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Bullish Benicio: Hispanic Of The Year
December 1, 2001
Each year HISPANIC magazine highlights a Hispanic of the Year. It wasn't hard to pick Benicio del Toro. The Oscar-winning actor has won over the hearts and respect of many-and his ethnicity has nothing to do with it.
It has been a long and difficult journey from the hilly colonial town of San German, Puerto Rico, to the heights of Hollywood fame, but Benicio Del Toro's talent and dedication to his craft have helped him arrive with tremendous grace-not to mention an uncommon sense of style.
That wavy mountain of disheveled hair topping an athletic 6-foot 4-inch frame, those drooping, bluefish eyes framed by never-ending dark circles, have helped him create some of the most quirky characters projected onto the big screen in the last decade or so. The same characteristics have turned the 34-year-old actor into an unlikely sex symbol-a Latino hunk for the 21st century.
Comparisons are frequently thrown at Del Toro: his sexy looks remind some of a young Robert Mitchum, his screen presence akin to Marlon Brando's or Robert DeNiro's. A true actors' actor, he is frequently praised by the likes of Matt Damon, Brad Pitt or Sean Penn-who has picked Del Toro for two of his forays into directing.
Surprisingly, Del Toro has earned all the praise without yet playing a lead role in any of his 24 films. He has earned praise by taking attention away from some of Hollywood's biggest actors, a feat that prompted Vanity Fair to dub him "The Scene Stealer" for a recent spread.
"People ask me if it's difficult being a Hispanic actor," he said in an interview earlier this year, "and they forget how difficult it is to be an actor, period."
Benicio Del Toro was an easy choice as HISPANIC Magazine's 2001 Hispanic of the Year. The year began with unlimited critical praise for his work as the honest Tijuana cop Javier Rodriguez Rodriguez in Traffic, a portrayal for which he received the Golden Globe, the Screen Actors Guild's Actor and the Academy Award for best supporting actor. He was seen in no less than four films that opened in 2001, a year that closes with Del Toro riding high on the number four spot of E! Entertainment Television's 25 Sexiest Men In Entertainment list (bested only by Pitt, Johnny Depp and George Clooney) and one among the 10 Men of the Year chosen by the readers of GQ. He shares the cover of the magazine's November issue with fellow actor Ben Affleck and basketball star Kobe Bryant.
The Oscar for Traffic, Del Toro tells GQ, is "my green card for the next five years to be selective and do what I want, maybe branch out a bit."
Indeed, he has been branching out for years. He was born in San German on Feb. 19, 1967, but raised in Santurce, a section of the Puerto Rican capital of San Juan, by parents Gustavo Del Toro and Fausta Sanchez, both lawyers. His mother died when Benicio was nine-"The performances I would do to make her laugh were probably my first acting efforts," he once said-and a rebellious streak began to show when his father remarried.
He began to gain notoriety for his pranks at Nuestra Senora del Perpetuo Socorro, his Catholic school, and because he did not get along with his father's second wife, the teenaged Benicio was shipped off to boarding school in Mercersburg, Pennsylvania. He took with him an affinity for trouble that he now regards as a call for attention, along with his passion for American rock and Puerto Rican basketball. (In the 1996 film Basquiat, he plays homage to one of his heroes, basketball player Raymond Dalmau, by adopting his last name for his character role. Del Toro even dons the shirt Dalmau wore while playing on the Puerto Rican national team.)
For a brief moment he considered following his parents legal footsteps and enrolled in the business school at the University of California, San Diego. Destiny called when he successfully auditioned for a part in a school play, a commitment he could only fulfill by declaring a drama major. Soon he was off to New York, where he roomed with older brother Gustavo (now a physician) and studied acting at Circle in the Square. He earned a scholarship to the prestigious Stella Adler Conservatory of Acting, where he was exposed to "method" acting from the same source as Brando and DeNiro, among other famous alumni.
