“I think it keeps you sane as a human being to do things that aren’t just about your own career.” -Peter Gadiot
As James in the recently premiered television show, Queen of the South, Peter Gadiot plays a character conflicted between his inner conscience and the heinous tasks he undertakes as the right-hand man of a cartel leader. In real life, the British actor stays true to his beliefs. From rowing across the Atlantic to writing and producing his own short film, he uses his influence to bring awareness to social issues in an effort to enact change in the world. Editor-in-chief, Indira Cesarine, recently chatted with Peter about his current escapades, the causes near and dear to his heart, and why its important to be more than just a self-centered actor. Check out the full interview below to get Peter’s thoughts on everything from Ben Kingsley to naked boating.
Indira Cesarine: For our readers that are not familiar with Queen of the South, what is the premise of the show?
Peter Gadiot: Basically it’s the story of a young Mexican woman who has to flee the country. She comes to America and becomes embroiled in a gang who deals in cocaine. It’s the story of her journey from starting from the bottom as a drug mule to becoming a queenpin and one of the richest women in the drug world.
IC: Can you tell me about your role as James on the show?
PG: James is a really interesting role for me, he’s very different than the characters I’ve played. I tend to play boyish, romantic, love interests and James is not defined by that romantic element, whatsoever. His main function is to be an efficient businessman so he’s defined by his job which made for a subtle but vital shift in how I approached the character. I see him very much as someone who is not on a journey of personal discovery in terms of adolescence. He’s someone who’s already gone through that journey and he’s on a different plane. He’s got a lot of weight to him, he’s quite grounded, he’s living in a very dynamic and dangerous world – a real world that exists right now. There’s not any kind of fantasy element to it which also grounds me in a lot of interesting truth.
The whole show in general is a take on the drug trafficking world and it very much shows the human side. It doesn’t glamorize or glorify it in any way. Essentially, I describe James as a good guy who does bad things. I try to play him from a place of goodness. He has his own morals, he has things he wouldn’t do, he has a code of honor. He’s not a typical bad guy. He doesn’t get any joy from doing things that other people might get pain from, and he has no violent tendencies. But of course, he has to do those things by necessity sometimes and that’s what ultimately defines him. He’s good at his job and he does whatever is needed in the moment for that. So he has that conflict which is very interesting. He has two distinct worlds, the inner world and the outer world. There’s the gap between the two that I try to fill with a lot of humanity and that hopefully comes across.
IC: What is James’s relationship with the woman who becomes the queenpin on the show?
PG: In the beginning she is still a mule. She is a Mexican woman who comes to America, and James is the lieutenant of the cartel, I call him the floor manager. He runs the day-to-day operations of the drug business and has a boss above him – the cartel leader. The cartel leader is having a feud with the woman’s husband in Mexico. So the woman, Teresa, is stuck in the middle. Sometimes she is put in my character’s care, so my job is to keep an eye on her, to try to gain her trust and also to educate her in the drug world. We’re kind of unwilling and reluctant partners.
IC: Your mother is Mexican, do you feel like that helped you to understand the characters in the show?
PG: It’s interesting because a lot of the characters are Latino, but my character was not specifically written that way. We made the choice to not make him particularly Latino, he’s just American. So in that regard I’m the only main character on the show who isn’t specifically Latino. Personally, even though my mother is Mexican, I was born and raised in the UK, very far removed from the Latino culture.
IC: Did you go to Mexico as a child?
PG: We did go, for vacations. However, it’s certainly a world apart. For example we didn’t know a single other person with Mexican heritage during my whole upbringing. Not a single one. My father is Dutch so he looks very Northern European and I grew up in a small town in Sussex, which is white middle class, so I certainly felt very far away. The only similarity that we have in England is Spanish people so some people would think, “Oh he has a Spanish mother.” It’s kind of strange to say that, but they really had no concept of what Mexico was where I was growing up. Going back to the show, the decision that we made was that James was not a Latino character so I did not have to investigate that side of my heritage. James is born and raised in America and just happens to work for a Latino cartel.
IC: I know you went to Drama Center. Tell me about your early initiatives to become an actor.
PG: Like most kids in England I just played football, or as you say, soccer. I did that with pretty much all of my free time and to quite a good level. Then I was 16, and that’s the time where you typically get signed on professionally, that’s the cut off. Unfortunately, I was injured so I didn’t make it and I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do. I was really interested in chemistry, I was really interested in politics, so I was thinking about going to university to do that. But then, I just tried out this acting class, a Saturday course that only had six sessions. I thought I would just give it a try and I didn’t think I would like it because I was quite a self-conscious teenager but then I was just like a duck to water. I just did it and honestly never looked back. My teacher there went to Drama Center, and I loved him and I loved the fact that it was nicknamed the “Trauma Center” because it was so intense and tough. I just wanted to go there. Fortunately, I auditioned and then did three super intense years there and have been working steadily since.
