"It's crazy to think that this is their job," Matt Whelan says. "What I'm pretending to do, that's what they live every day. Going out in helicopters and blowing up drug labs... They love their job."

You want better work stories? Talk to one of the American Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) agents working in Colombia during the cocaine boom of the 80s and 90s and you'll hear some doozies. As a new addition to Netflix's hit true crime drama Narcos, Whelan got the chance to do just that, quizzing one of the show's consultants and ex-DEA agent Chris Feistl about, well, everything.

"It was so fascinating. Chris took us out to locations that they went to for raids. He taught us how to clear a room. How to use weapons properly. He took us to all these real locations, lookout points, old safe houses, hideouts. I got to tap into his mind a little as to what he was always thinking about and what would be in the back of his head."

Kiwi actor Matt Whelan makes a star turn in season three of Narcos.
Kiwi actor Matt Whelan makes a star turn in season three of Narcos.

Feistl, he says, was invaluable to helping him understand the violent world these agents were operating in during the heady heyday of Colombia's cocaine industry. While Feistl is to be immortalised on screen by fellow series newcomer, actor Michael Stahl-David, Whelan sadly never got the opportunity to meet the agent his character is based on.

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"I never met the real guy as he's still an active member of the DEA, but I'm pretty sure he wanted to," Whelan smiles. "I don't think he had permission from the higher-ups."

And then, in wry understatement, he adds, "You have to be careful with these sorts of things."

Well, for agents still out in the field it is quite literally a matter of life or death. Not wanting to take any chances even the character's name, Daniel Van Ness, is made up.

After the final shootout of season two, it appeared that was it for Narcos. With infamous drug lord Pablo Escobar now out of the picture - taking the show's breakout star Wagner Moura with him - where could the show go?

"It pretty much picks up post-Pablo. This season focuses on the Cali Cartel," Whelan explains. "After the fall of Pablo Escobar, the Cali Cartel used that to their advantage to become stronger than ever before. They had a greater rise to power. It's an incredible story. For me, it's a really logical progression."

The Cali Cartel were obviously bad hombres, but Van Ness is a goodie?

"Yeah..." Whelan says slowly. "It's always funny, isn't it? Good guy/bad guy... I feel like there's a lot of grey..."

Famously Narcos mixes in real-life news footage with its dramatic recreations of events. It's one thing to be thrilled by the show's tense shootouts and quite another to then see the news reports with lined up body bags and bullet-ridden walls. It removes all the glamour from the show's violence and at times makes for uncomfortable viewing. So, what was it like entering that world?

"In all honesty as an actor it was really exciting to be able to tell that story and portray it," Whelan says. "At that time it was a very scary place to be. But times have changed. Colombia is a very different place these days. It's a beautiful country."

A scene from Narcos.
A scene from Narcos.

Despite raving about the sights, he says he could feel the weight of history while he was there.

"Shooting in the real locations that these events took place in, you could get a sense of what it was like. I mean times have changed but there are remnants of what took place over there.

"But it was really exciting to shoot in these places. We shot in one of the Godfather's apartments and we shot in one of their hitman's mansions. You would walk around and be like, 'wow these guys really lived here. This was their life'. Crazy big mansions. Huge mansions. Exorbitant lifestyles."

So just how does a Kiwi land such a plum role in one of Netflix's biggest shows?

"I taped myself in New Zealand. Just set up a table with a stack of books on it with a camera placed on the top, and sent it away" he laughs. "But yeah. They saw something in that and wanted me to give it another crack with a second audition. And they cast me off that. Without meeting me as a person. The first time I met anyone was when I landed in Colombia."

Wasn't that a bit nervy? It sounds a bit like it could have been a classic Nigerian Prince scam...

"Yes! It did feel like that. I was like, 'Is this happening?'. It didn't feel real at all until I shot my first scene and then I thought, 'wow I'm actually a part of this show'. But until then it was like a dream."

LOWDOWN:
Who: Matt Whelan
What: Season three of Narcos
When: Streaming from tomorrow on Netflix