Pedro Pascal on Fame and ‘The Mandalorian’: ‘Can We Cut the S— and Talk About the Child?’

Photographs by Beau Grealy

When Pedro Pascal was roughly 4 years old, he and his family went to see the 1978 hit movie “Superman,” starring Christopher Reeve. Pascal’s young parents had come to live in San Antonio after fleeing their native Chile during the rise of dictator Augusto Pinochet in the mid-1970s. Taking Pascal and his older sister to the movies — sometimes more than once a week — had become a kind of family ritual, a way to soak up as much American pop culture as possible.

At some point during this particular visit, Pascal needed to go to the bathroom, and his parents let him go by himself. “I didn’t really know how to read yet,” Pascal says with the same Cheshire grin that dazzled “Game of Thrones” fans during his run as the wily (and doomed) Oberyn Martel. “I did not find my way back to ‘Superman.'”

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Instead, Pascal wandered into a different theater (he thinks it was showing the 1979 domestic drama “Kramer vs. Kramer,” but, again, he was 4). In his shock and bewilderment at being lost, he curled up into an open seat and fell asleep. When he woke up, the movie was over, the theater was empty, and his parents were standing over him. To his surprise, they seemed rather calm, but another detail sticks out even more.

“I know that they finished their movie,” he says, bending over in laughter. “My sister was trying to get a rise out of me by telling me, ‘This happened and that happened and then Superman did this and then, you know, the earthquake and spinning around the planet.'” In the face of such relentless sibling mockery, Pascal did the only logical thing: “I said, ‘All that happened in my movie too.'”

He had no way of knowing it at the time, of course, but some 40 years later, Pascal would in fact get the chance to star in a movie alongside a DC Comics superhero — not to mention battle Stormtroopers and, er, face off against the most formidable warrior in Westeros. After his breakout on “Game of Thrones,” he became an instant get-me-that-guy sensation, mostly as headstrong, taciturn men of action — from chasing drug traffickers in Colombia for three seasons on Netflix’s “Narcos” to squaring off against Denzel Washington in “The Equalizer 2.”

This year, though, Pascal finds himself poised for the kind of marquee career he’s spent a lifetime dreaming about. On Oct. 30, he’ll return for Season 2 as the title star of “The Mandalorian,” Lucasfilm’s light-speed hit “Star Wars” series for Disney Plus that earned 15 Emmy nominations, including best drama, in its first season. And then on Dec. 25 — COVID-19 depending — he’ll play the slippery comic book villain Maxwell Lord opposite Gal Gadot, Chris Pine and Kristen Wiig in “Wonder Woman 1984.”

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The roles are at once wildly divergent and the best showcase yet for Pascal’s elastic talents. In “The Mandalorian,” he must hide his face — and, in some episodes, his whole body — in a performance that pushes minimalism and restraint to an almost ascetic ideal. In “Wonder Woman 1984,” by stark contrast, he is delivering the kind of big, broad bad-guy character that populated the 1980s popcorn spectaculars of his youth.

“I continually am so surprised when everybody pegs him as such a serious guy,” says “Wonder Woman 1984” director Patty Jenkins. “I have to say, Pedro is one of the most appealing people I have known. He instantly becomes someone that everybody invites over and you want to have around and you want to talk to.”

Talk with Pascal for just five minutes — even when he’s stuck in his car because he ran out of time running errands before his flight to make it to the set of a Nicolas Cage movie in Budapest — and you get an immediate sense of what Jenkins is talking about. Before our interview really starts, Pascal points out, via Zoom, that my dog is licking his nether regions in the background. “Don’t stop him!” he says with an almost naughty reproach. “Let him live his life!”

Over our three such conversations, it’s also clear that Pascal’s great good humor and charm have been at once ballast for a number of striking hardships, and a bulwark that makes his hard-won success a challenge for him to fully accept.

Before Pascal knew anything about “The Mandalorian,” its showrunner and executive producer Jon Favreau knew he wanted Pascal to star in it.

