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Benicio Del Toro and Josh Hutcherson Find 'Paradise Lost' in 'Escobar'

06/26/2015 08:00 pm ET | Updated Jun 26, 2016

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Most people know Paradise Lost as the title of John Milton's epic poem, first published in 1667, concerning the Biblical story of the Fall of Man: the temptation of Adam and Eve by the fallen angel Satan and their expulsion from the Garden of Eden. Milton's purpose, stated in Book I, is to "justify the ways of God to men." With this metaphor in mind, writer/director Andrea De Stefano has fashioned a new piece of historical fiction, Escobar: Paradise Lost, putting a wide-eyed Canadian tourist named Nick (Josh Hutcherson) who has traveled to 1988-era Colombia looking for surf, sand and fun with his brother (Brady Corbet) at the story's center. After falling hard for a local beauty (Claudia Traisac), Nick is introduced to her favorite uncle, one Pablo Escobar (Oscar-winner Benicio Del Toro), who takes a shine to the young man, and pulls him into his seductive, deadly fold as the world's largest supplier of cocaine.

Suddenly surf, sand and fun are replaced with palatial mansions, dazzling jewelry, exotic cars and cocaine. And guns. And murder. A classic tale of innocence corrupted and good vs. evil, Escobar: Paradise Lost, a Radius-TWC release, hits theaters today, June 26.

Benicio Del Toro and Josh Hutcherson sat down recently to discuss their cinematic outing. Here's what transpired:

Both of you are exec producers on this film. What was it about the story that drew you to it so strongly?

Josh Hutcherson: For me, I just loved the script and thought my character, Nick, had a really great arc. I also liked the idea that he represented the struggle that Colombia went through by being seduced by (Escobar). Initially, Nick had the best of intentions, but then suddenly found himself fighting for his life and for what he believed in. I also liked the idea of Benicio playing Pablo and the fact that Nick is this fictional character you could move around and operate in what was a real world.

Both of you are veteran actors and your writer/director, Andrea Di Stefano, is a neophyte. How was it working with a first-timer?

Benicio Del Toro: He's an actor, too, so he was very, very cool. I was impressed that Andrea took his time. Most first-time directors tend to be frantic about time and making their schedule. Andrea took his time and that made me really feel comfortable.

JH: There was never a rushed, panicked feeling. It was a very calm set.

BDT: Even when there were some mishaps on the set...Josh, remember the time when the Bronco ran into the dinosaur and it broke...?

JH: (laughs) Yeah, right...

BDT: Andrea always stayed cool.

Do you think the fact that you were filming off the beaten path, shooting in Panama, without studio execs looking over your shoulder, helped keep things loose?

JH: No, not really. It was nice feeling like we were off in our own little world, but again, it came down to the atmosphere Andrea fostered on the set.

BDT: (Andrea) really likes actors, too.

How long did you guys actually spend in Panama?

JH: I think two and a half months.

What were your impressions of Panama?

BDT: Panama City is very modern, very safe. Amazing people and a lot a of jobs, a very vibrant economy. Panama City has one of the most amazing, modern skylines in the world, like Dubai, almost.

JH: The one place that was a little shady was up in Colon. Did you go up there?

BDT: No.

JH: That was a little shady, but otherwise, it was just beautiful.

I went into this film expecting a stock thriller, but it's really a character study, the character of Nick, his relationship with the Pablo and the journey of self-discovery that ensues.

JH: Yeah, he begins as this innocent and then becomes sort of blindly ambitious and descends into this corrupt world.

I thought it captured the late '80s and early '90s really well, in that there was still a great deal of naiveté about cocaine, and life in the fast lane.

JH: Yeah, Nick sees how Pablo lives and he asks Maria how he make his money and she says, just very matter-of-fact: "Cocaine." (laughs)

I loved how innocent she was about it.

JH: Pablo had this way of shading the world around him, making it look like what he was doing wasn't so bad.

BDT: In the early '80s, that's when people really were naïve about drugs, especially cocaine. It was until after (basketball player) Len Bias died that the truth about it started to come out. That was '85 and it all turned and the war on drugs was declared.

Yeah, that's when Nancy Reagan started her "Just Say No" campaign. I had just started college and remember there literally being kids who'd been so sheltered, they'd never had a beer, but within one semester, they were hooked on coke. This film really tapped into that naïveté that made the '80s so decadent.

JH: Yeah, things were less globalized then. Now, you can't be naïve about these things because you're constantly bombarded with information, the same information, wherever you go.

In the course of doing research for your roles, did either of you read Mark Bowden's famous book, Killing Pablo?

JH: No

BDT: No. I know the book, but didn't read it. That book has been around to do (as a movie) for a while. I think Oliver Stone had it for a while.

JH: Is that about the soccer player...?

BDT: No, no. It's about the DEA guy who went after Pablo.

JH: Oh, okay.

I assumed you had read it because my impression of Pablo from that book, which I read probably close to twenty years ago, but it's stayed with me, is the way you portrayed him in this film.

BDT: I think that a lot of the stuff Andrea put in the script is true, or based on the truth, but the way I understand it, that book is from the DEA agent's point-of-view...

Yes, right.

BDT: Okay, and that obviously wasn't in this movie.

Tell us about your take on Pablo.

BDT: What do you mean by "take"?

I assume when you play a character, he has to make sense to you. What did you learn about him as a character and take away from the experience?

BDT: Well, it's got to make sense in terms of what I learn about the character and what I learned about Pablo is everything you see up there on the screen: he was a family man, a church-going man, he was a man who had social conscience to help others. But at the same time, he was a cold-blooded killer. What I really think about him: it's one sad story of a terrible waste of one hell of a talent. I really think he was a really smart man and had his talent been used on something like medicine, he would have been a great doctor. But instead, he took the line of selling dope, and it was a disaster.

Had he grown up in a different place and time...?

BDT: I think Pablo was the product of many different things, but his mother was a teacher and they were very close. Almost from the same naïveté we're talking about, coca leaves are eaten regularly in Bolivia, which is not too far away from Colombia. They're used for altitude sickness and it's not like doing cocaine, because I've chewed coca leaves. I think the same naïveté we're talking about is what sucked Pablo into the drug trade, and the promise of making lots of money. He really shared his profits with the people who worked for him. He treated his people well, almost like he had a union for them. It's sad, because in many countries in places like South America and many other parts of the world, people are exploited by other people, by their governments. Here was a guy who spent much of his life helping others, yet that doesn't make what he did...

JH: Justified...

BDT: Any better, yeah. So my take on it is that it's a tragedy: a sad waste of talent.