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Hollywood Has Slotted Benicio Del Toro Mainly In Gritty, Urban Roles…He Says Quite A Bit In His New Film, Even Though He Doesn't Have Much To Say

BRIEF ENCOUNTER He Knows The Type Hollywood Has Slotted Benicio Del Toro Mainly In Gritty, Urban Roles, And He's At Peace With That

Elaine Dutka

March 9, 2003
Copyright © 2003 Los Angeles Times. All rights reserved.

It wasn't until he portrayed a mumbling crook in 1995's "The Usual Suspects" that Benicio Del Toro's sleepy good looks became readily recognizable to mainstream moviegoers. Three years ago, critical mass turned into critical raves as the native of Puerto Rico accepted a Screen Actors Guild best actor award and a best supporting actor Oscar, just for starters, for playing a conflicted Mexican cop in Steven Soderbergh's "Traffic."

Del Toro, 36, can next be seen as a former special forces assassin gone bonkers in William Friedkin's "The Hunted," due out Friday. An extended cat-and-mouse game, the film pits a retired teacher of warfare (Tommy Lee Jones) against his former student (Del Toro), for whom violence is a way of life.

Your parents were both lawyers and, after moving to Pennsylvania for your high school years, you spent a lot of time on a farm. On screen, though, you play mostly gritty urban types. Your choice -- or Hollywood's?

Few actors get to a place where they can control their professional destiny. You take what you can get because there are studios, producers, directors, casting agents -- it's not a one-man show. And the Latino thing -- dark hair, dark skin -- makes Hollywood see me a certain way. Unless you accept that as part of the job, you can get frustrated, blinded by it. In this system there will always be a bigger fish, and it's not clear-cut who the good guys and bad guys are. If you don't like it, say no to the job. Tell the casting directors out there that I don't sing -- but I'd give it a shot.

Did the year-end awards for "Traffic" make life any easier?

Let's just say that I'm treated very differently now than I was five years ago. Though I'm no Jack Nicholson, my name, it seems, helps a film get off the ground. The awards were a little bit of reassurance that what I've been doing all these years has paid off. You don't do it for the recognition, but we're all human beings -- full of doubt. This kept the doubt in the closet awhile longer. I take my hat off to those who survive in this fragile industry. You don't know how difficult it is until you're inside.

In "The Hunted," your character could be described as a moralistic killing machine -- either an antihero or a villain.

Each of us is a mix of good and evil. It boils down to the choices we make. I regarded my character as a Frankenstein monster, a victim of the horror of war. I liked that he wasn't a one-sided evil dude but a person crying out for help. I've never gone off the deep end to that extreme, but some people stay in that moment for a lifetime. I also liked that he never uses a gun, killing from afar. The movie was one long fight -- the most physical part I've played.

Friedkin said that you and Jones work very differently: You prepare to the extreme, while he's more intuitive.

I think I'm intuitive. Maybe Billy said that because I ask questions, trying to understand the character. And because his room was across the hall from mine, I was forced to talk to him more. Still, Tommy Lee is a real pro -- good at simplifying, which is the best thing to have as an actor. And Billy? Great with action, creating suspense, which is hard to make original. He's also very collaborative, unafraid of being challenged, so he doesn't put up walls. You can have a great idea, but at the end of the day actors make the movie better.

Do you think a film as violent as this one might suffer commercially if war breaks out?

If anything, the film says that war doesn't finish when the bell rings, and there's a winner and a loser. Those involved in it deal with it on a daily basis for the rest of their lives. This may not be an antiwar picture, but it certainly doesn't try to sell it.

A Killer Of Few Words Benicio Del Toro Says Quite A Bit In His New Film, Even Though He Doesn't Have Much To Say

Randall King

March 14, 2003
Copyright © 2003 Thomson Canada Limited or its licensors. All rights reserved.

Randall King EW YORK CITY -- If you've seen Benicio Del Toro brilliantly marble-mouth his way through the role of thief Fred Fenster in The Usual Suspects, you already know he's not an actor who staked his career on Kenneth Branagh-style oratory.

That's something to bear in mind as you catch the 36-year-old in the movie The Hunted. Del Toro's character, rogue soldier Aaron Hallam, may be a deeply disturbed killer, but he is not one to engage in the erudite academic banter of a Hannibal Lecter or the twitchy verbal arrhythmia of a Norman Bates.

No, as with some of his more famous roles, Del Toro communicates with subtle mannerisms, his expressive eyes, and as few words as possible. And thus, he seems comfortable in a film where the dialogue requirements are, frankly, spartan, at best.

Even so, the Puerto Rico-born actor expressed concern with the role when he was offered it, prior to his best supporting actor Oscar win for his work as a dedicated Mexican cop in Steven Soderbergh's 2000 film Traffic.

"I said yes to this before I was nominated," he says. "Then, the character was a little bit different... a little bit one-dimensional.

"I met with (director William Friedkin) and we talked about it and after a series of conversations with Billy, we started working on it to make it less one-dimensional, more like... in the grey."

Of course, these days, Del Toro says he has enjoyed even more success when it comes to having the ear of Hollywood's influential players. Part of this growth, he says, has to do with his own ability to communicate his ideas.

"I'm getting better at that," he says. "Before, I think I was limited in the skills of communication."

Having that gold Oscar statuette can win a lot of respect in this business, too.

"They might listen a little bit more," he says. "They might put up with your ideas a little bit more. Before it was: 'Who are you?' And now, you know, if you have an idea, it's: 'That's interesting.'"

Del Toro also now has to make other psychic adjustments to mainstream Hollywood success.

Though his first screen role was as a Bond villain thug in the Timothy Dalton 007 movie License to Kill, he really established his career in the realm of smaller, independent films such as The Usual Suspects... or in studio films with indie sensibilities, such as Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. Hence, a big-budget movie with an A-list cast is a bit of an adjustment, especially when it comes to a studio's medieval sense of entitlement.

"They keep you there for a while," he says. "Where there's money, it's like: 'We own ya.' You have to accept it to an extent. There's more money and you know, the trailer is a little bit nicer. But they also will keep you there for a while."

Indeed, Del Toro worked on this movie a little longer than planned, especially after he broke his wrist during a fight scene with Tommy Lee Jones, who plays the tracker assigned to bringing Hallam to ground.

"I went for a knife and went diving for it and Tommy Lee Jones fell on top of my wrist and I fell on top of him and broke the wrist," he says, adding the situation had an upside: People left him alone in the three months it took his arm to heal.

"I could say I don't want to talk to anybody and they would be sympathetic," he says. "I was at peace."

And so he is at peace with the film, which hearkens back to classic Friedkin chase movies such as The French Connection and To Live and Die in L.A., where the violence is more realistic than stylized. That was a relief to Del Toro, especially in the execution of the film's brutal, no-frills knife-fight scenes.

"I actually think the fight sequences were going in the Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon kind of direction and we pulled back," he says. "I'm not saying that Crouching Tiger is not good. It's great. But we wanted to make this realistic and so we pulled back and I was right up there pulling it back."

His greatest pride, though, is reserved for the scenes depicting Benicio Del Toro: Man of action.

His favourite scenes, he says, are "when I'm running to catch that train.

"Because I look like I can run."

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