The late Colombian drug kingpin Pablo Escobar once said, “The only man I was ever afraid of was a woman named Griselda Blanco.”
That quote immediately sets the tone of “Griselda,” a highly anticipated limited series that is scheduled to premiere Thursday on Netflix.
Created by “Narcos” producers Doug Miro, Carlo Bernard and Eric Newman and “Justified” producer Ingrid Escajeda, the six-part drama series chronicles the epic rise and fall of Griselda Blanco, played by Emmy-nominated comedy actor Sofía Vergara.
Nicknamed “The Godmother” and “Black Widow,” Blanco used her lethal blend of natural charisma and unsuspected savagery to amass a vast empire as a cocaine trafficker between Colombia and Miami and become a central figure in the violent Miami drug wars of the 1970s and ’80s.
The coming limited series has been generating headlines of a different sort in the last few days, after Blanco’s only surviving son, Michael Corleone Blanco, and his wife, Marie, filed a suit in Florida’s Miami-Dade County against Vergara, Netflix and others involved in the project for using the unauthorized “image, likeness and/or identity” of family members, according to the lawsuit obtained by NBC News and reported on Today.com.
They also allege that the show’s producers relied on recorded conversations with Blanco without compensation. The pair are seeking damages “in excess of $50,000” and an emergency temporary injunction to block the limited series’ release.
Netflix and Vergara’s representatives have not responded to requests for comments. Michael Blanco’s legal representatives did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Ahead of the series’ release, several of the series’ creators and one of the actors spoke to NBC News last month. They shared how the show came about, how it centers two powerful women on opposite sides of the law and how it evokes a painful era in Colombia’s historic fight against cartels.
While working on the third season of “Narcos” in 2017, Newman got a call from Luis Balaguer, Vergara’s longtime manager and producing partner, who revealed that she had expressed interest in teaming up with Newman and his team to develop a take on Blanco’s origin story.
Despite having grown up in Colombia in the 1970s and ’80s and having tragically lost her older brother, who was part of the country’s drug-dealing business, Vergara said in a Q&A provided by Netflix that in the ’90s she knew very little about Blanco until she read a magazine detailing her life story nearly 15 years ago.
Drawn to the challenge of exploring “the making of a monster,” Vergara began compiling research in anticipation of the day she could play Blanco, who was released from prison and deported in 2004 and fatally shot in Medellín in 2012.
Miro, one of the co-creators of “Narcos,” said he was “blown away” by Vergara’s passion for the project and her understanding of what Griselda’s story said about her journey to Miami as an immigrant single mother and her fight to do well for herself and her four children.
Two women, ‘two sides of the same coin’
Miro, Newman and “Narcos” director Andrés Baiz pored over books, documentaries, depositions and news footage to learn more about Blanco and her inner circle, including her hit man, Jorge “Rivi” Ayala.
But the most important discovery was June Hawkins, a Miami police homicide detective who played a fundamental role in convicting Blanco of murder and drug trafficking charges.
Whereas past documentarians of Blanco’s life were unable to locate her, Miro and Newman were able to track down Hawkins, now retired, and her husband, who worked together on the case. (Hawkins is played by Juliana Aidén Martinez in the series.)
“I tracked her down because the idea that we had this woman who was a narco and we also had a woman who was chasing her was too good to be true,” Miro said. “Those pieces of research are just invaluable and show up in the show. When you watch it, it feels authentic, layered, textured and real, like ‘Narcos,’ which is what we all try and set out to do.”
In “Griselda,” Blanco and Hawkins, both single mothers who are constantly undermined by the men in their life, represent two sides of the same coin, Escajeda said. They “could have probably been friends in another lifetime, because they could talk about what it’s like to be women in men’s worlds, yet here they were on opposite ends.”
It’s a meaty role that Vergara, best known for playing the feisty, fun-loving Gloria Pritchett on the ABC sitcom “Modern Family,” has been preparing to play for over a decade.
‘Part of Colombia’s history’
“Griselda” is a dramatic departure from the previous work of Vergara, who wanted to completely “disappear” into her interpretation of Blanco, Baiz said.
