Interview with Wagner Moura

“The police do not exist to protect people in Brazil, they exist to protect the state.” Wagner Moura on his role in Elite Squad: The Enemy Within.

Wagner Moura is a household name in Brazil. Already established by the time he came to make José Padilha´s hard-hitting Elite Squad in 2007, he made the leap to super-stardom following its release, cementing his reputation as one of Brazil’s best young actors. Three years later, Moura reprised his role as Captain Roberto Nascimento, the head of Brazil’s notorious BOPE (the special forces military police) for the sequel, Elite Squad: The Enemy Within aka Elite Squad 2. This time we see him move from the streets of Rio to become Sub-secretary of Intelligence at the State Department, where his over-zealousness in tackling the city’s drug problems gets him caught up in something much darker than he could ever have imagined.

Elite Squad 2 has become the most successful Latin-American film in history, achieving over 12 million ticket sales in Brazil alone. From his hotel room in Vancouver, where he is shooting Neill Blomkamp‘s new film Elysium along with Matt Damon and Jodie Foster, Moura talks about what attracted him to the Elite Squad project, the creation of Nascimento, international audiences, fascism, Brazilian film-making and his two young sons.

On becoming involved in the Elite Squad films

“Lula Carvalho (cinematographer) is a good friend of mine and he told me to do the film (Elite Squad). I’d seen José Padhila’s documentary Bus 174 and I was crazy about it. José asked me which character I wanted to play, and originally [he] wanted me to play Nato, but I felt too old for that part. Nascimento was a small character but I saw a conflict there that appealed to me: it was typical of a Greek tragedy. We did a lot of improvisation and the script changed. By the time we came to edit the film Nascimento’s role had taken on a bigger space.

With the second film we already knew what we wanted and why we wanted to do it. Nascimento is much more mature in the second film, and the main reason for this was that we decided he should have more conscience in the film. We wanted him to be conscious of the tragedy of his life. It’s a fucking tragedy! In the second film he becomes aware of it.”

Creating the character of Captain Nascimento

“It was the craziest film process. José wanted to make a documentary. He didn’t do it, because he wasn’t going to be able to get the police to say they torture and kill and are corrupt. So he decided to make a feature film in a documentary fashion. The way the characters behaved had to be realistic. I spent 15 days with BOPE. It was insane. Those guys didn’t care. They didn’t give a fuck if I was an actor. They are very proud of what they are, and they wanted me to be exactly as they are. So I went through some of the things the rookies go through in the first film. It was very intense.

What really made me able to do the film was all the political stuff in the film. José Padilha is a political film-maker. I’m not saying that politics and art should always go together, but when it happens like with José is a very strong calling for me. He is a political artist; he is interested in what is happening in his country. That’s why the film was such a huge hit in Brazil, people felt connected to it.”

What did international audiences get from Elite Squad?

“I understand why Neill Blomkamp (director of Elysium) gets what we were talking about in the film because he comes from South Africa. But at Sundance and Berlin (film festivals), I was really surprised by what the journalists got from the film. They got that it was a strong political film. The fact that the films have a lot of action is great, because that’s one of the things that makes people want to see them. But both films try and understand violence in Brazil through the point of view of the policemen. In Elite Squad 2 we went deeper. We wanted to show the way politicians manipulate institutions in order to keep the power they have, especially through the police force.”

Accusations of fascism

“I think Elite Squad was very misunderstood. It was considered a right-wing film. You should understand that José is not like that at all. I felt very offended by that. What the film is really is realistic. The police do not exist to protect people in Brazil, they exists to protect the state. The state is mixed up with people who are in power. The police are used and manipulated by people who have power. Poor people don’t see that police are there to protect and defend. The films wanted to show the police as it is. That doesn’t mean that we support that position. So it was crazy when people were saying that we were fascists. We wanted to give witness of an unfair way of life. We wanted to show how it is. It is really shocking, even for us, the people there making the film. We know this is the way things are but when we see it, it is really really shocking.”

Brazilian film-making

“In Brazil we have been making political films since the 1960s, films that are trying to understand the country, the issues and the poverty. Brazil has this tradition that Elite Squad and City of God come from.

Now we are changing focus and being able to produce new things and I think this is good. Elite Squad was independent of government financiers. Part of the film was paid by investors, people who wanted to make money with the film. Which is very important considering the filmography that came before. Its pretty new to make films now. To make profitable films in Brazil is an important thing, films that are not so dependent on the government. People are going to see films in Brazil, which is also very important. Keeping an audience in our country is very important. We have to think about generating jobs and making it a business so that people can support their families.“

How he got through the shoots

“It was a strange coincidence but both my sons were born during the shooting of the Elite Squad films, the eldest with the first one, and the youngest during the second. So after a heavy atmosphere on set I had a very happy place to come home to.”

by Sofia Serbin de Skalon

Elite Squad 2: The Enemy Within is released in UK cinemas on August 12th.


  1. This is a great interview, Wagner is highlighting something all of us Brazilians know and understand…that the police are un-appreciated, underpaid and as a consequence they don’t care and do what they have to do to ‘sort’ situations out inorder to protect their own lives, it’s no game, it is brutal and often punishing work, so they get their kicks where they can also hence the corruption…you want, you take, you get. On the back of the london riots it is good to compare both police forces so that the British police do not end up like the Brazilian police force, saying that, much of the people badly affected by the riots would probably prefer if they were a bit more like our police…in any case, we need to attract better people to the police force, no matter what country they belong to. Perhaps it shoul dbe harder to get into the police force, like diplomacy…impossible to get in!

    Patricia Moreira-Lima

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