Blanco canvas

Blanco canvas

By Michael Pickard
January 19, 2024


Modern Family star Sofía Vergara joins executive producer Eric Newman and director Andrés Baiz to reveal how she transformed herself for Netflix drama Griselda, the story of a Colombian woman who built one of the most notorious drug cartels in 1970s Miami.

During 11 seasons starring as Gloria Pritchett in award-winning sitcom Modern Family, Sofía Vergara became one of the most recognisable actresses in the world. But for her first dramatic role, she went to drastic, back-breaking lengths to appear as unlike herself – and Gloria – as possible.

“The most important thing for me was to disappear,” she says of playing the title character in Netflix limited series Griselda. “I didn’t want people to think, ‘Oh, that’s Gloria with a fake nose.’ That was my main worry, and it took us a lot of tests. I was trying to change as much as I could without looking like I was in a Halloween costume.”

Vergara’s final hair and make-up routine would include a wig and a fake nose, teeth and eyebrows, while her skin was also covered in make-up. Clothing was used to change the shape of her body, and she adopted an unfamiliar posture when standing or walking.

“I put myself in a body position for six months, and the only time I didn’t go to work was because I woke up in the morning and I couldn’t get up because I was 50 [years old] doing this weird position, walking like that, and smoking,” she says. “The doctor was like, ‘You’re crazy. You can’t do that at your age.’ Now I have a problem with a disc from walking like that. I have to be very careful, and I have to go to physical therapy every once in a while, because if I forget about it, it comes back.”

Vergara plays Griselda Blanco in a series inspired by the real-life story of a Colombian woman who built one of the most profitable drug cartels in history. In the vibrant surrounding of 1970s and 80s Miami, Blanco’s lethal blend of unsuspected savagery and charm helped her navigate between business and family, leading her to become known as ‘The Godmother.’

Sofía Vergara as infamous crime boss Griselda ‘The Godmother’ Blanco in Griselda

Vergara is also an executive producer on the project, having been developing the idea for a series based on Blanco’s life for more than a decade while she was filming Modern Family. The actor grew up in Colombia during the era of the ‘narcos,’ but only started to learn more about Blanco after she moved to the US.

Ideas of creating a TV show about her life began to crystallise first when the real Blanco died in 2012, and then when Vergara saw Netflix series Narcos, which launched in 2015 and told the story of US efforts to capture Colombian drug lord Pablo Escobar.

“That’s when I was like, ‘They’re the people that need to do this project with me,’ because they know this world,” she says. “’These are the people that are going to make it happen for me.’”

Vergara says there were a “million things” she loved about the chance to play as complex a character as Blanco. “I liked that I didn’t understand many things about her,” she says. “I did [understand] a lot of them because I’m Colombian, I’m a woman, I’m a mother, I’m an immigrant. I have always been someone that wanted my own money, my own job, my own things. I don’t feel like I need a man – I want one but I don’t need one – so there were a lot of things like that that I knew exactly.

“But then also as a woman, as a mother, as a friend, there were many things about her I didn’t understand. How do you get to that point where you’re hurting people or where you’re doing things just for yourself, for your ego? I got the help of Andy [director Andrés Baiz] and a fantastic script to understand those things. It was great fun to become that person, that character.”

Behind the scenes on the Netflix series

Partnering with Vergara on Griselda was Eric Newman (Narcos, Narcos: Mexico), who created the series alongside Doug Miro, Ingrid Escajeda and Carlo Bernard. Having worked on Narcos, Newman wasn’t a stranger to Blanco or her exploits, “but she is a true anomaly in that there has never been a woman who achieved that level of prominence in any drug cartel ever,” he says. “Obviously that immediately piqued our interest.”

However, he quickly realised that introducing Blanco into the world of Narcos wouldn’t have been the best way to tell her story. “When Sofía called me and said she wanted to play Griselda, it seemed like an irresistible opportunity to tell the Griselda story as its own thing, to do justice not only to her story but also to Sofía’s spectacular performance as Griselda.”

It also presented an opportunity to flip the script on the way similar stories are told, by focusing on a woman operating in a traditionally male world.

“That’s what makes her different,” Newman says. “Men take credit for things. Men want people to know what they’ve done. When we were doing Escobar and [Miguel Ángel Félix] Gallardo and all of the Colombian and Mexican drug lords, there was no shortage of, often in their own words, them describing the things that they did.

“Griselda, largely because she was the one who actually had the courage to be based in the US, was very different. There’s nothing more terrifying to a narco than being extradited to America, but she was already there doing the job.”

The fact-based drama unfolds in the glitzy surrounds of 1970s and 80s Miami

Her initial motivation to start her cartel – to provide a better life for her children – also sets Blanco part from those who only wanted power and glory.

