Benicio Del Toro is Hollywood's hot new star - some say the next Brando, or at the very least the next Nicolas Cage. The 34-year-old actor has been receiving rave reviews and awards galore for his role as a Mexican narcotics policeman in Steven Soderbergh's Oscar-winning 'Traffic (2000)' and the quirky, brooding actor is about to make the leap from supporting actor to leading man in 'Basic (2001)', a military drama he is recently completed filming in Canada. In addition, Del Toro has also wrapped work on HUNTED, THE (2001), directed by William Friedkin, in which he plays a serial killer pursued by Tommy Lee Jones.
Winning the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor has established Del Toro as a rising star in Hollywood and as a Latino sex symbol whose heavy-lidded eyes and pensive expression has won him legions of female fans. Moreover, his edgy performances in films like Basquiat (1996), Usual Suspects, The (1995), and Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1998) have made him a cult favorite amongst industry insiders. It was only a matter of time, therefore, before a film like Traffic (2000) succeeded in getting him into the acting big leagues and provided him with recognition amongst mainstream audiences.
"My goal as an actor has always been to reach a level where I can find a lot of interesting work, and I think I'm at that point now," says Del Toro. "The Oscar has given me a lot of recognition, but I think Traffic (2000) alone would have done a lot for me. It's the kind of role you die for because a lot of people are going to focus on your work. It gives you a very high profile. "
Interestingly, Del Toro was primed for the spotlight several years earlier after Usual Suspects, The (1995) earned him and Kevin Spacey a wave of critical support. We all know how Spacey went on to greater glory, but Del Toro's career lagged as subsequent roles in films like Basquiat (1996) and Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1998) went largely unheralded.
In the latter film, which co-starred Johnny Depp and was entered in the competition at the Cannes Film Festival, Del Toro gained nearly 50 pounds for the role.
"My career definitely went into a hole after Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1998)," explains Del Toro. "The worst thing about that was that a lot of people assumed that that was the way I normally spoke, especially if they remembered me from Usual Suspects, The (1995). Hunter S. Thompson told me that my career would be over after I did the film and he was right - I was unemployable for about a year. "
"But all I tried to do with the character in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1998) is be faithful to the book, in playing this completely wacked out, crazed man. There was no other way I could play the guy. What went wrong is that I guess I was too convincing, and that everybody believed that I was on drugs myself. It was insane. Plus it took me three months to lose all that weight. That was the worst part, let me tell you - I'll never put myself through that again. "
Sitting down with Benicio Del Toro at L. A. 's Caffé Roma, it's surprising to note how tall the 6'3' actor is up close. He seems to be permanently slouching in many of his roles, and a lot of that is tied up with his natural shyness, a quality that was exacerbated when his father sent him away from Puerto Rico to study at an elite boarding school in Pennsylvania that played home to wealthy WASP children. Though he had cousins in the area, Benicio was "more or less on my own".
When Del Toro began his American school journey, his English was marginal at best, and so he used his athletic ability and a passion for music to gain acceptance.
"Acting was something I needed as a way of allowing me to express myself and not feel inhibited, closed off," explains Del Toro. "When I first start going to that school, it was hard for me to communicate because I was still working hard on my English. Sports, and mainly basketball, was my only outlet, my only means of expressing my passion. That and music."
"But I never saw going to that school as a bad thing. I grew up rapidly. Fending for myself was the only way to survive. I had no one else to hang on to for support. It was the first time that I looked at my inner self instead of looking outside. In boarding school I discovered things such as painting - something that I still a feel passionate about. I was lucky that I went to such a good school. You learn a lot more at places like that and that kind of education gives you a lot of advantages in life. "
Del Toro's atitude towards life is one that can be summed up as a quiet confidence in himself and his ability to cope with the world. "I used to play basketball and I was pretty competitive, but I was never a bad loser. I never got angry. For me it was always about doing my best and devoting myself to a challenge. Sometimes that will cut it, other times it won't. But I'm someone who remains faithful to my dreams. That's how I looked at acting, even though I knew it would be tough going at first. I didn't think about the money, I've always lived simply. I just need my books and I can get by. "
Del Toro got his professional start doing guest-starring roles on television, including 'Miami Vice' when he was 21, and the acclaimed miniseries 'Drug Wars: The Kiki Camarena Story'. Though he developed a reputation as a good character actor, Del Toro could only find occasional work in films, mainly independent features, although he did make a short appearance in the James Bond film License to Kill (1989). His career might still be functioning below the radar were it not for the surprise success of 1995's Usual Suspects, The (1995), in which he, together with Kevin Spacey, had the most memorable roles.
"That was a good experience for me because I found a role that I knew I could make stand out," recalls Del Toro. "I think we all knew that the film had something unusual to it, and that Kevin was going to become big. But I also thought it would work for me and it did. "
Though Del Toro began to land bigger roles in a number of highly touted but moribund studio projects (EXCESS BAGGAGE (1997), Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1998) as well as independent films (Basquiat (1996), WAY OF THE GUN, THE (2000)), he was having a hard time jumping over the ethnic fencing that tends to limit Latino, as well as every other non-WASP, actor.
He was disappointed by the mauling Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1998) took at the hands of reviewers and at the box-office, but he tried to maintain a positive frame of mind and held out for work in good films rather than take small roles in bad movies.
