Char­ac­ter stud­ies

Esquire (UK) - - Contents - In­ter­view by Alex Bilmes Pho­to­graphs by Si­mon Em­mett Styling by Jeanne Yang

Beni­cio Del Toro on his life, long ca­reer of badass roles, and that “frick­ing fin­ger thing”

Over three decades and 40plus films, Beni­cio Del Toro has built a rep­u­ta­tion as one of the most ex­cit­ing screen ac­tors of his time, and a ca­reer as an heir to the stars of ear­lier Hol­ly­wood gen­er­a­tions: in­tense, un­pre­dictable, supremely cool. In his new movie, Si­cario 2: Soldado, he plays a gun­man on the run from the CIA and the Mex­i­can car­tels. Esquire meets a mav­er­ick in his prime

he is a big man, brawny but not bullish, de­spite the name. There’s a deft­ness to him, a del­i­cacy. He treads lightly, moves swiftly with­out seem­ing to hurry. First he’s here, then he’s over there. How did he do that? He comes in through the back, or round the side, and goes out some other way, van­ishes al­most. Each time I met him for this ar­ti­cle, on three con­sec­u­tive days in Los An­ge­les, in April, he ar­rived and de­parted with as much fan­fare as a breath of wind. Where he came from and where he went? Hard to say.

Beni­cio Del Toro played bas­ket­ball to a high stan­dard in his youth. His boy­hood be­d­room wall, in Mi­ra­mar, Puerto Rico, was a hall of fame of posters of his favourite play­ers. For a time, he was even tal­ented enough to dream of a ca­reer as a pro. With­out know­ing much of the game, you can see that he must have been a frus­trat­ing op­po­nent, oc­cu­py­ing the un­seen spa­ces of the court, en­ter­ing un­ex­pect­edly into the ac­tion, con­jur­ing a daz­zling piece of skill — a pass made with dis­guise, a shot from nowhere — be­fore de­ma­te­ri­al­is­ing again, points made.

In­stead of bas­ket­ball he pur­sued act­ing, and he brings that mer­cu­rial, shapeshift­ing qual­ity to his per­for­mances. Not for him the dra­matic en­trance. He comes at things side­ways, unan­nounced, so that you might not no­tice him at first, edg­ing into a scene. And then he pulls one of his moves and, as they might say in bas­ket­ball: boom.

For three decades on screen he has played men of few words but de­ci­sive ac­tions — in­tense, dif­fi­dent, enig­matic men. Men who speak softly and carry a big gun. He has been Che Gue­vara and Pablo Es­co­bar. He has played an as­sort­ment of tough guys with dark pasts, con­flicted cops or crim­i­nals (or both) mixed up in drugs or the so-called war on drugs. Look at him: he’s hardly likely to be of­fered an over­wrought wed­ding plan­ner or a brit­tle masseuse, though peo­ple might pay good money to see him take on ei­ther (or both).

Sean Penn, with whom he has worked on three films, de­scribes Del Toro as “a ma­jor artist in the craft… ar­guably un­par­al­leled in his in­ven­tive­ness of char­ac­ter”. He is known to strip back his dia­logue, re­mov­ing lines from the script rather than adding them, pre­fer­ring act­ing over ex­po­si­tion, al­low­ing his char­ac­ters to de­velop through body lan­guage, ex­press­ing him­self through ges­ture as much as sound. When he does speak, in some of his most fa­mous per­for­mances, it’s in Span­ish (Traf­fic, Che), or some other lan­guage of his own in­ven­tion (The Usual Sus­pects). Doesn’t mat­ter. Even when you can’t hear a word, you catch his drift.

In per­son he’s la­conic, cer­tainly. But not ret­i­cent. When the mood takes him, he’s a talker: thought­ful, warm and funny. And, as you might ex­pect, he has charisma to burn.

My con­ver­sa­tions with him for this ar­ti­cle took place in a sun-dap­pled nook, shielded by palm trees, at the Sun­set Mar­quis Ho­tel in West Hol­ly­wood; over a lunch of Ca­jun chicken and vi­ta­min juice in a booth at an old-fash­ioned neigh­bour­hood restau­rant, a reg­u­lar haunt near his home on the west side of LA; and be­tween set-ups in a stu­dio in Hol­ly­wood, where pho­tos of him were taken for Esquire.

None of these oc­ca­sions was the first time I’d met Del Toro. That was 17 years ago, in the sum­mer of 2001, when I in­ter­viewed him in New York, over vodka and cran­berry juice

in the bar at the Four Sea­sons Ho­tel. He was on a high then, ac­cept­ing con­grat­u­la­tions for his re­cent Os­car win, for his per­for­mance as a Mex­i­can cop in a tight spot in Traf­fic, Steven Soder­bergh’s drugs war drama. (A ta­ble of heavy­set, sharp suited Ital­ian-Amer­i­can men ac­tu­ally ap­plauded as he passed; one stood to shake hands with Del Toro — “great job, great job”. It was Steven Van Zandt, E Street Band gui­tarist and star of The So­pra­nos.)

That was a long time ago and much has hap­pened since. The world has changed. But some things stay the same. I’m still in­ter­view­ing film stars. He’s still play­ing soul­ful, con­flicted men caught up in the drugs wars on the US-Mex­i­can bor­der. In the forth­com­ing Si­cario 2: Soldado, the se­quel to the sear­ing 2015 thriller Si­cario, he plays a killer de­ter­mined to avenge the mur­ders of his wife and daugh­ter on the or­ders of a car­tel boss.

That might sound like a lack of progress, on both our parts, but while I make no claims for my own out­put in the in­ter­ven­ing years, Del Toro’s body of work — par­tic­u­larly where it re­lates to that topic: drugs, the drug wars, their ef­fect on in­di­vid­u­als and on so­ci­ety — has amassed a weight and a com­plex­ity and power.

