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Dragging Out The Demons, Inching Up The A List…Benicio Del Toro On His Career And Latest Movie, "21 Grams"

Dragging Out The Demons, Inching Up The A List


December 30, 2003
Copyright © 2003 THE NEW YORK TIMES. All rights reserved.

Benicio del Toro----------
Benicio Del Toro says he "hit the jackpot" with his role in "21 Grams."

PHOTO: Monica Almeida/The New York Times

LOS ANGELES — Emerging from the afternoon shadows dappling the garden of the Chateau Marmont, Benicio Del Toro strolls toward the patio restaurant, his hands in his jeans pockets, his eyes squinting in the sunlight. He's in no hurry and seems unaware of the commotion his presence is causing among the lunch crowd. It's a surprising reaction in a place where celebrities come and go virtually unnoticed, where Kate Moss had just minutes before drawn only sidelong glances. But for Mr. Del Toro, people are rising off their seats, peering baldly, nudging each other.

Even if his face were not familiar — the reptilian, bedroom eyes; the pouty, thick mouth — his physical appearance would catch the eye. At age 36, 6-foot-2 with a bulky chest and brawny arms, he radiates power, sheer feline masculinity.

Close up he looks sleepy, a bit scruffy. Immediately he orders an espresso. These days, he says, have been a tumble of interviews, those tiresome media moments that make up a publicity blitz during the awards season.

All of it he is doing gladly in the service of "21 Grams," the highly praised film by Alejandro González Iñárritu that also stars Sean Penn and Naomi Watts. The film, a provocative story of death, grief and hope centered on a tragic accident and the three lives it brings into collision, may earn Mr. Del Toro an Oscar nomination for a performance that is among the most intense of his 15-year career.

Mr. Del Toro surfaced in the mid-1990's as one of the most intriguing off-beat actors of the decade. Though a cult-film favorite for his oddball roles in movies like "The Usual Suspects" and "Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas," he gained mainstream recognition only three years ago, in Steven Soderbergh's "Traffic," playing a Mexican police officer fighting corruption and drug traffickers at the border. For it, he won the Oscar for best supporting actor, and he moved up to the mid-rungs of Hollywood's A list.

Now he has "21 Grams." Mr. Del Toro plays Jack Jordan, a drunken, violent thug and ex-convict who finds storefront religion, only to have fate tear him apart before he can finally achieve a measure of redemption. In a film of doomed souls, his is probably the most damned, and the most noble. His Jack Jordan is a force — explosive, scary and ravaged, but waiting, deep and silent and always in shadow. His face is creviced and wretched, as if he had been on a lifelong binge. It's the face you remember when you walk away from the film.

Though "21 Grams" was a consuming work, Mr. Del Toro is already looking beyond it to a project that has become his current passion. He is trying to get the financing to make "Che," an epic about the last year in the life of the Latin American revolutionary.

One of his favorite filmmakers, Terrence Malick ("Badlands"), has signed on to direct, but the rest of the cast, the script, and other central aspects are up in the air. Still, Mr. Del Toro seems confident the film will be made, possibly in Bolivia, where Che Guevara was killed.

In the meantime, he has two films in production, "Chaos" and "The Lost City," both due out in 2004. Another film, "The Rum Diary," based on Hunter S. Thompson's novel, is on the boards.

Of "21 Grams," he says: "It was relentless in that almost one scene after the other is exhausting. I started to get exhausted emotionally; physically, too." He speaks slowly, in a somnolent tone.

He prepared for his role for months, analyzing the character, speaking frequently to Mr. González Iñárritu, even delving into psychiatric material that his brother, Gustavo, an oncologist in Manhattan, found for him.

It's not the sort of role he necessarily wanted to do. "I don't want to go in there crying and feeling demented and suicidal," he says. "But it was a good script." He took the dive. "When you do a movie," he explains, "you do a movie based on the script, the director and the actors. And I hit the jackpot with this one."

Fighting against the emotional drain of his role, he played music. "Music gets me out; music lets me in," he says. "It changes from movie to movie, but for this one I was listening to Springsteen, and then I was in Memphis filming, so Springsteen would let me in and Elvis would let me out." He's talking about that place where he goes to drag emotion into the open, to infuse his role with pain and demons.

The emotion, he says, "comes from you, from what you are, and you are all the stories you heard from family and strangers."

"It comes from DNA, and it comes from Mom and Dad, and it comes from everything you go through in life," he continues. "I've been in situations, I've seen things, I've been through life in a way."

