INTERVIEW: Josh Hutcherson on Escobar, Acting & Benicio Del Toro

There’s more to Josh Hutcherson than The Hunger Games. Not that he minds being associated with the exceptionally popular franchise, but he’s equally passionate about bringing to life stories that are perhaps a little less special effects driven. Stories like Escobar: Paradise Lost which has had its premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival.

Things don’t always move at the speed of light in the movie biz. Hutcherson read the script for Escobar two years before it went to camera, but he was immediately attracted to it. “It was like 160 pages, it was going to be like a 3 hour movie, so they changed a lot,” he recalls, “but I read the script and just fell in love with the story and the character of Nick.”

The story is that of Pablo Escobar (Benicio Del Toro), the real-life drug kingpin who is infamous as he is ruthless. Having had the misfortune of falling for Escobar’s niece while vacationing in Colombia, Nick gets a bit more than he bargained for as he gets sucked into a dangerous web.

This is not the first time that Hutcherson had worked with Del Toro. The two had previously collaborated on Del Toro’s segment in 7 Days in Havana. In fact, it is Del Toro who had requested that Hutcherson be considered for the role.  ”Benicio was actually a huge advocate for me and getting this part and believing in me,” recalls Hutcherson.

Del Toro is known for being a ‘method actor,’ but Hutcherson is quick to dispel any notions that the actor would walk around set as his terrifying sociopathic character: “He’s great. He’s really in it. But he’s in it in the scene, he’s not the kind of guy who when you’re between scenes is pretending that he’s Pablo. No, he’s Benicio. But when you get into the scenes he stays in it and he’s in the character and in the moment.”

Del Toro’s intense, intimidating performance presented a springboard for Hutcherson to work off of. “[His performance] was like my everything in this movie,” he recalls.

Hutcherson admits that he’s more than a little inspired by Del Toro. He looks up to him. “He’s a performer,” he explains, “He has a way of creating a character – something unique and special. It’s like he’s feeling every little movement in his body and knows when to turn his face and to keep his eyes down and when to look up. He’s calculated about and at the same time doesn’t seem calculated.”

Hutcherson’s own technique relies more heavily on understanding the character and then just living in the moment, but some of Del Toro’s approach is rubbing off. “Just watching him is like an acting workshop, but I still don’t understand how to do it,” he admits, “It’s like a different level of acting that I want to someday get to.”

If Hutcherson sounds more than a little in awe of his co-star, that’s just a fortunate parallel between his fictional counterpart. “Nick’s trying to figure out the character [of Pablo] and understand him and I was doing the same with Benicio’s acting.”

Not that Hutcherson is a slouch. A self-made actor, he practically grew up on sets, already paving his way at age 9. Still, the humble actor insists with a laugh:  ”The more I work with incredible actors like Benicio, the more I think I should have studied acting.”

Hutcherson’s resume is varied ranging from indie-minded films like The Kids Are Alright, to the mega-successful Hunger Games franchise that has won him flocks of followers, largely consisting of teenage girls.

“I love it [all],” he says, “The experiences are so different and also at the same time, a lot is the same.”

No matter the budget, “You’re still making a movie, and there’s still a camera, and crew,” he explains, “But I think with an indie film it’s lighter. You have less baggage. You can just do things more freely, move around quickly…and I like that pace of filmmaking. I feel sometimes on bigger films like the Hunger Games it’s like slow and you’re trudging through things and on indie movies you don’t have time to trudge. You have to like bolt because you don’t have money. So I like it a lot.”

One of the perks of working on an indie movie, according to Hutcherson, is that there are no studios to report to. “On set you’re really creating something and collaborating with the producers and director and writer and create things in the moment and change things and make adjustments,” he explains. With a studio in the mix, there can be a tedious approval process that’s more business centred.

No that a bigger budget doesn’t have its perks. “I also like the comfortability on a big set — you’re not so so worried if maybe it takes a little longer for you to get a scene, you don’t have that kind of pressure. So they are different but I love them both,” he insists.

Escobar is a unique film in that it mixes romance with elements of thriller and for Hutcherson it was important to capture the through-line of love in the movie and the purity that Nick embodies. “That’s Nick’s thing from the beginning,” he explains, “He came to Colombia for the love of surfing, for his brother and for the love of life and then purely fell in love with this beautiful local girl in such a positive way.” It all goes downhill when he’s introduced to the evilness of Pablo Escobar, of course, but ultimately it’s his love for Maria that gives him the drive to go through all of this. “It’s his only goal when everything starts crashing — to try and get out so he can just be with his girl and have their life together,” says Hutcherson, “There’s a certain naivety or a certain kind of purity that he has that is really beautiful.” Unlike the audience, Nick initially has no idea of Escobar’s true nature:

“He’s not jaded and he kind of comes into this thing with his eyes wide open and ends up getting thrashed around and I think that’s really interesting – a really interesting character.”

A stark contrast to Pablo Escobar, who can be charming one moment and murderous the next. “That’s the things about Pablo,” explains Hutcherson, “He was a guy that was so smart and so manipulative that he would bring you in close like he did with Nick and tell him that he’s part of the family and that he’s going to protect you and be there for you and really support you and then he’d ask you to do really fucked up horrible things.”

There’s one story in which Escobar had asked a friend to go on a plane to record a politician he was trying to get rid of. The friend was given a tape recorder. When he pushed the record button, the plane exploded – it was a bomb. If he can do that to a friend, imagine what he can do to an enemy.

“So just that kind of psychlogy. He is cold, can lie to anyone with a straight face…just cold hearted killer. Just really terrifying.”

So the lesson is, jokes Hutcherson, “Don’t trust anyone.”

(This story was originally written for Complex)
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