Still, un­til our re­cent catch-up, Del Toro had re­mained frozen, in my mind, as the 34-yearold I met back in 2001: the hard-charg­ing Hol­ly­wood ac­tor with the Robert Mitchum eyes, and the late-night twin­kle, and the oddly ap­peal­ing pri­vate sem­a­phore — phys­i­cal jerks and tics and ges­tic­u­la­tions, as if sig­nalling to an imag­i­nary friend, or a plane no one else could see.

It’s a silly word, re­ally, but Del Toro im­pressed me then, as he con­tin­ues to im­press au­di­ences to­day, as a man who might best be de­scribed as “cool”, a cool dude: the think­ing man’s Hol­ly­wood badass.

There’s a mo­ment dur­ing Some­where, Sofia Cop­pola’s movie busi­ness satire, from 2010, that I think adroitly cap­tures the pub­lic im­age of Beni­cio Del Toro, or at least my en­dur­ing fan­boy no­tion of him. The ac­tion takes place at the Chateau Mar­mont, the haute bo­hemian ho­tel on Sun­set Boule­vard, where Some­where’s cen­tral char­ac­ter, an age­ing bad boy movie

‘I’m not say­ing I’m glad there’s peo­ple out there dy­ing from the drugs and the vi­o­lence, just so I can flap my wings,

but I’ve been lucky to be around at the right mo­ment’

ac­tor in the grip of an ex­is­ten­tial cri­sis, lives a life of soul­less self-in­dul­gence. He’s played by age­ing bad boy movie ac­tor Stephen Dorff.

In the scene in ques­tion, Dorff’s char­ac­ter en­ters a lift at the ho­tel and en­coun­ters an ac­tor more fa­mous and suc­cess­ful than he. It’s Beni­cio Del Toro. He’s wear­ing a blue blazer and a stained base­ball cap with the word “Cal­i­for­nia” em­bla­zoned on it. (This is a guess, but I don’t imag­ine he had to spend long in wardrobe to achieve this look.) War­ily, they ac­knowl­edge each other. Dorff’s char­ac­ter looks some­how ex­pec­tant. Del Toro looks like he is en­joy­ing a pri­vate joke. Dorff’s char­ac­ter, Johnny, is first to speak.

Johnny: “Hey, man.”

Beni­cio: “Hey.”

The lift starts to go up.

Beni­cio: “What room you in?”

Johnny: “59?”

Beni­cio: “I met Bono in 59.”

Johnny (laugh­ing): “Oh, yeah? That’s cool.” Pause. “See you, man.”

Beni­cio (off screen): “Stay loose.”

See what I mean? Wry, in­scrutable, sleep­ily hand­some, creatively di­shev­elled, louche with­out be­ing creepy. Cool.

It’s not him, of course. In the cred­its to Some­where, next to his name, it doesn’t say “Him­self”. It says “Celebrity”. Cop­pola and Del Toro are play­ing with our per­cep­tions of what the life of Del Toro, or some­one like Del Toro, a fa­mous ac­tor on the Hol­ly­wood scene, might be like. And yet…

Is he re­ally as cool as all that, I ask Josh Brolin, his Si­cario co-star, who’s known him, on and off, since they were 19? Or is he just another doo­fus, like the rest of us?

“We’re all doo­fuses, man!” says Brolin. “No one’s re­ally cool. But if there’s any­one who could be per­ceived as cool it’s Beni­cio, for sure.”

Del Toro is old school. He's a throw­back to a time, not so long ago, when the dis­tinc­tion be­tween char­ac­ter ac­tor and lead­ing man briefly col­lapsed, and un­con­ven­tional, even awk­ward men, out­siders who once might have been pushed to the mar­gins, could take cen­tre stage with­out con­form­ing to rigid ideals of square-jawed mas­cu­line hero­ism. Even if they hap­pened to be square-jawed.

He is en­thralled by the work of the sin­gu­lar movie stars of the New Hol­ly­wood of the Six­ties and Sev­en­ties, the easy rid­ers and the rag­ing bulls: De Niro, Pa­cino, Ni­chol­son, Hoff­man et al. In most cases, these men had been trained for the the­atre, had stud­ied act­ing as a craft, un­der the same teach­ers — in the case of Del Toro, Stella Adler — who had taught Mar­lon Brando and James Dean in what be­came known as method act­ing: in­tensely stud­ied per­for­mance aim­ing for com­plete nat­u­ral­ism. Not just hit­ting your mark and say­ing your lines and be­ing buff.

Del Toro is old school in other ways. He lis­tens to clas­sic rock, on vinyl. “I find it very re­lax­ing.” At our first meet­ing for this piece, he turns up wear­ing a Rolling Stones tour T-shirt un­der his blazer. That band comes up more than once, in con­ver­sa­tion. As do The Clash and The Bea­tles. The most an­i­mated he be­comes dur­ing the Esquire photo shoot is in the course of a dis­cus­sion, be­tween pic­tures, of Paul Mc­Cart­ney’s un­der­rated solo out­put: “Mc­Cart­ney II, man. Oooh!” He has

sub­scrip­tions to Mojo and Un­cut.

He reads books, too, pa­per ones, an eclec­tic as­sort­ment of old books and older books. Lat­est dis­cov­er­ies: Erica Jong’s Fear of Fly­ing (“the ‘zi­p­less fuck’… awe­some”), and HG Wells.

He’s re­cently com­pleted seven months shoot­ing a TV se­ries — Es­cape at Dan­nemora, di­rected by Ben Stiller, based on the true story of a fa­mous 2015 pri­son break (he plays a mur­derer) — but don’t go to him for up­dates on your favourite show. In­stead, he watches old movies.

Brolin: “I go, ‘What you been do­ing?’ He goes, ‘I’ve been watch­ing old movies.’ I go, ‘That’s what you did yes­ter­day?’ He goes, ‘No, that’s what I did for the last month.’ And I know that he means it. He’s lit­er­ally been in the dark for 30 days, just watch­ing old movies and eat­ing Dori­tos.”

