USA’s Queen of the South debuted its first of 13 episodes at the fifth annual ATX Television Festival tonight to a largely positive reaction from the audience, a reaction that spilled over to the Q&A session held afterward with the executive producer and cast. There was no talk about the fact that the telenovela on which it is based was a favorite of Mexican drug lord El Chapo, but the audience didn’t seem to mind as the panel touched on the real-world basis for a character like female drug lord Teresa Mendoza, the show’s feminist underpinnings, and trying to keep things authentic.

On why he chose to make an American version, EP David T. Friendly said he felt “the drug world was traditionally about men” and “this was story in many ways about female empowerment.” He made passing mention of the real-world example of legendary Miami cocaine trafficker Griselda Blanco, chronicled in the documentary Cocaine Cowboys, when discussing the show’s focus on a female holding power in the drug trade, saying “it is a rare instance,” but a true one.

“To see how she would be able to survive [in the drug world] was the hook for me,” he said. Later on, co-star Joaquim de Almeida added to the sentiment, saying “it’s exciting to see women with this kind of power. It’s new and its different.”

Star Alice Braga was first introduced to the character eight years ago, when she read the novel La Reina del Sur by Arturo Pérez-Reverte, which served as the basis for the telenovela. That’s almost as much time as it took to bring Queen of the South to American audiences. Braga said at one point Eva Mendas was attached to star in a film version that never came to fruition, but after the telenovela, it eventually found its way to her. “I was really honored and excited. It’s such a special character for a women… in the way that she’s not a victim… having this character that could easily be played by a man was a nice challenge to face.”

From shooting in Mexico and Dallas to having Spanish-speaking actors, Friendly stressed the importance of truth. “These are authentic actors and they are all fluent and Spanish … and many of them are from Mexico,” he said. “I thought that it was very, very important that we not do what our business has done in the past, which is to sort of homogenize the film and say we should cast American actors so that we can get a bigger audience. We knew there were great actors out there and we found them, and they are legitimately the right people for the part.”

On the choice to film in Dallas, Friendly said that aside from saving money, “we needed a city were you’d believe that this might be under the radar, where drugs might come through. … Dallas seemed like a very cinematic place for us, and maybe a place where the feds might not be looking.”

But Queen of the South’s authenticity isn’t an endorsement, Friendly says, and the show will showcase the consequences of being part of the drug world. “There, s’s no question that being a drug lord is dramatic and powerful,” he said, “and they destroy lives and destroy families… we want to show to be authentic. You will see in various episodes, whether it’s in terms of Teresa’s relationship with [Brenda, portrayed by Justina Machado], with other cast members, with her family, there are serious consequences to this very violent ambiguous world.”

Braga added: “There’s always a price to pay. The most important thing is so never, ever glamorize,” she said about doing a show like Queen of the South. “I think that’s something that all of us should be careful of. … Glamorization of drugs and violence is never a good thing. … It’s about the character and everything you’re showing should be truthful and honest to them and never glamorized.”

Also present for the discussion were co-stars Jon Ecker, Verónica Falcón, Justina Machado, Peter Gadiot, Gerardo Taracena and Hemky Madera.
Queen of the South premieres June 23 on USA.