Hotel Cocaine: A Look Behind the Scenes at "The Studio 54 of Miami"

Showrunner Chris Brancato and stars Danny Pino, Michael Chiklis, Yul Vazquez, and more offer an in-depth preview from the Dominican Republic set of the new MGM+ series.


Months in advance of its series premiere, Amazon and MGM+ hosted a handful of writers on the set of its new drama Hotel Cocaine in the Dominican Republic (DR), and we took them up on the offer. The set was located on the Southeast coast of the DR, where our journey dead-ended down a sandy path at a “Secluded beach nearby Pinewood tank,” as the set was labeled on the call sheet. We were greeted by the crew and a swarm of prehistoric insects; making TV isn’t as glamorous as it sounds.

But as soon as we saw Danny Pino (Cold Case, Law & Order: SVU), Michael Chiklis (Winning Time, The Shield), and Yul Vazquez (Severance, Godfather of Harlem) decked out in sexy ‘70s polyester, we forgot about the unglamorous bugs.

Showrunner Chris Brancato (Narcos, Godfather of Harlem) took us behind the scenes, literally, to tell us about Hotel Cocaine. Brancato, whose first official screenwriting credit was on Beverly Hills, 90210, eventually found his niche writing historical crime shows with “something underneath.” And with Hotel Cocaine, Brancato wants to convey that “for every gram of cocaine someone uses at a party, there’s a lot of dead bodies behind it.”

While based on true events, Hotel Cocaine is “almost entirely fictitious.” The most factual elements are the cocaine hub itself, the real Mutiny, a 130-room hotel and nightclub that was known as “the Studio 54 of Miami”; its Jewish owner, Burton Goldberg; and its Cuban manager, Roman Compte. Using these benchmarks as a foundation, Brancato crafted a “unicorn.”

Not your average drug series, Hotel Cocaine blends action, familial drama, suspense, comedy, cameos (Swizz Beatz!), and choreographed numbers so splashy they are a show within the show. It’s testosterone-filled and sudsy, too — like a Latin, cocaine-era, art deco Yellowstone set in Miami. Brancato speculates on the series’ success: “The viewer will be the judge.”

But What’s the Real Story?

Yul Vazquez, Danny Pino, and Michael Chiklis in Hotel Cocaine (2024)

(Photo by Carlos Rodriguez/MGM+)

Roman’s son, actor Maurice Compte (Echo Park), mentioned the story to Brancato while filming Narcos. It reminded Brancato of the movie Casablanca, where the namesake location is a demilitarized zone, a haven from the horrors of WWII. Brancato thought, “What if the Mutiny served as a hub for the cocaine trade in Miami?” Brancato was additionally drawn to how the Cuban American story was “woven into the fabric of this country.” He continued: “America is the land of opportunity, and yet if you come here and have no opportunity… what’s the best way to make money? Sell drugs.” Still, it was important for the creative team to dig into the human elements of the immigrant experience and not glorify trafficking.

Brancato also insisted on authenticity. While he wrote most of the series with co-executive producer Michael Panes — with whom he previously collaborated on Godfather of Harlem — he employed screenwriter Alfredo Barrios (Burn Notice). Hotel Cocaine is mostly in English, but we get to hear Spanish, too. Perhaps due to the backlash of casting Brazilian actor Wagner Moura to play Pablo Escobar in Narcos, Brancato secured two Cuban American leads for Hotel Cocaine: Danny Pino and Yul Vazquez.

Remember, We’re Still on Set

Michael Chiklis and Danny Pino filming on the set of Hotel Cocaine (2024)

(Photo by Ivette García Dávila)

Right on cue, we heard Danny Pino singing “Only You” before going on camera. The men were about to film an intense scene under the punishing sun in their Barrymore-collared outfits. Despite the heat, they didn’t appear to break a sweat, and in fact, Pino later confided he wears his own undershirt to set to spare the wardrobe department.

When the scene wrapped, director and executive producer Guillermo Navarro looked at us and grunted: “Hay mucha gente aquí.” — “There are too many people here.” In a straw fedora, blue striped t-shirt, and shorts hanging onto a belt for dear life, Navarro was just a pro trying to get his scene. And when we say “pro,” we mean it: Navarro is  an Academy Award-winning cinematographer (Pan’s Labyrinth). As fate would have it, Navarro ended up having to reshoot the scene anyway, as the roaring ocean had washed over the sound. The picture, though, was perfect.