Only once in the time we spent to­gether did I see Del Toro con­sult his phone. That was to check the time. When I asked him if he was on so­cial me­dia, he looked at me like I’d sug­gested he might be a se­cret mor­ris dancer. Face­book? Blank stare. Twit­ter? Mys­ti­fied glare. In­sta­gram? Zip.

He doesn’t want to come across like one of those griz­zled cur­mud­geons who think ev­ery­thing was bet­ter in their day. “No! I used to hear that from my dad! Lis­ten, you can’t fight it. We’re the old ones now. You can’t judge the young. The young should judge us!” But still… you could learn a lot about a per­son by flip­ping through their record col­lec­tion.

At length, he re­mem­bers a use for his phone, be­sides mak­ing calls. “Wikipedia!” he says, mar­vel­ling, as only us ana­logue crea­tures can, at all those facts at his fin­ger­tips, all those sto­ries.

If char­ac­ter can be re­vealed in de­tails — and movies and plays (and maybe even Wikipedia) say that it can — here are some more de­tails I col­lected. He drives a faded old Amer­i­can 4x4, and he has a clas­sic Sev­en­ties car, too, a Ford LTD, the same car as his dad had when he was a kid. (“It’s a dif­fer­ent ride. It’s like you’re fly­ing low, close to the ground. Amer­i­can cars now,” he says, mourn­fully, “they all drive like Euro­peans.”) He wears a Philadel­phia 76ers base­ball cap and wrap­around shades. (He was wear­ing a Philadel­phia 76ers T-shirt at our first meet­ing, in 2001. Wrap­around shades, too. And he sang me a Rolling Stones’ song: “Doo Doo Doo Doo Doo (Heart­breaker)”, from Goat’s Head Soup.) His strag­gly beard is flecked with grey. His hair is thick as a for­est. He is un­fail­ingly po­lite with wait­ers and pa­tient with in­ter­view­ers.

He lives alone. “Not ev­ery night,” he says. Is he not lonely? “By the time I feel lonely I’m asleep.”

This is an un­char­ac­ter­is­ti­cally flip­pant an­swer. He re­con­sid­ers. “There’s more peo­ple liv­ing alone now than ever in his­tory. And they put the fear on you: ‘Ah, you’re gonna be alone.’ I don’t want to be alone. No one wants to be alone. But I’m a lit­tle bit of a loner.”

He has never been mar­ried. Would he like to try it? “I don’t un­der­stand it, nec­es­sar­ily.”

Has he ever come close? “I’ve been in love. Yeah, I’ve been in love sev­eral times.” But, “A lot of times when you’ve started hav­ing a re­la­tion­ship with some­one and you fall in love, you’re very vul­ner­a­ble, so you be­come un­sta­ble re­ally quick and that causes all kinds of drama, and that’s not good.”

Some­times, he al­lows, he is en­vi­ous of male friends who are mar­ried. His brother Gus­tavo is mar­ried, and Beni­cio speaks ad­mir­ingly of that re­la­tion­ship, how mu­tu­ally sup­port­ive it is.

“It would be stupid of me to be closed to that,” he says. “But I don’t feel like I’m un­happy. I’m not. I’m sta­ble, I’m good.”

He has a daugh­ter, Delilah, six years old. He men­tions her fre­quently in con­ver­sa­tion, as proud fa­thers of young chil­dren tend to do. Her mother is Kim­berly Ste­wart, daugh­ter of Rod and his first wife, Alana Hamilton.

Would he have another child?

“Life has taught me that you can’t say never,” he says. “I don’t know what the fu­ture will bring. I’m not with the mother of my daugh­ter, and we have a good un­der­stand­ing of what hap­pened and I’m grate­ful, but if I was hav­ing another kid I would have to be with the mother. I don’t want to have a kid just to have a kid. I don’t think that’s the right way to do it.”

‘My life has in­flu­enced ev­ery char­ac­ter that I play. And by that I mean my ex­pe­ri­ences, my up­bring­ing, the things I went through as a hu­man be­ing… That’s

the first thing I go to with ev­ery role’

He was 44 when Delilah was born. He’s pleased he didn’t be­come a fa­ther ear­lier. “Oh, man. I would’ve been a ter­ri­ble dad at 26. At 26! I went out ev­ery night to pubs and dis­cos and par­ties. Ev­ery night. That started to change in my late twen­ties, when I started get­ting re­ally busy, but still I went out ev­ery day. I don’t un­der­stand how peo­ple get mar­ried re­ally young. I mean, I do un­der­stand it but you can see that it’s dif­fi­cult.”

Mostly un­re­mark­able in his dress — denim jacket, T-shirt, black trousers, Adi­das train­ers (old school va­ri­ety) — on his fin­ger, on the days of our meet­ings, he wears a large sil­ver ring in the shape of a lion’s head. He of­fers it for in­spec­tion. I weigh it in my palm and slip it on. Way too big for this pale typ­ist’s slen­der fin­ger. Who gave it to him?

“Some­one spe­cial.”

Is he go­ing to tell me who?

“Let’s keep some se­crets.”

What does it sig­nify? He pauses, con­sid­er­ing whether to share this tit­bit, then shrugs: what the hell?

“’Cause I don’t wanna yap like a hyena,” he says, adopt­ing a beg­ging pose, paws raised. Then his voice drops a key. “I wanna sit there and let it come to me, like a lion.”

Another pause. And then a great wheez­ing laugh, and he half-col­lapses side­ways, a lop­sided grin on his face, shoul­ders shak­ing. Not a bull or a lion, more like Mut­t­ley the car­toon dog. Bull, lion, dog… wait, we’re not fin­ished. Josh Brolin quotes their Si­cario co-star, Emily Blunt, who also starred op­po­site Del Toro in The Wolf­man, in 2010. (No prizes for guess­ing which one of them played the hairy guy with the fangs.) “Emily says he’s just like a big bear,” Brolin says. “He has that look. He’s a man’s man and all that. But he’s truly one of the sweet­est guys I know. In­side, he’s ab­so­lute jelly.”