Sorrow came to him when he was just 9, when his mother, Fausta Sánchez Del Toro, died of chronic hepatitis. That loss, Mr. Del Toro admits, "was the major moment of my life."

"She had the brains," he says. "My father had brains, but not like she did. He was the earth, but she was the heaven and the stars."

Beno, as his family and friends call him, and his brother, Gustavo, who is two years older, grew up in the upper-middle-class section of Miramar, in San Juan, Puerto Rico. Their father, like their mother, was a lawyer. "I wasn't doing too good at the little Catholic school that I went to," he says. He spent whole days at the movies, and he became a troublemaker.

At 13 he went to school at Mercersburg Academy in Pennsylvania. "I had to do it because I had to find myself," he says. "When I left Puerto Rico, I found myself alone almost constantly. I rediscovered painting. (My mother had taken me to painting classes when I was 5, 6, 7 years old.) I liked rediscovering solitude."

He was a leader of the basketball team, but his grades did not improve. When he finished high school at Mercersburg, he enrolled at the University of San Diego to study business. "My brother had gone to U.C.L.A., and I liked L.A. and the idea of people in Hawaiian shirts," he says.

At San Diego he took an acting class on a whim, and that was the end of college. He left for New York to work at Circle in the Square, but it was difficult to survive there. He returned to Los Angeles and got a scholarship to the Stella Adler Conservatory. At 19 he made his first movie, "Big Top Pee-wee," playing Duke the Dog-Faced Boy — hardly a command performance, he says, making a dog face.

Like many Hollywood careers, his has been rocky. That he is Latino has not helped. "You're more limited," he admits. "Sometimes I thought, `I'm sure if I changed my name it would be a little bit different,' but if I changed my name, I'd get confused."

Being Puerto Rican is one thing. Being temperamental is another. Mr. Del Toro is not, by all accounts, a timid soul. He is one of Hollywood's "bad boys." He is a bit of a loner, too, a bachelor living alone in a West Los Angeles apartment, in the company of books and CD's. About women, he will say only that he is seeing someone. He does not play the paparazzi game.

Yet he has found a place among the best actors and the top directors. Mr. González Iñárritu, the Mexican filmmaker who is himself something of a bad boy, said in a telephone interview that "Benicio, with his spirit and tenderness, his complexity and integrity, incarnated his role."

Now, after 28 films, it may be time to ask, Can he carry a film by himself? When will Benicio Del Toro get to play the romantic leading role? These questions, he says, do not bother him.

"But hey," he adds, half mocking, "would I like to be the guy in the movies who has a dream and everybody is against him, but at the end he gets the girl and gets the trophy? Yeah, I'd love to be that guy."

Benicio del Toro


Born February 19, 1967 - Santurce, Puerto Rico

From All Movie Guide: Known for his dark intensity and idiosyncratic performances, Benicio del Toro is undoubtedly one of Hollywood's more unique actors. His looks suggesting a hidden background as Wednesday Addams' hunky older brother, del Toro first became known to film audiences in 1995 with his breakthrough performance as Fenster in The Usual Suspects.

Filmography: Denotes a New York Times Critic's Pick

The Rum Diaries
Director / Actor: Dr. Gonzo

21 Grams
Actor: Jack

The Hunted
Actor: Aaron Hallam

Breakfast With Hunter

Julia, toda en mi...

The Pledge
Actor: Toby Jay Wadenah

Actor: Javier Rodriguez

Actor: Franky Four Fingers

The Way of the Gun
Actor: Longbaugh

Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas
Actor: Dr. Gonzo

Benicio del Toro


Born February 19, 1967 - Santurce, Puerto Rico


From All Movie Guide: Known for his dark intensity and idiosyncratic performances, Benicio del Toro is undoubtedly one of Hollywood's more unique actors. His looks suggesting a hidden background as Wednesday Addams' hunky older brother, del Toro first became known to film audiences in 1995 with his breakthrough performance as Fenster in The Usual Suspects.

Born in Santurce, Puerto Rico, on February 19, 1967, del Toro was the son of lawyers. His mother died when he was nine; four years later, his father moved the family to Mercersberg, Pennsylvania, where they lived on a farm. While attending the University of California at San Diego, where he was working toward a business degree, del Toro took an acting class and was soon hooked. He appeared in a number of student productions, one of which led to a stint performing at a drama festival at New York's Lafayette Theatre. Del Toro decided to remain in New York to study acting at the Circle in the Square Acting School and won a scholarship to the Stella Adler Conservatory.