“He feels very much like a classic movie star in his charm and his delivery,” says Favreau. “And he’s somebody who takes his craft very seriously.” Favreau felt Pascal had the presence and skill essential to deliver a character — named Din Djarin, but mostly called Mando — who spends virtually every second of his time on screen wearing a helmet, part of the sacrosanct creed of the Mandalorian order.

Convincing any actor to hide their face for the run of a series can be as precarious as escaping a Sarlacc pit. To win Pascal over in their initial meeting, Favreau brought him behind the “Mandalorian” curtain, into a conference room papered with storyboards covering the arc of the first season. “When he walked in, it must have felt a little surreal,” Favreau says. “You know, most of your experiences as an actor, people are kicking the tires to see if it’s a good fit. But in this case, everything was locked and loaded.”

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Needless to say, it worked. “I hope this doesn’t sound like me fashioning myself like I’m, you know, so smart, but I agreed to do this [show] because the impression I had when I had my first meeting was that this is the next big s—,” Pascal says with a laugh.

Favreau’s determination to cast Pascal, however, put the actor in a tricky situation: Pascal’s own commitments to make “Wonder Woman 1984” in London and to perform in a Broadway run of “King Lear” with Glenda Jackson barreled right into the production schedule for “The Mandalorian.” Some scenes on the show, and in at least one case a full episode, would need to lean on the anonymity of the title character more than anyone had quite planned, with two stunt performers — Brendan Wayne and Lateef Crowder — playing Mando on set and Pascal dubbing in the dialogue months later.

Pascal was already being asked to smother one of his best tools as an actor, extraordinarily uncommon for anyone shouldering the newest iteration of a global live-action franchise. (Imagine Robert Downey Jr. only playing Iron Man while wearing a mask — you can’t!) Now he had to hand over control of Mando’s body to other performers too. Some actors would have walked away. Pascal didn’t.

“If there were more than just a couple of pages of a one-on-one scene, I did feel uneasy about not, in some instances, being able to totally author that,” he says. “But it was so easy in such a sort of practical and unexciting way for it to be up to them. When you’re dealing with a franchise as large as this, you are such a passenger to however they’re going to carve it out. It’s just so specific. It’s ‘Star Wars.'” (For Season 2, Pascal says he was on the set far more, though he still sat out many of Mando’s stunts.)

“The Mandalorian” was indeed the next big s—, helping to catapult the launch of Disney Plus to 26.5 million subscribers in its first six weeks. With the “Star Wars” movies frozen in carbonite until 2023 (at least), I noted offhand that he’s now effectively the face of one of the biggest pop-culture franchises in the world. Pascal could barely suppress rolling his eyes.

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“I mean, come on, there isn’t a face!” he says with a laugh that feels maybe a little forced. “If you want to say, ‘You’re the silhouette’ — which is also a team effort — then, yeah.” He pauses. “Can we just cut the s— and talk about the Child?”

Yes, of course, the Child — or, as the rest of the galaxy calls it, Baby Yoda. Pascal first saw the incandescently cute creature during his download of “Mandalorian” storyboards in that initial meeting with Favreau. “Literally, my eyes following left to right, up and down, and, boom, Baby Yoda close to the end of the first episode,” he says. “That was when I was like, ‘Oh, yep, that’s a winner!'”

Baby Yoda is undeniably the breakout star of “The Mandalorian,” inspiring infinite memes and apocryphal basketball game sightings. But the show wouldn’t work if audiences weren’t invested in Mando’s evolving emotional connection to the wee scene stealer, something Favreau says Pascal understood from the jump. “He’s tracking the arc of that relationship,” says the showrunner. “His insight has made us rethink moments over the course of the show.” (As with all things “Star Wars,” questions about specifics are deflected in deference to the all-powerful Galactic Order of Spoilers.)

Even if Pascal couldn’t always be inside Mando’s body, he never left the character’s head, always aware of how this orphaned bounty hunter who caroms from planet to planet would look askance at anything that felt too good (or too adorable) to be true.

“The transience is something that I’m incredibly familiar with, you know?” Pascal says. “Understanding the opportunity for complexity under all of the armor was not hard for me.”

