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National Post

From Hellion To Hunk: There's No Reason For Benicio Del Toro To Be Sexy. He Just Is

by Katrina Onstad

November 28, 2003
Copyright ©2003 National Post. All rights reserved.

Benicio del Toro should not be sexy, but he is. Should not because he looks like he just ate a huge greasy meal, traces of which can be seen on his T-shirt, which fits snugly to his belly, which hangs slightly over the rim of his jeans. Even his grey hair, sticking out from under a trucker hat, has the texture of an unrinsed sponge.

"Everything about him is big," says director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu, who cast Del Toro in 21 Grams (opening today). "He's a big-hearted, big guy. He's mysterious. He has a sweet smile and a lot of interior life. Just watching him, there are big things going on."

Del Toro, who is 36, slowly gives over the aforementioned sweet smile, extending a meaty paw and mumbling hello in that strange gum-wadded voice that made him Fenster, the weirdest of the weird conspirators in The Usual Suspects. And all of that is somehow attractive, which truly is mysterious.

The 1995 film The Usual Suspects took Del Toro from a career of small parts and guest appearances on shows like Miami Vice to modest art-house stardom, but it wasn't until he played a decent Mexican cop treading corruption in Traffic that he truly broke through, earning a best supporting actor Oscar in 2000. In 21 Grams, Inarritu's gyroscopic camera freak-out followup to the critically adored Amores Perros, Del Toro plays an explosive, bible-thumping ex-con who becomes one corner of a bloody revenge triangle. It's an emotionally fried stunner of a film told from a thousand different directions, chronology be damned, and Del Toro shares the screen with Naomi Watts and Sean Penn.

Says Watts: "When I found out those two were involved, I just about wet myself." Penn and Del Toro are legendarily intense performers; Del Toro beefed up and lived the gonzo life while playing the substance-scarfing Dr. Gonzo, Hunter S. Thompson's enabler in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. Watts solidifies her reputation as female counterpart to Penn and Del Toro with her performance in 21 Grams as a former drug addict losing her mind over a tragic accident. "Yes, once again, I'm the psycho!" she says. All three won acting awards at the Venice Film Festival.

As a punk-ass teen in Pennsylvania, Del Toro never believed anything like movie stardom would come his way. "My brother was talking about becoming a doctor, and everyone wanted me to become a lawyer," he says. "But I'm a really slow reader."

He grew up in Puerto Rico, the son of two attorneys. His mother died when he was nine, and when Benicio turned 13, his father moved the family to a farm in Pennsylvania. A tried and true formula for teen havoc involves the death of one parent and the remarriage of another (and chores that include pig wrangling); accordingly, Del Toro became a teen hellion. At least, press clippings always allude to his rebellious youth. Make mention of this and he grins, a little pleased with himself, but unwilling to divulge details.

"There's a moment where you're craving for attention. I had mine," he says. "At least I can say that mine was creative. We don't want to start talking about it. Say I got creative sometimes." He pauses. "We're getting Catcher in the Rye here."

His healthier outlets, in this order, were basketball, music, painting and, much later, acting. While studying business to please Dad at the University of California San Diego, Del Toro took an acting class. "The teacher said: 'This is the right time to start, at 19, because you have a little bit of life experience.' He told me: 'You're on time at the station.' "

A Stones freak from an early age, Del Toro might have channelled that punk energy into music, except he has no capacity for playing. "I've always been kind of distracted. I still am," he says.

"When I was nine, I'd go to class, it was organ class, and I'd put the headphones on and we were supposed to do exercises but I kept playing this samba thing, hitting that key -- doo doo doo." He makes a pitch-perfect samba sound. "They told my dad they were wasting his money and he pulled me out. I just wanted to be playing basketball."

Del Toro uses songs to prepare for his parts, finding the "centre" of his characters. His chosen theme music in the trailer during 21 Grams was Bruce Springsteen's The Rising. "That album has some of the same themes of the movie: coping with pain; is there going to be any hope."

Though the setting of 21 Grams is deliberately Anycity, U.S.A., the shoot took place in and around Memphis. Naturally, driving to and from the set, Del Toro was in an all-Elvis mood. "If you listen to Elvis while you're driving in Memphis, you feel like you're in a time capsule. You feel like it's 1956," he says. "The Sun Record Recordings 1955-56 -- that's the dictionary of rock 'n' roll."

Did he visit the Sun Studios while he was in the city? He gets a dreamy look on his face. "Yeah, like eight or 12 times," he mumbles. "I just loved it."

It's not a fascinating comment, but it's a tribute to Del Toro's inherent charisma that merely mumbling about Elvis, and pulling on the rim of his stain-smudged baseball hat, somehow seems like a staggeringly sexy move. Mysterious, indeed.

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