How John Leguizamo Bet (Big!) On Himself to Play Pablo Escobar

Mark Deming
Movie Talk

Just how badly did John Leguizamo want to play the title role in the upcoming true-life thriller "King Of Cocaine"?

Bad enough that he was willing to spend $15,000 of his own money to prove to the film's producers he was the right man for the job.

That's how much Leguizamo paid for make-up artists and a camera crew to transform him into Pablo Escobar, the notorious Colombian drug kingpin who built a $3 billion empire out of the international demand for cocaine in the 1980s.

And now we know the investment paid off, as Leguizamo has officially landed the role despite initial reservations of the film's producers and Relatively Media.

[Related: John Leguizamo's Biography & Filmography]

Leguizamo, a native Colombian, has long been fascinated by the rise and fall of Pablo Escobar, who after making billions in drug smuggling became a powerful figure in Colombian politics before dying at the hands of police in December 1993. When Leguizamo heard Brad Furman — known for the Matthew McConaughey hit "The Lincoln Lawyer" and Ben Affleck's next film "Runner Runner" — was going to direct the project, he began to seriously campaign for the role.

Leguizamo starred in Furman's first feature, 2007's "The Take," and while that gave him an in with the director, the film's financiers said Leguizamo wasn't enough of a draw at the box office, especially overseas.

Oscar Isaac ("Drive," "Inside Llewyn Davis") was initially announced to play Escobar in "King of Cocaine," but Leguizamo wasn't about to give up that easily. When Isaac dropped out of the project, Leguizamo played his trump card: he spent $15,000 shooting a screen test in which make up artists transformed the wiry Leguizamo into the stocky and menacing Escobar, with Furman helping to direct the test. Leguizamo even posted pictures and gifs on Twitter documenting the makeup tests.

Producer Scott Steindorff was impressed but still wary. But after initially saying no, Furman persuaded him to show Leguizamo's test to two of Relativity's top executives, Tucker Tooley and Ryan Kavanaugh. When Leguizamo's screen test was shown side by side with footage of the real life Escobar, without identifying who the actor was, Relativity agreed he was the ideal Escobar, and Leguizamo scored the role of a lifetime.

Leguizamo's struggle to land the role of Pablo Escobar is nearly as complicated as the efforts to bring the drug lord's story to the screen. At least two noted filmmakers have announced projects based on Escobar's life. Oliver Stone was going to produce "Escobar," based on a memoir by Escobar's brother and accountant, Roberto Escobar Gaviria. Antoine Fuqua ("Training Day," "Olympus Has Fallen") was slated to direct, but the movie was set aside when Stone began work on his George W. Bush biopic "W." Fuqua is still said to be looking for a leading man.

Meanwhile, writer and director Joe Carnahan ("They Grey," "Narc") is also working on a film about the international manhunt for Escobar, "Killing Pablo," with Javier Bardem and Edgar Ramirez both cited as candidates to play the title role.

Pablo Escobar, as played by Benicio del Toro, also figures in Andrea Di Stefano's upcoming "Paradise Lost," about an American surfer who falls for a beautiful girl who turns out to be Escobar's niece.

[Related: Jim Carrey’s 'Kick-Ass 2' Co-star Says He Doesn't Understand the Star's Objection to the Film]

And Escobar has seen some screen time already. In "Blow," Ted Demme's film about American cocaine tycoon George Jung (played by Johnny Depp), Escobar was a supporting character portrayed by Cliff Curtis. And on the HBO series "Entourage," Adrian Grenier's character Vinnie Chase was cast to play Escobar in a movie called "Medellin."

While Leguizamo has shown a knack for both drama and comedy since making his film debut with "Mixed Blood" in 1984, his opportunities to play a dramatic lead have been few and far between. He may have had to pay to convince the execs, but "King of Cocaine" could very well be the vehicle that gives Leguizamo new standing.

"King of Cocaine" is scheduled to begin shooting on location in Colombia this coming January.

For more on Pablo Escobar, here's 10 facts you may not have known: