Actor Luis Gerardo Méndez on Gaining (and Losing) 25 Pounds for ‘Narcos: Mexico’

Narcos: Mexico actor Luis Gerardo Méndez leans against a cop car in his policeman's uniform, as Officer Victor Tapia
Luis Gerardo Méndez as Officer Victor Tapia in the final season of Narcos: Mexico. “This season in particular hits close to home.” Courtesy of Netflix

Luis Gerardo Méndez was a young man growing up in Aguascalientes when the events portrayed in Narcos: Mexico were segments on the local news. The son of a doctor who worked in a Mexican police station, he was well aware of the crimes committed by drug cartels in his country and experienced the resonating impact they had on his community. So when he was offered a role in the final season of the hit Netflix series, he leapt at the opportunity.

“This season in particular hits close to home,” says Méndez. In the show, he plays Victor Tapia, a Juarez police officer in the ‘90s who begins to investigate the disappearance of a local teenage girl. Though the character is fictionalized, his storyline is based around the real murders of countless young women around the city at that time. “The situations and criminals portrayed are still relevant,” he says. “We all worked hard to be as sensitive, respectful, and authentic as possible.”

Despite being naturally lean, Méndez put on 25 pounds to look more like a Juarez cop at that time. Men’s Journal spoke with the Mexican actor about the two-year process of making the final season of Narcos: Mexico.

Closeup of Narcos: Mexico actor Luis Gerardo Méndez at night with the lights of Juarez, Mexico in the background
Courtesy of Netflix

Men’s Journal: What did you think when Narcos first hit Netflix?

Luis Gerardo Méndez: I was a huge fan before I joined the cast. It’s been my favorite Netflix show since binging that first season with Wagner Moura playing Pablo Escobar. I was blown away by the extraordinary cinematography, and also thrilled to see so much incredible Latin talent in a production that got so much support from the studio. It’s so exciting for me now to having landed a role in a program that I respect so much. The show is explosive and of course has all this incredible filmmaking. But it also touches on what was going on politically, socially, and economically—and still is.

Narcos: Mexico deals with subject matter that remains very current. How familiar were you with these storylines?

This last season is about all of those headlines I remember seeing on the news growing up in Mexico in the ‘90s—with politicians being killed and all these crazy things that happening. But with this show, even I am getting a deeper understanding of all of the elements and politics that were taking place behind the scenes.

The stories in this show are very much grounded in the full reality of that time. My own character this season, for example, is this cop who is finding all of these young women murdered in Juarez where he’s stationed. That was a huge story in Juarez back then—and, by the way, it’s still happening. Ten women are killed in Mexico every day.

This started back in the ‘90s because of all the drug cartel activity. There weren’t any consequences because the police were so busy elsewhere. Narcos: Mexico doesn’t just show the bad guys in action and the explosions. It also explains the consequences of everything—including the consequences of consuming. If you’re smoking weed in California, you aren’t hurting anyone. But if you’re taking cocaine, you need to be aware of what some people have done to get that product there.

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How did you first become aware of this role and that they wanted you?

The producers of Narcos: Mexico called me two years ago to offer this leading role in the final season. Of course, I was very excited when they told me I’d be perfect for the character. I went home, celebrated with all my friends with plenty of mezcal, and then about two hours later my agent calls to tell me that they weren’t going to be using me for the role. They thought I was great, but that I looked too fit—like I had just come back from a Pilates class.

They said that I didn’t really look like a cop working out of Juarez, Mexico in the ‘90s. I was like, “Are you kidding me?” I started pleading with them, telling them I’d do whatever was needed, and that I could change my body. If needed, I’d just put the weight on.

Their reaction?

They said, “Are you sure?” Yes, I was sure. So I managed to convince them. They never gave me a number—but I can tell you I put on about 25 pounds. Maybe more.

Dark closeup of Narcos: Mexico actor Luis Gerardo Méndez sitting in his cop car at night
Courtesy of Netflix

How did you go about putting on the weight?

I knew that I wanted professional help gaining the weight. I wasn’t looking to destroy my body, and spoke to a couple of nutritionists and trainers to first get as much information as possible. Then I started eating somewhere around 7,000 or 8,000 calories a day—a bit more than my usual 2,000. It was a lot of food. At first it’s sort of fun, getting to eat all this ice cream, pasta, and pizza. But after four days, you’re over it. I was eating a lot more of what I’d usually eat. I was also drinking these 2,000 calorie shakes between meals.

Of course, when I signed on I thought I would only have to carry on like this for six months. But then the pandemic happened and it ended up being a year and a half. I was locked down in Tulum, eating everything I could get my hands on. I usually take good care of myself, so that was a really interesting and challenging experience—seeeing what that kind of weight and constantly eating can do to your psyche. As far as my character, I wanted to make sure that I could portray the weight on the soul. Every night this guy is going out in a dangerous world with all of this economic pressure bearing down on him.

