Benicio Del Toro: Macho of the day

Benicio Del Toro is famous for his testosterone-fuelled performances. It's a dirty job, he tells Fiona Morrow, but someone's got to do it

As he strides into the room, smile blazing, Benicio Del Toro seems every inch the movie star. But deconstruct him and it's hard to see why. Sure, he's tall, dark and handsome, but not in a clean cut, well-groomed, predictable way. Instead he's a meaty 6ft 4in, with indelicate facial features. Yet, somehow, it all works: the feline eyes, the full mouth, the unruly, greying shoulder-length hair. Likewise his style: he's togged up in a very sharp suit, granted, but under the suit he's sporting a white T-shirt, teaming the whole combination with trainers and, most incongruously, a black truckers' cap emblazoned with the title of the film he's here to talk about. Clearly, one thing Del Toro is not, is a fashion victim.

At 37, Del Toro has managed a rare feat for a movie actor: he has become accepted in Hollywood on his own terms. Nevertheless, it took a while for the Puerto Rican to break through: casting agents took one look and had him pegged for bad guy bit parts. He did his time on TV, standing out in an episode of Miami Vice, before making his movie debut, bizarrely enough, in Big Top Pee Wee as Duke, the dog-faced boy.

He may have been the youngest-ever Bond baddie (he was 21) but as it was in Licence to Kill, few paid much attention. It was Bryan Singer's cult classic The Usual Suspects that forced everyone to sit up and pay attention to the muscular Del Toro playing fabulously fey.

Given the platform, Del Toro's been clever with his choices ever since; Abel Ferrara's The Funeral, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, The Way of the Gun, Traffic, Sean Penn's The Indian Runner and The Pledge. It's paid off: he took home an Oscar for Traffic, and is nominated again this year for his performance in 21 Grams, Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu's follow up to Amores Perros.

A story of fate, redemption and fallen angels, 21 Grams is a serious film mostly about death, in all its complicated, guilt-ridden, bathetic glory. Del Toro plays Jack, an ex-con turned to Jesus, holding his low-income family together by a thread, until a car accident leaves him the killer of a man and two children.

It's a film that demands commitment from its cast - and gets it. Along with co-stars Naomi Watts and Sean Penn, Del Toro delivers a performance torn from the heart and soul. His Jack is lost, haunted, wounded - a big man reduced to a whimper.

Del Toro signed up without a moment's hesitation. "There was Alejandro, the script and Sean," he explains in his trademark deep rumble. "It was a lock up."

He barely considered whether he was prepared for such a gruelling role. "I might be a little naive and not have any doubt that I am up to it," he smiles. "And then after I've said 'Yes', in the process of doing it, I'll find that doubt.

"But then," he shrugs, patting his pockets to find his fags, "in the process of doing it, you're always full of doubt, wondering if you are making the right choices."

He lights up, draws deep and adds: "You have to boil it down to what the character is about. To me, Jack is a man going through a depression, so that's what I had to investigate."

His research involved reading up about survivor guilt. "It's something that happens when you're in an accident and you live, but the person right next to you dies," he explains. "People feel guilty - I felt that Jack was a clear example of that," he pauses and leans back in the chair, "but he didn't grow up on Park Avenue, so he didn't go and see a psychiatrist."

Research done, he says he left the rest to imagination. "It has to be that because if you approach it just intellectually, you're not an actor."

Del Toro studied under Stella Adler and is an unapologetic proponent of the Method. He proved it for Terry Gilliam's Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, actually burning his arm with cigarettes where the script called for it (the scenes were eventually cut). The pain wasn't an issue for him, but the weight gain required for the role was; he pigged out on doughnuts to pile on 40 pounds. "I'm not going to do that again," he notes emphatically. "I might lose weight for a part, but since I did that my back is a mess."

So, would he advise fellow actors against such a sacrifice. "No," he smiles. "It's something that's good for actors to do and experience - but I've done it now and I don't feel the need to do it again."

Del Toro's commitment to his craft, though, is not in dispute, and it's something he's prepared to fight for. "Let's say the director wants something in particular," he says. "Then it's my job to try to justify it - then I can believe it. If I believe it I can play it, if I don't believe it, I can't."