IC: I understand you worked with Ben Kingsley on the show, Tut. Can you tell me about that?
PG: Absolutely! That show was such a great experience. First of all, we filmed in Morocco which means that the dollar went further than it would in many other places. One day we had thousands and thousands of extras for battle sequences and it was so epic. We also had massive stages. It was so fun to be involved. I got to practice and play lots of sword fighting, riding chariots, and things like that. As you mentioned, Ben Kingsley, he is such a wonderful actor. Gandhi is one of the most breathtaking performances ever. With someone like that, you never quite know how they are going to be but honestly he was the most generous scene partner. I have nothing but wonderful things to say about doing a scene with him. He’s very present and it’s a real treat to work with someone so fiercely there in the scene with you and attuned to every detail that you give. His instrument as an actor is so finely tuned that you know that when you change one subtle thing you can see him react, he’s listening, which is so great.
IC: You also acted in the Prada Candy short film series with Wes Anderson and Roman Coppola. How did you end up getting cast for that?
PG: That’s actually a really funny story. I was here in LA, auditioning for something completely different. It just so happened that as I was leaving this audition room a guy comes up to me and goes, “Do you speak any French?” and I said, “Yeah, why?” and he was like, “Wait! Hang on a sec! Wait there, wait there, wait there!” Then his assistant came out and asked me to read something for him, I had no idea who he was. I ended up reading these audition scenes on the stairwell with his assistant taping for like 60 seconds. I left and really thought nothing of it but then sometime later I get a call from my rep saying Roman Coppola wants to work with you! It was one of those really crazy stories. I had the look that they were going for and fortunately, I speak some French and it just worked out. Next thing I knew I was on a plane to Europe and hanging out with Léa Seydoux and Wes Anderson and just having a lot of fun, it was great!
IC: How many shorts did you actually do?
PG: We did three. It was two best friends who were in love with the same girl. The best thing about it was that the clothes were all Prada so the styling was specifically tailored to us and we had the best couture and the best people working for us. We also had one of the best directors of photography, Darius Khondji, who’s done some of the most wonderful work where everything looks like a painting. Of course with Wes Anderson’s unique style, the way he moves the camera, he’s so specific. It was really fun to be involved.
IC: Tell me about the short film that you wrote and directed, 12-17.
PG: I’ve always been interested in directing. I’ve done some stuff in the theater, commercials, and experimental short films. To do a narrative short with dialogue and different acts was really just the next step. I just really wanted to do that and I think the best way to find a story is to write it yourself! I was very much interested in the story I came across at the time which was about young men who would deceive younger girls into falling in love with them and having a real relationship with them but then they would emotionally blackmail them into becoming prostitutes. It was such a brutal story, it was so shocking. It was not just physical but emotional, to take a young girl’s heart and twist it in such a way is just the most horrible thing. It’s called 12-17 because that’s the age of most girls who are trafficked. That’s shocking in and of itself. I wanted to explore that social theme because as an artist, I’m quite interested in real social injustice. I wrote it, produced it, and went down to Mexico to cast it. We shot there on location and it was challenging and intense but a very rewarding experience. I absolutely loved it and I want to continue to direct projects in the future.
IC: I understand that you campaign a lot against slavery and trafficking and you did Rowing Against Slavery.
PG: This year the world has gone a little crazy. There’s so much lunacy happening. There’s wars and there’s refugee crises in so many places. It’s tough. One of the things that I think doesn’t get enough attention is human trafficking and modern day slavery. I really felt like it needed more attention. I think one of the dangers of acting is that you can become a little self centered but I very much want to do things that are not about me. I think it keeps you sane as a human being to do things that aren’t just about your own career so I did this whole project. In the UK, and in America, we have this huge culture of marathons and things for charity but this issue wasn’t getting as much attention. I figured no one was really going to listen to me if I run a marathon so I wanted to do something really extreme to match the horrors of the situation. I’ve always been an athletic person so it just so happened that at this time one of the things I was doing was triathlons. So I decided that I was going to row across the Atlantic Ocean, run across the desert and climb a mountain, back to back. So that’s what I did. I rode across the Atlantic Ocean, it took six weeks. Then I ran the Sahara Desert which is 250 km non-stop with all of your food on your back, self supported. Then I climbed Mount Kilimanjaro to top it off. So that was the trilogy of the physical events I was doing. In between that I was going to lots of schools and talking to people and giving lots of lectures. Just, disseminating information, and being an advocate – building awareness.
IC: Tell me more about rowing across the Atlantic. How big was your crew? How big was your boat? I would think that would be really dangerous!
