You might not recognize Matt Letscher‘s name, but you definitely recognize his face. Having worked since the early 90s, Matt has been in everything from films to television shows to web series and everything in between. He can currently be seen as James Kuykendall in Narcos: Mexico which is being described by Netflix as more of a spin-off than a direct continuation of the previous three seasons of the series.
I got the chance to talk with Matt about how he got into acting, what his audition process for Narcos: Mexico was like, the research he did, how it was to spend time with the real James Kuykendall and so much more! Keep reading to see what he said.
Tell me a little bit about how you got into acting.
I was just looking for something to do. I had come to the end of the line when it came to athletics; I wasn’t that awesome at them anyway. So I just needed something to fill my time and acting came up. My high school drama teacher, Mary Martin, was hugely instrumental in inspiring me to continue past high school. She introduced me to all kinds of people and ideas and that’s where it started.
I was going to ask if there was a specific person or experience that you would credit with helping you decide acting is what you wanted to do for a living. Would you credit her with that?
I’d credit her with sparking my passion for it, for sure. In terms of giving me the confidence to go and actually pursue it, I’d probably say Uta Hagen, who is an esteemed and well known American acting teacher who passed away, oh, I don’t know, 10 years ago. Something like that. But I took workshops with her the summer between my freshman and sophomore years of college and, in two weeks, she completely transformed my understanding of acting and what it was as a craft and really the overall dedication one needed to be successful with it. She just said some things to me during that time that I just found to be really inspiring, not just generally but personally. I just felt like she really believed in me, and as a young actor, you need that kick in the pants every once in a while. You need that person who really believes in you to help you sort of make the leap and say, “Yeah, I’m going to go do it.”
You’ve had a lot of different types of roles on a lot of different mediums. Do you have an acting “bucket list” of things and different types of roles you still want to accomplish in your career?
That’s a good question because – yeah, in terms of form and medium – I’ve kind of done everything I’d ever hoped I would do. The things I’ve always liked the most have tended to be period pieces, something like The Mask of Zorro or I was on Boardwalk Empire for a season and even Narcos this season is set in the 80s. It’s just an additional challenge – to being in a different time, to utilizing a different dialect, to really being asked to extend yourself on all sides. That’s really what I’m looking for more than anything. Although my most natural medium is theatre, so I’m always looking for a good play.
You brought up Narcos, so let’s move on and talk about that. What was your audition process like?
The audition process was really simple. I just went in once for Denise Chamian, who was the casting director for this project. I’ve worked with Denise a lot and she’s hired me a lot. I went in, I knew they liked me. Then I came back in and they had me do all of the scenes I had done previously, again, but completely in Spanish. It was just Denise; I didn’t meet with any producers or anything like that. Then, I got a call saying that they wanted to meet with me in their offices and I still didn’t know if I had the gig or not. But I walked in and they just started talking about it as if I’m the guy and I was just like, “Okay, I got the job, I guess.” And that was it. From that point forward, I felt totally included, respected and trusted with this important role in this hit show that’s transitioning to a completely new phase. So I just hit the ground running from there.
Yeah, I wanted to ask you about that. This season tells a completely different story than the previous seasons. So where do we find ourselves in Narcos Season 4 or Narcos: Mexico?
Narcos Season 4 has relocated to Mexico [and takes place] about 20-25 years prior to the end of Narcos Season 3. We’re in Guadalajara, Mexico in the early 80s and we are witnessing the very beginnings of the first cartel in Mexico. It’s also the very beginnings of the DEA and their presence in Mexico. We see a lot of foundation building in this season. You see a lot of building on the Narcos side, where they’re starting to understand the power and profit of a cartel. On the DEA side, there is a huge reality check for that agency over the course of the season, where they realize just how formidable the powers they are going against in Mexico are and how limited their powers are.
It’s a total reset in a lot of ways. You don’t need to see the first three seasons in order to jump on board with this one, but there will be callbacks to those seasons because everything that comes up through Colombia ends up touching Mexico sooner or later and you’ll see people from the first three seasons too.
Were you a fan of Narcos before you landed the role?
Absolutely. I thought it was a really great show, really tight, a cut above your traditional good guys-bad guys fare in the sense of you’re dealing with historical fiction, you’re dealing with real people. And the way they’re able to mix in footage with stuff we’re actually shooting, it gives it sort of spookier air. I feel like they find a way to humanize people on both sides without really glamorizing them. I think that’s tricky in this arena and I think they do a good job of it.
Tell me about your character, James Kuykendall. What is he like? How does he fit into the story?
James Kuykendall was the special agent in charge of the DEA office in Guadalajara in the early 80s. He was there for the rise of the Guadalajara cartel, he was there when Kiki Camarena transferred down; that’s the role Michael Peña is playing this season. Kiki and James and a few other agents were posted in what was considered by the DEA bureaucracy to be something of a sleepy outpost. But the more they investigated what was happening, the more they realized they were completely overwhelmed when it came to manpower and what they were going up against.
So Kuykendall is very much a guy who is a believer in the cause. He really wanted to do what he could to shut down the drug trade flowing through Mexico into the United States. He was a boss, but he was a quiet guy too. He led more by example than by words, and I think over the course of their time together down there these agents got close as they went through some really tough times together and developed something of an extended family. And of course what ended up happening to Kiki has left its mark on James forever. It’s really a tragedy that he’s had a tough time living with ever since.
You were fortunate enough to spend some time with the real James Kuykendall. What was that experience like?
