Benicio Del Toro - A Latino rebel becomes our man in Havana

Benicio Del Toro has form when it comes to Cuba, having played Che Guevara. Now the brooding actor has chosen the country as the setting for his directing debut. Kaleem Aftab goes on set

Benicio Del Toro is agitated. The Usual Suspects star is pacing to and fro outside the picturesque Bar Silvia in central Havana, where he is directing his first film. It's not often that the dashing star looks out of his comfort zone, but right now he's trying to shoot a scene for 7 Days in Havana in which the actor Josh Hutcherson (The Kids Are All Right) chats with locals at the famous hang-out. In the apartment above the bar a dog barks incessantly. As Del Toro looks into the monitor, watching a gorgeous couple waltz past, he worries that the scene is going to look "like a video".

In fact it looks like an advert for post-socialist Cuba, a romantic idyll with classic cars on the streets, beautiful architecture as far as the eye can see and Americans shooting the breeze in welcoming bars that look as if they were designed to be on the pages of fashion magazines.

On set Del Toro, 44, exudes an aura. Much taller than he seems on screen, and having put on a few pounds and grown a grizzly beard, he cuts an imposing figure. The actor may have won a Best Actor prize at Cannes for his portrayal of Che Guevara in Steven Soderbergh's diptych Che but it's the Cuban leader, Fidel Castro, that he most resembles today.

"I care about my looks as much as the next guy," he tells me the next day, seated in a Havana seafront hotel in front of a painting of a bull. Today he's wearing a baseball cap and denim shirt.

"I look at myself in the mirror, but not that much. I realise I'm not getting any younger. I like a good shirt and I like a good pair of shoes. I don't think about that." Catching himself in a lie he changes tack. "But I do, I do, I do I, do. I still wear cologne, and I want to pick up a girl and be the man."

His looks and a certain glint in his eye have often seen Del Toro cast as the stereotypical Latin lover. He has claimed that he doesn't need to get married and, famously, allegedly, enjoyed a tryst with Scarlett Johansson in a lift at the Chateau Marmont after the 2004 Oscars (a rumour recently satirised in Sofia Coppola's Somewhere in which Del Toro makes a brief cameo loitering in – where else? – the hotel's elevator). And just this month his publicist announced that Del Toro had impregnated Rod Stewart's daughter Kimberly. The statement came with an amusing adjunct that the pair are not in a relationship that seemed to say, "don't worry girls".

He's in Cuba to shoot 7 Days in Havana, a story told in seven chapters by seven different directors. On a list which reads like a who's who of international arthouse cinema, Del Toro rubs shoulders with Laurent Cantet, Gasper Noé, Elia Suleiman, Pablo Trapero, Julio Medem and Juan Carlos Tabio. Rather than creating a portmanteau project like Paris Je T'aime, in which directors are given a free rein, the Havana project has been given an overall structure by the Cuban novelist Leonardo Padura in the hope that it gives a picture of the country in 2011. It's also being financed by the rum company Havana Club. In today's Cuba, branding is slowly taking hold.

Del Toro always stays at the famous Nacional Hotel on his frequent visits to the capital. "It's a special place," he says. "I was born in Puerto Rico and it's very similar to Cuba in the way that people speak, in the way it looks, and the food. The revolution does not change people. Cuba is my own flesh and blood."

All the same, Del Toro had to apply for a special permit to film so as not to break the terms of the American embargo on Cuba. It only allows him to make a documentary in the country and, as such, his segment, called "Yuma", is a strange mixture of docudrama and reality. The idea is to have a young actor interact with Cubans in as real a way as possible, and include some recreations of real incidents.

"A documentary is run-and-gun. Let's put people in a situation and see what happens. So this is a documentary with some re-enactments," he states. On the limitations, he states, "I'm not for the embargo. I'm here, obviously. We came here with a permit and everything is legal. Of course I'm not the only one against the embargo, [there] is Italy, Spain, England. Most countries in the world."

