Two names have monopolized pretty much every narco-drama and ‘war on drugs’ film you can think of: Pablo Escobar and El Chapo. But, as the latest season of Narcos proves, there are plenty of stories to be told about the many other critical players involved in the drug trafficking business. One such person is Jorge Ochoa, who’s finally getting a splashy (if not altogether flattering) big screen portrayal in Tom Cruise’s latest, American Made. The Doug Liman-directed action romp tells the story of Barry Seal (Cruise) a hustler and pilot who’s unexpectedly recruited by the CIA to run one of the biggest covert operations in U.S. history. Flying his private plane in and out of the U.S. undetected, Seal first began helping the Contras in Nicaragua before becoming involved with Escobar and fellow paisa Ochoa, who made the money-hungry Seal a mule for their then-budding drug empire.
Puebla-born actor Alejandro Edda takes on the role of the big Medellín landowner-turned-drug trafficker who became a close friend of Seal. Best known for his credit as Alejandro in the Demían Bichir-starring drama The Bridge and Fear the Walking Dead, this is Edda’s biggest role to date. Something he didn’t take for granted. Between the high-octane action sequences in the air and story lines so ridiculous you can’t believe it’s based on real events (including a scene where Cruise rides a kid’s bike covered in cocaine), American Made exposes the hypocrisy that undergirded much of the US government’s involvement in Central American politics, not to mention the war on drugs both here and abroad.
Remezcla caught up with Edda to discuss his big break and he shared just how hard he had to work to get to the point where Cruise himself picked him for this role, why he can’t believe men like Ochoa remain folk heroes in their own city, and why the film’s message may be more timely than ever. Take a look at some highlights from our conversation below.
American Made opens in theaters on September 29, 2017.
On How a Kid From Puebla Landed in San Francisco
Well I’m from Puebla, Mexico. When I graduated from high school I knew I wanted to pursue acting professionally. And I found this amazing Russian conservatory in Mexico City – so I moved there, because in those times in my hometown there weren’t any good acting schools or programs. Unfortunately, at the end of my last year there were only three of us left and so the director of the institute said, “You know, guys. We can’t just have another year with only three actors. You have two options: you wait another year for the class below you to catch up to you, or you go and look for another school.” And in those times of life when you’re [feeling] super old, but you’re just twenty and you’re not Gael or Diego, you’re like, “No, I can’t stay one more year!” My mom, who always has lived in San Francisco in the States – she’s a single-mom who came as a dreamer and worked hard to give me the life I had in Mexico – she’s the one who told me to come here and check it out. That’s what I did. I went to San Francisco and that’s where I started working in English, doing some musicals, some theater, and started taking my first acting classes in English at a community college.
On How He Landed His First Agent
A year later, I met with a friend who told me that if I was taking this seriously I should move to New York (if I wanted to do theater) or move to LA (if I wanted to do film). Because in San Francisco, it’s a very small community. So I said, alright, well if you can help me, I’ll take your word. And three weeks after that dinner, I told my mom, she supported me, and we got a one-way ticket to LA and next day I was here, in the city of Angels. The next day I was hired as a valet parking guy near my acting studio. Because I didn’t to just come here and say like, “Let’s do it.” I always wanted to look more for a preparation, so I got involved in this three-year program in the Meisner technique at a studio in Santa Monica. That led me to have a little bit more confidence. It wasn’t just my mom or my grandmother telling me “Oh, you’re a good actor!” This was the teachers and the students – and I graduated as one of the top 5 actors of my class! Unfortunately, there were no other Hispanics in the class. I’d love to have seen more in the classes. In this case I was the only Latino, and because of that there was one friend who told me, “I have this agent, and he has no Latino actors to represent – you should talk to him!” That’s how life is, just one bit at a time. One step at a time.
On Hustling While Working for His Big Break
I’m not a believer in things that are a waste of time. I believe everything adds to the basket. Everything is something you will use as a tool. In this case, I took his word, went with this little agent. His name was Richard. This little old man who lives in this funky house where he worked and he sent me to my first non-union auditions here in LA and somehow I booked them! I became the Domino’s Pizza guy. I was the face for the Domino’s campaign for a few years. That led me to get a bigger agent which led to me to go to union auditions for commercials. So I was part of the union now. And this is all taking place as I’m doing the valet parking (and I got fired from that), and then I’m delivering wine (and I got fired from that too!), and then I start cleaning bathrooms at a restaurant. Then I got promoted so I wasn’t cleaning bathrooms but the bar. So I was the barback, then I’m the bartender, then I’m the waiter. And then Brad Pitt is calling the restaurant if Zorro is in the restaurant because he wants me to be taking care of him. And then it’s Morgan Freeman coming to the restaurant asking for me. That was my life. It was my gig as a waiter or as a server, and my day-to-day trying to go to audition and pursue it and never ever giving up. One day, finally, the commercials were going well. I was doing a lot of campaigns, and I was a young father at that time so it was good for me to be able to support my son and my wife. And then that’s when the TV auditions began, that’s how I booked The Bridge, where I got a pretty substantial role. In the beginning it was just one episode, but they kept writing me in. That gave me a little bit more confidence. Because of that I changed managers again and when that happened is when I got the audition for American Made.
