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Wagner Moura’s Unsettling Experience Filming ‘Civil War’: “I Just Laid Down in the Grass and Cried”

In Civil War, the grisly, cautionary new film from A24 and Alex Garland, there’s a scene toward the end of the second act in which a machine gun-toting Jesse Plemons asks Wagner Moura, “What kind of American are you?” When Moura was filming in Atlanta two years ago, the stomach-turning threat inherent in the line awoke a latent nightmare in the actor. “I’m an American citizen, but I speak with an accent and I’m not from here,” says Moura. “It made me start thinking about, ‘What if I’m driving somewhere deep in the U.S. and I stop at a gas station and someone asks me where I’m from or what I’m doing there? How would I react?’”

Moura, who launched a successful acting career in his native Brazil before breaking out more widely with his role as Pablo Escobar in Narcos, stars — along with Kirsten Dunst, Cailee Spaeny and Stephen McKinley Henderson — as a Reuters journalist documenting the end of American democracy as we know it. The film’s discourse has, in large part, preceded its April 12 release. Its SXSW premiere had viewers simultaneously exhilarated and terrified by the ways Garland depicts the consequences of a nation’s deep divisions.

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Over fountain sodas in the THR cafeteria, Moura (who went to journalism school before becoming an actor) speaks with passion about his love for the film’s quality and for his co-stars but is somber when reflecting on its real-life implications and understands how deeply it can affect viewers. “I was really destroyed afterward,” he says, returning to the scene with Plemons. “We filmed that part for two days, and afterward I just laid down in the grass and cried.”

Wagner Moura was photographed March 19 at PMC Studios in Los Angeles.
Wagner Moura was photographed March 19 at PMC Studios in Los Angeles.

A lot of people have been talking about the backstory — or lack thereof — to the onscreen civil war, and how Texas and California came to team up. Did Alex give you actors more info than viewers?

He didn’t. I think it’s a great move in terms of script-writing, but also, when I think of the movies I’ve seen about American troops in Iraq or Afghanistan, they don’t explain the situation. They’re just there, and then the action takes place. And I think it’s smart that he doesn’t have an ideological agenda. People are expecting the war to be along liberal or conservative lines, and it’s more about war in general and how horrible the aftermath of a polarized situation can be. I don’t believe in saying that a film has a certain message because everyone has their own read, but to me it’s about the horror of war.

Did you need to create any sort of backstory for your character, Joel, in order to play him effectively? What sorts of understanding did you have for his motivations as a journalist or as a citizen going through the war himself?

I actually studied journalism in college, and I worked as a journalist at the beginning of my career. But I didn’t actually play one as an actor until I did a series called Shining Girls, with Elisabeth Moss. Most of my best friends are journalists, so I reached out to people while I prepared for that role. But that was investigative, and war journalism is a whole other thing — the experiences they go through in war zones, it’s similar to what happens to soldiers. They come home and shit stops making sense. To prepare for this movie I read many books about combat journalism, and my friends put me in touch with some people to talk to. I wasn’t looking for an intellectual understanding of the character so much as the feeling he would have in his body. What do you feel as a civilian in a war zone? I learned that, mostly, time passes very differently.

What did you know about this movie before you started conversations about being in it?

Nothing until I read the script, and the first time I read it I really felt this was no ordinary project. I’m a very political person — the only film I’ve directed so far was also a very political film — so this was very much my thing. I remember I was staying in a house in Laurel Canyon during the pandemic, and I did a Zoom call with Alex and we really connected. We’d met before, when he was casting another movie. That hadn’t worked out for me, but this time Alex said, “Listen, I want you in the film. I have to talk to A24, but you are who I want.”

How did filming this affect you in comparison to past work?

Please don’t feel this is some actor bullshit, because it’s totally true for me. When I did Narcos, which was heavy shit, I would do scenes where I’m killing or doing horrible things, I would end the scene, and my mind would move on. I’d think, “I’m going to have a beer or I have to call my son or I have to pay that bill.” But my body doesn’t know that I’ve moved on. I’d go to grab a Coors, and the glass in my hand is shaking like crazy. That doesn’t go away, and it takes a toll.

How long did it take after wrapping Civil War for you to go back to normal?

I don’t know. Somehow, it’s still there.

Particularly in the third act, which I won’t spoil for people, this work seems quite physical.

Some of the actors used earplugs on set, but I wanted to hear — and feel — every boom. It was very demanding, and when we were filming those scenes at the end, Cailee and I had a habit of running around to warm up in between takes. Your body really has to inform you.

Are you thinking about our political climate differently now?

I’m a liberal, left-wing dude. I always had a more confrontational attitude about it. Very “fuck you.” But now, I’m really trying to listen to people who think differently. As long as you’re not racist or homophobic or any of that crazy shit, if you just think that the state should deal with things differently, I’m willing to talk with you. I’m a jujitsu guy, and in that community most people are very conservative. I’m trying to talk less and listen more.

I read some quotes from Alex where he points out that on its definitional level, democratic versus republic is meant to just be based on your opinions about how the government should make decisions, but we’ve turned it into this holistic descriptor.

I think we really have to avoid that. I said something during our SXSW panel that might sound controversial. I’m from Brazil, and it’s very polarized too. We had a similar reaction to our last election, where people didn’t accept the results and invaded, but the country was very quick in sending people to jail because they were under a heavy dictatorship for 20 years. They know what an authoritarian regime is; I was born during that period. They understand that democracy is not a given. I think sometimes Americans take democracy for granted because they’re so used to it. I care about this country and what happens to its government. I know that’s why Civil War is scary. It’s not an alien invasion, like Independence Day. It feels too realistic.

Something that struck me was seeing these images that we’ve become almost desensitized to in other countries — what’s happening in Gaza currently, for example — happen right here to people who could be us.

There’s a cognitive dissonance, and you can’t have that when you watch this.

How did the main cast work together and get through the shoot?

Seventy percent of the movie we’re in a car, just the four of us — me, Kirsten, Cailee, Stephen. That could have gone badly, but it was a joy. Kirsten — and Jesse — they’re such grounded people. Stephen is such a good human being, and I learned so much from him. And Cailee was just very cool. She was into old music like Dolly Parton, and she played American songs from the ’50s that I didn’t know. And I played her Brazilian music.

What will make this movie, and this experience, feel like a success to you (or does it already)?

I’m proud of this film. I always try to do things that are important to me as a citizen and artist, or that I’ll learn from. Things don’t always end up that way, but I try. This, I think it’s the Holy Grail. It’s a blockbuster that people are going to see, and it’s got something to say. I also think about exposure — if people are going to see me. I became a popular actor in Brazil, and then I did Narcos, which became a hit, so I took success for granted. Now, I think about how I need to enjoy it all. We don’t know how Civil War is going to be received, but it already feels like a big achievement.

This story first appeared in the March 27 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.

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