But instead of imitating Blanco’s real-life appearance, the producers felt it was more important for Vergara to feel like she was simply playing a different person. The creative team used tape to cover her distinctive eyebrows, gave her more restrictive clothing to make her voluptuous figure less prominent and spent about a year and a half experimenting with different wigs and prosthetic noses, forcing Vergara to spend around three hours in the makeup chair every day.
Vergara met with Baiz, who is also Colombian, once or twice a week before filming to understand Blanco’s motivations in each scene. “We started asking all these questions about Sofía’s background in Colombia growing up in a very turbulent, violent Colombia from the ’80s,” said Baiz, who directed all six episodes of “Griselda.” “She started seeing that there were many aspects of her life that she could use to flesh out the character.”
Vergara and Baiz are not the only ones who share cultural DNA with “Griselda.” The large ensemble cast includes Christian Tappán, who plays Blanco’s accountant, Arturo; Paulina Dávila and the singer Karol G, who portray two of her most important employees; and Orlando Pineda, who plays her eldest son, Dixon.
Pineda, in fact, shares an even closer connection than most of his castmates. He did not realize until after he had landed the role that his father, now a general in the Colombian military, was responsible for taking down one of the bosses of the Cali cartel, one of Blanco’s direct competitors.
Pineda said his father, who has yet to watch the show but was “very proud,” was approved by the U.S. government and assigned to lead a special intelligence team specifically formed to take down the cartel.
“This is part of Colombia’s history — this is something that happened. We can’t ignore it,” Pineda said.
Baiz said that if you are a Colombian actor in the show, “you have an emotional connection to a lot of suffering that we went through in our country, but also, it was just a different time.”
Given that past anecdotes about Blanco tended to be overwhelmingly violent and sensationalized, the producers wanted to stay away from films such as Al Pacino’s 1983 classic, “Scarface,” and instead examine the many contradictions of Blanco as a deeply flawed protagonist.
“By watching her behave like a mother, a businesswoman, a lover, a friend and a criminal, you will want to understand her,” Baiz said. “But in that process, as the audience, you also would like to understand yourself. … That’s one thing I really like about antiheroes — it’s like putting a mirror in front of your face and trying to understand your contradictions, as well.”
Escajeda noted that a lot of “Griselda stories” were written by men.
“This relationship that she would have with these men was such a fascinating thing, because what was true and what was not?” she said. “All these murders that were attested to her — was she actually responsible for them? … Mind you, she was a murderer, there’s no debate to that, but they’d made up these stories that she was just a monster. If they’re not true, why were they made up?”
Despite stereotypes, a cautionary tale
Since “Griselda” was announced in late 2021, the show’s creative team has faced criticism over a drama that risks perpetuating stereotypes of Latinos as criminals and drug dealers.
While Vergara believes that criticism is valid, she pointed out in a Spanish interview that many of the studios that are greenlighting such Latino-led projects continue to favor such kinds of crime-driven stories — and she saw the miniseries as an opportunity to hire more Latinos on both sides of the camera.
As Vergara does, Miro and Baiz, who faced similar questions while making six seasons of “Narcos,” believe there is still significant value in telling Blanco’s story as a unique cautionary tale.
“Griselda can say, ‘I’m doing this for my children. I’m doing this for love,’ but there’s a craving that she has for respect and for being admired,” said Baiz, who reiterated that the intention was to “humanize” rather than “glamorize” Blanco.
“The things that befall Griselda in particular are tragic, and those are the results of the choices she made,” Miro said. “If we’re not allowed to tell stories that are tragedies, where characters make mistakes [and] make a choice they have to pay for, I don’t know what types of stories we can tell.”
Vergara said about her role: “I want the audience to take away how easy it is for power to corrupt people — beyond sex, politics, gender norms. The reality is that this story is about someone that was so blinded by power that it overcame any other motives that ever existed. She stood up to a lot of scary and powerful men. But none of that matters, because she ended up becoming one of them.”
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