When Pascal was 4 months old, his parents had to leave him and his sister with their aunt, so they could go into hiding to avoid capture during Pinochet’s crackdown against his opposition. After six months, they finally managed to climb the walls of the Venezuelan embassy during a shift change and claim asylum; from there, the family relocated, first to Denmark, then to San Antonio, where Pascal’s father got a job as a physician.

Pascal was too young to remember any of this, and for a healthy stretch of his childhood, his complicated Chilean heritage sat in parallel to his life in the U.S. — separate tracks, equally important, never quite intersecting. By the time Pascal was 8, his family was able to take regular trips back to Chile to visit with his 34 first cousins. But he doesn’t remember really talking about any of his time there all that much with his American friends.

“I remember at one point not even realizing that my parents had accents until a friend was like, ‘Why does your mom talk like that?'” Pascal says. “And I remember thinking, like what?”

Besides, he loved his life in San Antonio. His father took him and his sister to Spurs basketball games during the week if their homework was done. He hoodwinked his mother into letting him see “Poltergeist” at the local multiplex. He watched just about anything on cable; the HBO special of Whoopi Goldberg’s one-woman Broadway show knocked him flat. He remembers seeing Henry Thomas in “E.T.” and Christian Bale in “Empire of the Sun” and wishing ardently, urgently, I want to live those stories too.

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Then his father got a job in Orange County, Calif. After Pascal finished the fifth grade, they moved there. It was a shock. “There were two really, really rough years,” he says. “A lot of bullying.”

His mother found him a nascent performing arts high school in the area, and Pascal burrowed even further into his obsessions, devouring any play or movie he could get his hands on. His senior year, a friend of his mother’s gave Pascal her ticket to a long two-part play running in downtown Los Angeles that her bad back couldn’t withstand. He got out of school early to drive there by himself. It was the pre-Broadway run of “Angels in America.”

“And it changed me,” he says with almost religious awe. “It changed me.”

After studying acting at NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts, Pascal booked a succession of solid gigs, like MTV’s “Undressed” and “Buffy the Vampire Slayer.” But the sudden death of his mother — who’d only just been permitted to move back to Chile a few years earlier — took the wind right from Pascal’s sails. He lost his agent, and his career stalled almost completely.

As a tribute to her, he decided to change his professional last name from Balmaceda, his father’s, to Pascal, his mother’s. “And also, because Americans had such a hard time pronouncing Balmaceda,” he says. “It was exhausting.”

Pascal even tried swapping out Pedro for Alexander (an homage to Ingmar Bergman’s “Fanny and Alexander,” one of the formative films of his youth). “I was willing to do absolutely anything to work more,” he says. “And that meant if people felt confused by who they were looking at in the casting room because his first name was Pedro, then I’ll change that. It didn’t work.”

It was a desperately lean time for Pascal. He booked an occasional “Law & Order” episode, but mostly he was pounding the pavement along with his other New York theater friends — like Oscar Isaac, who met Pascal doing an Off Broadway play. They became fast, lifelong friends, bonding over their shared passions and frustrations as actors.

“It’s gotten better, but at that point, it was so easy to be pigeonholed in very specific roles because we’re Latinos,” says Isaac. “It’s like, how many gang member roles am I going to be sent?” As with so many actors, the dream Pascal and Isaac shared to live the stories of their childhoods had been stripped down to its most basic utility. “The dream was to be able to pay rent,” says Isaac. “There wasn’t a strategy. We were just struggling. It was talking about how to do this thing that we both love but seems kind of insurmountable.”

As with so few actors, that dream was finally rekindled through sheer nerve and the luck of who you know, when another lifelong friend, actor Sarah Paulson, agreed to pass along Pascal’s audition for Oberyn Martell to her best friend Amanda Peet, who is married to “Game of Thrones” co-showrunner David Benioff.

“First of all, it was an iPhone selfie audition, which was unusual,” Benioff remembers over email. “And this wasn’t one of the new-fangled iPhones with the fancy cameras. It looked like s—; it was shot vertical; the whole thing was very amateurish. Except for the performance, which was intense and believable and just right.”

