MGM+’s Hotel Cocaine Thrives in the Sunny Vibes of ’70s Miami

We spent two days on the lavish, loving set of the new crime drama, experiencing the joy (and polyester) that defined its production.

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MGM+’s Hotel Cocaine Thrives in the Sunny Vibes of ’70s Miami

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Last summer, when SAG-AFTRA workers joined their WGA siblings on strike for a fair contract, the average daily temperature in Juan Dolio, Dominican Republic, was in the low 90s. When I arrived this past February alongside two other journalists to the Pinewood Dominican Republic (now Lantica) Studios for an MGM+-hosted set visit of Hotel Cocaine, Chris Brancato’s 1978-Miami-set crime thriller, afternoon temps were hovering around 84.

A discrepancy of 6–8 degrees might not seem like much on paper. But for Hotel Cocaine’s fully polyester-clad cast, who broke production for the 2023 strikes and picked back up during what passes for winter in the DR, the difference was palpable.

“It was super hot then,” actor Michael Chiklis tells us when he sits for a lunchtime chat after wrapping his scenes our first day there. It’s hot that day, even in the shade, and we can see him sweating from behind the busy hands of the makeup team carefully removing his Agent Zulio mustache—AKA, “Zulio’s rat.” (“The access that you guys get as journalists! Here comes my favorite part of the day; I cannot become this character until this goes on.”)

And yet, Chiklis says, when they were filming those first four episodes last summer, it was hotter. “It was June, you know, in the run up to the strike. And now,” he says, glistening, “it just couldn’t be more lovely.”

I have no choice but to believe him. But considering just how sweatboxed he and series co-stars Danny Pino and Yul Vazquez looked all morning while shouting at each other (in character; in layered, head-to-toe polyester) on a blustery nearby beach, what that mostly tells me is that anyone likely to have frequented Miami’s infamous Mutiny Hotel in the late 1970s… well, they were a lot more intense than I am.

Intensity is arguably the watchword of Hotel Cocaine, which follows the story of Pino’s Roman Compte—single father, Cuban exile, and general manager of the aforementioned Mutiny Hotel—as his estranged crime boss brother, Nestor (Vazquez), reappears in his life and threatens his tenuous bid for the American Dream. Roman was a real historical figure; Nestor was not. But where the line between fact and fiction sits in Hotel Cocaine’s Season 1 story is meant to be a bit blurry beyond that. Because the Mutiny Hotel—which the MGM+ press releases call “Casablanca on cocaine”—that was real. Liza Minelli, who has a cameo in an early episode, really was a frequent guest. DEA agents, like Chiklis’ Zulio, really did rub shoulders with her and everyone else at the club. The Miami of today, which Brancato and fellow executive producer Guillermo Navarro couldn’t use as their production location thanks to decades of development making it unrecognizable from the sleepy Miami of the ‘70s, really was built on the rocketship momentum of the cocaine trade that flowed through the Mutiny’s doors.

This is the historical texture behind the intensely human story at the heart of Hotel Cocaine, and as we are led onto the Mutiny Club soundstage on the Pinewood Dominican Republic lot, it’s immediately obvious that, in finding a way to make that historical texture legible on screen, production designer Raymundo Cabrera understood the assignment.

The plywood-faced corridor we enter through becomes a series of neon yellow-and orange-limned portals. The “ceiling” of the circular room inside, open to the scaffolding above for crew and camera access, is hung with a collection of boisterous coral and pink feathered chandeliers, ruffling in the light breeze of the soundstage air-con. There are arched metal cages for club patrons to dance in, and an underlit glass grid of a dance floor between the bar and the stage for when those cages aren’t enough. The walls of the room are made up of plush alcoves where celebrities and drug dealers alike can find some privacy. The stage is cocooned in gold crushed velvet curtains.

And that’s just front-of-house. Following executive producer Michael Panes “backstage,” we are met with a dressing room and lounge area so fastidiously set-dressed that it’s easy to forget that on the other side of the plywood box enveloping us, it’s 2024. Ashtrays are filled with generations of cigarette butts. Makeup stations are exploding with wigs, blush brushes, and plastic curlers. On one wall hangs a black and white motivational poster reading “DRAMA-FREE ZONE / LET THE SEQUINS DO THE TALKING!,” a smiling woman in chic white sunglasses anchoring the message. On another wall is a full timecard station, and on another, a believably distressed fire evacuation floor plan with “MUTINY CLUB COCONUT GROVE” branded in the top left corner.

With this attention to detail, I’m unsurprised when we’re told that the “Mutiny girls” have been given something of a secret storyline of their own, which will unfold in the background of the series’ first season run. It’s also not surprising that, when Swizz Beatz and his entourage turn up on Day 2 for his super-secret season finale cameo, it’s to play DJ Kool Herc, another real historical figure whose artistic practice in the 1970s directly influenced where American culture has ended up today. Nor am I shocked to learn that, just as Brancato and Navarro made an intentional effort to cast Cuban American actors Pino and Vazquez as the series two principals, they were equally deliberate in putting together a bilingual and majority local crew.

