Lifetime movie Cocaine Godmother: The Griselda Blanco Story stars Academy Award winner Catherine Zeta-Jones as Blanco, who was a pioneer in the Miami-based cocaine trade.
From working with local drug runners in Queens, she quickly masterminded a way to smuggle cocaine from Colombia before moving to Miami to expand her empire, becoming known as The Black Widow. Blanco, who built a drug distribution network that spanned the US, was also suspected of ordering more than 200 murders in her lifetime.
In this DQTV interview, Zeta-Jones explains why she waited three years to play the character. She describes the film as “one of the best experiences ever,” revealing her excitement at stepping outside of her comfort zone to immerse herself in a character that “has no redeemable qualities.”
The Welsh actor also discusses the types of screen roles that appeal to her and why she chose to return to television, which first launched her screen career with The Darling Buds of May.
Cocaine Godmother is produced by Asylum Entertainment for Lifetime and is distributed by A+E Networks.
Catherine Zeta-Jones was the star attraction in Cannes when she attended Mipcom to promote her forthcoming Lifetime movie Cocaine Godmother. DQ was on hand to hear how she helped develop the series, how she transformed herself for the role and why she has now returned to the medium where her screen career began.
She won an Oscar for her dazzling turn in big-screen musical Chicago and has starred alongside Tom Hanks and George Clooney in films such as The Terminal, Ocean’s Twelve, The Mask of Zorro and Brit comedy Dad’s Army.
Now Catherine Zeta-Jones’s career has come full circle. After beginning in theatre, her big break came with British TV drama Darling Buds of May before she moved to films. But now she’s back on the small screen, first with FX drama Feud, which aired earlier this year, and now as the lead in Lifetime movie Cocaine Godmother.
Zeta-Jones plays real-life drug lord Griselda Blanco, a pioneer in the Miami-based cocaine trade who built a drug distribution network spanning the US and was suspected of ordering more than 200 murders.
The Asylum Entertainment production is written by David McKenna and directed by Guillermo Navarro. A+E Networks holds worldwide distribution rights.
Zeta-Jones last week added some star power to Mipcom in Cannes, where she spoke about the project alongside Patrick Vien, executive MD of international at A+E Networks, and Tanya Lopez, senior VP of original movies and miniseries at A+E-owned Lifetime.
Griselda Blanco was a vicious, brutal character – and that’s why Zeta-Jones wanted to play her on screen… Catherine Zeta-Jones: What drew me to this role was a desire to get inside the skin of such a woman with all those qualities. Usually in drama school they say you have to find some thread of yourself that you can put into a character. Well, this is not that at all and that’s what made it so interesting. A woman came from nowhere, literally the slums of Medellín, Colombia, and became the most revered, powerful, feared woman in the drug business, dominated by ruthless men. How did that happen? Who was this woman? So to be able to get deep into that character, get under her skin, is something I personally had’t had the chance to do in a long time.
For me, this movie [reignited] my love of acting. This is what it’s about. It’s all very good to be playing ingenues; it’s all very good and flattering to have your character’s name preceded by ‘the beautiful, sexy woman walks in, her name is …’ – but I always go, ‘Aw, shit’ because I know that’s way too much time in hair and make-up. With Griselda, I was able to let all that go and find the woman, find out who this woman was. [I had to] humanise her in a way that was unfathomable but certainly not to homogenise her or find some sympathetic quality to her, because I don’t think she had one. That’s why I thank A+E and Lifetime, because it would be very easy to homogenise and rose-tint this character and story, and I was adamant about that. I said, “Please, Tanya, let me loose,” and she said, “Go girl.” [Griselda] was everything I thought she would be for me as an actor – deep, dark, emotional, dangerous. [She is] unsympathetic in a way but, for some weird reason, I think our audience will connect with her or at least understand her.
Cocaine Godmother embodies what a Lifetime movie should be… Tanya Lopez: The message I want everyone to hear is we’re telling stories about strong, smart and, in some ways – and I really feel this about Griselda – badass women, with high production values and exceptional talent. That’s where, as far as we’re concerned at Lifetime, the movies are evolving to and we’re reaching for. On this particular movie, part of it was shot in Colombia, in Medellín, and the idea of us spreading out and shooting these movies in other parts of the world is very important.
