Benicio Del Toro on playing Pablo Escobar in new film: 'I've made a career out of drugs'

'I’ve played a junkie, a casual user, the supplier, the one who has gone after a drug dealer, I’ve played them all'

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"I've made a career out of drugs,” states Benicio Del Toro. “Obviously it’s because of our times, if I’d been an actor in the Thirties it might have been  alcohol or bootlegging. That’s the way the cookie crumbles. I’ve played a junkie, a casual user, the supplier, the one who has gone after a drug dealer, I’ve played them all.” And now the 48-year-old is playing the most notorious drug lord in history – Pablo Escobar.

Escobar, the so-called “King of Cocaine”, created a billion dollar smuggling industry moving cocaine from Colombia to the USA in the 1980s. Initially Del Toro refused the role. “I wasn’t interested in doing a biopic and I thought it was going to be one of those.” But, eventually persuaded to read the script, he found it was “a really clever way of seeing Pablo, and it was not about Pablo really”.

In regards to documenting history, Escobar: Paradise Lost is pure hokum. Italian director Andrea Di Stefano has taken little titbits of fact and run with them, creating the fictional storyline of an American surfer, played by Hunger Games star Josh Hutcherson, who falls in love with a local Colombian girl. She’s the niece of Pablo Escobar and, pretty soon, he’s hung up his surfboard and been put to work in the family business.

Nevertheless, we get to see the many facets of Escobar: the politician who garnered a reputation for helping the poor, positioning himself as a Robin Hood figure; the family man; and the gangster. “What surprised me [in doing research] was how very smart he was, how articulate and what a good organiser. They say he became the most powerful man in the history of gangsterism, if there is such a thing,” says Del Toro.

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The actor was also tickled when he found out that he and Escobar had one thing in common. “Escobar was a fan of Elvis,” he says. “He went to Graceland. You know what, I did that too. I know a lot of people did that, but we have that in common.”

After Escobar was killed in 1993, Mexico began to overtake Colombia as the drug smuggling capital of the world – which brings us to Del Toro’s other film coming up, Denis Villeneuve’s Sicario, which is centred on the border conflict between Mexican cartels and the FBI. The drama was acclaimed at Cannes and stars Del Toro as a mysterious hit man, said to be a former Mexican prosecutor, who is working with the Feds to smash a smuggling ring. He delivers a typically haunting performance that leaves us unsure of his motives.

Del Toro is remarkably studied on the drugs trade within the Americas, his acquaintance with it on screen ranges from very early roles as drug dealers in Miami Vice and Drug Wars: The Camarena Story to his Oscar-winning turn in Steven Soderbergh’s 2000 film Traffic, playing a Mexican police officer who makes a deal with the DEA. “In 15 years, I don’t think anything has changed,” he says.

What does he think the politicians should do about it? “I think legalisation. That road needs to be explored more. In the United States they are legalising marijuana in some states, so instead of fighting fire with fire, that road needs to be explored.”

Del Toro has been open about his own past drug use, but when I bring it up, he reverts to humour. “Yes, I just did some now. You got some?” He raises an eyebrow and gives a look with that glint in his eye, that says “enough already”. It’s a look that, with slight adjustments, he’s used in films to let the audience know he either wants to kill someone, or make love to them.

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Drug lord Pablo Escobar was behind the killings, according to Krishna Maharaj’s lawyers

He claims he owes his acting career to his Puerto Rican parents, both lawyers, but not for the obvious reasons of them pushing him into it. “I think a lot of it has to do with the shape of my eyes, and my mum and dad deserve a lot of credit for that.”

He put on weight to play Escobar but has lost it again, and looks as devilishly handsome as ever. His reputation as a ladies man precedes him: his rumoured interaction in a lift with Scarlett Johansson at the Oscars is the stuff of Hollywood legend, while he’s been attached to a plethora of co-stars and had a daughter with Rod Stewart’s daughter Kimberly in 2011; an infamous press release at the time of Stewart’s pregnancy confirmed that they were not a couple.

“Everyday becomes more real,” he says of parenthood. “My daughter is growing up and every day there is a change and that is a reminder you’re a father.” He’s glad Delilah is out of the nappy changing phase, as he admits that wasn’t his forte. Yet the impact of her birth has seen him look more into the future than he has ever done before. “I think about her in a way that is not so much right now, but I’m always looking ahead, like 10 years down the line.”

Although he’s tended to steer away from blockbusters in the past, it’s clear that he’s become more amenable to them recently; he took a starring role in last year’s Marvel Studios’ smash hit Guardians of the Galaxy, an experience that he describes as “Halloween, every day you want.” Meanwhile, his action-figure moment may be just around the corner: last month rumours emerged that he plays the villain in the next movie in the Star Wars franchise.

It’s easy to imagine Del Toro as pantomime baddie. On the numerous occasions I’ve met him, he’s shown an innate instinct to play to the crowd, cheekily playing on the public’s perception of him. He says he’d happily jettison all the drug movies he’s made because, “I like the characters that get the girl in the end – one way or another.”

‘Escobar: Paradise Lost’ is in cinemas and on demand from 21 Aug; ‘Sicario’ is out on 9 Oct

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