To earn his keep, Del Toro once worked on the construction of a theater at the Conservatory. This November he was one of three honorees at Stella by Starlight, a fundraiser event for what is now known as the Stella Adler Studio of Acting. Proceeds from the $1,000-a-plate dinner will benefit the construction of a new, state-of-the-art facility in Manhattan.
While he made his film debut as Duke, the Dog-Faced Boy, in 1988's Pee Wee's Big Top Adventure, Del Toro's professional acting career began a year earlier with a small role in the TV series Miami Vice. Drugs have played a role in his roles since then, from portraying thugs in the miniseries Drug Wars: The Kiki Camarena Story and the James Bond adventure License to Kill and the chemically inspired Dr. Gonzo in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (for which Del Toro gained more than 40 pounds) to crossing over to the other line of the law as the heroic Mexican con in Traffic.
The Oscar-winning role not only required that Del Toro reacquaint himself with his native Spanish, but that he learn to speak it with a Mexican norteno twang. It surprised millions watching worldwide when he dedicated his Academy Award win to the people of the border towns of Nogales, Arizona, and Nogales, Sonora, two of the film's locations. "The people were so humble, so beautiful. It made it easier," he told the press backstage at the Oscars. "It's my way of giving something back."
Claiming shyness, Del Toro meets infrequently with the media. (Requests for an interview for this story were turned down by an agent who claimed Del Toro only speaks to reporters when he is promoting a film.) When asked, he has alluded to the fact that he is one of a handful of Latino actors who have reached his pinnacle of film success.
"Logically, I feel a great responsibility for being a Latino actor working in Hollywood," he says in a piece he authored for El Nuevo Herald, translated and posted on the actor's website (www.beniciodeltoro.com). "For now, though, I am only an actor and cannot feel any type of responsibility for the roles I play. My only responsibility is to do my job well. But if I were a director or a movie producer, my responsibilities would be greater.
"The only thing that I ask is not to be solely seen as a Latino actor," he went on. "The fact that my name is Benicio Del Toro should not imply that I must be thought of only as a Hispanic actor. Logically, I don't have a problem with playing Latino characters, and would play them more frequently if they were better written."
The one thing the Oscar win did change for Del Toro is that he can now take his time in developing his film characters. It is unlikely there will be another year when he appears in four films; but he insists he will never again binge on donuts to gain 40 pounds for a role.
That does not mean he will not continue to plunge passionately into his chosen craft. The morning after picking up the Oscar in Los Angeles in March, Del Toro was on a plane to a location in Oregon where he began filming The Hunted with two other Oscar winners-director William Friedkin and actor Tommy Lee Jones. In the action thriller due in screens in early 2002 Del Toro plays a serial killer who pursues hunters; shooting was so intense that the actor ended up with a broken wrist.
Next up on Del Toro's plate is a juicy role that is likely to exploit Del Toro's newfound status as a sex symbol, not to mention give him star billing. In The Assumption of the Virgin he plays a 15th century Florentine artist, Fra Filippo Lippi, a monk who falls passionately in love with a beautiful nun (Juliette Binoche) who modeled for many of his religious paintings.
And Del Toro has recently said he would like to play Argentine revolutionary Ernesto "Che" Guevara in a movie planned by Steven Soderbergh, his Traffic director.
A true gentleman, the actor refuses to comment on romantic liaisons (though he has been reportedly tied to actresses Chiara Mastroianni and Alicia Silverstone). Officially single, he lives in a small Los Angeles apartment, surrounded by books and CDs.
He is all about acting, refusing to give in to the trappings of fame.
"The truth is that I don't give it much thought," he wrote for El Nuevo Herald. "I don't suffer. I don't hang my photographs on the wall."
Of course, that shouldn't stop his admirers from hanging photos: Del Toro says he is comfortable with female adulation.
At the Oscars, a reporter asked if it was fun being a heartthrob. "Yeah, you tell me," Del Toro shot back. "How do I look?"