Wagner Moura and Director Greg Barker on Bringing a Diplomat’s Empathic Story to Life in ‘Sergio’

Actor Wagner Moura and director Greg Barker were drawn together by the need to tell an important true story about a witness to history. Their Netflix movie, “Sergio,” chronicles the life of Sergio Vieira de Mello who was serving as the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights when a bombing in Iraq took his life. It’s a straightforward biography about an accomplished personality who tried to find compromise in a world that tends to spiral out of control. The star and filmmaker both shared with Entertainment Voice on why de Mello’s story made for a good film idea, and why it still matters.

“I wanted to produce films here in the U.S. about Latinos, but films that don’t reinforce stereotypes,” said Moura, who achieved breakthrough recognition with his role as Colombian kingpin Pablo Escobar in Netflix’s smash hit “Narcos.” Moura plays Sergio as someone far from a Latin screen stereotype. The narrative of the film focuses on Sergio’s efforts in the UN to promote peaceful compromise in conflict zones such as East Timor. During his grinding diplomatic work he meets Carolina Larriera (Ana de Armas), an expert in microeconomics from Argentina. The two begin a romance despite Sergio being married with two sons. But the relationship blossoms as does Sergio’s reputation internationally. When the Bush administration invades Iraq in 2003 Sergio flies in to set up a UN office and immediately ruffles the feathers of Paul Bremer (Bradley Whitford), Bush’s de facto administrator of the occupied country. When militants bomb the office Sergio is left buried under rubble, reflecting on his life.

“I knew my path was to produce my own content. I wasn’t happy with the offers that I was having,” said Moura. “‘Sergio’ seemed to me like a great first step, I’m Brazilian and a human rights activist. Sergio is actually not that known in Brazil, he was a personal hero to me because I was always fascinated by the United Nations. I discovered there was this Brazilian who was so important to the UN and when he was killed in 2003 I really started to pay attention to his life. I read Samantha Power’s book on him, I saw Greg’s documentary about him and things started to connect. Then I met Greg, I was in Rio he was in LA, and I realized I had found the director to direct the film. He had already made an amazing documentary about Sergio.” 

Barker had indeed narrated this life before in a 2009 HBO documentary. “I originally saw it as a movie, but back then nobody was going to let me make a movie about this so I made a feature documentary,” remembered Barker with a friendly chuckle. “It was the first film I had at Sundance. It was on HBO and was then short-listed for an Oscar. But when I came to finally make the movie I realized it had been a great resource as prep. It felt like a totally different experience, weirdly enough it felt as if the documentary had been made by somebody else.” A chronicler of recent history, Barker has been known for engaging, fast-paced documentaries like 2018’s “The Final Year” about the last days of the Obama White House. “More and more as a storyteller I’ve been drawn to emotions and the human experience, and human truths that come out in times of crisis. Those moments are very special with documentaries they are hard to get at. But with a story like ‘Sergio,’ made after the fact it’s hard to tap into inner emotions and that’s why it’s best done through fiction or narrative, and that’s why novels are still so powerful. It takes us inside another human’s mind in a way we can’t do with reading a news report or watching a straight documentary. So that was terrain I wanted to explore.” 

“We wanted to make this film for the same reasons,” continued Moura. Sergio’s internationalism also appealed to Moura after his experience in making “Narcos” provided a wider sense of his regional identity. “I lived in Bogota, Colombia while making ‘Narcos’ and that was a very important thing for me. Brazilians, it’s weird, we usually don’t feel like we’re ‘Latinos,’ Brazilians are just Brazilians, because we speak Portuguese and it’s this huge country. But when I went to Colombia and worked with artists from all over South America it gave me the feeling that I was part of something bigger than just being Brazilian.” Playing famous outlaws and diplomats has also given Moura a deeper range in capturing human complexity. “What I’ve learned in playing these roles is that Pablo Escobar is not a monster and Sergio was not a superhero. Sergio was the world’s Mr. Fix It and the guy trying to save the world and this UN hero, but he was a very complicated man. I think the love story in the film shows how he was immature in terms emotionally, and how he was a man who couldn’t balance what he was doing with his personal life, with his relationship with his sons, the fact that he was a married man. These contradictions are what most surprised me and attracted me as an actor when I was researching about Sergio. How he could be who he was in what he was doing and at the same time have such a chaotic and sort of immature personal life. With Pablo it was the same. He did all these atrocities, bombings and everything, but at the same time he was a good father, something Sergio couldn’t be.”

“I met hundreds of people who knew Sergio. You can almost see a reflection through the people they knew. What comes across very powerfully in Wagner’s performance is that Sergio immersed himself in the world’s horrors. From personal experience I know a lot of people who lead that kind of life become jaded and cynical, and very worldly but not in a good sense of the word. Sergio remained an optimist,” said Barker, “he was an idealist who believed in the power of the human spirit to endure. In the UN sometimes human rights end up as just some legal term, Sergio had no time for that. He was all about human dignity on a fundamental level. Do they have enough to eat? Can they lead a productive life? Or will they be in a refugee camp which takes a toll on the soul? That’s a pretty unique quality.”

“As a producer I reached out to Sergio’s sons and ex-wife in Geneva,” said Moura about digging into a life before interpreting it on screen. “I also reached out to Carolina Larriera. Both responded very reserved because as you can imagine there is a dispute of narrative in terms of Sergio’s life. This is very understandable. Sergio’s sons and Carolina have different positions. Carolina is still fighting to be considered Sergio’s widow, which is confirmed in Brazil but not the UN.” 

“It wasn’t hard to cast,” admits Barker. “Wagner sought me out, he’s the producer on the film and Anna read the script and really connected with Carolina’s strength and intelligence and groundedness. 48 hours later she was sitting down with me for coffee and saying ‘I want to make this movie.’ It was that kind of movie. None of them felt they had to imitate the real people. We had archival materials as a resource, but actors of that caliber take something from the real person and then something from their own souls and experience that feels emotionally authentic.”

Moura confirmed shooting “Sergio” created a potent sense of unity. “It was great. I was always fascinated by the UN and we managed to reproduce in cast and locations the diversity the UN is. Anna is from Cuba, we had actors from Germany, Ireland, the U.S, there’s an actor from Jordan. There was a flavor of different accents and nationalities. We had actors from East Timor, which was the most emotional part for me, when we had people who really knew who Sergio was. All these things were full of a personal pleasure of being around people from different places. In the end this is a film about empathy.”

For both artists “Sergio” drops at a time when the world is changing and figures like the empathetic diplomat could teach us a lesson or two. “On one level this story is about empathy and hope amid the darkness,” said Barker. “I hope it speaks to people in these troubling times. But politically here’s a guy who saw the world as it was in all its complexities and found practical solutions for complex problems, that’s what he did. Yes, he ran up against U.S. arrogance in Iraq, but he didn’t give up and spread around blame. He worked people to get things done. Where’s the global leadership now? There’s no global coordination to do something like what happened during the Ebola crisis. Sergio would be in the mix of that right now.”

Moura agrees. “Empathy is a quality that absolutely is needed in this crisis of the Coronavirus. This crisis has exposed how world leaders lack this quality. They lack a lot of high values that Sergio had.”

Sergio” begins streaming April 17 on Netflix.