The Cast

Danny Pino – Roman Compte

Danny Pino on the set of Hotel Cocaine (2024)

(Photo by Ivette García Dávila)

The “Caridad del Cobre” virgin medallion Danny Pino wears around his neck serves as the umbilical cord to the real Roman Compte and grounds Pino’s performance, as it is relevant to the theme and Cuban culture. A first-generation Cuban American born in Miami, Pino is “very lucky to be part of a cast that is this diverse.”

As a Latin person, there’s always a responsibility to represent your heritage, and to address the elefante in the room, yes, this show is about Cuban drug dealers. But while it is true that we need positive role models, it does get “self-limiting for someone who studied to play a wide range of characters.” Pino added: “How many people have asked Bryan Cranston whether he thought twice about taking [the role of Walter White in Breaking Bad]?”

Pino, sitting behind a slice of a crew member’s untouched birthday cake, relished the experience of sinking his teeth into such a layered role, one that, as he puts it, “you may be absolutely rooting for. He’s your ride-or-die in one scene, but potentially in the next episode, you feel like you don’t know him.” In Pino’s hands, Roman Compte is a complex man who tries to follow his daughter’s moral compass but continually gets pulled by another magnetic force: his brother Nestor (Yul Vazquez). One of five brothers himself, Pino understands those filial ties. “The idea of brotherhood is my foundation.”

Yul Vazquez – Nestor Cabal

Danny Pino and Yul Vazquez in Hotel Cocaine (2024)

(Photo by Carlos Rodriguez/MGM+)

Yul Vazquez plays Roman’s estranged hermano Nestor Cabal, an entirely fictional cocaine dealer saving up for a coup to oust Castro who “is brilliant as the older brother,” according to Brancato. Another Cuban Miamian, Vazquez expands on the show’s setting: “Miami is not the United States. Miami is its own jam.” While Vazquez was too young to hang out at the Mutiny, he remembers the time. “Miami was called ‘God’s waiting room’. The crime was out of control.” Castro had imported the dregs of society into Miami, tarnishing the reputation of the predominately honest, hard-working Cubans in the area, so much so that Vazquez’s mother warned him not to say they were Cuban. All this background helped inform Nestor’s character, and Vazquez appreciates being trusted to give input on the series.

In real life, Vazquez couldn’t be further from Nestor. Co-star Mark Feuerstein says that he “engages every single person… Everyone falls in love with Yul.” They’ve all fallen for each other, too — the cast has become family while holed up in the Dominican Republic, which hosts the sets for Hotel Cocaine and serves as a stand-in for Miami in some settings.

Michael Chiklis – Agent Zulio

Michael Chiklis in Hotel Cocaine (2024)

(Photo by Carlos Rodriguez/MGM+)

“It’s like sleepaway camp,” Michael Chiklis said of filming on location, as a make-up artist removed the false mustache — nicknamed “el ratón de Zulio” because it resembled a mouse — that resided under his nose. “I cannot become Zulio until this is on.” Once the rodent was off, Chiklis clasped his hands over his belly, his thumbs circling each other, and addressed us with good-natured mischief. “In the ’70s there was no DEA agent without a ‘stache.”

Chiklis plays DEA Agent Zulio, the Vietnam vet who inexorably changes the course of Roman’s life, completing the criminal triangle at the core of the series. Chiklis enthusiastically added, “We all end up rolling downhill together. It gets messy. As an actor, that’s fun… And add this hedonistic wild period in America? Let’s go!” Agent Zulio embodies the conservative patriotism of the time, fighting post-war disillusionment and an influx of cocaine traders on their turf. We may come to find that while Chiklis is top-notch, the cop he plays isn’t any better than the outlaws he’s trying to apprehend. But it’s not all cops and smugglers in Hotel Cocaine.

Mark Feuerstein – Burton Greenberg

Marc Feuerstein in Hotel Cocaine (2024)

(Photo by Carlos Rodriguez/MGM+)

The Mutiny owner, renamed Burton Greenberg for the series, is the comic oasis in Hotel Cocaine. In a role rumored to have been discussed for David Schwimmer, Mark Feuerstein (Power Book II: Ghost) is a delightful revelation. Brancato said that seldom does he gets an audition tape that seals the deal as fast at Feuerstein’s did.

