Benjamin Bratt has played a wide variety of roles in movies and on TV, including men on both sides of the law, but his portrayal of Roberto Alcaino, the top distributor for the powerful Pablo Escobar drug cartel in The Infiltrator, is unlike any other antagonist or criminal he’s played before. When undercover customs agent Bob Mazur (Bryan Cranston) poses as a money launderer in order to get inside the Escobar empire, he begins a business relationship with Alcaino and discovers, to his alarm, that he is warming up to the man. And it’s easy to see why: despite the way he makes his money, Alcaino is charming, decent, intelligent, loyal to his friends and loving to his family. He’s a guy you would want to have your back, if it wasn’t for the fact that he works for a brutal drug lord.

Bratt does a skillful and subtle job bringing Alcaino to life, portraying him as a complex man who happens to make his living and provide for his family in the only way that has been made possible for him. We spoke with the actor about developing the role, listening to tapes of the real Alcaino and working with the great Bryan Cranston.

To quote a song, Roberto Alcaino in this movie is a man of wealth and taste…

Benjamin Bratt: (laughs) Stones, baby! I love it. I’ll take it, thank you.

So talk about developing this character, who is not the stereotypical drug cartel distributor.

Well, you know, it’s no secret that the general outline of a character like this is somewhat familiar territory for me, whether you’re talking about Traffic or Snitch or any of a number of other roles. But yeah, for me, it was finally an opportunity to play someone with a lot more complexity and dimensionality to him that would actually make an audience stop and think: “Wait a second, is he a bad guy?” So my approach was not to determine or not to pre-judge whether he’s good or bad, just to make him honest to who he is.

Benjamin Bratt The Infiltrator Benjamin Bratt On Playing A Drug Lord In The Infiltrator

And so what we come to discover is that he’s actually quite an attractive person in terms of someone who is in possession of all the qualities we actively seek out in our relationships. He’s a deeply loyal friend. He’s a smart and sophisticated, successful businessman. He’s a person of faith. He’s a devoted family man who loves his wife and his daughter. What’s not to like about this guy? Yes, he happens to be involved in highly illegal activity, but even that he approaches from a matter of practicality. “I’m simply fulfilling a need,” is his thought, you know. It’s an issue of supply and demand. “I wouldn’t even have this job if you Americans didn’t have such a great need for drugs.” So yeah, to have all of that thrown into this portrayal actually, you know, for me was the great joy because seldom with these types of roles do you get to see that kind of complexity.

I read that you listened to tapes of actual conversations between Alcaino and Bob Mazur, so what did you get out of those?

Brother, let me tell you, man, I mean, the tapes are so dramatic – and obviously we have the gift of hindsight here – what you’re immediately struck by when you listen to the real surreptitious recordings is the incredible acting job that the real Bob Mazur was engaged in. He could not fail; he could not have a bad take because the result would be immediate death. And so maybe I’m ascribing the tension to it that I feel, but in listening to it, I almost could feel an underlying tension, that dramatic tension of walking a kind of tightrope if you will, with the stakes being so high. But from an actor’s point of view in terms of how to portray the character, unlike anything from the book or any of the personal stories, you hear a kind of gregariousness and a charm coming through the recordings that gave me a real direction to approach this guy. Even I felt myself drawn to his nature based on the recordings themselves. He was a very attractive, charming person in that sense.

Talk about working with Bryan and developing that relationship, because the chemistry is palpable between the two of you and the characters.

I love Bryan. You know, his level of skill is so self-evident. But what I appreciate about him is, here’s a guy who has been doing this job for a long, long time, and now in the face of this high level of success later in life, he still maintains a humility and appreciation for all of the adulation that he’s receiving now and the opportunities, really, to play more and more roles that might not have been offered to him in the past.

He’s a super-generous actor, and as kind and as sweet as he is when the camera’s not rolling, as soon as that light goes on, he becomes a heavyweight fighter. And if you plan on going toe-to-toe to him, you have to come prepared. Actually, Brad Furman, the director, forewarned me of that. He said, “You’re going to be bowled over by Bryan’s sweetness and it’s truly a dear quality of his personality, but don’t be lulled by that because he’s going to come out swinging.” And sure enough he did, and I think he does a brilliant portrayal.

NEXT: Bryan Cranston Interview For The Infiltrator

The Infiltrator opens in U.S. theaters July 13, 2016.

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