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Before Pascal knew it, he found himself in Belfast, sitting inside the Great Hall of the Red Keep as one of the judges at Tyrion Lannister’s trial for the murder of King Joffrey. “I was between Charles Dance and Lena Headey, with a view of the entire f—ing set,” Pascal says, his eyes wide and astonished still at the memory. “I couldn’t believe I didn’t have an uncomfortable costume on. You know, I got to sit — and with this view.” He sighs. “It strangely aligned itself with the kind of thinking I was developing as a child that, at that point, I was convinced was not happening.”

And then it all started to happen.

In early 2018, while Pascal was in Hawaii preparing to make the Netflix thriller “Triple Frontier” — opposite his old friend Isaac — he got a call from the film’s producer Charles Roven, who told him Patty Jenkins wanted to meet with him in London to discuss a role in another film Roven was producing, “Wonder Woman 1984.”

“It was a f—ing offer,” Pascal says in an incredulous whisper. “I wasn’t really grasping that Patty wanted to talk to me about a part that I was going to play, not a part that I needed to get. I wasn’t able to totally accept that.”

Pascal had actually shot a TV pilot with Jenkins that wasn’t picked up, made right before his life-changing run on “Game of Thrones” aired. “I got to work with Patty for three days or something and then thought I’d never see her again,” he says. “I didn’t even know she remembered me from that.”

She did. “I worked with him, so I knew him,” she says. “I didn’t need him to prove anything for me. I just loved the idea of him, and I thought he would be kind of unexpected, because he doesn’t scream ‘villain.'”

In Jenkins’ vision, Max Lord — a longstanding DC Comics rogue who shares a particularly tangled history with Wonder Woman — is a slick, self-styled tycoon with a knack for manipulation and an undercurrent of genuine pathos. It was the kind of larger-than-life character Pascal had never been asked to tackle before, so he did something equally unorthodox: He transformed his script into a kind of pop-art scrapbook, filled with blown-up photocopies of Max Lord from the comic books that Pascal then manipulated through his lens on the character.

Even the few pages Pascal flashes to me over Zoom are quite revealing. One, featuring Max sporting a power suit and a smarmy grin, has several burned-out holes, including through the character’s eye. Another page features Max surrounded by text bubbles into which Pascal has written, over and over and over again in itty-bitty lettering, “You are a f—ing piece of s—.”

“I felt like I had wake myself up again in a big way,” he says. “This was just a practical way of, like, instead of going home tired and putting Netflix on, [I would] actually deal with this physical thing, doodle and think about it and run it.”

Jenkins is so bullish on Pascal’s performance that she thinks it could explode his career in the same way her 2003 film “Monster” forever changed how the industry saw Charlize Theron. “I would never cast him as just the stoic, quiet guy,” Jenkins says. “I almost think he’s unrecognizable from ‘Narcos’ to ‘Wonder Woman.’ Wouldn’t even know that was the same guy. But I think that may change.”

When people can see “Wonder Woman 1984” remains caught in the chaos the pandemic has wreaked on the industry; both Pascal and Jenkins are hopeful the Dec. 25 release date will stick, but neither is terribly sure it will. Perhaps it’s because of that uncertainty, perhaps it’s because he’s spent his life on the outside of a dream he’s now suddenly living, but Pascal does not share Jenkins’ optimism that his experience making “Wonder Woman 1984” will open doors to more opportunities like it.

“It will never happen again,” Pascal says, once more in that incredulous whisper. “It felt so special.”

After all he’s done in a few short years, why wouldn’t Pascal think more roles like this are on his horizon?

“I don’t know!” he finally says with a playful — and pointed — howl. “I’m protecting myself psychologically! It’s just all too good to be true! How dare I!”

Styling: Sean Knight; grooming: Mira Chai Hyde/The Wall Group. Lead photo: coat: Prada; shirt and pants: The Elder Statesman. Cover: sweater: The Elder Statesman. Photo 2; coat: Stussy; jeans: Edwin; boots: Prada. Photo 3: jacket: Levi’s; shirt: Uniqlo. Photo 4: shirt: Aloha Blossom; jeans: Edwin. Photo 5: coat: Fendi; shirt: Aloha Blossom; jeans: Edwin. Photo 6: jacket: Levi’s; shirt: Uniqlo; pants: Our Legacy.