A move to Los Angeles, where he studied at the Actors Circle Theatre, led to del Toro's first television roles, including a guest spot on Miami Vice and a role as a drug dealer on the miniseries Drug Wars: The Camarena Story (1990). The actor also began appearing in feature films, perhaps most notably as Duke the Dog-Faced Boy in Big Top Pee-wee (1988). Despite fairly steady film work, del Toro was still virtually unknown when he was cast as the eccentric criminal Fenster in Bryan Singer's The Usual Suspects. His slurred, otherworldly performance earned widespread praise, an Independent Spirit Award, and coupled with the film's great success, it thrust del Toro into the limelight that had hitherto eluded him.

The actor followed up The Usual Suspects with a supporting role as the titular artist's best friend in Julian Schnabel's Basquiat (1996). Despite intriguing subject matter and a stellar cast, the film was something of a critical and commercial disappointment, although del Toro's work did earn him a second Independent Spirit Award. Having thus put his trademark on off-beat character acting -- something that was also helped by his role as a gangster in Abel Ferrara's The Funeral (1996) -- del Toro ventured into the romantic leading man arena opposite Alicia Silverstone in Excess Baggage (1997). A botched caper comedy that cast the actor as a bumbling car thief, the film unfortunately turned out to be an indisputable turkey.

Not nearly as disastrous but courting an intensely mixed critical reception was del Toro's next film, Terry Gilliam's much anticipated 1998 adaptation of Hunter S. Thompson's Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. A drug-addled, hallucinatory odyssey, it starred del Toro as Dr. Gonzo, protagonist Raoul Duke's partner in crime. He earned strong notices for his portrayal of the portly, freewheeling Samoan lawyer, and his performance was widely touted as one of the best aspects of the film. Del Toro gained further notice when he won the Best Supporting Actor award at both the Golden Globes and the Oscars for his portrayal of a Mexican cop entangled in the international drug-trade war in Steven Soderbergh's Traffic (2000). ~ Rebecca Flint, All Movie Guide

Interview: Benicio Del Toro On His Career And Latest Movie, "21 Grams"

Jnauary 6, 2004
Copyright © 2004 Fresh Air. All rights reserved.


It was hard to tell what Benicio Del Toro was saying when he co-starred in the film "The Usual Suspects." That weird, mumbly speaking style he created helped make him famous. He won an Oscar for his supporting role as a Mexican cop in the film "Traffic." Now he's starring with Sean Penn in the film "21 Grams." The title refers to what some say is the weight we lose when we die. Each character in the movie is facing death, their own or someone else's. The story is told out of chronological sequence, moving back and forth in time, so it takes a while before we understand what each character is facing and how the lives of the characters intercept, so I won't give too much away here.

Del Toro plays an ex-con who has returned home to his wife and two children and has turned to Jesus Christ to help him keep on the straight and narrow. Most of the people in his church seem down and out. Early in the film he tries to straighten out a troubled kid who belongs to his church.

(Soundbite of "21 Grams")

Mr. BENICIO DEL TORO: (As Jack) They didn't lock you up this time 'cause you're not 18 yet. Next time they're going to lock you up, brother. Come on. You're not thinking. Stealing might get you money, so you can have some cheerleader's ass, show off riding in some pickle-colored Thunderbird. But tell me what's going to happen if you shoot a pregnant woman or an old man, huh? You know what'll happen? The guilt will suck you down to the bone. Stealing ain't worth it. Going to church, reading the Bible and believing in Jesus, brother, that's your ticket.

GROSS: Did playing this role make you think more about religion?

Mr. DEL TORO: Yeah. I reread Job from the Bible. I reread maybe some sections of the Bible that I quote in the movie. And, yeah, it made me think about religion, and, you know, I think about religion quite a bit. I mean, I was raised Catholic, and I believe in God. You know, I don't know if I believe it like the Catholic Church, with the rituals and all the stuff that you have to do, but I do believe in God. I believe in something bigger than you or me. But it was clear that the problem that I was having with the character was not the problem of religion. It was a problem of the human being. You know, it's a problem of a...

GROSS: And the problem of his expectations of what religion could do for him as a kind of speedy, quick fix. Yeah.

Mr. DEL TORO: Well, yeah, the lack of knowledge of what really is happening to him. What really is happening to him is a depression. It's a thing called survival guilt. And I'll give you another example, which is basically what's happening to him, but he doesn't understand this: He's not capable of doing it. So he turns to religion for that help; you know, that, `Give me the answer right now. I need it right now. I'm suffering.' But what really is going on is a depression.

