in youth culture, but rarely is there a narrative about assault amidst drinking and partying. Even big-time universities are known for sweeping these sexual assaults under the rug. Why was this story so important to tell?
It was important to Jess that we see Bonnie drinking a ton—even doing a bump of coke—before she's assaulted. She wanted the audience to judge her, and then question that reaction. More than ever, there is a collective realization that assault and harassment are happening everywhere, and a growing willingness to listen to victims. That's the good news, and it does make our film all the more timely. Sexual assault isn't just an issue of men raping. It's also about the institutions and power structures that protect them, or much more insidiously, fail to take action to address the underlying causes or environments that are fertile ground for assault. We are taking the film on a college tour. I'm hoping to do some workshops on that tour with men—because I do think this is largely a men's issue—about how to be ethical men in the modern era. I'm hoping to create a space where we can have honest conversations about consent, objectification, hook-up culture, rape-culture and what kind of men we want to be. If you're a college student and you are interested in having The Light of the Moon at your school, reach out to me our or team on social media!
Has the impending Weinstein indictment, or the Kevin Spacey and Ed Westwick revelations given The Light of Moon a more formidable voice in mainstream media?
We think The Light of the Moon is the first film to depict rape that was written, directed, edited, and shot by women. As we're hearing from more women than ever about their experiences of assault—a woman's perspective on this subject is very much needed. I think the allegations and public takedowns have been long overdue, but for the average person checking social media for the latest expose, condemnation is easy. Maybe it's harder—especially for men—to really empathize with the nuanced experience of an assault survivor. I think this film is important now because it takes the focus off of the rapist and focuses it squarely on the victim—and her partner. How does her assault reverberate through her life? How does it affect intimacy? What's the "appropriate" way to respond when your girlfriend has been assaulted? How do you navigate having sex again? Can you go back to "normal?" Does that exist?
More than ever, there is a collective realization that assault and harassment are happening everywhere, and a growing willingness to listen to victims. That's the good news, and it does make our film all the more timely. I also expect there will also be a sexist reactionary blowback where accusers are labeled part of a "war on men."
With such a deep and powerful story being told how did you prepare for the more harrowing scenes?
Stephanie was very dropped into her role and brought an incredible emotional intensity to every scene usually all I had to do was play off of her. The old "acting is reacting" trope was true here.
Besides The Light of the Moon you’re in LBJ with Woody Harrelson. What was that like, and were there any tips you gleaned from the legendary actor?
Making LBJ with Woody Harrelson and Rob Reiner was a dream. They're both legends and are both warm and funny people. Growing up in Chicago and playing a lot of basketball as a white boy I was a big fan of White Man Can't Jump. I was worried maybe I'd be a bit distracted acting opposite an idol from my childhood—but Woody didn't look at all like himself. The make-up, along with his accent, was totally transformative. I also didn't expect to hang with Woody much offset, but instead, there were weekly soccer games—where Woody would play barefoot of course. He's a very competitive athlete, but in a very joyful way. I think if anything I can take away as an actor it's that—this combination of game-time focus and playfulness. Woody's inner child is alive and well—which helps in a profession where basically we're playing make-believe.
Lastly, I loved The Black Donnellys, and was seriously bummed when it was not renewed. Any favorite shows of yours that could have used another season or two?
Would've loved to do more seasons of Donnellys! I also would've had a lot of fun doing another season of My Generation. But I'm certainly grateful for how things turned out.
Stan Brooks at The Brooks Agency