TV movies can bring an audience to stories that may be lost as low-budget features, and give actors the chance to bring stories they’re passionate about… Patrick Vien: We’re living in such an extraordinary period of television where the gates have been blown wide open for a group of artists who, if you go back 15 some years, might have been more about the motion picture business. If you’ve ever worked in a company that has a motion picture division and a television division, there is that absolute rivalry between the two. What’s brilliant about television is it started at a moment in time when Kevin Costner joined our company with Hatfield & McCoys and we saw many other projects – True Detective is another example – where suddenly [film talent] was coming into the marketplace.
The golden age of television is made that much more golden by talents such as Catherine who come to us to realise projects that we can bring to vast audiences through the medium of television. This film simply puts us in the league we want to be in. Everybody uses this phrase ‘premium content.’ Having Catherine at our side and this project in our stable means we are solidifying A+E Networks’ position on a global scale as a premium content provider.
For all her bad traits, Zeta-Jones found something strangely likeable about Griselda Blanco… Zeta-Jones: There are so many qualities about her that are normally just bad, just not right but, as a woman, there’s something sadistically fantastic and admirable about where she came from and how she was literally the boss in a very dangerous man’s world. You’ve got to give it to her. I know in some of our early conversations, it was like, ‘How do we humanise Griselda? How do we make people relate to Griselda?’ I remember saying, ‘Don’t worry, as bad as she is, I’m going to make people kinda like her.’ Whatever she did, the violence and the murders she’s associated with and eventually charged with, and eventually assented for, I kind of like her. It’s a very sick, dark sense of humour I’ve been hiding all my life and now it’s come out in Griselda.
The stigma of actors moving between television, film and theatre that once existed has now been broken… Zeta-Jones: I was stuck in the theatre actor box – it wasn’t just that, it was a showgirl theatre, it wasn’t even Royal Shakespeare. So I was part of that world trying to get out of that box, that pigeonhole. I eventually made it into television, made it into film and then if you got to film, you don’t go [back] to TV. That’s changed. Actors are able to do human stories [in television]; they don’t have to be robots in a $200m movie. As an actor, that’s why we do it – to have those international human stories that any culture can understand because they’re human. It’s human nature. It’s qualities that you have or, like Griselda, you don’t have but the fundamental bottom line is they’re human stories – and on TV we’re able to have the time to be able to take those stories out.
The star underwent a huge physical transformation to play Griselda Blanco and relished immersing herself in the character… Zeta-Jones: Griselda had a very specific face. It was a very interesting face. I didn’t want to do a caricature so that people who never even knew who Griselda Blanco was would see a picture of her and say, ‘She’s not very good, she looks nothing like her.’ I didn’t want to do that. I wanted to get under the skin of this woman. But I wanted to have a transformation – I gained weight, I put my back out the week after I finished shooting. I’m an ex-dancer so I always have a straight back, but my pelvis was forward, I was hunched, I was a bit like a man – if I had balls, I’d grab them from time to time. So that whole transformation was something I lived through every day.
I love my husband and my kids but I was so glad to be on my own on location, to immerse myself in this woman. So I pretty much was walking around feeling like Griselda for the whole length of the shoot, and then I put my back out. But I don’t care – it was worth it. I wanted to let it all hang out. Griselda didn’t care; she thought she was beautiful. She was a movie star, starring in her own movie, and she didn’t give a shit what other people thought. I wanted to have that attitude, that mentality, not to do a caricature of the mugshot people only ever see of her. She was glamorous, she was a bit of a recluse, she was a shopaholic, she was an addict. Everything in excess. She had rooms of clothes, bags, shoes and she never went out – only to kill people. It was a fascinating character to immerse myself in, very liberating. I didn’t care that my eyes were puffy, I was really hoping I was having a puffy day on the shoot.