Greenberg is a “Jew-Buddh” (or Jewish Buddhist — Feuerstein’s quote, not ours) who gets sucked into the game because of a faulty loan, thematically representing social revolution and the “Me” decade. Greenberg wants to show people the good life, but there’s corruption in that life, which troubles his conscience. “They found an artistic way to depict that while I’m tripping my rocks off,” he added. The role fits the charismatic Feuerstein like a polyester suit, though he jokes Greenberg’s “a little more sycophantic than I am, which is shocking.”

Laura Gordon – Janice Nichols

Laura Gordon at the series premiere of Hotel Cocaine (2024)

(Photo by Robyn Beck/Getty Images)

Australian actor Laura Gordon (Late Night with the Devil) added: “Mark’s characters bring this whole other element to the show that elevates it from a crime thriller.” Gordon plays Janice, the stylish “mother hen” of the Mutiny Girls who are the showgirls at The Mutiny Club — it’s hard to imagine that these ladies weren’t inspired by the Playboy Bunnies. Gordon said she was very much inspired by Janice’s wardrobe, and we, in turn, will be inspired by hers.

Janice isn’t just eye candy, though. She is a caring, smart, and daring woman who will inevitably get dragged into the criminal underpinnings of the club. Janice, the gal with a past and a heart of gold, is incredibly loyal to Compte and Greenberg for employing (and respecting) her.

Corina Bradley – Valeria

Corina Bradley at the series premiere of Hotel Cocaine (2024)

(Photo by Anna Webber/Getty Images)

Relative newcomer Corina Bradley co-stars as Valeria, Roman Compte’s aforementioned moral compass. As if being a non-native teenager wasn’t hard enough, Valeria will also be affected by her family’s involvement in the cocaine trade. The daughter of Venezuelan immigrants, Bradley understands the plight of a young person settling in a new country and feeling the push and pull of identifying with two cultures. Valeria, like her, feels like she isn’t Cuban or American. “I really connected with that, and I felt like I knew how to play that.”

Tania Watson – Marisol

Tania Watson at the series premiere of Hotel Cocaine (2024)

(Photo by Robyn Beck/Getty Images)

“Marisol is a breath of fresh air for Roman,” Bradley said of Tania Watson, who plays her unofficial stepmother. Marisol and Roman are an unmarried couple living together, which brings a lot of dangerous uncertainty. “He’s not mine,” explained Watson. “She’s a girlfriend and a mother figure, but not the wife or mother. She needs to be reassured she belongs in this universe, in this family, and that’s what she’s hoping to get.” When we pried further, Watson said: “There’s stuff I can’t say.” There’s a bit of a mystical vibe to Watson, who grew up in Catalunya and represents her native Spain on the series. She rounds off the stellar cast, and we’re excited to see them orbit and collide inside and outside The Mutiny Club.

The Mutiny Club

The set of Hotel Cocaine (2024)

(Photo by Ivette García Dávila)

After we interviewed the cast, Brancato gave us a tour of Hotel Cocaine’s Mutiny Club set at Pinewood Studios. We marveled at the neon Boogie Nights vibes, including all the party favors, and it was impossible not to take obligatory selfies with the prop cocaine on the table, which was powdered milk (they also had a vegan option available). And, of course, there were also prop guns.

In fact, during our tour, Brancato excused himself to text Sara Seligman (Coyote Lake), director of episodes 5 and 6, regarding a needed insert: a gun hidden inside a breadbasket. They discussed other realistic options within the world because the Mutiny Club does not serve food. Spoiler alert: They settled on a gun inside a champagne ice bucket, because while coke addicts may not eat much, they do like their spirits.

The set soon filled up with cast, crew members, and extras — one was dressed as Little Richard, and Swizz Beatz made his guest appearance as DJ Kool Herc — and Navarro got a long take that culminated with the Mutiny Girls dancing.

But the folks at Hotel Cocaine live by the work-hard-play-hard philosophy.

After a long day, everyone retired to the Hotel Casa Hemingway for after-hours festivities. Feuerstein danced the night away and ended up jumping into the pool with a handful of others, none of whom bothered to change into swimsuits. It turned out he had more in common with his fictional life-of-the-party counterpart than we realized. It was the perfect way to cap off the visit, and all that remains is to see it all come to fruition when Hotel Cocaine debuts on Father’s Day.

Hotel Cocaine: Season 1 (2024) streams on MGM+ on June 16th.

On an Apple device? Follow Rotten Tomatoes on Apple News.