“i have no con­trol over where I was born or what the fuck is this world that we live in,” Del Toro tells me, when I ask to what ex­tent his ca­reer has been dic­tated by his eth­nic­ity, his Puerto Ri­can-ness. “I can only say that my life has in­flu­enced the fuck out of ev­ery char­ac­ter that I play. And by that I mean my ex­pe­ri­ences, my up­bring­ing, the things I went through as a hu­man be­ing… That’s the first thing I go to with ev­ery role I play. It starts with mom and dad, then fam­ily, then school, re­li­gion, su­per­sti­tion, cul­ture. Big time Puerto Ri­can! Latin Amer­i­can, His­panic, Amer­i­can as well. All those things marked the hell out of my life.”

Del Toro’s par­ents were lawyers. His mother, Fausta, came from a prom­i­nent fam­ily in the Puerto Ri­can cap­i­tal, San Juan. His fa­ther, Gus­tavo, who was in the army be­fore he was a lawyer, came from a less rar­efied back­ground — “ru­ral peo­ple,” his son says, in San Ger­mán, on the other side of the is­land.

Del Toro’s child­hood was spent in Mi­ra­mar, a smart dis­trict on the out­skirts of San Juan. He at­tended the Academy of Our Lady of Per­pet­ual Help, a pres­ti­gious Catholic school for the sons and daugh­ters of the is­land’s pro­fes­sional classes. When he was nine years old, his mother died. She had been ill for some time with hep­ati­tis.

“My child­hood was kind of like a con­tra­dic­tion,” he says. “It was a sad child­hood be­cause we knew that our mom was dy­ing.” He pauses. “Look, we’re all dy­ing. But we knew that our mom was go­ing to die very soon. We knew that she was very sick. And at the same time there was a sense of hap­pi­ness around the house. My mom had a great sense of hu­mour. There was a sense of look­ing at what was com­ing straight in the face and at the same time just en­joy­ing life. Be­cause we’re all go­ing to die. And you can get bogged down in that. You can just freeze: ‘Oh fuck, I’m gonna die.’ And not do any­thing, just wait for death. She didn’t freeze at all, no. My mom was a tough cookie.”

It’s more than 40 years since she died. I won­der how much he re­mem­bers of her, if he still thinks of her. He says he once met the great Ja­panese film-maker, Kaneto Shindô, shortly be­fore Shindô’s death at the age of 99. “When he was 75 he did a movie that was a homage to his mom. I asked him: ‘Did that change any­thing?’ He goes, ‘Not a bit.’ He goes, ‘I’m 99 years old, I think about my mom ev­ery day.’” It’s the same with Del Toro. “It’s crazy. It’s amaz­ing. It’s re­ally a cause for cel­e­bra­tion.”

Ci­ti­zens of Puerto Rico are Amer­i­can, they can come and go freely from the main­land. But Puerto Rico is not the same as mid­dle Amer­ica.

“When you go there,” he says, “it doesn’t feel like you’re in a dif­fer­ent coun­try, but it does feel like you’re in a dif­fer­ent cul­ture, com­pletely. The lan­guage, the re­li­gion, the at­ti­tudes, the food, the mu­sic, the art… it re­mains very strong. Puerto Rico is old. It has a long past, and a con­nec­tion to Europe through Spain, and a big African in­flu­ence, through the his­tory of slav­ery. Maybe a kid grow­ing up there is ex­posed to things that a kid who grew up in LA isn’t.”

Del Toro’s fa­ther was a dis­ci­plinar­ian. The son of a po­lice­man, he’d had a dif­fi­cult child­hood him­self. He, too, lost his own mother when he was young. The men of the fam­ily were steely. Beni­cio’s great un­cle, brother of his fa­ther’s fa­ther, was also a cop, and a body­guard: he was in shootouts, gun bat­tles in the street. He was the kind of man Beni­cio plays now on screen. His fa­ther told him he was re­minded of this un­cle by Beni­cio’s char­ac­ter, Ale­jan­dro, in Si­cario. (In Mex­ico, “si­cario” means “hit­man.”)

From Beni­cio’s fa­ther he gets his dis­tinc­tive

way of walk­ing and mov­ing. “The way we defy grav­ity, that’s very sim­i­lar.” They share a love of sport — his dad never missed a bas­ket­ball game — but they didn’t al­ways see eye to eye.

And while his brother Gus­tavo, two years older, was more likely to toe the line, Beni­cio was full of mis­chief. (Gus­tavo, to whom he re­mains close has been equally suc­cess­ful in Amer­ica: a doc­tor, he is chief med­i­cal of­fi­cer, as well as ex­ec­u­tive vice-pres­i­dent, at a teach­ing hospi­tal in Brook­lyn).

“If you didn’t think like him,” Del Toro says of his fa­ther, "there was a prob­lem. He could get an­gry. Right now? His at­ti­tude? The neigh­bours would have called the po­lice plenty of times.

“I got whupped by him many times,” Del Toro says, “but I wasn’t the only one get­ting whupped. All of my friends were get­ting whupped! That’s how it was. He would get the belt, or get in your fuck­ing face: ‘Ra! Ra! Ra!’

“The thing about it,” he says, “was that, had he done that and not been there, that could be a prob­lem. But he was there for ev­ery din­ner, ev­ery break­fast. And I knew that he was right 90 per cent of the time. I think there was a sense that I wanted some at­ten­tion from him and I got it in the rawest form. I got it right in the vein.”

Not too long af­ter their mother died, Gus­tavo and Beni­cio’s fa­ther re­mar­ried. As he en­tered ado­les­cence, the younger Del Toro be­gan to strug­gle.

