Cigars In Cinema: Benjamin Bratt

Cigars In Cinema: Benjamin Bratt
Photos courtesy of Broad Green Pictures

The year is 1986. Pablo Escobar's Medellín Cartel is shipping 70 to 80 tons of cocaine from Colombia to the United States every month, bringing in billions of dollars. But Escobar has a problem: What is he supposed to do with all that cash?

Robert "Bob" Mazur, a U.S. Customs special agent who wants to end the violent drug trafficking scene, understands Escobar's money problem. Mazur convinces his boss to switch strategies and follow the money instead of the drugs. He then goes undercover to infiltrate Escobar's vicious criminal network, laying his life on the line to build a case that would eventually lead to the indictments of more than 100 drug lords and corrupt bankers.

This very true story has been brought to the big screen in The Infiltrator, a film starring Bryan Cranston as Mazur that opens nationwide today, July 13. Directed by Brad Furman, the film also stars Diane Kruger, John Leguizamo, Amy Ryan and one Benjamin Bratt.

Bratt, best known for his role as Det. Rey Curtis on "Law & Order," plays Roberto Alcaino, a cigar-smoking top lieutenant in Escobar's cartel. We got an opportunity to speak with Bratt about his cigar-smoking character and learn more about his portrayal.

Nagy: You play Roberto Alcaino, Pablo Escobar's top lieutenant. But he's not exactly a traditional villain, right? There's a lot more to him?
Bratt: There is. In general terms, he's actually a character that's somewhat familiar territory for me. I've played members of drug cartels in the past, but what was the real draw for me in this was that, by design, we wanted to illuminate many of his admirable qualities and make him somewhat human. So what we come to discover is that he is not unlike the protagonist Bob Mazur who is pursuing him. He's a man of integrity, a man of principle. We discover that, yes, he's successful and a sophisticated business man, but he is also a devoted family man, a loving husband and a father. He's in possession of all the different qualities that we would want in ourselves, and it's easy to see how he, even as a "bad guy," could form a quick friendship with someone like Bob Mazur in terms of the way he presents himself.

Q: Alcaino and his wife were kind of a power couple. Can you offer any incite into their relationship?
A: This is based on an actual story, but we took dramatic and artistic license in our portrayal. So I'm not sure if this was reflective of what really existed. But in the film, Alcaino and his wife recognize that they need to be very self-protective and careful in terms of who they let into their inner circle. And when Alcaino is finally arrested towards the end of the film, his wife understands quite well what it is she must do to protect the family. So she begins destroying documents, etc. What was interesting for us as performers to explore was that, in the process of Bob Mazur going deep undercover with a fellow agent who was posing as his fiancée, they developed a real friendship with the Alcainos. And, even though their ultimate objective is to arrest and convict these criminals, there's a kind of regret that occurs by the end of the film. Because what both parties recognize is that there's a level of collateral damage that is heartbreaking in terms of the way it affects the families.

Q: What did you do to prepare for the role?
A: Well, for an actor, there's nothing better than having a whole host of information that comes along, because, in fact, it was real events. So starting with [Mazur's memoir], that becomes a kind of bible, or roadmap, if you will, in terms of all the factual information you would want to have. But we also had the real Bob Mazur, the gentleman who went undercover for so many years, there on the set. So he was a wonderful touchstone of information and an amazing raconteur. He practically has a photographic memory. But what proved most valuable to me as an actor was having access to some of the actual secret recordings that Bob Mazur took in his meetings with Alcaino. And those proved the most insightful to me in terms of the gregariousness and the charming nature of who Alcaino is and what I would try to bring to the portrayal. To date, I have yet to see a really good photograph of what [Alcaino] looked like. But from the tapes themselves, from the larger-than-life persona that clearly emanated from the tapes, it gave me a way in unlike any of the reading material or even the stories could have.

Benjamin Bratt

Q: Now as Alcaino, you smoke cigars on screen. Was he a known cigar smoker or was that another example of dramatic license?
A: [Laughing] That I couldn't answer, but at the end of the day, even though I'm trying to draw a complex character, what is a movie villain without a cigar? It's just such a great look. In fact, when we first meet the character, he's in a historic, beautifully appointed theater in Tampa, and he's watching an old Latin movie, sitting in the theater alone, smoking a stogie. It's a pretty striking image.

Q: Do you normally smoke cigars?
A: I don't. I've had occasion to smoke them for different film roles. I certainly know plenty of people who enjoy them.

Q: Any challenges for you while you were shooting the film?
A: There are challenges daily inherent in the process of filmmaking and not least, in independent film, where there's obviously never enough money and never enough time. Especially when you're taking on a tale of this kind of international historical scope—many of the scenes take place in Paris, Miami, London, Tampa and New York. So the film actually captures and conveys it successfully given where we shot most of it, which was the United Kingdom, believe it or not. It's a real triumph for the filmmakers, in particular for director Brad Furman. He's very smart to populate his picture with incredible actors, led by, of course, Bryan Cranston, who's just a monster. Just an amazing performer.

Q: What was it like working with Cranston, John Leguizamo and the rest of the talented cast?
A: Well it's funny because Furman gave me a tip before I started working with Bryan. He said "Look, when you meet Bryan you will discover that he is one of the kindest, sweetest men you'll ever hope to meet. But do not be fooled, because when it comes to the work, he's like a heavyweight boxer. And he will come out swinging and try to knock you out. So come prepared!" [Laughing] I took that advice to heart, man, to be sure.

Q: You go toe-to-toe with him in a lot of scenes.
A: Yeah, we do. And the good news is that—and this typically happens when a group of folks are off in some foreign land away from what's familiar. We're a bit like circus performers in terms of how we congregate together and seek each other out. And Bryan and I spent some time together outside of filming and became fast friends. And the hope is that that real friendship somehow plays out on screen. I've been told that it does, so that's a happy win there.

Q: Do you have any other projects coming up that you can talk about?
A: I just signed on to join Lee Daniel's new tv movie called Star on Fox. I'll co-star along with Queen Latifah and Lenny Kravitz. It's about the formation of a three girl R&B singing group. About their struggles and desire to become superstars, and I will play their manager. A gentleman of questionable intent and integrity—but not part of a drug cartel. [Laughs] I'm currently recording on a Pixar movie called Coco and I'm also excited about doing something for Marvel, which I can't really can't say much more about. It's been a busy year and a good year. Last, but not least on my agenda, is I'll have to try a good Cuban cigar, and see what all the fuss is about.