On Being Hand-Picked by Tom Cruise for American Made
One day my new team at Vision Entertainment, they called and they said “Hey Alejandro, we just sent you [an email about] probably the biggest audition in your life!” I went, “Oh my god!” Suddenly there I see the names in the email: Tom Cruise, Doug Liman, Brian Grazer. Jesus Christ! Right from that day when I opened that email I just had to think, “Let’s go for it! Why not?” I got an acting coach. I prepared myself doing some great research and I showed up to the room. I want to thank the casting director, Cindy Marron, because if it wasn’t for her, I wouldn’t be having this conversation here with you. She saw something special in me and sent my tape to Doug and the producers in New York as a recommendation. This character, Jorge Ochoa, they saw actors in their 20s, 30s, and 40s. Different complexions. They probably saw guys from Colombia, Spain, Mexico, New York, LA, Miami even! So the list was pretty long because it was a pretty substantial role. Something happened, magically. I always believe in that. The universe provides: what’s for you, is for you. Doug Liman saw the tape and say, “Yeah, I’d like to have a callback via Skype.” Somehow, I don’t know why, Tom saw the tape and went, “That’s him! That’s the guy. Let’s book him.” He picked me! I’m very fortunate and grateful for this.
On His Colombian Connection
This happened before the project even began. I was married to a Colombian. She’s from Medellín. So, in a way, I had a very big connection with Colombia, without knowing this project would happen. Three-and-a-half years ago we lived there for 7 months. One day my father-in-law – well, ex-father-in-law – took me a to bullfight. He pointed to a man and asked, “Do you know who that guy is?” [I said] “No.” “That’s Jorge Ochoa.” And I asked, “Who?” [He said] “From the Ochoa brothers!” The next day, I felt like I needed to know about this just for conversation, and I researched and it sort of made sense a little bit. But this is before Narcos and all this cultural phenomenon. Now, everybody knows about all this stuff. And, because you buy season tickets to the bullfight arena, once again we went back and, of course, he was there again. And now I knew who he was. And really, I couldn’t believe that a guy who did all of that is sitting in the best seat, free, as if nothing had happened. Like, I can’t fathom that idea. But that’s how I met Jorge, from a distance.
On Researching the Ochoa Family
When this thing [getting cast in American Made] happened, then I knew who to go to. I had a lot of relatives and friends in Colombia who knew the Ochoas and some of the books that they gave me are not the books that you’d find if you wanted to read about narcos. They were about horses, about cattle, that mentioned more who the Ochoas were as family. So that’s where I went. About the personality and the upbringing of the Ochoas – rather than the crimes and atrocities they did. I was looking for a human quality. That’s how I found out he was a very religious man. A big family. He spoke English. He was a well-educated person. A very smart businessman.
On Pushing for a More Authentic Portrayal of the Ochoa Family
Because of all that research, is how I had the guts to give my point of view to the team, to Doug, Tom, and the producers and the writer, Gary [Spinelli]. I told them, “What you guys are thinking about this guy. The way you’re seeing it, is not the real way.” These guys were not dirty farmers. These guys, especially Ochoa, this guy was a businessman. He had a lot of money. Lots of money in horses, even before the cocaine stuff. I was fortunate that they were open to collaborate and knowing these were all true facts, they did change that storyline. With César Charlone the DP (who shot City of God) – we were, at the beginning at least, the only two Latinos – but he’s the one who told me I should let everyone know all this stuff I’d found. And I’m really thinking, “I’m gonna get fired” for wanting to change these things. Until one day I get this email and it’s César telling me “We won the battle!” He said, “Today, Doug announced at a meeting that Jorge Ochoa is not a farmer but a businessman.” That’s amazing! Because that’s the actual truth. I like to think that that was a collaboration, born out of listening to other people’s ideas – it’s all because I had this connection with the country of Colombia. I mean, my kids are half-Colombian, half-Mexican, and American. Thanks to that, now the movie is more authentic and the character is very unique.
On the Film’s Timely Message
It’s a slap, with a white glove, to the American government. Because it’s very relevant and it’s very smart and gutsy thing to do for Tom Cruise, who’s this American icon and from an American director whose father had been involved in the Iran-Contra affair [Arthur L. Liman was chief counsel for the Senate’s investigation], so to do this is really ballsy. Because if we learn from our past we can mejorar nuestro presente.