GROSS: Now in "21 Grams" and in "Traffic," you play very emotionally complex characters. In the first movie that many of us noticed you in, "The Usual Suspects," if your character is emotionally complex, we wouldn't know it. Do you know what I mean? We just see a little bit of him, and we don't really know his past. And, I mean, he's kind of opaque in that sense. What really stood out in viewers' minds was the accent, that strange mumble, that you use in the movie. And I'm wondering if you came up with that, in part, because there wasn't much of a character written into the part.

Mr. DEL TORO: Well, when I read the script, "The Usual Suspects"--and the script was written by Christopher McQuarrie--and I read it, and he--you know, I read my character. The purpose of my character was it was the first one to die. There was nothing else. He didn't add anything to the plot. He didn't--you know, the only purpose was this is the first one that falls, and then everybody starts to get afraid of Keyser Soze. So I went up to the director, I said, `You know, you might as well let me run with this.' And, honestly, I was very afraid. I didn't know if it worked at all. And when I finished shooting the film, I felt like, `I've turned into a clown.' But it did work out, and we've got to thank the editor.

GROSS: Why don't we hear just an excerpt of a scene from "The Usual Suspects" with you using that wonderful mumble.

(Soundbite of "The Usual Suspects")

Mr. DEL TORO: (As Fenster) Hi. I really, really, really--I've got to do something about this (censored). I ...(unintelligible) hold it every five minutes. So I did a little time. Does that mean I get railed every time a truck (unintelligible) for everybody? (Censored)

Unidentified Man: Fenster, will you relax? These guys don't have any probable cause.

Mr. DEL TORO: (As Fenster) You're (censored) right. No PC, no goddamn right. You do some time, they will let you go. You know, they treat me like a criminal. I'll end up a criminal.

Unidentified Man: You are a criminal.

Mr. DEL TORO: (As Fenster) Now why you got to go and do that? Trying to make your point?

Unidentified Man: Well, why don't you make your point? You're making me tired all over.

GROSS: That's Benicio Del Toro in "The Usual Suspects."

Can you talk a little bit about how you developed that particular sound, that mumble?

Mr. DEL TORO: I was watching Dustin Hoffman in "Dick Tracy," and he did a character called Mumbles. So I took it from--I said, `Well, I want to do my own interpretation of Mumbles.' We'll see other actors do the mumble. But I'm not the first, and I won't be the last.

GROSS: Right. When I saw "The Usual Suspects," I wasn't really sure whether that was the way you talked, or that was just the way your character talked. So I waited for your next movie to see. You know, `Is that really his voice?' And am I alone in having had that initial reaction?

Mr. DEL TORO: Well...

GROSS: Did any casting directors have that same doubt?

Mr. DEL TORO: ...I don't know exactly about that. I don't know because I've been, you know, running around LA doing auditions for years before "The Usual Suspects."

GROSS: So people knew you already?

Mr. DEL TORO: Well, the casting directors knew me a little bit...

GROSS: Right.

Mr. DEL TORO: ...some better than others. But I do remember going up to, I think, a 7-Eleven and trying the voice and ordering something from the guy at the counter. And I remember his look was like--immediately he saw--there was this look of fear, of some kind of--like I was going to rob the place or something like that. And I remember thinking, `Boy, that works, and I'm going to try and do it.'

GROSS: Are you patient when it comes time to learn your lines and repeat them over and over until they are really natural?

Mr. DEL TORO: I'm really bad at learning my lines, you know. I don't think we should let everybody know. Well, I come from a--I studied with Stella Adler, and Stella Adler's approach to acting was always, you know, `Go to the lines last. Don't go to the lines before you understand who the character is, what the character wants. And once you understand that, then you go to the lines.' So I believe in that. If I was doing theater, then I would know the lines by opening night because you go through a rehearsal process. But when it comes to movies, you don't have a rehearsal process. So sometimes I might catch myself the night before learning the lines like a maniac, but to me, the lines are important, but it's the last thing that I go to.

And I really believe that if I understand what the character wants and what the scene is about, I mean, the lines will come to me. And it does happen. You know, it's easier to learn the lines once you understand it. But sometimes, you know, people go straight to the lines before they understand what the character is doing, and what happens is that you're just saying lines. But...

GROSS: So why don't actors rehearse in films? Is it money? Is it just that it's too expensive?

Mr. DEL TORO: You know, I think actors in movies are sprinters, you know, and I think that...

GROSS: Oh, one scene at a time?

