Pedro Pascal: The trials and triumphs of the first breakout star of 2023
Around the world, the Chilean actor, whose family fled the Pinochet regime, is becoming the next big star thanks to the HBO hit show ‘The Last of Us’
HBO’s The Last of Us is breaking records that no one expected it would. The show’s numbers are going toe to toe with those of series like Game of Thrones and House of the Dragon, which is saying a lot. The Last of Us has also confirmed the global male star status of Pedro Pascal, a 47-year-old actor who was completely unknown 10 years ago. Earlier this month, Jimmy Fallon summed up all of the success the actor has had the over the last decade: “The Last of Us is the biggest thing in the world right now. But then you also have the premiere of the third season of The Mandalorian in March.” And went on with the list: “Game of Thrones, homerun. Narcos, homerun. The Mandalorian, homerun and now The Last of Us. Come on, man, I’m jealous!” Pascal, who seemed to be in disbelief of his accomplishments, joked in retort: “And that’s the end.” To which Fallon replied, “No way, it’s just the beginning.” He’s not the only one praising the Chilean actor: Robert Rodriquez, who directed him in the Netflix film We Can Be Heroes, said said that Pascal reminds him of Harrison Ford: “He can be funny, he can be very intense, he can be very heroic. But he’s also very human and warm.”
In another indication that Pascal is a star on the rise, he recently hosted Saturday Night Live. That night, the musical guest was Coldplay, and Chris Martin, the band’s singer, dedicated the performance of Fix You to Pascal: “This one’s for Pedro and Veronica.” “And the tears come streaming down your face, when you lose something you can’t replace, when you love someone, but it goes to waste. Could it be worse? Lights will guide you home and ignite your bones, and I will try to fix you,” says the song Martin composed after the death of the father of his then-wife, Gwyneth Paltrow.
But what did that touching dedication mean? By now, most people know who Chilean-born actor Pedro Pascal is. He has appeared in three of the latest TV hits, playing Westeros’s screw-happy Oberyn Martell in Game of Thrones, Baby Yoda’s masked babysitter in The Mandalorian and Joel Miller, the reluctant hero in the most recent TV phenomenon The Last of Us. But who is Veronica and what happened to her?
Veronica is Pedro’s mother, and the actor explained part of her story in his opening monologue that night. “I was born in Chile and nine months later, my family had to escape Pinochet and brought me and my sisters to the United States. They were very brave and without them I would not be in this wonderful country.”
Pedro was born in Chile just two years after the coup d’état that overthrew (and killed) then president Salvador Allende. Both his father and mother, Jose Balmaceda and Veronica Pascal, were listed as enemies of the violently repressive Pinochet regime and were closely watched and controlled. His mother, Veronica, was the niece of Andres Pascal Allende, leader of the country’s Revolutionary Left Movement and president Allende’s nephew.
One day, Pascal’s father helped a wounded dissident, putting his own safety at risk in the process. When the man was later arrested and tortured, he gave the regime a list of names, including that of Pascal’s father. As the actor revealed to The Rake magazine: “They went looking for my father at the hospital he worked at. By chance it got to him that they were downstairs, asking where to find Dr. Jose Balmaceda. My father sneaks out the back and gets my mum, his sister gets my sister and me. They work out that their only option is to go into hiding.” They took advantage of the security guard’s shift change at the Venezuelan Embassy, jumped over the wall and took refuge there for six months.
As soon as they could, Pascal and Balmaceda reunited with their children and left the country. After passing through Denmark, they moved to the United States and settled in San Antonio, Texas. For a while, Pedro’s passions were watching San Antonio Spurs basketball and swimming, but his father’s passion for films sparked his own interest in movies. Soon, Pedro dreamed of being Christian Bale on the poster for Empire of the Sun and was dazzled, ironically, by HBO programming.
Pedro’s mother contributed to her son’s fascination with acting and enrolled him in a performing arts school in the area. “My mom and my driver’s license saved me,” he confessed to Paula magazine. A friend of his mother’s suffered a minor accident and, because he couldn’t go, gave Pedro his tickets to see Angels in America. After the performance, Pedro felt for the first time that more than a hobby, acting could be his life. He left San Antonio, enrolled at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts and the small roles started trickling in. He appeared on MTV’s Undressed and had a brief stint on the fourth season of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. The actor was credited in those shows as Pedro Balmaceda. He changed his last name at 24, when his mother committed suicide. That is the heartbreaking reason Chris Martin dedicated a song to her on Saturday Night Live.
“She was the love of my life. I think about her every day. I don’t pray, so I can’t say that I have a [religious] practice to feel her close to me, but I live for her even though she’s gone,” the actor lamented. “Losing the most important person in your life, discovering that something like that is possible and that what you fear most in life can happen, is something that stays with you permanently and marks a before and after.”