“My mom had passed away, my dad had re­mar­ried, I was a lit­tle bit de­pressed,” he says. “Never did I feel de­pressed. But when you look back, my grades were go­ing down. When you’re in a com­mu­nity, so­ci­ety starts to brand you. I got a rep­u­ta­tion: class clown.”

En­ter per­haps the most sig­nif­i­cant per­son in young Beni­cio’s life, out­side his im­me­di­ate fam­ily. Sarah Tor­res Per­alta was a suc­cess­ful lawyer and had been a close friend of Beni­cio’s mother. She was also his god­mother.

“My god­mother car­ried a lot of the pain that we were go­ing through from my mom dy­ing,” he says “She had this con­nec­tion with my brother and I. I think she un­der­stood some­how, much more than my dad un­der­stood, the big pic­ture of what was go­ing on.”

One day, when he was 13, she asked him if he’d like to trans­fer to a school in the US. He said he would. That same day he was on a plane, head­ing to Mercers­burg Academy, a pri­vate board­ing school in the Penn­syl­va­nia coun­try­side.

Tor­res Per­alta took a chance on him. “The high school I went to was ex­pen­sive. She paid the bills.” Later, she helped fund both broth­ers through their col­lege years.

“I got re­ally lucky with my god­mother,” Del Toro says. “She was the one who said: ‘Go big.’” He drops his voice to an im­pas­sioned whis­per: “‘Why not go big?’” he was al­ways funny. He did a Mick Jag­ger im­pres­sion, as a kid, that made peo­ple laugh. Maybe it was this that prompted Gus­tavo to sug­gest that his brother might make an ac­tor one day — a state­ment that still seems shock­ing to Del Toro, com­ing as it did so com­pletely out of the blue. Their mother had had an in­ter­est in the arts, and nour­ished in her sec­ond son a love of paint­ing. Their fa­ther read po­etry. All the Del Toro men loved the cinema, es­pe­cially Westerns: John Wayne, Clint East­wood. Young Beni­cio liked “mon­ster movies” which

he would watch with his older cousins, us­ing their home pro­jec­tor. But no one in the fam­ily had ever been a pro­fes­sional per­former, or earned a liv­ing from the arts.

Af­ter he grad­u­ated from high school, Del Toro had no clue what to do next. “I was a lit­tle bit freak­ing out. My bas­ket­ball ca­reer had not re­ally… it didn’t click. I wanted to go into paint­ing. I took paint­ing classes, but…”

He was ac­cepted at the Univer­sity of Cal­i­for­nia San Diego. Lack­ing any par­tic­u­lar idea of what to study, he ma­jored in busi­ness. Un­known to him, UCSD had a drama pro­gramme that was among the best in the coun­try. He signed up, al­most on a whim. “What con­fused me was it was so much fun. I thought that if you want to do some­thing for real, it should be hard.”

Some­how, act­ing made sense to him. He felt he un­der­stood it. “Like there was a logic to it. I re­alised this was maybe some­thing I should do.” Af­ter a year, he de­cided to leave San Diego: “I was cocky.” He would go to New York, cru­cible of Amer­i­can the­atre act­ing, and make it there. He lasted five months.

“It was too hard, I couldn’t do it, I threw [in] the towel.” Mo­men­tar­ily de­feated, he agreed to re­turn to col­lege. On the way he stopped off in LA, to see his brother, who was study­ing medicine at UCLA. While he was there he met an agent, who put him for­ward for an au­di­tion at the fa­mous Stella Adler Academy of Act­ing and The­atre. On the spot, he was of­fered a full schol­ar­ship.

He trained with Adler her­self, the woman who had dis­cov­ered Brando, among other fairly un­beat­able claims to im­mor­tal­ity. “There was a sense of a lab­o­ra­tory,” he says. “I took it se­ri­ous. I was do­ing it for me.”

He lived in a lit­tle place with no kitchen, in Santa Mon­ica, near the ocean, and not too far from Gus­tavo. His first pro­fes­sional roles were small parts in TV shows. Work came in fits and starts. When­ever he was close to de­spair, some­thing would ar­rive to keep him go­ing: “For ev­ery part I got, there were prob­a­bly 300 I failed at.”

You can spot him sit­ting on the bon­net of a car, catch­ing Madonna’s eye in the video for “La Isla Bonita”. He was in an episode of Mi­ami Vice. There was a show called Drug Wars: the Ca­marena Story. Josh Brolin re­mem­bers work­ing with him on an episode of another show, Pri­vate Eye, in 1987, when they were both still in their teens. Brolin was one of the show’s stars, Del Toro a guest player.

“He was re­ally skinny, had a big tuft of hair on his head that went straight out, like Eraser­head,” Brolin says. “I re­mem­ber a scene that was just he and I. My car had been stolen and then given back. The car was black, it was a ’49 Merc, and when it came back it was ca­nary yel­low. And I was pissed. And ba­si­cally this scene was: you’re lucky you got it back in the first place. He had this one line: ‘Don’t ever come back here again.’ And this was how he did it: ‘Don’t ever… come back… here… again.’ And I was like, ‘This moth­er­fucker is tak­ing so long to say this line.’ Like, ‘How is he stretch­ing this out as long as he is?’ He fuck­ing stole the scene, man. He killed it. He was won­der­ful.”

Del Toro’s first movie was Big Top Pee Wee. He played Duke, the Dog-Faced Boy. In 1989, at 21, he was a vi­cious Colom­bian hench­man, with boy­band bone struc­ture, in Li­cence to Kill, Ti­mothy Dal­ton’s sec­ond — and fi­nal — Bond film. That was his best gig to that point, 16 weeks in Aca­pulco and Mex­ico City. He was paid a then unimag­in­able sum: “Forty grand! Crazy!” He bought him­self a suit­case. “I wanted to travel in style, yessir.”