Yet he does not see his act of shooting on the Caribbean island as overtly political: "It has nothing to do with politics. For me cinema is not political. You can say that the Che movies are political but in fact they are not political movies. It's a historical snapshot of a country of a man. I'm not into politics, but I do believe wrong is wrong and right is right, and I have my ideas about what that is."

Having acted for more than two decades, and worked with some of the world's greatest directors, Del Toro felt he'd been exposed to enough film-making to have a crack himself.

"Well, you get tired of anything you do for 20 years," he says of acting. "It's good for the brain to try and make it a bit more complicated. At times I was overwhelmed with all the things that come into play as a director. Almost the same feeling you have when you're in a wave and it tosses you upside-down and you don't know which way is up. That is a freaky feeling to have."

In a typically explicit aside, the actor adds: "To try and solve those problems, I think that is one of the great moments in life, it's like eating a great steak, or it's like having sex."

As an actor, Del Toro has something of a reputation for being difficult on set, and admits that sitting behind the camera has enabled him to see the error of his ways. "I'm not the same guy as when I first started acting. I drove directors crazy doing stuff. Silly things like insisting that I would light my cigarette behind my ear. As a young actor I would fight every battle like it was a war. As you evolve as an actor you realise that not every battle has to be won, but you still have to win the war. When I was younger I had moments of panic as an actor."

On screen, though, he hides it well, with a seemingly effortless cool. Citing Anthony Quinn, Andy Garcia and Antonio Banderas as paving the way for him in Hollywood, his eyes light up as he recalls arriving in LA as a young actor. "I was just a Latin-Americano. I had knowledge of English but with no connections in Hollywood and in LA to carve yourself into acting, the odds are really stacked against you."

That he broke through is testament to the qualities he brings to a role. Intense, dark and brooding, he only need lift his bushy eyebrows to show disquiet or infatuation.

He quickly moved on from Big Top Pee-Wee and Licence to Kill to challenging independent dramas such as The Indian Runner and Swimming with Sharks. But it was his turn as the wisecracking Fred Fenster in The Usual Suspects that turned him into a global superstar. He then piled on the pounds to play Dr Gonzo in Terry Gilliam's adaptation of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, and soon after received a Best Supporting Actor award for his turn in Traffic, playing a Mexican border-cop trying to stay honest amid the drug wars. He would receive another nomination in 2003 for his turn in 21 Grams as a reformed drug-addict who has found God. At this point, his career seemed to stall. A lean period saw him appear in Sin City and Suzanne Bier's Things We Lost in the Fire, before he spent the best part of a year working with Soderbergh on the Che biopics.

He insists that he is going to wait to see how his directorial effort pans out before deciding whether he will go behind the camera again. Meanwhile, he has signed on to star with Daniel Day Lewis in Martin Scorsese's adaptation of Silence, due to shoot next year, and is slated to star in a biopic about mob hitman Richard Kuklinski. A rom-com with Cameron Diaz is also in the works.

As the press release about his impending fatherhood showed, whether he is acting or directing, there's one thing he insists will never change: "I don't like to apologise too much. I don't apologise. I don't apologise. That's fear."

'7 Days in Havana' is out later this year

Arts and Entertainment
tvDick Clement and Ian La Frenais are back for the first time in a decade
Arts and Entertainment
The Clangers: 1969-1974
tv
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Rocky road: Dwayne Johnson and Carla Gugino play an estranged husband and wife in 'San Andreas'
film review
Arts and Entertainment
Nicole Kidman plays Grace Kelly in the film, which was criticised by Monaco’s royal family

film
Arts and Entertainment
Emilia Clarke could have been Anastasia Steele in Fifty Shades of Grey but passed it up because of the nude scenes

film
Arts and Entertainment
A$AP Rocky and Rita Ora pictured together in 2012

music
Arts and Entertainment
A case for Mulder and Scully? David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson in ‘The X-Files’