A touch of defensiveness creeps in when I ask if he made Jack a different character than was written. "Yeah, of course I brought something to the part," he counters, eyes narrowing.

Then the moment is immediately cast aside and the grin reappears: "It's mine," he yells, playing the megalomaniac to a tee. "It's mine - they gave it to me." He reassumes normal speech: "The writer creates a character on a computer in a room - eventually you have to get up and behave it."

That sounds reasonable enough, but Del Toro is not about to let this subject die. "I know what works for me better than anybody," he continues with a trace of a frown. "No one can come up to me and tell me, 'You're better doing this', because I know myself and I know what works for me. So if I really feel strongly, I try and convince the director to do it my way... It's important - crucial - that I believe what I'm doing. If I don't, then I'm just doing it by numbers and it'll show. Even someone who knows nothing about cinema would be able to see the cracks."

It may sound arrogant, but his self-belief hasn't done him any harm, indeed it has edged him slowly up the Hollywood pecking order. "I've been pretty lucky," he allows, more modestly. "I won an Oscar and that changes things. You might get more ears to listen to your thoughts on a specific part. You might get taken a little bit more seriously. You might help a movie to get financed.

"But it doesn't change me personally," he sighs. "I know what it took for me to get recognised - it's always been a bumpy road and it still is. You might get an advantage and get invited into the studio system to do a movie that - economically - will do you very nicely, but that doesn't mean that you've nailed it. Not at all."

He's currently trying to use his Hollywood status to get his own project off the ground - Che - in which he would play the Argentine revolutionary but even so it's a tough business: "We're working on trying to get funding," he says cautiously. "It's very difficult. We have a script and Terrence Malick...," He goes suddenly quiet. "Look," he musters eventually, "it's not something you want to talk about until it's done. I'm the kind of person that likes things locked down first."

Persuading people to throw their hats in the ring is made harder by Del Toro's cult appeal. "If I were playing characters that were a little bit more conventional than it might be easier to help a movie," he says matter-of-factly. "But when you're trying to be an individual and do stories that are a little bit different, it's always hard.

"It doesn't matter if you've got awards. You don't win an Oscar and then afterwards everything you touch turns to gold, it's not the case. Every movie starts at zero."

I ask him if he still feels pigeonholed into macho roles and he laughs. "I've done a lot of macho parts - but a lot of the actors I respect could be seen that way too. You could say that Robert Mitchum is the ultimate macho dude, or Al Pacino or Humphrey Bogart. I was born on the same day as Lee Marvin - talk about a macho man...

"Someone creative enough might offer me a romantic comedy to see what I can do," he muses. "But if the script is not good, it doesn't matter, I won't do it. If the script is good and the people attached are good, I'll do anything. I'll do a musical," he says throwing his arms wide. "And I can't even sing."

Then he becomes a bit more serious. "I don't judge a part by what I need for my image," he muses. "I judge the part on whether it's a good story. So, if all the good stories have macho characters, then I'm going with that because that's the best I can get." And how does he feel about the sex symbol image that has mushroomed out of that? He clicks his fingers, strikes a pose: "It's true. It's true. Say it louder," he yells. And the "Spanish Brad Pitt" tag? "I"ll take it," he concedes, his voice still challenging the decibel counter. "Yeah, I'll take it all - even the bad."

He calms down. "No, but I laugh about it, it's kind of funny to me. I don't go home feeling: 'Hey I'm a sex symbol, I need bigger mirrors - that wall, it's got to be a mirror.' It's not going to change my approach to the work. It's funny and embarrassing; I read in a magazine 'el Macho' and I think: 'What the fuck?'"

I wonder if he finds it racist and he shrugs. "The macho term is associated with Latinos, bullfighters and boxers... What can I say? It's beyond my control. In Puerto Rico, instead of saying 'Hey man', we say 'Macho!' It doesn't mean anything - we say it to everyone. But have I ever been macho? I don't know," he chuckles deep and low, "maybe tomorrow."

He pauses, taking off his cap to give his mane a good scratch. "And anyway, it's better that they say 'el Macho' than 'el Clowno'." He pulls the cap back low over his eyes and flashes another ear-to-ear grin. "Better 'el Macho' than 'el Dicko'."

'21 Grams' will be released on 5 March

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