He was in Sean Penn’s The In­dian Run­ner. He had parts in Fear­less, with Jeff Bridges, and Swim­ming with Sharks, with Kevin Spacey. But his break­through came in 1995, with The Usual Sus­pects, that taut, knotty neo-noir that as­sem­bled a mag­nif­i­cent pa­rade of char­ac­ter ac­tors and pro­ceeded to pick the au­di­ence’s col­lec­tive pocket in some style.

In a red silk shirt open to the navel, un­der a black tux, Del Toro’s Fred Fen­ster is a ca­reer crim­i­nal who seems to be keep­ing time to his own pri­vate shuf­fle beat. He pimp-struts and jive-talks and has the coolest speech im­ped­i­ment since Brando shoved a cot­ton wool ball be­hind his bot­tom lip for Don Cor­leone. With his shaved eye­brows and his pale skin and his shock­ing black hair he looks like a Latin mati­nee idol of the silent era. He has the body lan­guage of a stroke vic­tim. He sounds al­most Ja­panese, cer­tainly not as if English were his first or even sec­ond lan­guage. “He’ll flip you,” he slurs. “Flip you for real.”

None of this was in the script. But the direc­tor and the writer and the other ac­tors en­cour­aged him to trust his in­stincts.

“I went out on a limb,” he says. “I’d been do­ing stuff like that in act­ing class. But not in the movies. I think I was more into be­ing liked by the pro­ducer. I’d been too so­cial, and maybe not con­cen­trat­ing on my job. Sud­denly it was like, ‘Hey, maybe this guy can act!’”

‘I got re­ally lucky with my god­mother. She was the one who said: “Go big.”’ He drops his voice to

an im­pas­sioned whis­per: “‘Why not go big?”’

Dur­ing pro­duc­tion, he briefly lost his nerve. “I thought it was com­pletely ridicu­lous. The voice was in my head: ‘You’re an id­iot, you’re a clown.’ I said, ‘I can’t do it, I will not do it.’ And I went out there and I started say­ing the lines with­out any of it. And it was ter­ri­ble. As an ac­tor you don’t know when you’re re­ally good — but you know when you’re bad. I just had to do it be­cause there was noth­ing else to do.

“On the last day when I fin­ished, I went into kind of a baby de­pres­sion. I go, ‘I’ve made a fool of my­self. This is go­ing to be stupid. What the hell am I gonna do?’”

But The Usual Sus­pects was a hit. “I learned some­thing there. When you make a choice and you com­mit to it, there’s no point sec­ond-guess­ing it. No one knew it was gonna work. But it worked. Had it not, it would have been, ‘Look at that kid, mak­ing faces.’”

Now he was play­ing with the big boys, and be­ing mea­sured against them: “John Malkovich, Mickey Rourke, Andy Gar­cia, Willem Dafoe, Sean Penn, Daniel Day-Lewis, Gary Old­man: those guys, when their movies came out, you went to see them. Now I was knock­ing on the door of that club. And stand­ing on my head to get in.”

There would be ad­vances and re­treats to come, even times when he thought he should pack it in to do some­thing else, but Del Toro

‘It’s hard to find good ma­te­rial. As an ac­tor, you’re at the mercy of so many things. If you have a point of view, or taste, you’re gonna be picky. You have to wait’

was on his way. In the years af­ter The Usual Sus­pects, he won awards for his per­for­mance as Benny Dal­mau, friend of Basquiat, in Ju­lian Schn­abel’s biopic of the artist. He was a base­ball star op­po­site Robert De Niro in The Fan. He even made a rom­com, Ex­cess Bag­gage, with Ali­cia Sil­ver­stone.

Then he was fat and freaky as Johnny Depp’s drug-ad­dled at­tor­ney, Dr Gonzo, in Fear and Loathing in Las Ve­gas, Terry Gil­liam’s coura­geous adap­ta­tion of Hunter S Thomp­son’s coun­ter­cul­tural clas­sic. It was a per­for­mance of fe­ro­cious com­mit­ment and in­ten­sity — he was stub­bing out cig­a­rettes on his arm, for scenes that didn’t even make the cut — and it nearly de­railed his ca­reer. Ru­mours swirled around him: he was crazy, he was dif­fi­cult, he was on drugs. “I’m very proud of that movie, but it tanked. And my man, it was like, ex­ile on main street again.”

Cameos fol­lowed in Guy Ritchie’s Snatch and later in Sean Penn’s drama, The Pledge, with Jack Ni­chol­son. But Traf­fic, in 2000, is the film that made him. It might be the film for which he will be long­est re­mem­bered. He was Javier Ro­driguez Ro­driguez, a Mex­i­can cop in avi­a­tor shades and suede boots, play­ing all the an­gles: the army, the car­tels, the Amer­i­cans. It’s a tremen­dously rounded and com­pelling per­for­mance. There’s a fleshi­ness to him, a sen­su­al­ity and a wolfish charm.

Traf­fic set him up for much of the good work to come. As a born-again ex-con trau­ma­tised by a ter­ri­ble ac­ci­dent in the har­row­ing 21 Grams, di­rected by Ale­jan­dro González Iñár­ritu. As the psy­cho­pathic Jackie Boy in Sin City. As a junkie who be­gins a re­la­tion­ship with his best friend’s widow, played by Halle Berry, in Things We Lost in the Fire.

In 2008, he won Best Ac­tor at Cannes for his per­for­mance in Steven Soder­bergh’s dogged two-part epic, Che. Rather than the sainted revo­lu­tion­ary icon fa­mil­iar from the thrift shop T-shirts, his Ernesto Gue­vara is sol­dier, doc­tor, pipe smoker, asth­matic, un­bend­ing guer­rilla leader. It’s a per­for­mance of great con­trol: never showy, never grabby, re­lent­less, som­bre, cussed.