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The character also has to throw people around and gets a fair share of action. Beyond caloric intake, what kind of physical training did you do?

I put myself through a pretty serious training program because it was about putting on as much mass as possible. This cop isn’t just some slob. He’s a tough guy who’s able to handle himself as well, and has a few more pounds to get the job done. A few years back, I did a boxing movie where I really learned how to throw a proper punch. This time I was doing it with a different kind of body, so there were adjustments that I needed to make.

Did you do any technical training in tactics while preparing to play a police officer?

There’s a huge security team that’s always with us on the set. Because we’re surrounded by experts, former military, and security personnel, they were able to teach us how to shoot guns, bazookas, and everything else. Some of them were Israeli army. They helped us out with all of this tactical training. Even my driver on set was a former police officer in Mexico. He was giving me advice and tips too.

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Once you got the physicality right, how did you research your character?

Every character requires a different kind of investigation, but lately I’ve found that my process requires chasing down that actual person in real life. It’s not the only way I do it, but it’s my favorite—getting to see someone like that in the flesh. I then study them, learn how they think, move and speak. That’s what I did for this series. I went to Juarez with some friends to find this person—and I eventually found him.

This guy was a working policeman in the ‘90s when all of this was happening. I talked to him at length to understand the motivations he had during those days and learn from his own experiences. For example, there were times when he’d receive money in an envelope from someone he didn’t know. He took that money—which meant he’d do whatever needed to be done when the bad guys called him over the radio. While talking to him I also tried to pick up on his accent—because it’s a very particular one.

In addition to this character, I was able to bring some of my father’s life into the role as well. He was a doctor who worked with the police department when I was growing up.

Were you able to talk to your father about the role and hear more about his own experiences back then?

I had a chance to talk with my father about this role before he passed. In a way, this character is an ode to him because I ended up looking just like him in the show. My father also acted pretty much like him. Even though he was a doctor with the police, there were times where he was forced to go over the line as well—like going into cells to beat people if they were misbehaving.

One time, he told me, he was doing a night shift at the station and heard voices coming from one of the cells. They were policemen talking about how they were going to rob some bank. My father heard it all, but pretended he hadn’t. Two days later, there was a big bank robbery in my hometown. It was a complicated time. You needed to know how to handle yourself without getting killed.

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Narcos: Mexico actor Luis Gerardo Méndez
Juarez officer Tapia (Méndez) squaring off with DEA agent Breslin (Scoot McNairy) on the border. “We actually have the same acting coach,” says Méndez. Courtesy of Netflix

You share a great scene with Scoot McNairy, one of the leads from last season. What was it like joining the crew and working with him?

Scoot is a fantastic actor. I remember being so impressed as well with his work in Argo. We didn’t get to have too many scenes together, but that first one is important. These two guys are in law enforcement across the border from each other—one of them works for the DEA, the other is a cop in Juarez—but they’re having some very similar struggles. Scoot came to my house here in Mexico City and we were able to rehearse and work on the lines together. We actually have the same acting coach, so there are some similarities in our process.

Not only do we have tremendous actors this season, we also have incredible directors. One of them being Wagner Moura—who everyone knows from his role as Pablo Escobar in the Colombia seasons.

Moura also went through a body change to put on weight. Were you able to discuss that at all?

I remember when we met on set—with the masks on and everything. He came over and gave me a hug. I could see it in his eyes. He just said, “Dude, I feel for you.” He told me it was going to be a pain in the ass to get rid of it too. He also told me that I was never going to want to go through it again.

Was he right?

I have to say that so far I would agree. I don’t think I’m ever going to want to put my body through this again. Maybe I’ll put on some real muscle and enjoy the healthier way of going about it.

Moura used a vegan diet to lose the weight. What’s been your own process?

The first thing I tried was a keto diet, and that really didn’t work for me at all. I learned a lot during this process—mainly that you need to find what works for you. Not every diet out there is going to give you the right results. I also tried intermittent fasting, which also didn’t work because I’m a very active person. I’m always filming something, producing something, and running my mezcal brand Ojo de Tigre.

I ended up going about it the long way—counting calories and macros. I paired a dialed down diet with high-intensity training, cardio, and a lot of long runs in Venice where I live now. I’d also go into the ocean for long swims.

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How does it feel to be involved with such a popular show where people actually speak your native language?

Getting to speak Spanish in a show like this is a dream. I’ve been filming in the U.S. for the past few years. I enjoy acting in English as well, but it’s a completely different universe. At the end of a long day of filming in English I’m just exhausted because I’m not only acting but having to think in a different way. It feels right to do these kinds of stories in our language. I wouldn’t say it’s easy, but it feels natural and more deeply connected.

Narcos: Mexico is now available on Netflix. 

 

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