Mr. DEL TORO: Well, you're a sprinter; you go really fast. Once the movie--it's a lot of money to make a movie, you know. So once they have the money--and you don't know when a movie's going to get the money. You don't know. You have that day to do it. You won't come back the next day and get a second chance to do it. Like they say, like, `Oh, well, in movies, you get another take.' Yeah, I get another take that day, but the next day I don't get another take on the scene that I did yesterday. As an actor in theater, I do the play today, but I come back tomorrow and I get a second chance to do the whole play.

GROSS: Right. I see your point.

Mr. DEL TORO: You know?

GROSS: Yeah.

Mr. DEL TORO: And, you know, so as an actor in movies, you have that day and that's it.

GROSS: My guest is Benicio Del Toro. He's starring in the new film "21 Grams." We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: My guest is Benicio Del Toro. He co-starred in "The Usual Suspects," won an Oscar for his performance in "Traffic" and is now starring with Sean Penn in the film "21 Grams."

You grew up in Puerto Rico and moved to Pennsylvania, I believe, when you were 10. Is that right?

Mr. DEL TORO: No, 13.

GROSS: Oh, 13. Oh, OK.

Mr. DEL TORO: Yeah.

GROSS: OK. What was the occasion for moving?

Mr. DEL TORO: I was sent to school, to go to...

GROSS: To boarding school?

Mr. DEL TORO: Yeah.

GROSS: Did it make you feel independent or lonely to be away from home?

Mr. DEL TORO: Both. And--but I think it did--loneliness is good, you know? You know, maybe being alone is good; not loneliness. So I think it's more like it made me feel independent and alone, and being alone, I think, was very healthy for me 'cause it gave me a chance to think, daydream, you know; to really look at myself and kind of like--it just--I found myself, you know, in Puerto Rico--I had, like, many friends and I was never alone. And when I found myself alone in Pennsylvania, it just gave me a chance to, like, look at who I was and think, and I think it was very healthy. And I still like, you know--every now and then, I need to be alone.

GROSS: I understand you have a big book and record collection. Now I've read that you sometimes use records to help you find a character you're going to portray and get into the character. How do you use music like that?

Mr. DEL TORO: Well, I don't know if I use it to find a character, but I do use it to somehow, I think, relax. I think music is kind of like a pacifier of some sort; I don't know. For me, and I'm sure for a lot of people, music is very powerful. And, like, let's take a movie like "21 Grams." It's really intense, so it's like--I've been asked, you know, `How did you'--`Did you take this character to your hotel after work?' And I said, `Well, you know, I make sure I leave it, you know, on the set, leave the character on the set.' And maybe the only way to do that is--like, you know, for me, was listening to music--you know, just kind of like--and, you know, I'm very specific about what I was listening to.

I was shooting in Memphis, Tennessee, so I wanted to see Sun Records. And I'd rediscovered Elvis Presley's 1955, '56 Sun Record album, which is like the recordings he did in Sun Record in 1955, 1956, before he signed with RCA. And I listened to that a lot while I was doing the movie, and I really had a fun time listening to it in the car driving to the set. I don't know, it's just like--it made it easier for me to get in that car to go and work on this character, which is pretty dark. So it did help me. You know, getting in the car and, you know, blasting a song like "You're Right, I'm Left, She's Gone," or "I Forgot to Remember to Forget," "Shake, Rattle and Roll." It--you know, it's just like--I don't know, it just made it easier to drive to the set.

GROSS: Well, I understand one of the movies you'd like to make is a biography of Che Guevara. Why would you like to do that?

Mr. DEL TORO: Why would I like to do that...

GROSS: What's Che Guevara's importance to you?

Mr. DEL TORO: Well, I think that Che Guevara has been completely misunderstood, you know? And I'll give you an example. The fact that--the other day, I was watching TV and I was watching the Discovery Channel, which I like very much, and they had a two-part series on terrorism, and as they were reporting some images of September 11th and other things, and the FBI--the Oklahoma bombing--bang, they have an image of Che Guevara in the middle of all this, right next to Osama bin Laden. And, you know, if they knew anything about the guy, they'd read anything about what the guy said, you know--he really was against terrorism. He does look like a--you know, that picture of him with the beard is a pretty intense picture, and it's easy to use that picture and go, like, `Hey, terrorist.' But, you know, he really--he wrote. He was a thinker. He was a father of five, you know, and he had his ideas and he felt for the little people in some ways and he felt like, you know, something had to be done. And he was a warrior.

GROSS: Benicio del Toro is starring in the film "21 Grams."


GROSS: I'm Terry Gross.

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