That makes it all sound ter­ri­bly wor­thy, but Del Toro is an en­ter­tainer as well as an artist. He pops up in cameos in the films of pop­ulist provo­ca­teurs (as a coke-snort­ing car­tel en­forcer in Oliver Stone’s Sav­ages), and crit­i­cal dar­lings (Paul Thomas An­der­son’s groovy In­her­ent Vice) and in com­mer­cial jug­ger­nauts (he’s The Col­lec­tor in two Marvel films). Last year, he made a char­ac­ter­is­ti­cally icon­o­clas­tic ap­pear­ance in Star Wars: the Last Jedi, as the du­plic­i­tous DJ. It’s a tremen­dously sly per­for­mance, with echoes of ear­lier ec­cen­tric­i­ties.

His buddy Brolin en­joyed that one. “Oh, I was the guy laugh­ing my ass off when he came on screen, be­cause I know the sto­ries of how peo­ple re­acted to him on set. He wasn’t do­ing it for ef­fect, but the new gen­er­a­tion [of ac­tors] will look at you and go: ‘You wanna do what? Why?’ Now all you have to do is walk from A to B and say your line. It’s like, when was that ever the case in Ben­nie’s head? Walk from A to B and just say a line? It just doesn’t ex­ist. He’s just not put to­gether that way. He fills a mo­ment. That’s what you’re con­stantly try­ing to do: fill a mo­ment with­out look­ing like you’re try­ing too hard. That skill to be able to do that, that’s the dif­fer­ence…”

Del Toro has put to­gether an im­pres­sive body of work, then, and earned the re­spect of his peers. Still, he says, it has not al­ways been easy.

“It was al­ways hard to find work,” he says. “It still is. It’s hard to find good ma­te­rial… I mean I could work, but you make your choices. If I was a writer or a painter it would be dif­fer­ent, but you don’t make movies alone. As an ac­tor, you’re at the mercy of so many things. If you have a point of view, or taste, you’re gonna be picky. You have to wait.”

“this freak­ing thing with the fin­ger,” is how Del Toro de­scribes a trick he pulls with a hand­gun in Si­cario 2: Soldado. This is a scene in which his char­ac­ter ex­e­cutes a narco-traf­ficker on a city street by rapid-fir­ing his pis­tol, held in his right hand, with the in­dex fin­ger of his left. You can see him do it on YouTube, in the trailer for the film.

Did he in­vent this trick him­self? He is al­most of­fended by this: he doesn’t magic stuff out of nowhere. Ev­ery­thing he does comes from ob­ser­va­tion of real life.

“I saw some­one do it, a long time ago. I was like 25. Some­one right next to me did it, at a shoot­ing range. I went, ‘That moth­er­fucker!’ We talked about it. Be­cause you couldn’t hit any­thing do­ing it like that. When you see a guy with two guns in a movie, he’s not gonna hit any­thing. Real peo­ple that know about guns don’t do that. But at close range, what I do in the movie, you can use it. When I saw it I was like, ‘Oh, it’s a trick for the cir­cus. It’s not to be used.’ But if you’re close, you’re gonna put a lot of holes in some­one.”

It looks dan­ger­ous. And also, dare I say it, kind of cool? “It’s cool,” he nods.

Does he worry about that? “Of course I worry about it! What the fuck am I gonna tell you? I do worry about it. It might be en­tic­ing for kids who have a gun, to do that.”

Crime has al­ways been meat and drink to Hol­ly­wood. Drama is con­flict: crime sup­plies it. Sex, death, vi­o­lence, money, power, greed, lust, re­venge, love and hate, good and evil. Each era has its own crime gen­res, re­flect­ing the times, ex­ploit­ing the con­tem­po­rary bo­gey­men for cheap thrills, in some cases, and more nu­anced ex­plo­rations of flawed hu­man na­ture in oth­ers.

In the Thir­ties, dur­ing Pro­hi­bi­tion, it was the gang­ster pic­ture. Stars like James Cag­ney and Ed­ward G Robin­son. In the For­ties, the Hol­ly­wood noir: Bog­art’s crum­pled gumshoes and their femmes fa­tales. In the Fifties, Amer­ica at­tempted to work through its bloody his­tory with the West­ern. Del Toro is the

James Cag­ney, the John Wayne of the drugs war movie. He’s been work­ing in the genre, on and off, from Drug Wars: the Ca­marena Story, in 1990, to Si­cario 2: Soldado, in 2018.

With­out wish­ing to over­bur­den a pop­u­lar en­ter­tain­ment with mean­ing, Del Toro sees more in Si­cario and its se­quel than a pair of stylish shoot-’em-ups. The orig­i­nal, re­leased in 2015, was a bold and orig­i­nal thriller, di­rected by De­nis Vil­leneuve, the gifted Cana­dian who most re­cently re­leased Blade Run­ner 2049. It was shot by the mag­nif­i­cent Bri­tish cin­e­matog­ra­pher Roger Deakins, favourite of the Coen broth­ers, from a screen­play by the Hol­ly­wood writer of the mo­ment, Tay­lor Sheri­dan (Hell or High Water, Wind River), a Texan ap­par­ently in the process of sin­gle-hand­edly drag­ging the West­ern into the 21st cen­tury, like a cow­boy pulling a roped steer. Si­cario starred Emily Blunt as an FBI straight­shooter drawn into the murky world of covert op­er­a­tions on the US-Mex­i­can bor­der, along­side Josh Brolin’s mav­er­ick spook and Del Toro’s mys­te­ri­ous gun­man.

Like all good Westerns, Si­cario has am­bi­gu­i­ties and un­cer­tain­ties: who is a white hat, who a black hat? It has ex­plo­sions, am­bushes, con­voys of blacked-out SUVs rac­ing through the desert. It has wise­cracks and grisly dis­cov­er­ies and an air of dread con­fu­sion, as well as parched desert scenery to stir John Ford and bloody gun­fights that might make Sam Peck­in­pah proud.

