Pedro Pascal had been working steadily for years — guest spots on “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” and “NYPD Blue” and “Nurse Jackie” and “CSI” — before he landed the role that kick-started his career: Oberyn Martell, aka the swaggering Red Viper, during the fourth season of HBO’s “Game of Thrones.”
His traumatic showdown with Ser Gregor “The Mountain” Clegane is what fans of the show remember most about Pascal’s seven-episode stretch. But it was a quieter scene in the preceding episode — a conversation with the imprisoned Tyrion Lannister (Peter Dinklage) — that sparked Hollywood’s interest.
“I was in New York doing ‘Much Ado About Nothing’ in Central Park when those episodes aired,” Pascal says. “Fans of the show had started to come see me in the play. The day after [the Mountain] crushed my head, someone asked to take a selfie with me while I was riding the A train uptown.
“But it was the week before, when that scene with Peter Dinklage aired, that I got the offer to play [DEA agent] Javier Peña on ‘Narcos,’ ” he says. “That was the episode that changed everything.”
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Opening today is “The Great Wall,” in which Pascal co-stars with Matt Damon as two European mercenaries who end up helping Chinese soldiers fight off a horde of lizard creatures trying to break through the country’s Great Wall.
The movie, which was directed by Zhang Yimou (“Hero,” “House of Flying Daggers”), is the first big-budget Chinese production starring Hollywood actors (Willem Dafoe plays another important role). The film was released in China in December, where it earned $224 million.
But with a reported budget of $150 million, “The Great Wall” will need to duplicate that gross in the U.S. in order to turn a profit. Hollywood, which has been aggressively courting the massive Chinese movie-going audience, is watching closely to see how this experiment turns out.
For Pascal, though, “The Great Wall” the movie was the culmination of a deep admiration that started when he was a teenager and saw director Zhang Yimou’s 1991 historical drama “Raise the Red Lantern.”
“I never missed one of his movies after I saw that one,” Pascal, 41, said during a recent visit to Miami. “When I was getting on a plane to go to Beijing to start to work on this movie, I was terrified, because I have so much respect for Yimou, I didn’t know if I’d be able to deliver what was expected of me. But he turned out to be this incredibly generous, gentle, humble man. His energy immediately put me at ease.”
Most of the crew who worked on “The Great Wall” was Chinese. But Pascal says the language gap became part of the adventure: “I liked the feeling of being an outsider and watching how people from different cultures communicated with each other,” he says. “Yimou was so clear-minded about what he wanted that he almost didn’t need to use an interpreter.”
Pascal is familiar with that outsider feeling. Born in Santiago, Chile, and raised in Texas and California, Pascal has used different stage names throughout his career — variations on his full name of Jose Pedro Balmaceda Pascal — in order to avoid typecasting. With “The Great Wall” and the upcoming “Kingsman: The Golden Circle,” in which he appears opposite Channing Tatum, Colin Firth, Jeff Bridges and Julianne Moore, Pascal finally has a movie career to go along with his long stint on television.
“I had a hard time through my 20s and my early 30s, because I never looked like a ‘Pedro’ to casting directors,” he says. “There was often a bit of a head tilt when they met me. Why is your name Pedro if you’re not brown? I think that’s changing slowly for Latinos, because we represent everyone on this planet: Asian, European, African, indigenous and everything in between.”