‘The Mandalorian’ and ‘WW84’ Turn Pedro Pascal Into a Full-Blown Star

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Anne Thompson
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Stardom never comes overnight. Take Chilean actor Pedro Pascal, 45. He has been steadily rising for years now, using his hard-earned theater chops to carve out a character actor career. And his breakout roles on HBO’s Season 4 of “Game of Thrones” (swashbuckling Red Viper/Oberyn Martell) followed by Netflix’s 2015 series “Narcos” (DEA agent Javier Peña) yielded even more chances to show what he can do.

Last year, Pascal exploded. First, he nabbed the title role in Jon Favreau and Dave Filoni’s “Star Wars” spin-off “The Mandalorian,” which launched on November 12, 2019, skyrocketing to become the first megahit lure for thousands of subscribers of Disney+. Season 2 premiered on October 30, 2020 to (presumably) even more eyeballs. Then came “Wonder Woman 1984,” which after several pandemic delays, finally debuted on December 25, day and date in global theaters and on HBO Max. Due to the global health crisis, it was not possible for the movie to become the Warner Bros./DC box-office juggernaut it was intended to be. (So far, it has grossed $141.7 million worldwide.)

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But Pascal is now a star, scoring raves as the movie’s megalomaniac uber-villain, greasy wannabe oil tycoon Maxwell Lord, who once he tracks down and ingests the Dreamstone is able to grant anyone’s wish. Which lands the globe in big trouble. We’ve seen this take-over-the-world trope before, but Pascal runs amok with Lord’s Gordon Gekko greed, grandiosity, big head, and baggy suits. (“He snorts and sweats and schemes his way through this movie like an addict on a bender,” wrote Justin Chang of The Los Angeles Times.)

Pascal is taking things in stride. We spoke on the phone from his sister’s home in Miami. “I made it for the holidays,” he said. “It’s the first time I got to see her since January 2020.” For Pascal, both roles were standouts. “I couldn’t believe the opportunity to have as much fun as I did on both those jobs. It’s a rare thing, you have so little to do with how it turns out. You give it your all. Both characters were protected and nurtured by their creators. I’m not used to this kind of thing, it’s amazing.”

The two characters are polar opposites, one restrained and constrained by a metal suit and visor and a strict warrior code, the other a rampaging id bent on accruing power. The only way Pascal could deliver them both was to rely on two decades of experience onstage.

Jenkins encouraged Pascal to go over the top, he said: “She demanded it!” At their first meeting before the script was finished, Pascal pitched the Gekko look. “I was excited by the idea of slicking my hair back, super-helmeted and scary, and Patty said, ‘No, he wants everyone to think he has that cool and polish, but that’s not who he is.’ Then once I got the script and saw what existed on the page, that anchored me to it.”

Pascal makes Lord accessible, “by making an animated character as human as possible,” he said. “He has a specific exterior, but he is trying to control desperately his interior. I was dependent on Patty. She allowed me to have permission for what my instincts were, and with her guidance to push even further. I’m, ‘I see it like this, this makes sense to me, this is what my body thinks this should be.’ She’s, ‘Yeah yeah! More and more!'”

For the first time, Pascal devised a scrapbook to help him fill in the character. “I took each script page and built a sort of ‘Wonder Woman’ collage pop-up book in a leather binder. I created a pedestrian art project around a role. I knew I needed to pay more attention to it than I had for any jobs for a while. It was a practical way of making me focus and not go home tired and put on Netflix. It’s 1984 and this guy is in his 40s. What era defined him? ‘I cannot be lazy about this.’ This was a way of challenging my own personal discipline.”

And while Lord does say, “I’m not a con man, but a respected television personality,” Donald Trump was never on Pascal’s mind, even though Lord lies constantly in order to promote his schemes. Pascal makes Lord a believable character, who is tethered even when he’s losing his mind, by his feelings for his young son (Lucian Perez). “You see the inevitable love that is there,” said Pascal, “and the humiliation in front of his child. That motivates his darkest intentions, out of pain.”

He saw the Trump comparisons coming, “of course, because of the hair and the power suit and my weight gain,” he said. “That visual obviously has a specific reference. But in playing it I’m not inspired by the reference at all. It wouldn’t have taken me anywhere. Of course, I didn’t have to think about other people. I wasn’t asked to. It didn’t come up in conversation. And personally, internally, I didn’t want to do that.”