For Ale­jan­dro, with his crum­pled suit and his far­away squint, the fight against the narco-traf­fick­ers is per­sonal. He is quiet, re­mote, fas­tid­i­ous — check out the pre­ci­sion with which he folds his trousers be­fore pack­ing them — and haunted, and also hu­man: he is kind to Blunt’s trau­ma­tised new­bie. But he is a man on a mis­sion, and we are given to un­der­stand that he is an ex­pert in the ad­min­is­tra­tion of pain. In one scene, even Brolin’s gung-ho CIA man steps out of an in­ter­view room so that he won’t wit­ness Ale­jan­dro wa­ter­board­ing a cap­tive. At another mo­ment, he wets his fin­ger and sticks it deep into a man’s ear. These are not high-tech tor­ture meth­ods.

The se­quel has quite a lot to live up to, then. And it must do with­out Vil­leneuve, Deakins and Blunt. For Si­cario 2: Soldado, the first two have been re­placed by the Ital­ian Ste­fano Sol­lima, no stranger to vi­o­lent crime as direc­tor of the ex­cel­lent TV se­ries Go­mor­rah, and Ri­d­ley Scott’s favourite cin­e­matog­ra­pher, Dar­iusz Wol­ski, to sum­mon the sun-bleached vis­tas and the night-vi­sion shootouts. Blunt’s char­ac­ter, mean­while, had served her pur­pose.

Not to give too much away, but the se­quel’s an­swer to the first film is not to back off and play it safe. Soldado dou­bles down on the vi­o­lent spec­ta­cle. We get a sui­cide at­tack on a su­per­mar­ket, sky­div­ing com­man­dos over the Horn of Africa, Mex­i­cans smug­gling Is­lamists across the US bor­der, and — per­haps less fan­ci­fully — the Amer­i­cans in­dulging in kid­nap­ping and at­tempt­ing state-spon­sored mur­der.

Brolin, as the swag­ger­ing cow­boy jock, gets many of the best lines, and he de­liv­ers them with rel­ish, but Ale­jan­dro be­comes the film’s cen­tral fig­ure. He’s still ret­i­cent, still enig­matic, but a plot twist al­lows Del Toro to de­velop his char­ac­ter, to find “the moral­ity in­side the mon­ster”, as he puts it.

“I’ve played ev­ery an­gle on the drugs,” he says, sip­ping his es­presso. “I’ve done the guy on drugs, the guy who sells the drugs. I’ve done the po­lice­man who’s try­ing to sur­vive and I’ve done the guy who goes, ‘I’m gonna take you out.’ And the func­tion­ing guy who goes crazy on drugs.

“I like to think these char­ac­ters are more than just that. I like to think there are other lev­els to it, be­sides drugs. Gang­ster movies, Westerns, they have the po­ten­tial of many things that great writ­ers touch. They have all the dra­matic av­enues of great the­atre writ­ers.”

The drug movie, he says, is not new. “Scar­face in 1983, The French Con­nec­tion be­fore that, The Man with the Golden Arm be­fore that, and we can go even fur­ther back.” And as long as the is­sue is un­re­solved, peo­ple will make films about it. Not just any peo­ple: the best writ­ers and di­rec­tors.

“I’m not say­ing I’m glad there’s peo­ple out there dy­ing from the drugs and the vi­o­lence," he says, “just so I can come to the Sun­set Mar­quis, drink an or­ange juice and flap my wings, talk­ing to peo­ple from nice mag­a­zines in Eng­land. But I’ve been lucky to be here at the right mo­ment.”

He doesn’t know what he’s do­ing next, but there’s a chance he might make a film called The Cor­po­ra­tion, based on a book about the real-life Cuban mob boss in Amer­ica, José Miguel Bat­tle Sr, a man known as El Padrino: the God­fa­ther. Mean­while, Tay­lor Sheri­dan is work­ing on the script for a third Si­cario film. Might he be in­ter­ested? Yes, he might.

Wouldn’t he like, just once, to star in a com­edy?

“A ro­mance,” he says.

Yes! A ro­mance. Per­fect. Maybe he should play a hum­ble Every­man, a mid­dle-aged cor­po­rate stiff in a suit, who works in an of­fice and drives a Volvo, who pays the bills and puts the bins out and picks up the dry clean­ing and wor­ries about his weight and…

He raises a hand to stop me.

“I’m bored,” he says.

No, wait, hear me out! What about an over­wrought wed­ding plan­ner, or a brit­tle masseuse?

But it’s too late. He’s van­ished again.

Si­cario 2: Soldado is out on 29 June

‘I’ve played ev­ery an­gle on the drugs’: in the forth­com­ing Si­cario 2: Soldado, the se­quel to the grip­ping 2015 thriller, Del Toro re­turns as Ale­jan­dro Gil­lick,a for­mer pros­e­cu­tor hell-bent on re­venge against Mex­ico’s drug car­tels

‘I’m proud of it, but that movie tanked’: Del Toro as Dr Gonzo along­side Johnny Depp in Fear and Loathing in Las Ve­gas (1998), be­low. ‘Sud­denly it was like, “Hey, maybethis guy can act!”’: as Fred Fen­ster in The Usual Sus­pects (1995), op­po­site

Del Toro’s por­trayal of the Ar­gen­tine revo­lu­tion­ary in Steven Soder­bergh’s Che (2008), be­low, earned him the Best Ac­tor award at the 2008 Cannes Film Fes­ti­val. Traf­fic (2000), right, was the first col­lab­o­ra­tion be­tween Soder­bergh and Del Toro, who won the Os­car for Best Sup­port­ing Ac­tor for hispor­trayal of a Mex­i­can cop

‘I was the guy laugh­ing my ass off whenhe came on screen,’ says his friend Josh Brolin of Del Toro’s per­for­mance as the code­breaker DJ in Star Wars:The Last Jedi (2017)

Grey cot­ton-jersey longsleeved polo shirt, £520, by Brunello Cucinelli Pho­tog­ra­pher’s as­sis­tant: Kurt MangumDig­i­tal tech­ni­cian:Drew SchwartzGroom­ing: Natalia Br­uschiSee Stock­ists page for de­tails

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