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.”
The lift starts to go up.
Benicio: “What room you in?”
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?
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