Like I said: Hotel Cocaine is intense, down to the last detail.

I will pause here to admit to not being the target audience for a show like Hotel Cocaine. I haven’t watched Scarface, the film most frequently called back to in every conversation we have with cast and crew, or Griselda, the recent Netflix series that comes up nearly as often. I haven’t watched Narcos, the show Brancato is most well-known for, or Godfather of Harlem, where Swizz Beatz serves as Executive Music Producer. I have watched several seasons of Queen of the South, the USA Network adaptation of Telemundo telenovela La Reina del Sur, and found myself so ill at ease with its criminal girlboss premise that the second after I filed my write-up of it here for Paste TV, I stopped my binge and never looked back.

Life is too short to watch charismatic criminals get better at making other people’s lives worse! Especially, I’ve long felt, if such a story trades in on the kinds of racist and xenophobic stereotypes that have long driven the United States’ punishing immigration policies.

But standing in a beachside copse of bay cedar and Pacific rosewood trees, listening to Brancato talk about his philosophical approach to Hotel Cocaine while “on location” for one of the series’ more dramatic final scenes, I find myself compelled by his alternate perspective.

“It’s often said that every great fortune in America is a great crime,” Brancato says, paraphrasing The Godfather, paraphrasing Balzac. “Well, crime is the way that immigrant groups to this country have a chance to get a leg up economically. In other words, when the Irish, Italians, Germans [first arrive]—every [new] immigrant group, they’re not welcomed. They’re not part of American society. And so how do you get an economic leg up? By supplying vices: gambling, prostitution, loan sharking, protection rackets, and, ultimately, drugs. Then once you get that economic foothold, you get political power, you get social currency, you get cultural currency. And now suddenly, you’re woven into the fabric of this country.”

It might be the fact that this framing resonates with the every billionaire is a policy failure line that zings through my eat-the-rich heart. It might be the fact that, against a backdrop of roaring ocean, our headsets pinging with the genial sounds of Vazquez, Pino, and Chiklis joking around between takes, any reasonable articulation of a clear point of view is going to be persuasive. It might be both! Either way, I walk away from that interview significantly more open, on a personal level, to the project the Hotel Cocaine team has taken on.

It doesn’t hurt, of course, that every person we meet on the entire production turns out to be just as generous with their time and thoughtful in their responses when they cross paths with us.

Mexican director Sara Seligman, who’s on set that week to shoot B-roll for her two episodes, drops that work to accompany us on the rest of our soundstage tour, talking at length about not just about her experience behind the camera for Episodes 5 and 6, but also about how challenging it is to get a foothold in the industry as a young Mexican woman, and how rare it is for a newbie director like her to get hired on as one of just three total directors for a show like this.

Spanish actor Tania Watson, who plays Roman’s girlfriend, Marisol, comes in on her off day just to talk to us, sharing similar sentiments to Seligman about how grateful she is to Brancato et al for taking a chance on her from all the way across the Atlantic, and then insists we all add her on Instagram.

American actors Yul Vazquez and Mark Feuerstein, unable to meet with us on set during working hours—Vazquez because of his intense shooting schedule, Feuerstein because he had spent the day flying back from a family wedding in (real) Miami—insist not just on joining us, but on arriving before drinks, so that we can record at least a short interview on the record.

“I just want to present Yul Vasquez,” Feuerstein exclaims expansively before he’s even fully seated. “I find him to be the most charming and fascinating man alive. He engages every single person up and down the food chain of our set, in the hotel, in the restaurant. And somehow they are all his best friend, with no effort on his part to make it that way. They just, everyone falls in love with him, and he’s kind to everyone. Everyone.”

Perhaps unsurprisingly, with both Vazquez and Feuerstein anchoring one corner of the restaurant’s massive 25-seater party table, what was originally meant to be just a small press-team meal ultimately becomes a full-cast family dinner, maxing out all available party room space at their favorite neighborhood Italian joint.

Housed all together in Juan Dolio’s oceanfront Club Hemingway apartments, the cast has developed a robust summer camp/family reunion vibe. Not only do they spend their days working together, but they also—as we experience ourselves firsthand—spend most evenings going out to dinner together. Vazquez is the cool older brother; Feuerstein gets the party started; Pino takes care to check that everyone is having a good time and getting what they need; etc, etc, etc.

“It’s sort of like sleepaway camp,” Chiklis says. (He himself has invited visiting family friends to join the dinner party.) “We have these big dinners nightly, and if you see someone who’s missing from the table, you know who’s working tomorrow morning early.”

I don’t know that this is a sustainable model for all TV shoots, but it does seem to work for this one. It has certainly added texture to the brotherly dynamic between Pino and Vazquez, and to the father-daughter dynamic between Pino and Corina Bradley, who plays his teenage daughter, Valeria. Although, to hear both Bradley and Pino describe their very first scene together, it sounds like casting directors Miguel Fernandez and Carla Hool might be to thank for getting that particular dynamic off to a strong start, even before the cast started to really bond.