Her career has now gone full circle – “a wonderful circle” – as she returns to the medium that made her name… Zeta-Jones: I’d only done theatre before and then I was cast in [ITV drama] The Darling Buds of May. We did six hours for two years with our legend of a television actor, Sir David Jason. That was the first thing I did on screen. I was a complete unknown and, within an hour of television, my life changed completely. Then I was in France doing films with Philippe de Broca and Édouard Molinaro. Then I went to the States and auditioned for a whole bunch of stuff, but nothing was really coming to fruition. But I was cast in the TV version of Titanic. All I wanted was to be Kate Winslet opposite Leo [Leonardo DiCaprio] – I wasn’t, but I took the TV version of Titanic. Cut to Steven Spielberg watching it on Sunday night and he casts me in The Legend of Zorro.
Next time I come back onto TV, it’s the biggest stroke of luck because I got to work with the best people I’ve ever worked with in my career, and it’s Griselda, it’s Cocaine Godmother. I feel very happy, lucky and blessed to be back in a medium which I felt very comfortable in, at home in, and what was really the start of my career. Even though I did theatre since I was nine years old in Britain and played leads in West End shows, I was completely anonymous, so it was The Darling Buds of May that opened up my world to TV and film. I’m very happy to be in a medium I feel very comfortable in.
The global nature of the television business was on show at Mipcom in Cannes this week as stars from around the world presented their latest projects. DQ editor Michael Pickard offers his thoughts on a busy week in the South of France.
When you first walk into the Palais des Festivals, it can be quite overwhelming to see the sheer number of posters, billboards and signs promoting hundreds of new drama series from around the world. The experience, of course, begins long before you have navigated through the security checkpoints, seeing as La Croisette is transformed into a mile-long red carpet of promotions for dozens more shows.
To be a drama buyer in the current market must be both a daunting and thrilling experience, with the opportunity to spend hundreds of hours searching for the next big hit and watching the contenders, whether they are produced in your broadcaster’s local tongue or a language from further afield.
What, then, can producers and distributors do to make their projects stand out from the crowd? Well, the quickest shortcut to making some noise is to add a sprinkling of star power.
TV movies are much maligned, but could Catherine Zeta-Jones bring the format back into fashion? She was here in Cannes to promote forthcoming Lifetime movie Cocaine Godmother, a project she helped develop and bring to the screen. The Oscar-winning actor also plays the lead role of real-life Miami drug lord Griselda Blanco, who was involved in the Cocaine Cowboy Wars that plagued the city in the late 1970s.
“Years ago there used to be such a stigma between television actors, film actors and theatre actors,” Zeta-Jones said this week. “I was stuck in the theatre actor box. It wasn’t just that, it was a showgirl theatre, it wasn’t even Royal Shakespeare. So I was part of that world trying to get out of that box, that pigeonhole. I eventually made it into television, made it into film – and then if you got to film, you don’t go [back] to TV.
“That’s changed. Actors are able to do human stories [in television], they don’t have to be robots in a $200m movie. As an actor, that’s why we do it – to have those international human stories that any culture can understand because they’re human. It’s human nature. It’s qualities that you have or, like Griselda, you don’t have but the fundamental bottom line is they’re human stories – and on TV we’re able to have the time to be able to take those stories out.”
Adding an A-lister to a TV movie is a well-worn path for Lifetime parent A+E Networks, which has also previously cast James Franco (High School Lover), Whoopi Goldberg (A Day Late & a Dollar Short), Lindsay Lohan (Liz & Dick), Heather Graham (Flowers in the Attic), Harvey Keitel (Fatal Honeymoon), Susan Sarandon (The Secret Life of Marilyn Monroe) and Emily Watson (The Memory Keeper’s Daughter) in such projects.
It’s a tactic others are clearly employing too. Zeta-Jones wasn’t the only star to light up the red carpet this week as a plethora of other famous faces travelled to the South of France. David Morrissey joined fellow cast members Nikolaj Lie Caas and Eleanor Worthington-Cox for the world premiere of Roman-era drama Britannia, the first series coproduced by Sky Atlantic and Amazon US.
James Norton and Juliet Rylance were talking McMafia, Kristin Kreuk chatted about making Canadian legal drama Burden of Truth, Mark Strong marked his return to television in Fox espionage thriller Deep State and Philip Glenister was Living the Dream with his new Florida-set comedy drama.