For a kid living in San Antonio and Orange County “trying to watch TV all day long,” to an NYU grad waiting tables and chasing theater gigs, Pascal took his time to find his way in Hollywood. “I had to let go of so many ideas I had about what the pursuit of this career was going to be,” he said. “It’s a child’s fantasy. There were opportunities, a close call started early for me and didn’t happen. You find yourself in your mid-30s and can’t live off the next Off-Broadway show.”

That sent Pascal to Hollywood “to book some TV work, or maybe No. 7 on a TNT pilot that may or may not get picked up,” he said. “At that point, the dream was just about supporting yourself. And also not having developed any other skills, an amount of focus went into getting the next job. I often thought to myself, ‘I’ll do this until my body can’t do this.'”

Friends helped him to get in the door at Netflix and in front of “Game of Thrones” showrunner David Benioff. “He figures out who the character really is and then he portrays that man, scouring off all falsehood,” Benioff emailed Variety. “Plus, he’s really f—ing handsome.”

Looks were irrelevant when it came to the masked “Mandalorian.” Pascal, an athletic actor who is dangerous, sexy, and charismatic in both “Narcos” and “Game of Thrones,” was Favreau’s idea. “He can be charming and intense,” said Filoni. “All this street cred for fighting, you believe that. The Mandalorian is not a man of many words. That’s part of his charm. What he says is more meaningful, as he gets fond of the kid.”

Besides, with a man in a mask, it’s easier to loop in dialogue. Playing Mandy was “a team effort,” said Pascal, “four of us in that suit, with stunts. I relied on the years of physicality being on stage.”

While covering his face for the entire series was not an incitement to take the job, after one meeting Pascal decided to throw in his lot with Favreau. “I just knew what Jon Favreau was capable of,” he said. “If he was going to get involved in ‘Star Wars’ then it would be the best version of that. How could you not? Every wall in the writers room was covered with these immaculate colorful illustrations of the entire first season. When you got to the end of the first episode you meet The Child. It disarmed me so completely. If it brought the effect of that on a mass scale, ‘Oh yeah! Bullseye.'”

Listening to Pascal on the phone you hear that velvety Mandalorian voice. Mando, or Din Djarin, is a laconic and anti-heroic character inspired not only by George Lucas’s “Star Wars” sci-fi universe but Akira Kurosawa’s Samurai and Sergio Leone westerns, a Man with No Name bounty hunter accompanied by The Child, otherwise known as Baby Yoda.

Having survived Season 1 with his child intact, the Mandalorian battles through Season 2 and in the last two episodes (spoiler alert), in order to protect The Child, now named Grogu, he must remove his mask. “The entire idea of getting to inhabit somebody who, since they were a child, no human has seen their face,” said Pascal, “it was almost impossible to imagine the level of nakedness and exposure, the overwhelming paralysis. It can’t happen, but it’s a mission and the child has to be saved. It was a super-exciting dance of profound, incredible restraint and total exposure. I can count on my one hand the lines the character had. On the other hand, he’s desperately trying to hide in a room without a mask with his face exposed. It was cool and it was strange.”

The finale was another mind-out-of-body experience. Pascal was hyper-aware of the impact Grogu touching his face would have on the global audience. “At that point, I knew what it would mean for everyone to experience that kind of threshold between the character and the child,” he said. “We follow this story for two seasons; there’s this bond that grows between the two of them. He tries to not let himself soften, but he cannot help himself. This practical story logic brought something else about that moment, what it would mean to touch his face.”

Going forward, as Mando tangles with his past and the mythology behind the Mandalorian code, “as much as he says this is the way, that doesn’t mean this is the only way,” said Pascal. “I find it fascinating playing with that. We don’t know what he ends up being. He took his helmet off in a room full of people.”

What’s coming for “The Mandalorian” Season 3 and possible Mando appearances on the upcoming spinoff series? “I am told what’s happening and what the plan is,” said Pascal, “but I can’t share it. They are in the expansion of this world, where there are so many unexpected surprises and timelines that are going to be dealt with. If the character were to cross over into these worlds, it will be utilized in a way that isn’t meant to be expected. I wouldn’t want to spoil the surprise of whether or not characters from the show we already know are crossing over.”

Up next: Pascal just finished filming a new movie with Nic Cage in Bulgaria, “The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent.” “Not mine! Definitely his,” he said. “Nic Cage actually plays Nic Cage in the movie. He is hired by a superfan, played by me, paid $1 million dollars to show up to my 40th birthday party. Things get crazy from there. It turns into a Nic Cage action movie he is living and having to use his massive talent skill set to get out alive.”

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