PG: It is! You know what’s so funny, is sometimes when I mention it to people they’re like “Oh wow! That’s great. That’s so cool.” Then they move on very quickly because they can’t really grasp the idea of what it is. It’s so beyond the natural realm of people’s understanding. A rowing boat is like the size of a car but it’s thin. I’m not sure of the exact dimensions now but it was probably about five feet wide and three times that length. There were twelve of us. We had three pairs of rowing positions, so six rowing positions total and that was the rowboat. We had one team rowing and then the other team would be taking a rest. We rowed for two hours and then we rested for two hours and we had that schedule for the entire month and a half. You never had more than two hours rest so we were massively sleep deprived. It was brutal. Your skin on your back side is worn off and your hands are like falling apart. Its agonizing.
IC: Did you have a separate boat with supplies? How did you guys eat? What about other basic needs?
PG: The food we had was all dehydrated in packets very similar to astronaut food. In the hull, beneath the rowing positions, we had space and we just packed it full. We brought out a little bundle every day of dehydrated food. That’s all we had for a month and a half. For water, we had a little desalination machine that pumped in the sea water and it was running on solar power. So that was the limited amount of drinking water we had. The toilet was literally a bucket that we used and then chucked it over the side. There were no beds or anything I literally slept on the floor and that was it. It was very basic there was zero luxury. It was a lightweight carbon fiber rowing boat and that was it. There was nothing too glamorous or scientific about it. We didn’t have a support vessel or anything like that. We just set out and rode all the way across the ocean.
IC: It would make an incredible documentary! It sounds like a mind blowing experience when you put it into perspective like that.
PG: Yes it was! I was very much aware of the physical toll that it would take but what was surprising was the mental challenge. There was literally zero external simulation. It was just limitless blue sea, endless blue sky. You kind of get the impression that you’re not moving. It was really weird. There’s a strange monotony. When we approached land, I remember this tiny little sliver of land, and I can’t even tell you how exciting that was. Then when we got closer towards the land we saw the ocean change color because it gets more shallow, then, as you get closer it becomes more turquoise, then golden when you start to see the sand. Then when you can see the bay, you can see people and colors that you haven’t seen in a long time! Honestly, it’s just like coming back from the moon and seeing the wonder of humanity. There’s all these shapes and colors and textures that you’ve been starved of. It was just an absolutely unforgettable and surreal moment to come back to land and civilization and humanity. It was pretty incredible. It was a tough thing to do but in a strange way I feel very very lucky to experience something so unique.
IC: I can imagine that it would put a lot of challenging roles into perspective. It’s like putting yourself through life and death, a man against nature moment.
PG: Yes, after coming back you have a lot more appreciation for things.
IC: So tell me what’s coming next. You’re working on Queen of the South. Do you have anything else exciting on the horizon?
PG: I just finished a run on stage as the lead role of Petruchio in The Taming of the Shrew at the Shakespeare Theatre Company in Washington, D.C. We did a full run for four months. I’m very proud of playing the lead role in a Shakespeare play, it’s a real honor for an actor to do that. I love doing screen work but I have aspirations of continuing to do the great works, like the Chekhovs and the Shakepeares. It was great and I feel really fortunate to have had that opportunity. It was like a 800+ theatre. I finished two weeks ago and now I’m back in LA. I do have something coming up but I can’t say too much about it. It’s something which they’re going to market in a way that they’re going to create an online presence to make people believe that it’s actually happening and that the people we’re portraying are real. They’re going to make real social media accounts and fake news footage of things. So the marketing strategy is going to try to create a real following and then they’re gonna have this story that’s gonna make people go “Oh! Okay.”
IC: That sounds like a very interesting project to be a part of. I imagine people will start to get confused between the actors and the characters. What’s real and what’s not?
PG: Hopefully they’re gonna let me change my hair quite radically!
IC: That makes sense, so when you’re walking down the street people don’t approach you thinking you’re the character.
PG: Yes, exactly.
IC: Going back to your row across the Atlantic, do you have any photos from the journey?
PG: I do, but the difficult thing about that is that we were naked.
IC: You were naked!? How did you prevent getting completely sunburned?
PG: The thing about having clothes is, there is constant salt spray from the ocean. So you can have clothes that are completely waterproof but then you are sweating completely on the inside and you’re also wet and rowing in really high temperatures so you would develop massive rashes. Then you can’t recover from it because there is no fresh water. If it’s not waterproof the salt will stick to your clothes and you’ll have skin problems. Your skin is just not used to being constantly wet and covered with salt. It’s so painful. So actually, they’ve decided that the best thing is just to not wear clothes and to wear really high factor sunscreen all the time. It’s the best way because if water splashes on you it will just dry off naturally and then when you get off rowing position you wipe down with baby wipes to take the salt off.
IC: I think our readers will love that story. It really creates a unique perspective on not only you as an actor but also a person and how far you are willing to go for what you believe in.
Interview by Indira Cesarine
Photography by Carter B Smith for The Untitled Magazine