Elsewhere, Jeremy Sisto (Ice season two), JK Simmons (Counterpart), Daniel Sharman (Medici), Jessica Brown Findlay (Harlots season two) and Jon Beavers, Michael Kelly and Darius Homayoun (The Long Road Home) were also enjoying the sunshine in Cannes.
What was particularly notable about this year’s Mipcom, however, was the truly global nature of the market. Japan’s Aoi Miyazaki (Kurara), Belgian actor Veerle Baetens (Tabula Rasa), Australian stars Claire van der Boom and Pallavi Sharda (Pulse), Turkey’s Erkan Petekkaya, Songül Öden and Dolunay Soysert (City of Secrets), Swedish actors Charlie Gustafson and Hedda Rehnberg (The Restaurant), and Zion Baruch, creator, writer and star of Israeli vampire thriller Juda, were also in town.
Mipcom’s Russian Content Revolution was also celebrated with appearances by The Road to Calvary’s Anna Chipovskaya and Yulia Snigir plus Gogol’s Yulia Franz and Taisiia Vilkova.
For several years now, the globalisation of television has also been represented by the types of coproductions being brought to screen. Jour Polaire (Midnight Sun) is probably the best example of two countries coming together in the last few years, in that case France and Sweden joining forces. But more ambitious pairings are now in evidence.
In particular, producers and broadcasters from China, France, Germany and Australia have teamed up for Farewell Shanghai, a period drama set at the start of the Second World War that recounts the shared destinies of a group of European Jewish refugees and Chinese characters in Shanghai between 1938 and 1945.
It will be shot in China in the English language and has been written by Radu Mihaileanu, based on Angel Wagenstein’s novel. K’ien Productions, Banijay Studios France, Breakout Films, France Televisions, Shanghai Media Group Pictures, China’s Holy Mountain Films, AMPCO Studios in Australia and Germany’s NDF are all involved.
Another global project announced at the market was Straight Forward, an eight-part series produced by Screentime New Zealand and Mastiff in Denmark. It is coproduced by broadcasters Viaplay and TVNZ, with Acorn TV also on board in North America and the UK.
Created by writer John Banas and set in Queenstown and Copenhagen, Straight Forward sees a Danish woman attempt to leave her criminal past behind by moving to a small New Zealand town to start a new life. It will premiere on Viaplay in 2018.
Perhaps it’s no coincidence that producer and distributor Banijay Group is central to both Farewell Shanghai and Straight Forward, utilising its production companies and distribution partnerships to bring these series to air.
The future of television was also on display, from Japanese broadcaster NHK’s stunning 8K presentations to the keynotes from executives at Snapchat and Facebook.
Sean Mills, senior director of content programming at Snapchat parent Snap Inc, talked about the firm’s desire for the messaging app to move into original content following the announcement it had teamed up with NBCUniversal to create a studio that will focus on producing scripted series.
The fruits of that partnership may still be some time away. More immediate are Facebook’s plans to bring original content to its Watch platform, launched six weeks ago and currently only available in the US, though an international roll-out is planned in the future.
There were audible gasps in the Palais’ Grand Auditorium when Facebook head of global creative strategy, Ricky Van Veen, revealed that the social media giant would be the home of the English-language remake of Norwegian teen drama hit Skam (Shame), with original creator Julie Andem showrunning the remake.
The buzz around the NRK series has steadily increased over the past year and it’s a huge statement of intent that Facebook has picked it up – though, in many ways, it is the perfect home for a show that is made up of short video segments that are posted at the times of the day that match when the action plays out.
At the end of the four-day market, it’s clear the drama boom shows no sign of slowing – yet. It seems unlikely that every series is making its money back, meaning it is inevitable there will be a downturn at some point in the future. Until then, the debate surrounds the new players picking up scripted series and the challenge of luring star names to help a show to break through to audiences. Facebook original series? I’ll be Watching.
The great and good of the television industry are once again packing their bags for another week in the south of France. DQ previews some of the drama series set to break out at Mipcom 2017.
Mipcom is often viewed as an opportunity for US studios to showcase their scripted series to international buyers. But this year the US will be jostling for attention with dramas from the likes of Spain, Russia, Brazil, Japan, Scandinavia and the UK.