“It was my first time working with Danny, and I was genuinely scared that we didn’t have that chemistry for such an intense scene, talking about religion and all that stuff,” says Bradley, who was 17 when production started prior to the SAG-AFTRA strike, and 18 when shooting picked up again after. “But it went super smoothly. And it was a hard scene! We were out in the sun for hours, and we had to keep filming because we were out on the street and there were cars driving by with music blasting. So there were a lot of factors that played into it! But even then, I think it’s one of my favorite scenes, and my mom even told me there were a bunch of people crying.”

“When you work with somebody and they’re that young,” Pino says the next day after lunch on set, “you’re excited because there’s somebody who is going to be infusing something into a scene where you don’t have a reference for the work they’ve done, or their career, or what to expect. And when during the course of shooting, you realize that there’s a deep river, there’s a lot there. There’s a profound depth. And that first scene we played together, you don’t really want to assign any kind of emotional weight to [it]. You just play the scene for what it is and what happens happens. But there was a connection between Carina and I, a father and daughter connection, a feeling of loss, a feeling of support, of trying to hold each other up.

And that was a really tough day! It felt like 100 degrees. It was June in the Dominican Republic. And we were in polyester in a convertible. So the elements were pretty severe and harsh. And there was already a feeling of like, ‘we’re here together; we’re going to do this together.’ And I remember feeling like the scene just went into a different place, like from where it was on page, to where two actors were listening to each other and being affected by each other. And I think that it’s my great good fortune to have experienced that with her.”

So we’re back to the Hotel Cocaine cast as family, and also back to the punishing DR heat.

Confirming both, Pino continues: “It’s a very, very tight group. I mean, it’s this hot out, we’re in polyester, and look at Yul: he’s got [Nestor’s] jacket still on and he’s still outside [hanging with the crew]. That’s just how close this group is.”

We look over to observe that yes, there is Yul in Nestor’s polyester suit and jacket, regaling the crew as they finish their lunch. One of us also observes that he is sitting directly next to a fan, and it isn’t on.

“That’s also Yul, man,” Pino says, his little-brother grin audible even through my digital recorder. “Yul is just cool. He’s just cool.”

When they’re finally ready for Swizz, during our last few hours on set, basically everyone on the lot piles into the Mutiny Club lounge area behind the camera to get the best angle they can. Swizz has been, his son Nas told us when we all left the hotel that morning, to approximately a dozen different cities across three hemispheres in the last 10 days, and he jets off for Atlanta again at, I think I hear it correctly, 2 AM later that night. This is as close to being literally a one-shot cameo as a cameo like this can be.

Our little press scrum is led to a pair of plush gold velvet couches facing off over an opaque acrylic coffee table that’s glowing neon marigold from thin LED filaments at the base of each leg and is strewn with (fake) rolled hundred dollar bills, (fake) pills, a crystal ashtray full of (fake-ish) cigarettes, and a (fake) sachet of powder cocaine. (Unclear if this is the “dairy” or “dairy-free” variety.) A fishbowl wine glass half-full of deep blue liquid and adorned by a (real) twist of lime completes the tableau. The light-up disco dance floor in front of us has a giant camera crane labeled “PJ GAFFERS CRANES” looming over it, but in case we needed a reminder of the movie magic that surrounds us, we discover upon sitting that the plush gold couches are more like artfully shaped slabs of plywood covered with the barest hint of a strip of cushion.

Sara Seligman, the director of Episodes 5 and 6, comes over to chat while we wait. She’s pulling double duty today as an extra in Swizz’s big cameo scene, wearing a flowing seafoam green flower child costume with literal rose-colored glasses, a crown of (fake) pink hibiscus in her hair, and a (fake) joint between her fingers as her main prop.

(As the cameo rehearsal starts, it appears that the prop joint may indeed be real. It is, if nothing else, both lit and puffed on.)

In between rehearsal and Take 1, an extra playing Prince (black vest with a sparkling gold psychedelic tiger print, bare chest, a string of pearls looped five times around his neck into a choker, white lace cuffs with silver tipped ruffles, candy apple red satin Michi pants) sits across from us, getting his Afro touched up and his vest taped to his chest as a publicist takes his photo.

It’s a thrilling scene, and a fun look at what at least one corner of Miami, at one point in history, might have felt like. But as Pino—who was born and raised in Miami, and whose parents were both born in Cuba and exiled before they were teenagers—takes great care to note, it’s also just one corner.

“I love Miami,” he says. “But this isn’t the story of Miami. It is a story of Miami. And I wouldn’t want people to think that this is everything that Miami had to offer. It certainly is a special moment in time where a lot of lives were affected. A lot of ruin. You can argue that the city was built on it. But Miami’s a beautiful place with honest, thoughtful, creative, powerful, intelligent people. And this is just one of our stories.”

Hotel Cocaine premieres Sunday, June 16th on MGM+


Alexis Gunderson is a TV critic and audiobibliophile. She
can be found @AlexisKG

For all the latest TV news, reviews, lists and features, follow @Paste_TV.

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