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Thus Spake Benicio Del Toro
by Shogo Hagiwara, Daily Yomiuri Staff Writer
May 27, 2004
Onscreen and off, Benicio Del Toro cuts an enormous figure. Standing 1.88 meters with an unkempt beard and long silver hair, he radiates a charisma that could silence those around him without his lifting a finger. His presence somehow feels similar to that of a religious leader.
When Del Toro appeared for an interview with a handful of members of the Japanese press during a recent visit, it felt as if he were there to preach a sermon, rather than field questions on director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu's forthcoming film 21 Grams, in which he plays an ex-convict-turned-religious-fanatic named Jack.
And when he is first asked for his views on the movie, Del Toro wastes no time in reinforcing the otherwordly impression he has made by saying, "I don't look back."
While that remark sinks in, he adds, "We are not here to talk about the film."
Of course, Del Toro is joking. It's a bad joke, but he's got something that makes everything he says somehow convincing. So much so that arguing against him seems pointless.
He in fact talks about 21 Grams at length, though in a subdued matter. Between a couple of cigarettes and some coffee, he says that being able to see things objectively, or from someone else's point of view, is a priceless asset for actors.
"Naomi (Watts) and Sean (Penn) understand not only their characters but the other characters, and that's a big difference. When you have someone that can put themselves in your shoes, then things can work really easily," he says.
"If you put yourself in my shoes and try to understand what it is to be sitting in front of you guys, I try to put myself in your shoes and understand you are doing your job...I'm here understanding what you have to do, therefore we can have a good working relationship."
Del Toro's character has a record of all kinds of crimes, but devotes himself to serving God after undergoing a complete transformation during his last spell in prison. In one scene in the film, we see Jack trying to convince a juvenile delinquent that God knows even when a single hair moves on his head.
Jack is religious, but in such an extreme way that even his fellow church members have trouble dealing with him.
Comparing himself to his character, Del Toro says he is also religious and they have things in common such as...trucks.
"Both (of us) like trucks," says Del Toro, who looks pleased with his own joke.
But then he quickly gathers thoughts and continues: "There is a sense of novelty to Jack, and I like to think I have that, too. But he takes it to the extremes with the fact that he's feeling guilty and he feels what he'd done so intensely.
"He has that guilt (over killing a father and his daughters in a traffic accident), but he has it a little bit too much. But the fact that he feels bad for what he did and he doesn't forget--maybe there is a similarity there between me and the character.
"I don't like to forget people who are nice to me and I don't like to forget the a------s (and I like to) make sure I keep those two lists fresh."
Born in Puerto Rico in 1967, a young Del Toro moved with his father to a farm in Pennsylvania after his mother died. His lawyer father is said to have encouraged him to pursue a law career rather than an acting one, which he didn't see as a realistic means of making a living.
Despite his father's advice, Del Toro chose to walk on the wild side of life and slowly but steadily moved up the ladder of Hollywood actors.
At 21, he became the youngest actor to play a James Bond villain in License to Kill (1989).
Many probably remember Del Toro as a mumbling gangster named Fenster in The Usual Suspects (1995), Bryan Singer's lauded thriller that landed him an Independent Spirit Award for best supporting actor. To get mainstream attention, however, he had to wait for Steven Soderbergh's Traffic (2000), in which he portrays a worn-out Mexican cop whose partner is murdered by gangsters.
The roles in Del Toro's filmography lean heavily toward petty criminals--see The Way of the Gun (2000) or Snatch (2000)--and, in the case of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1998), a debauched lawyer.
But it's not that he chose to build his career around shady characters, Del Toro says; it just happened that way.
"I'd rather play the guy who is driving in a convertible with sunglasses and gets the girl at the end and wins the trophy and hangs by the swimming pool," he says with a smile. "But I have no control over that. I'd rather go play a character in Hawaii hanging around the beach, than going into Memphis (where 21 Grams was shot) crying and being suicidal."