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Impressions of the Creative Community Courtyard within d3. The development is designed to 'inspire emerging designers and artists, and attract visitors'

architecture
Arts and Entertainment
Performers drink tea at the Glastonbury festival in 2010

GlastonburyWI to make debut appearance at Somerset festival

Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister

TV reviewIt has taken seven episodes for Game of Thrones season five to hit its stride

Arts and Entertainment
Jesuthasan Antonythasan as Dheepan

FilmPalme d'Or goes to radical and astonishing film that turns conventional thinking about immigrants on its head

Arts and Entertainment
Måns Zelmerlöw performing

Eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
Graham Norton was back in the commentating seat for Eurovision 2015

Eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Hammond, Jeremy Clarkson and James May on stage

TV
Arts and Entertainment
The light stuff: Britt Robertson and George Clooney in ‘Tomorrowland: a World Beyond’
film review
Arts and Entertainment
Reawakening: can Jon Hamm’s Don Draper find enlightenment in the final ‘Mad Men’?
tv reviewNot quite, but it's an enlightening finale for Don Draper spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Breakfast Show’s Nick Grimshaw

Radio
Arts and Entertainment

Eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
'Youth' cast members Paul Dano, Jane Fonda, Harvey Keitel, Rachel Weisz, and Michael Caine pose for photographers at Cannes Film Festival
film
Arts and Entertainment
Adam West as Batman and Burt Ward and Robin in the 1960s Batman TV show

Comics
Arts and Entertainment
I am flute: Azeem Ward and his now-famous instrument
music
Arts and Entertainment
A glass act: Dr Chris van Tulleken (left) and twin Xand get set for their drinking challenge
TV review
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    On your feet! Spending at least two hours a day standing reduces the risk of heart attacks, cancer and diabetes, according to new research

    On your feet!

    Spending half the day standing 'reduces risk of heart attacks and cancer'
    Liverpool close in on Milner signing

    Liverpool close in on Milner signing

    Reds baulk at Christian Benteke £32.5m release clause
    With scores of surgeries closing, what hope is there for the David Cameron's promise of 5,000 more GPs and a 24/7 NHS?

    The big NHS question

    Why are there so few new GPs when so many want to study medicine?
    Big knickers are back: Thongs ain't what they used to be

    Thongs ain't what they used to be

    Big knickers are back
    Thurston Moore interview

    Thurston Moore interview

    On living in London, Sonic Youth and musical memoirs
    In full bloom

    In full bloom

    Floral print womenswear
    From leading man to Elephant Man, Bradley Cooper is terrific

    From leading man to Elephant Man

    Bradley Cooper is terrific
    In this the person to restore our trust in the banks?

    In this the person to restore our trust in the banks?

    Dame Colette Bowe - interview
    When do the creative juices dry up?

    When do the creative juices dry up?

    David Lodge thinks he knows
    The 'Cher moment' happening across fashion just now

    Fashion's Cher moment

    Ageing beauty will always be more classy than all that booty
    Thousands of teenage girls enduring debilitating illnesses after routine school cancer vaccination

    Health fears over school cancer jab

    Shock new Freedom of Information figures show how thousands of girls have suffered serious symptoms after routine HPV injection
    Fifa President Sepp Blatter warns his opponents: 'I forgive everyone, but I don't forget'

    'I forgive everyone, but I don't forget'

    Fifa president Sepp Blatter issues defiant warning to opponents
    Extreme summer temperatures will soon cause deaths of up to 1,700 more Britons a year, says government report

    Weather warning

    Extreme summer temperatures will soon cause deaths of up to 1,700 more Britons a year, says government report
    LSD: Speaking to volunteer users of the drug as trials get underway to see if it cures depression and addiction

    High hopes for LSD

    Meet the volunteer users helping to see if it cures depression and addiction
    German soldier who died fighting for UK in Battle of Waterloo should be removed from museum display and given dignified funeral, say historians

    Saving Private Brandt

    A Belgian museum's display of the skeleton of a soldier killed at Waterloo prompts calls for him to be given a dignified funeral