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El Pais - English Edition
The Deep Tones Of del Toro Find Their Way To The Havana Festival
By MAURICIO VICENT
December 10, 2003
The first question is purely aimed to provoke: why is Benicio del Toro, Hollywood's favorite male Latin American star of the moment, in Cuba? "Why not?" he answers with that distinctively mellifluous voice. "I like Cuban cinema and the Havana Film Festival. Besides which, I'm a friend of some actors here, like Luis Alberto Garcia or Jorge Perugorria, and since they don't show their films over there, I've come to see them here."
Cuba is in no way an alien country for this native of Puerto Rico. He made his first visit in 1991, when he was 24 years old and still unknown apart from his cameo in an episode of Miami Vice and his appearance in the James Bond movie License to Kill - in which he was indeed killed, or rather hacked to pieces by a shredding machine, with no great contribution to his fame.
That summer, the Panamerican games were being held in Cuba, and Del Toro decided to spend a couple of weeks in Havana enjoying the events. "I was always being mistaken for a Cuban," he recalls. "We went along the malecon (Havana's famous coastal avenue) and drank that clandestine rum, chispadetren. I also went to the baseball match between Cuba and the United States, and since I always back the underdog I cheered for the United States, because Cubans play ball much better."
Someone interrupts him while he talks: Del Toro apparently has a thermometer in his luggage for some Cuban friends with a baby, and he has to hand it over. Next comes a doctor, and then someone from the Film Festival, who brings him a video of Suite Habana, the acclaimed new movie by Cuban director Fernando Perez.
"I've seen his film Clandestinos, which I liked a lot," declares Del Toro, though he admits that his favorite Cuban film is Memoris of Underdevelopment (1968) by the late director Tomas Gutierrez Alea. "In my opinion, Memories... is an inspiration. I've watched it many times, it's a film that means a lot."
De Toro is not one to make erudite political assessments of the country and its ruler, but he does think Cuba has been harshly treated in the media. "They remove the human factor, leaving only the political issues. If they talk about anyone, they talk about Fidel, but not about the other Cubans."
So does the Cuban revolution still have meaning in the modern world? He smiles when asked the question, and starts to talk about his second visit to the island in 2001, when he came to present the film Traffic. "I went walking with Luis Alberto and Perugorria through Old Havana, it was getting dark, and seeing us walk past, someone mistook me and said: 'Jack Nicholson, The Shining.' A bit further along I saw a boy. He was walking toward me, he was badly dressed, and I felt the same that I have in other Latin American countries: he's going to mug me, I thought. I look at him, waiting to see where he's going to put his knife, but the boy very politely asked me what all that about The Shining meant, because he hadn't understood a word."
Now aged 36 and with much of his hair turning gray, Del Toro has chosen an orange baseball hat to go with his blue jacket - not an advisable combination, but it doesn't matter. Soon he'll be travelling to Europe to promote his latest movie, 21 gramos, the second film by the Mexican director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu, who leapt to fame with his debut movie Amores Perros. Sean Penn and Naomi Watts also star in the film. According to Del Toro, the new work is "an important film": "it's shot in English, made in the United States, and directed by a Latin American, while the screenwriter, the director of photography and an actor are also Latin Americans."
He insists that there are now many excellent Hispanic actors working in Hollywood, but so far few directors and screenwriters have managed to break through. "The more there are, the fewer stereotypes and cliches in Hollywood over what being Latin American means."