The Spanish contingent is especially strong thanks to a major investment in drama by Telefonica’s Movistar+. Titles on show will be Gigantes, distributed by APC; La Peste, distributed by Sky Vision; and La Zona and Velvet Collection, both from Beta Film. The latter is a spin-off from Antena 3’s popular Velvet, previously sold around the world by Beta.
Beta is also in Cannes with Morocco – Love in Times of War, as well as Farinia – Snow on the Atlantic, both produced by Bambu for Antena 3. The former is set in war-torn Spanish Morocco in the 1920s, where a group of nurses look after troops, while Farinia centres on a fisherman who becomes a wealthy smuggler by providing South American cartels a gateway to Europe.
Mipcom’s huge Russian contingent is linked, in part, to the fact 2018 is the 100th anniversary of the Russian Revolution. Titles that tackle this subject include Demon of Revolution, Road to Calvary and Trotsky – the latter two of which will be screened at the market. Trotsky, produced by Sreda Production for Channel One Russia, is an eight-part series that tells the story of the flamboyant and controversial Leon Trotsky, an architect of the Russian Revolution and Red Army who was assassinated in exile.
Other high-profile Russian projects include TV3’s Gogol, a series of film-length dramas that reimagine the famous mystery writer as an amateur detective. Already a Russian box-office hit, the films will be screened to TV buyers at Mipcom.
Japanese drama has found a new international outlet recently following Nippon TV’s format deal for Mother in Turkey (a successful adaptation that has resulted in more interest in Japanese content among international buyers). The company is now back with a drama format called My Son. NHK, meanwhile, is screening Kurara: The Dazzling Life of Hokusai’s Daughter, a 4K production about Japan’s most famous artist.
Brazil’s Globo, meanwhile, is moving beyond the telenovelas for which it is so famous. After international recognition for dramas like Above Justice and Jailers, it will be in Cannes with Under Pressure, a coproduction with Conspiração that recorded an average daily reach of 40.2 million viewers when it aired in Brazil.
From mainland Europe, there’s a range of high-profile titles at Mipcom including Bad Banks, distributed by Federation Entertainment, which looks at corruption within the global banking world. From the Nordic region there is StudioCanal’s The Lawyer, which includes Hans Rosenfeldt (The Bridge) as one of its creators, and season two of FremantleMedia International’s Modus. The latter is particularly interesting for starring Kim Cattrall, signalling a shift towards a more hybrid Anglo-Swedish project.
While non-English-language drama will have a high profile at the market, there are compelling projects from the UK, Canada and Australia. UK’s offerings include Sky Vision’s epic period piece Britannia and All3Media International’s book adaptation The Miniaturist – both with screenings. There’s also BBC Worldwide’s McMafia (pictured top), sold to Amazon on the eve of the market, and ITV Studios Global Entertainment’s The City & The City, produced by Mammoth Screen and written by Tony Grisoni.
From Canada, there is Kew Media-distributed Frankie Drake Mysteries, from the same stable as the Murdoch Mysteries, while Banijay Rights is offering season two of Australian hit Wolf Creek. There’s also a screening for Pulse, a medical drama from ABC Commercial and Screen Australia.
Of course, it would be wrong to neglect the US entirely,since leading studios will be in town with some strong content. A+E Networks, for example, will bring actor Catherine Zeta-Jones to promote Cocaine Godmother, a TV movie about 1970s Miami drug dealer Griselda Blanco, aka The Black Widow.
Sony Pictures Entertainment, meanwhile, is screening Counterpart, in which JK Simmons (Whiplash, La La Land) plays Howard Silk, a lowly employee in a Berlin-based UN spy agency. When Silk discovers that his organisation safeguards the secret of a crossing into a parallel dimension, he is thrust into a world of intrigue and danger where the only man he can trust is his near-identical counterpart from this parallel world.
If you’re in Cannes, don’t forget to pick up the fall 2017 issue of Drama Quarterly, which features Icelandic thriller Stella Blómkvist, McMafia, Benedict Cumberbatch’s The Child in Time, Australian period drama Picnic at Hanging Rock and much more.