He out-Method acts Marlon Brando to make every film performance a captivating experience. But BENICIO DEL TORO hits his peak in 21 Grams. Words: Miles Fielder
he long curl of cigarette ash vanishes between the
chunky knuckles of Benicio dcl Toro‘s right hand. In a
moment it will fall. unnoticed by him. onto the cream carpet of the fake Edwardian library at the Covent Garden Hotel in London. where we‘re meeting. In these incongruous. though not unpleasant surroundings. this Hollywood hot property has been talking in a voice so surprisingly gentle it verges on being inaudible about his new film. the dark. disturbing and brilliantly executed drama. 2/ Grams. for which he has received a well-justified Oscar nomination.
Del Tom has also been working his way through my cigarettes. Brushing a little ash from his unbuttoned black silk shirt. he asks the PR guy: ‘Do we have some cigarettes? Because I‘m stealing his.‘ He borrows a pack from the aide. goes on to smoke half of those and later. with a sly wink. gives me the rest.
He may be a joker aboard the publicity train. but Del Toro takes his acting very seriously. A student of the legendary Method acting teacher Stella Adler. he graduated to
challenging roles in which he has immersed himself
completely. This is a man unafraid of suffering for his art. He's still recovering from slicing his wrist badly last year during a knife fight on location for the thriller The Hunted. And four years ago. Del Toro. who’s a stocky guy anyway with his bulky 6‘2" frame. put on 40 more pounds to play ()scar Acosta. the drug-fiend lawyer pal of Hunter S Thompson in the film of Fear and Loathing in Los Vegas. He also burnt himself with cigarettes in a scene. which (though subsequently cut from the filtn) gave Del Tom a reputation for being a crazy bastard. He maintains he‘s nothing of the kind. that he was just being professional — ‘l was trying to do an interpretation of the book. and that‘s what the character was — an animal!‘
2/ Grams. the English-language follow-up to Mexican director Alejandro Gonzalez lﬁarritu‘s international smash hit Amores P'rms. didn't require Del Toro to self-mutilate. but the emotional place it sent him to was just as challenging. His character. Jack Jordan. is an ex-criminal who has renounced his bad ways. now has a family of his own and works with
18 THE LIST 19 Feb—4 Mar 2004
troubled kids in a nondescript Midwest community. Life seems to be looking up for Jordan, until one day he runs over a man and his two little girls. killing all three and leaving a young woman. Cristina Peck (played by fellow Oscar- nominee Naomi Watts). a childless widow. Fear causes Jordan to drive away from the scene of the accident. but guilt begins to eat away at his soul. It‘s an emotionally draining role that required him to deeply research the psychological condition known as survivor guilt. Del Toro says: ‘lt‘s one of those movies; when I‘d finished doing it. it was like: “Phew! I don‘t have to go back.”
For an actor who’s up for his second Oscar (he won his first playing ‘one good cop' Javier Rodriguez in the drug smuggling drama. Traffic). Del Toro hasn't been in the business long. Bom in Puerto Rico. but growing up on a farm in Pennsylvania. he came to acting after ditching a potential career as a basketball player and another in business. which he studied at the University of Calif‘omia. It was from there he got the acting bug. subsequently signed up with Stella Adler’s Los Angeles acting classes and. erm. soon thereafter appeared in a l984 episode of Miami Viee. titled ‘Everybody‘s in Showbiz‘.
Except showbiz. or more specifically success with it. was eluding Del Toro. Four years later his only big screen credit was in the camp comedy Big Top Pee-Wee. in which he was cast — for his rugged. hang-dog looks rather than his training — as Duke the Dog-Faced Boy. A year later it looked like Del Tom was finally getting his big break when he appeared in the James Bond film Lieenee to Kill. But although he made history as the youngest Bond villain ever, the pre-Pierce Brosnan ()07 outing managed the unimaginable and flopped.
Six years passed. Del Toro kept taking small roles in decent films. including The Indian Runner (the directorial debut of future 21 Grams co-star Sean Penn). and Swimming With Sharks — slowly securing credibility. Then he was cast as the incomprehensible but totally scene-stealing criminal Fred Fenster in The Usual .S'uspeets and his status rocketed to cult stardom. Three more films followed. including The Fan. opposite Robert De Niro. and Eveess Baggage. his first fully-