Telluride, where the film first screened, is the launching pad for all things awards season. What does it mean to you for this film — kind of a genre picture, not really awards bait-y — to have the distinction of playing that festival?
It means so much. I think that for me, as an actor, a project that can break the mold for those kind of festivals and this kind of attention is something cool to be a part of. Especially with Telluride, which is such a small festival. It’s like 25 movies, so to get invited to be a part of that group, especially for a movie that has a different, action-y kind of feel as well, was a surprise, frankly. But at the same time the movie is very grounded in its characters, and grounded in the performance Benicio [Del Toro] gives and in this world that Andrea [Di Stefano] creates which gives it a really real look. So while I’m surprised because it does have action elements, it still really is a character drama in a lot of ways for me.
About those action elements — you like being chased. In “Hunger Games” you’re on the run for your life, same goes for “Escobar.”
[Laughs] I think I’m just running from life in general! Just getting chased through life. I think this movie gets people on the edge of their seats. I think when you can take somebody out of their world and drop them into another world and make them feel something — I love those kind of projects. Like this or “The Hunger Games” that transport people and give them a look into something. It’s something I like to be a part of.
“Escobar” is, however, a much smaller film. Was it nice to take a break from the “Hunger Games” franchise and do something indie?
It was. I’ve — in my experience — loved making smaller movies, independent films. Smaller crews, smaller sets. It feels like a movie. “Hunger Games” is cool because you have all these resources, but it’s big and it’s heavy and it’s hard to move. When you have this lighter, more nimble crew you feel more free. You feel more able to do everything in a different way. It was a great break from “The Hunger Games,” for sure. And the filming was really hard and you had a lot of challenges. We were filming in Panama and that was tough in and of itself. But it was incredible. And it was such an incredible crew! It was a Spanish and French co-production, crew members from Cuba, South America, France, everywhere. I was one of three Americans on the entire production.
You didn’t choose an easy break.
You could have made a romantic comedy or something light in the interim, but you went for something heavy and dark. Are you drawn to weightier, more dramatic material?
I think so. I think I have a flair for dramatics [laughs]. I’ve always been drawn to more intense material. When I read the script — I was given the script two years before we made the movie — I fell in love with it. It was so intense and the story was so interesting. I’m definitely drawn to heavy material.
Benicio, he just tears up the screen in this. I’m interviewing him after you and I’m terrified.
You should be, man. You never know what’s gonna happen.
Were you nervous to go toe-to-toe with him? Did you feel ready to tackle this guy?
I think I was more ready because I had worked with him already [on the “7 Days in Havana” short “El Yuma”] in a much different environment, with him as a director. Having a different relationship with him to start with eased me into the Escobar of it all. But he’s so intense. On set, his character is just so intense that of course it’s naturally intimidating, but that is perfect because that’s exactly what Nick would be feeling.
What did you learn from acting opposite him? You’re what, 21?
Yeah. I want to say I learned, but I have no idea how to do it. I saw what he does, but I don’t know if I learned. He has a way of just knowing the right way to perform. He’s a performer! There are actors who in scenes are acting and making it real and communicating, and that’s always what I’ve done, and then there actors who are real performers. He creates something really unique, and after working with him on this it’s inspired me to dive deeper into characters and really perform something because you see him on set performing this character and it’s incredible.
Has he also inspired the way you’re going to select roles, going forward?
I think Benicio’s career path has been so unique. He lends himself to the powerful kind of actor he is. These incredible characters he creates — I don’t want that kind of career path just because it’s not who I am as an actor. I mean, I’m very jealous and I wish I was that kind of actor who can do that. Yeah, not so much, I don’t think in terms of my career path. He’s inspired me to become a much better actor, absolutely.
Do you feel the pressure to deliver after the success of “The Hunger Games”? The films are almost a wrap.
You’ve been acting since you were, god, how young?
So it’s not like this is all new to you.
It’s not new. But at the same time, there are more eyes on you because of something like “The Hunger Games.” With like, the connotation of a YA franchise and how that can pigeonhole people… but at the same time, I’ve never been a pressured person. I never feel pressure like that too much. I definitely feel, like, “I want to do something good,” to show that I’m more than what a lot of people know me as from “The Hunger Games.” There’s different kinds of roles I want to play, and movie from different genres and premieres as well.
It helps that “Hunger Games” is more critically admired than most YA franchises.
That’s the thing, too. With “Hunger Games,” having the quality of people that have been involved with it from the beginning. That really boosted the whole idea of a Young Adult franchise a lot, I think.
When you hear that the last “Hunger Games” was the top-grossing film of the year in the States, what does that do to your head?
It’s like, hard to believe. Because you think back to having fun making the movie and enjoying the time, and you know it was gonna be something that we were proud of and good, but you don’t expect it’s going to do those kinds of things. And, it’s just surprising. What I do on “Hunger Games” versus what I do on “Paradise Lost” — technically it’s not that different! I mean, it’s acting. There’s only so much difference it can be from movie to movie. But then, one can go and make five hundred million dollars or whatever. It’s shocking.
You and your “Hunger Games” co-star Jennifer Lawrence seem to have a firm grasp on your careers. You both seem focused on the work and on lasting in this business, not on becoming tabloid fixtures. How do you keep such a firm head on your shoulders?
I think it’s because the reason is why we want to act. I think that Jen and myself, we just ended up falling in love with this profession, and from a young age we were driven to do this and not for the glitz for it, not for the fame or attention. Quite the opposite really, I hate attention. I didn’t choose it. This is what I can do. I think we are both people who love making movies. I love the on set experience, I love collaborating and creating movies from development stages to acting. We hate the business but we love making movies. I think that’s the real difference. That’s when you see some young people go down the wrong path is when they are into it for the wrong reasons, or they get caught up in it with the wrong people. That’s the other thing — we both have really great families, great friends and people around us that help us keep our heads on straight.
As grounded as you two are, shit still happens in the public eye, like with what recently happened to Jennifer. What makes you want to keep going? I’m sure you’ve made enough on “The Hunger Games” to just peace out and move to some island.
You think about it! You definitely think about it. But I think really it goes back — not to sound to artsy — but the art of it. The art of creating these movies and communicating. Movies are really a way to change things. Not that I think we’re saving lives or anything, but at the same time people can see a movie and connect with it and learn. The education system is not that great in a lot of places and to have movies educate people emotionally and in life is important. It’s culture.