“She was a single mother coming out of an incredibly abusive relationship, an outsider in this country and an immigrant, so it was a completely different motive for us,” Newman adds. “It allowed us to tell a much more intimate story that takes her from an incredibly sympathetic place to a place where it’s very hard to root for her at some point. It was a welcome challenge for sure.”

Baiz was also drawn to the “multilayered and complex” Blanco and was impressed by the way she used her wit and intelligence to outsmart the men around her, rather than guns, threats and brute force. His interest in the character then led him to direct all six episodes. “That’s a dream come true for a director because you can put your own style into the show,” he says.

Andrés Baiz

Working together with Vergara, he pulled together a cast mostly made up of Latin American actors, while the majority of the crew came from Colombia or other countries in the region, ensuring the story is told through a Latin American lens. The on-screen line-up includes Alberto Guerra, Christian Tappan, Martín Rodríguez and Vanessa Ferlito, plus Juliana Aidén Martinez as June Hawkins, a Miami intelligence analyst who struggles to convince her colleagues a woman could be the leader of a dangerous cartel.

With such a Latin American influence in front and behind the camera, “we can bring our own upbringing, our culture, the experiences that we lived growing up in Colombia, for example, our idiosyncrasies,” Baiz says. “Imagine if this show was all in English, done by other actors. It wouldn’t have the ring of truth and authenticity this show has.

“We have an amazing team creating the atmosphere and the mood of the show. Most of us were Colombian, and we know what we’re talking about. Even though the show really takes place in Miami, there are scenes in Colombia. We had to recreate the 70s and the 80s from scratch. Everywhere the camera looks, it has to be from that era.”

Vergara says it was a “dream come true” to be able to work alongside so many Lat Am actors. “I hope that Griselda is for those actors what Modern Family was for me,” she continues. “You’re able to open doors to get agents, to get managers and have what happened to me. Some of them want it, some not, which is great, but for the ones that want it, I hope this is an important little step in their careers.”

The actor also learned a few things while making Griselda. “She always says I taught her how to inhale cocaine and to smoke,” Baiz jokes. “For me, a show can look beautiful and have amazing photography and brilliant design, but it’s the actors that really drive the emotions, and that’s what really matters. I’m from Colombia and working with Sofía Vergara, who is also Colombian, in Spanish, was an amazing opportunity.”

The role represents a major departure both dramatically and physically for the Modern Family star

Baiz and Vergara worked closely together during development and pre-production, the director a frequent visitor to Vergara’s home to go through the script and answer her questions about the character. “A director needs to be permissive with the actors and awaken their intuition,” he explains. “That’s the most important thing. I never say no to an actor’s idea, even if inside I think it’s terrible. I always try it out, because that awakens their intuition. I wanted Sofía to feel in a safe environment so she would say anything and try anything she wanted.

“Sofía told me stories about her life that I didn’t know. I told her mine as well, so we bonded and we created a friendship and a trust that is fundamental for the process. And then on set, we were already friends; we already trusted each other. Sofía can smell bullshit a hundred miles away, so I had to be honest with her all the time.”

Vergara describes Baiz as a “super important” partner during the six-month shoot, as she was stepping somewhat into the unknown, starring in a dramatic series for the first time.

“I needed a director who was not afraid to direct me,” she says. “At the end of the day, because Andy did the six episodes, it was his story and I wanted to do what he needed for his story. I trusted he knew what he wanted. I’m Griselda, so I was very open for him to tell me what he thought the character needed to be looking at or doing.

“I had a very lucky experience in my career with Modern Family. I had never had a previous acting career, really, and I had someone like Ed O’Neill [playing Gloria’s husband Jay Pritchett] for 11 years, who was my teacher. Everything I learned, it was mainly from him. And in this show, to have this Latin American cast, it was so spectacular. I’m sure some of them thought I was crazy, but I would ask them a lot, ‘What would you do here? What should I do here?’ To have Andy also telling me, for me as an actor was a big help.”

The show features a largely Latin American team on and off camera

Blanco’s story was previously dramatised as a Lifetime movie called Cocaine Godmother, with Catherine Zeta-Jones in the lead role. Now with Griselda, which debuts on Netflix on January 25, Vergara hopes to give viewers a deeper understanding of the woman who battled against a tough upbringing and little education to become one of the most powerful people in the drug trade.

“I am a Colombian woman. Usually we’re very loving, we’re very protective. We’re all about family and sacrifice. And also I knew so well the business of the narco trafficking,” she says. “My brother was in that business, I grew up during that era. I couldn’t understand how a woman could get to that point and be as good as those men. I couldn’t believe there was a Colombian woman who could be like that – and it was a real story.

“If you looked at her in person, she didn’t look threatening at all. Something inside of her meant she was able to do all these things. This woman, I feel, could have been the president of Colombia if she had decided not to go that way. There was something in her that I see in many Colombian women. But of course, they don’t go the way she went.”

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