It was great. I went down and saw him in his home in Laredo and he gave me a tour. We went down to the border and I saw the Rio Grande for the first time. He’s got a treasure trove of memorabilia from that time and was really generous with his time and his memories. It’s the kind of thing where when you’re playing someone who’s an actual person you don’t necessarily want to do an impersonation of them but you want to understand the behaviors that go into his day-to-day life so that you can incorporate them and make the routine of being a DEA agent down in Guadalajara as realistic as possible. That just doesn’t go along with his job but what he did after hours and just the way they related to each other. He was hugely helpful with all of that. It felt like he did a lot to lend realistic flavor to what we’re doing on that side.
Was this the first time you’ve ever you got to spend time with the real person you were portraying?
No, weirdly I’ve gotten to do it a couple of other times. One time, in particular, jumps out at me. I got to do a mini-series about the Beach Boys and I played Mike Love, the lead singer. This was something that John Stamos produced for ABC years ago. So I spent a lot of time with Mike Love and it was a blast. And yeah, weirdly, a couple of other times I’ve played real people. I did a movie called Devil’s Knot, which was about the West Memphis Three, who were three boys who were wrongly accused of murder. I played one of the defense attorneys in that and that guy, Paul Ford, he’s still alive. So I’ve played Kennedys a couple of times. I guess it’s just become a kind of lucrative niche market for me, playing actual people. So there’s an added responsibility there. These people were all involved differently, from one degree to another, but you do feel an added responsibility to be as truthful as possible with it.
When you’re portraying a real person, how much of yourself are you able to put into your fictionalized version? Because, as you said, you do have this added responsibility to portray them as authentically as possible but you want to make the character your own as well.
I mean, you can’t help but put yourself into it. There are very few actors who can totally disappear into whatever they’re doing, but, by in large, it’s hard to suppress who you are. I think it’s a combination of getting to know the person and their tendencies [and] understanding which of those work for the story you’re telling, because the reality is we’re still telling a work of fiction that is just based on real people [and] the choices my character makes still has to serve the story. So its a little bit of picking and choosing, even if something doesn’t feel entirely truthful. Sometimes you might just have to go with it because that’s where the story is taking us.
As far as putting yourself into it, for me, I can’t help but just be who I am with all of this information – just sort of load it in and then act the scene as best I can. It’s a blend, it’s a balancing act, but that’s part of what makes it fun.
Aside from your character, how much did you know about the history of the cartels and how much research did you have to do?
I didn’t know a ton about the history of cartels; I knew what most people probably know from reading the news. So I did a fair amount of research. James, himself, has written a book called ¿O Plata O Plomo? which is Silver or Lead, which is a famous line that is actually attributed to a guy in our thing named Rafael Caro Quintero. I also read a book by [Elaine Shannon], who wrote the initial TIME Magazine piece on Kiki Camarena when he was abducted, tortured and killed. She wrote a book called Desperados, which was all about that time period, the lates 70s through the 80s, and the rise of Mexican cartels. It’s really a great piece of journalism and very complete in its portrayal of what was happening down there. I watched a couple of documentaries and even a couple of feature films because we hired a couple of Mexican film directors to direct a couple of these episodes. Amat Escalante, I watched his movie Heli which is indirectly about the Mexican drug trade. I guess I went out on a number of different fronts to sort of get a flavor for what we were doing.
Now that you’re talking about all of this research you did, how much time was it in between when you got the role and when you started shooting?
I probably had a month and a half. In that month and a half, I went down to Laredo for a couple of days and spent time with James. He gave me ideas on what to read and I also got ideas from the writing staff on sources they were using; they were the ones who directed me toward Desperados. I just did what I could do to get ready. But it was a whole other adjustment period too because we were shooting in Mexico, so you go down there and you’re in a foreign country and even though you’re staying with a bunch of other American actors, there is an adjustment process to settling in there. So, probably all in all, it took a couple of months before I felt like we were in the groove.
How long were you in Mexico for shooting?
Off and on for 8 months. We were there November through June of last year. We had some breaks in there for holidays and stuff like that, but for the most part, we were working very long hours. It’s amazing that we only ended up with 10 episodes after all of that, but I think they’re really good. And after 3 seasons of working down in Colombia, they have a very good idea of how to handle that show now. For something that was that large, I was impressed with its efficiency. It was a really fun 8 months. Really, really good.
Wow. That’s awesome. I’m very excited to see it. So last question — we’re called Talk Nerdy With Us because we all have an inner-nerd, so what is something you nerd out about?
Really the thing that — I was gonna say cultural event, and I guess it is that but it’s a bunch of other things too… there’s this documentary that just came out called Free Solo, which is about the free solo ascent of El Capitan at Yosemite by this climber named Alex Honnold; it was directed by Jimmy Chin for National Geographic. It is an amazing film. It’s not just a film about climbing; I mean this guy did this unprecedented feat. Basically, free soloing, if you don’t know, is climbing something without any ropes or protection. He climbed to the top, and we’re talking vertical rock face for 3,000 feet; I mean one mistake and you’re dead. And they decided to make a film about the process and everything leading up to this event and this event itself. It’s such a testament to the capacity of human beings to challenge themselves but also the capacity of other human beings to accept those who are different from themselves. This is a very different guy who chooses to do something like this so other people have to make room in their lives for that sort of person. I just found the film to be really inspiring, very moving and incredibly, beautifully shot. It was really well done. I’ve been posting about it way too many times. People are like, “Are you in this movie?” And I’m like, “No, no! It’s just such an amazing experience.” So that’s kind of what I’m nerding out about right now.