SOFIA VERGARA reveals the family tragedy that inspired her to play Griselda in Netflix hit… and why not wanting more children led to her divorce from Joe Manganiello

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Written By Maya Cantina
  •  Modern Family star SOFIA VERGARA, 51, went from being a single mum fleeing cartel-ravaged Colombia to the world’s highest-paid actress. 
  • She tells Richard Godwin about the family tragedy that made her retrace her roots in Netflix’s dark new drama Griselda.
  • READ MORE: The £9 cleanser behind Sofia Vergara’s flawless skin 

I’m dying,’ announces Sofía Vergara, entering a suite at London’s Corinthia hotel in a cloud of Baccarat Rouge 540. The Colombian actress is not dying, as it turns out. She is simply jet-lagged from the various continents she’s crossed promoting her new Netflix series, Griselda, in which she plays the notorious cocaine boss Griselda Blanco. ‘It’s been a rough week!’ she says.

But if this is a rough week for Vergara, I am a little scared to imagine what she is like on form. As soon as she walks in – wearing a racy black YSL all-in-one set off with diamanté earrings the size of moons – everything feels sharper, sillier, more glamorous, more fun. 

She laughs frequently and swears freely. She likes nothing better, she tells me, than ‘eating, shopping and talking s***’. It’s not hard to see how she became the highest-paid actress in Hollywood, playing Gloria Delgado-Pritchett through 250 episodes of the sitcom Modern Family. Existing in that tiny stratum of celebrity where anything she does is news, even the venerable New York Times wrote a piece about Vergara’s separation from her second husband, actor Joe Manganiello, last year.

But while her celebrity is assured (lucrative America’s Got Talent judging spot, endorsement deals, jeans lines), she seems only too aware that her reputation as an actor rests on just the one role. ‘I don’t have many options because of this stupid accent that I have,’ she says about the Hispanicisms that still inflect her speech after nearly three decades in the US. 

‘My career has really only been Gloria Pritchett in Modern Family. So for [writer-producer] Eric Newman to believe that Gloria Pritchett could do Griselda Blanco was my lucky moment.’

Vergara knows a thing or two about good fortune. She reportedly earned half a million dollars per episode towards the later seasons of Modern Family – in 2020, Forbes ranked her as the highest paid actress in the world, more than Angelina Jolie’s $35.5 million (£28 million) netted from Eternals and Gal Gadot’s $31.5 million (£25 million) from Wonder Woman 1984, with $43 million (£34 million) that year. I sense that she has always had business acumen. 

‘Yes,’ she smiles and touches her earrings. ‘I like money.’ Was that important to her? ‘Not that I was the highest paid,’ she stresses. ‘But it is important to me that I’ve been able to help my family in Colombia and that I don’t have to rely on anyone. That I can actually fall in love with someone,’ she adds. ‘I mean, I was pretty when I was young, so I could have gone down the route of being a trophy wife. 

Now that I’m older I’m like: “Why didn’t I do it? Why did I have to work so much?’’’ she jokes.

The vacancy of trophy husband opened up last summer when Vergara announced her impending divorce from Manganiello, after eight years of marriage. It sounds bittersweet. ‘Joe was four years younger than me and he’d never had kids.

He decided he wanted kids and I didn’t want them. It was like: “Imagine, when this child would be ten years old, I’ll be 60-something. 

That’s a grandma!’’’ There was no animosity between them, she stresses, it was simply a case of Manganiello wanting children and Vergara – whose son Manolo with childhood sweetheart Joe Gonzalez is now 32 – not wanting to go through it again.

She becomes a little more serious. ‘I know the sacrifices you need to make to be a good mother. You have to be present. And my career is important to me. I cannot disappear. A lot of people rely on me.’ Becoming a grandmother, however? That appeals. ‘I’m 51, my son is 32. I’m ready to play with my grandson and then when I’m done it’s: “OK, take it. It’s yours!’’’

Sofía with ex-husband Joe Manganiello at last year¿s Vanity Fair Oscars party

Sofía with ex-husband Joe Manganiello at last year’s Vanity Fair Oscars party

All of which is to say that while Griselda, produced by the team behind Narcos, is a major departure for her, it already looks like a sure-fire hit. Vergara has gone from a light-hearted family comedy to a brutal crime drama with a personal resonance – her own brother, Rafael, was murdered by drug gangs in Colombia in the late 1990s as part of an attempted kidnapping. He was 26. 

Vergara has also gone from playing a lovable mother to a cold-hearted monster. It opens with a quote from Pablo Escobar, Colombia’s most notorious drug baron: ‘The only man I was ever afraid of was a woman named Griselda Blanco.’ 

The show, which launched ten days ago, sees Blanco, a former prostitute and gangland wife from Medellín, Colombia, arriving in Miami in the late 1970s with her three sons and a kilogram of cocaine stashed in her youngest’s luggage. Initially, all she craves is security and a little American comfort.

But soon she sets her sights on deadlier ambitions and, deal by deal, establishes her own niche in the Miami drugs business – principally by marketing cocaine as a luxury party drugto bored rich white people in tennis clubs and aerobics classes.

If we leave to one side the fact that Vergara used to be a dental student from a good family who has never touched cocaine in her life – ‘honestly, I had to learn how to snort cocaine and smoke cigarettes for this’ – there are many parallels she could draw on. Like most Colombians, she has personal experience of the devastation wrought by the drug cartels. 

It was part of what prompted her move to America. ‘I went for a new job but I was also moving away from the situation in Colombia in the 90s with all the narco traffic. Then my brother was killed not long after I moved to Miami. I didn’t want my son to grow up in that environment.’