"I told myself that things would work out and that I had to be patient," he explains. "I take a pretty reflective attitude towards my work. I waited a long time to get recognition and even though I have an Oscar now, I don't intend to start cashing in by going for big paychecks in big budget films. "
"I like to take things very slowly. When you start to become a movie star it's easy to believe that you are Superman. That can fool you. That's why I prefer not to pay much attention to fame. The truth is that I don't give it much thought. I don't suffer. I don't hang my photographs on the wall. Without realizing it, you can enter a vicious circle and think that you really are a superhero. That's the moment when you get yourself in real trouble. "
Del Toro lives in a small L. A. flat which is decorated by wall-to-wall bookshelves, stacks of books, magazines, and CDs covering the floors, and sheafs of papers which he uses to write down his thoughts. One of his current projects in development is a biopic about Cuban revolutionary leader Che Guevara. As far as his private life is concerned, he has been spending the better part of the last year with Claire Forlani, the seductively attractive British actress (MEET JOE BLACK (1998)) with whom he co-starred in 1996's Basquiat (1996).
Though he won't discuss, confirm, or deny their relationship, he is willing to venture some comments on his burgeoning sex symbol status. "It's beyond my control. I'm sure if you ask my family, they'll say, 'He was a sex symbol a while back.' But you know, it's what it is and I take it with half a smile, you know. If it helps me get to do what I want to do in films, then great. If it's going to get in the way, then I'll cut it down. "
Julian Schnabel, the pop artist turned director (BEFORE NIGHT FALLS (2000)) spent a lot of time hanging out with Del Toro when they were filming Basquiat (1996) together. The Bohemian painter reveals that Del Toro is notorious for allowing women to chase him without trying to show any definite signs of interest.
"Benicio has his own method," laughs Schnabel. "Women were all over him when we shot Basquiat (1996) but he tried to not to let on that he was interested. He loves to play hard to get. "
Del Toro doesn't buy into the Schnabel theory, however. "The attention is nice, but I like to take it slowly with girlfriends,"he reveals. "I've never been a guy who likes to play the field and even though you get more opportunities as your level of recognition goes up, I'm not interested in playing that game because it's a pretty shallow lifestyle. .. I've only been in love a couple of times in my life and it can be hard to go through a big break-up. .. Right now I'm so busy I honestly don't think I can have a long-term relationship. "
"I need a lot of time by myself where I can read and write and just think a lot. That's very tough on someone else because you can't really allow that person into that space that you need to be in. I need to to spend a lot of time in a private, sealed world of my own, and I don't know how good I would be in a relationship where you can't cut yourself off from your partner. It's something I'm eventually going to figure out, or be so much in love that it won't be an issue anymore. "
The turning point in Del Toro's life came when he graduated from his Pennsyulvania private school (his older brother Gustavo works as a doctor in New York), and was facing with the decision of whether or not to enter the family business - his parents, his grandfather, his godmother and his uncle had all been practicing lawyers - and he was expected to follow in their footsteps.
He enrolled at the University of California in San Diego intending to study painting but listed business as his major in order to please his father. But a drama class sparked his interest in acting causing the would-be lawyer to drop out of college and spend the next couple of years studying acting, both in New York and Los Angeles. Needless to say, his father was less than pleased with his decision.
"I had had a pretty up and down history with my father as a teenager and he didn't think acting was a very good career choice," laughs Del Toro. "He saw it as a big gamble where I would wind up doing a few
commercials, maybe a role in a TV show once in a while, and then wind up with nothing and with no future and no career to fall back on. My dad wanted me to go to law school part-time and work on my acting the rest of the time. You can see his point, but there was no way I could do that. I had made up my mind to become an actor. "
Though most of his family in Puerto Rico is enamored with his Oscar victory and the sudden fame that had come with his appearance in TRAFFIC (2000), Señor Del Toro Sr. is still less than a true believer in his son's career path.
"It's funny, but even now that I have an Oscar, I think that dad still hopes deep down that I'll go back to law school and do something serious with my life!"
Del Toro's initial interest in performing came, tragically, at his dying mother's bedside when he was just a child. For over a year, he would spend hours trying to entertain her and ease her pain.
"My mother died when I was nine. She died of hepatitis after being
chronically ill for a very long time. The performances I would do to
make her laugh were probably my first acting efforts. Incredibly, I took her death very well. My father and I spoke for many months afterwards and discussed a lot of memories and experiences we had as a family, and that was very beautiful. So her death wasn't as hard on me as it might have been. .. When things like that happen at such an early age, you accept them as a fact. It's like they are part of the tree of life. "
"That's my attitude towards acting. I'm blessed in life to have found
something I loved and had a talent for. Most people don't have that
chance, at least I don't think so, and so your world suddenly falls into place when you see what life offers you and you can go after it. I'm living the American Dream, I guess, in the sense that I'm able to pursue my happiness. "
In the aftermath of his Oscar victory, Del Toro claims that he has still not bought into the star status label that is being foisted on him. "No, no, no, I'm staying away from that kind of thinking," he says. "I don't expect to start making big action films or playing romantic leads just because of that. The Oscar has opened a lot of doors and it's exciting. But it's not going to change my life that much".. ..
"Fame is something you have to keep your distance from. I try not to
read stuff that's written about me and I haven't started hanging out
with a lot of famous actors and going to a lot of parties. "
"It's funny, but when I arrived in California to start college I was
much more interested in becoming a surfer and cruise along in life from one beach to the next. I didn't plan out any huge career for myself. Now that I see that I have this career and it's worked out for me, it still feels like I'm surfing, only that it's on a different level. I feel very free and that's all that I've ever wanted out of life. "
He adds: "Freedom, and maybe a little bit of art thrown in. "