Pascal constantly feels his mother’s absence in his life, as he often shares on social media. “We are very well; we are taking care of ourselves. Not a day goes by that you are not with us, and we thank you. Happy birthday, mom,” Pedro wrote on what would have been her most recent birthday.
Following his mother’s death, which shattered him, Pedro lost his agent and his career slowed down. As a tribute to his mom, he decided to change his last name to hers. But there was another reason for the name change as well. “Americans had a hard time pronouncing Balmaceda. It was exhausting.” He also considered changing Pedro to Alexander (after Fanny and Alexander, one of his favorite movies) for similar reasons. “I was willing to do absolutely anything to work more.” When directors read Pedro’s name they expected the appearance of a racial stereotype, something like Pancho Villa. But the man they saw looked more European than Latino. “Why are you so white but your name is Pedro?” he was asked. The answer, he told EL PAÍS in a 2017 interview, lies in his roots: “My grandfather was Basque and my grandmother [was] from Mallorca, [Spain].”
At the turn of the century, his career was still on hold. He only appeared in small roles that were almost always framed in the same register that has pigeonholed so many Hispanic actors: gang members and drug traffickers. While waiting for the big role that never came, he appeared in a number of crime dramas in the 2000s. He played a rival lawyer battling Alicia Florrick in the early seasons of The Good Wife, and Lisbon’s colleague and love interest on The Mentalist. He was on CSI and Without a Trace and had parts in all the Law & Order franchises.
On the road to fame he couldn’t have imagined for himself, he forged a lasting friendship with Oscar Isaac. In fact, they’ve had similar paths to success: from difficult beginnings and contending with stereotypes to acting in million-dollar franchises and receiving critical acclaim. But another friend, actress Sarah Paulson, whom he had met in the early 1990s when they were both studying at New York University, gave him access to the role that changed everything.
Upon learning that Game of Thrones was looking for an actor with his profile for the character of Prince Oberyn Martell, he sent a video to Paulson, a close friend of actress Amanda Peet, who’s married to co-showrunner David Benioff. “First of all, it was an iPhone selfie audition, which was unusual. And this wasn’t one of the new-fangled iPhones with the fancy cameras. It looked like shit; it was shot vertical; the whole thing was very amateurish. Except for the performance, which was intense and believable and just right,” Benioff remembered in an interview with Variety.
Pedro’s charisma and chemistry with actress Indira Varma miraculously made the insufferable Dornish plot on the show interesting and put his name on the map. Suddenly, the kid who was dazzled by HBO’s Whoopi Goldberg specials was at the center of the channel’s biggest show: “It was a dream,” he told GQ. “It was this great role, at the height of the show’s popularity, a perfectly written season, a perfectly written role – go in, shoot for ten weeks, leave. Nobody got a chance to be sick of me.”
That was not an isolated stroke of luck. The role of the stubborn and ambiguous Javier Peña in Narcos came to him after the actor who was originally chosen to play the part didn’t pan out. Netflix’s series became one of its greatest hits. Pascal went on to appear in magazines and fashion editorials and was mentioned on lists of the most attractive men. Age looked good on him, and his mustache competed with those of Burt Reynolds and Tom Selleck.
His friendships with others in the industry have fed his success. Director Patty Jenkins, with whom he had worked on an abortive project early in his career, offered him the role of the pathetic egomaniac Maxwell Lord in Wonder Woman 1984. Later, Jon Favreau cast him as the silent bounty hunter Din Djarin in The Mandalorian. He will soon co-star in Pedro Almodóvar’s long-awaited film Strange Way of Life.
In the meantime, the full range of Pascal’s talents are on display as Joel Miller in The Last of Us. The show is the TV hit of the season and has propelled the actor’s rise to global stardom. When the adaptation of the popular video game was announced, everyone wanted to be part of it, largely because of the involvement of screenwriter Craig Mazin, who was also responsible for the award-winning Chernobyl. Pascal was chosen to play the show’s taciturn main character, although there was some initial confusion. During his appearance on Jimmy Fallon’s The Tonight Show, he explained that he was in London when Mazin called him from the United States and asked, “Will you wait up while I talk to the producer of the video game?” Pascal said he would, but after a while he took a sleeping pill and fell asleep.
The next day he woke up anxious. “The first thing that occurred to me was like, ‘Oh man, I really want that job.’ …I’m going to wait by the phone all day long,’” until he looked at his cell phone and saw dozens of congratulatory messages. He had gotten the role but was unable to remember the conversation in which he had accepted it. It seemed like part of a dream. Perhaps that of a child in exile, watching HBO in his room.