My brother’s death destroyed our family. He was a good guy but he made a wrong decision 

The murder of Rafael – the eldest of four Vergara siblings – was devastating for her family. ‘Unfortunately, in Colombia at that time, the tentacles of narco traffic were everywhere,’ she says. ‘I cannot tell you that everyone was a drug dealer, because that’s not true.

But, for example, if you were an architect, who was buying the apartments? If you had a car dealership, who buys the cars? The narcos. You knew who the narcos were. Everything was touched by it. My brother was a nice guy – a good guy. But he took a wrong decision and unfortunately he paid for it. We all paid for it.’

She describes his murder as ‘heartbreaking. When there’s a death of someone super special and a good father and a good brother, it destroys the family. My mother and father were never the same. My other brother, who was very close to him, became an alcoholic and then a crack addict because of the trauma.’

Tragedies like this played out in families across Colombia. ‘I don’t know a single story of a drug dealer who had a happy ending. At some point, they’re in jail, or dead, or running away, or they can never see anyone any more or their whole family is destroyed.’

Vergara first learned about Blanco after she had moved to the US in the late 90s and remembers being astonished that she wasn’t better known back in Colombia. ‘I grew up in the 70s, 80s, 90s, which is when narco traffic was horrible in Colombia. We all knew who they were. They were always in the news. Then, many years later, I read an article about this woman who was a very big drug lord. And I’m like: “A woman can do that? It’s crazy!” So I got really interested.’

Sofia as Colombian drug queen Griselda Blanco in the new Netflix series

Sofia as Colombian drug queen Griselda Blanco in the new Netflix series

All the same, Vergara dismissed the idea of making any sort of biopic while Blanco was alive, as it would look too much like she got away with it. Then, in 2012 – after spending nearly 20 years in jail in Florida on drug and murder charges – Blanco was assassinated outside a butcher’s shop in her hometown in Colombia. She was 69. At this point, Vergara began to toy with the idea of making a drama about her. ‘Now there is a story where the bad guy ends up in a bad situation,’ she says.

Then she saw Narcos on Netflix, the story of the drug cartels and their devastating effects on the Colombia she grew up in. ‘I was like: “My god, where are these people? They could totally understand what I want to do with this character.” So I met with Eric Newman and he went crazy.’ Vergara is not the first actor to play Blanco. Catherine Zeta Jones starred in the 2017 movie Cocaine Godmother, slated by critics, while another biopic, The Godmother, starring Jennifer Lopez, has yet to be released. However, this version feels like a perfect marriage. 

Vergara cast many of her favourite Latin American actors in the supporting roles. ‘If this can be for some of them like Modern Family is for me, I’ll be so happy,’ she says. And she is magnetic as Blanco. ‘I’m not the kind of actress who thinks if you’re Colombian you can only play Colombian or if you are gay you can only play gay,’ she says. However, given the aforementioned accent issues, ‘Griselda was perfect.’

There are other parallels. ‘I’m an immigrant in the same way she was. I was a single mother too,’ says Vergara. When she arrived in the US with her son Manolo, she began working on America’s Spanish-language TV networks, which are mostly based in Miami.

As we talk, she makes it clear that what she would really like to be doing is more Modern Family. Eleven years of playing the same character was not long enough for Vergara. ‘You know that show Law & Order? That was on for 20 years. I wish that Modern Family [which ended after 11 seasons in 2020]could have been like that because it was so fun and easy,’ she says.

As much as she enjoyed the challenge of playing Blanco, playing Gloria was like breathing for her. Indeed, the character was written specifically for Vergara. The show’s creators, Christopher Lloyd and Steven Levitan, had specified the character should be a recent immigrant to the US – but the nationality, the malapropisms, the specifics all came from Vergara. 

Sofia with Ed O¿Neill in the finale of Modern Family

Sofia with Ed O’Neill in the finale of Modern Family

‘You know, usually writers write about what they know. None of the ones in LA had been married to a crazy Colombian woman with a kid – very few had had an experience with a woman like me. But from the beginning, they just got me and started writing so well for Gloria.’ She would do it for ever if she could, she insists. 

‘We had such a great time. It was comedy. While you’re filming, you’re happy. You go home happy. It was hard work but it was amazing.’

In a sense, she made it all look a bit too easy. Often, she has noticed, people seem to assume that the joke is on her – as opposed to something she has helped to create. ‘I’m like, “Can’t they tell that I’m the one that set that up for someone to do the joke on me?” I love making fun of myself and I love making fun of people and I love it when the other person makes fun of me. I find that even in bad situations, there’s always some comedy in it.’

These days, she has a good time hanging out with friends. Being entirely herself. Is she on the dating apps? ‘No, I wish!’ she says. ‘I’m bad with technology, so I’m sure I would click on the wrong ones. I’m open to having fun and meeting people. It’s only been six months.’ She pauses. 

‘It’s weird, because I’ve now lived longer in the United States than I lived in my country. But I’m still very Latin. I work out to Latin music. In my car, it’s Latin music. My friends – my close friends – are either my cousins or the ones I met at kindergarten. ‘So now I need a husband!’ she adds – before correcting herself. ‘No, I don’t need a husband, I want one. It doesn’t even have to be a husband. A partner.’

There it is again: that Sofía Vergara steel. What she wants, she gets, sooner rather than later. Underestimate this woman at your peril.

Griselda is available to stream now on Netflix 

ᴀʀᴛɪᴄʟᴇ ꜱᴏᴜʀᴄᴇ

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