Benicio Del Toro: The unusual suspect

James Mottram meets Benicio Del Toro, the Puerto Rican star who's taking on 'Sin City' - and winning over Hollywood
Click to follow

Benicio Del Toro walks into the room, looking like he's just spent a night in Basin City. The fictional metropolis at the heart of Frank Miller's Sin City graphic novels - now beautifully rendered by Miller and Robert Rodriguez for the big screen - looks the perfect hideout for the grungey Del Toro. An unlit cigarette is wedged between two fingers, his hooded eyes are bleary and bloodshot, and he looks in desperate need of sleep.

Benicio Del Toro walks into the room, looking like he's just spent a night in Basin City. The fictional metropolis at the heart of Frank Miller's Sin City graphic novels - now beautifully rendered by Miller and Robert Rodriguez for the big screen - looks the perfect hideout for the grungey Del Toro. An unlit cigarette is wedged between two fingers, his hooded eyes are bleary and bloodshot, and he looks in desperate need of sleep.

An Oscar-winner in 2001 for his performance as a compromised Mexican cop in Steven Soderbergh's drugs drama Traffic, this is not how you'd expect an Academy member to behave. But then Del Toro does not toe the party line. One of the new breed of actor-mavericks, he trained with Stella Adler, the acting guru who mentored Marlon Brando. He has appeared in two of Sean Penn's directorial efforts, The Indian Runner and The Pledge, and co-starred with the actor in 21 Grams, which garnered Del Toro a second Oscar-nomination. He's made films for Abel Ferrara (The Funeral) and William Friedkin (The Hunted), two of the biggest eccentrics in the business. He is also good pals with Mickey Rourke, one of his Sin City co-stars, whom he has known since he came to Los Angeles in the late 1980s. "Mickey has a good heart," he says, his sluggish features animated for a second. "He's misunderstood and he's blunt and a little bit of a caveman."

From first impressions, it's tempting to draw similar conclusions about Del Toro. But he admits he likes reading Dostoyevsky and is passionate about oil painting. A friend to the artist Julian Schnabel (who directed him in biopic Basquiat), Del Toro was also well acquainted with the late Hunter S Thompson. After the actor worked on Terry Gilliam's adaptation of Thompson's classic Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, for which Del Toro gained 40lbs and burnt himself in the arm with cigarette butts to get into character, he and the author developed a typically feisty relationship. "He rang me up one day, and says [he growls], 'I've got good news. I want you to direct [Thompson's novel] The Rum Diary. You've never directed before. Ha-ha-ha!' Clack. He puts the phone down. That was my audition!" Before Thompson's suicide, Del Toro left the project when the rights to filming the story fell into the hands of lawyers.

Too sensitive a soul for the Hollywood mainstream, evidently the Puerto Rican-born Del Toro is not one for taking meetings with studio executives. A feral creature, his performances are full of energy. Not your average clean-cut Latino hunk - despite his athletic frame - he recalls his Hollywood heroes Lon Chaney and Robert Mitchum. A character actor with unconventional looks to match, the 38-year-old Del Toro has a simian-like face, currently flanked by 6in sideburns and topped with a bouffant hairstyle that makes him look like a clapped-out Teddy Boy.

How does he think Hollywood views him? "I'm a pretty boy!" he says, a smirk flitting across his lips. The irony doesn't fail to bite, for Del Toro is often cast as the low-life: an ex-prisoner in 21 Grams, as a criminal in The Usual Suspects and The Funeral, a kidnapper in The Way of the Gun. "I'd like to do completely different roles - a romantic lead, for example," he says. "I'd like to be dressed up in a suit and get the girl at the end of the movie."

Cary Grant, however, he is not. The nightmare world of Sin City is much more his turf. A triptych of overlapping espresso-strength shots of film noir, it's undeniably the most faithful adaptation of a comic book ever committed to film. The black-and-white backdrops from Miller's 1991 work appear to have been lifted wholesale and brought to life, thanks to computer trickery. "It's not movies imitating real life," says Del Toro, who compares Miller's drawings to Pop art. "It's movies imitating movies. Or movies imitating comics. Usually when you do movies, less is more for an actor. Show less. With this movie, more is more. It was one of those movies where you just cut loose."

Appearing in the segment entitled "The Big Fat Kill", Del Toro plays Jackie Boy, a once-noble cop corrupted by years on the beat. Regularly abusing his waitress girlfriend (Brittany Murphy), he meets his match when he encounters the private eye Dwight (Clive Owen) and a group of tough-talking hookers (led by Rosario Dawson). "Jackie Boy is someone who was a hero but got lost in the glory of it all," says Del Toro. "He's turned into a bully, into a guy who believes he can get away with anything. He's a selfish madman with a license to kill. He's sort of the perfect villain."

A lifelong rebel, it's easy to see why Del Toro is drawn to such a maverick project. Raised with his older brother (now a doctor) in Santurce, a district of San Juan in Puerto Rico, he is the son of two lawyers. His father was a strict disciplinarian, and they often clashed after Del Toro was branded a troublemaker at school. Del Toro lost his mother when he was nine to hepatitis. He says the times he made her laugh during her long illness were probably his first acting efforts. "When things like that happen at such an early age, you accept them as fact," he says. "It's like they are part of the tree of life."

After his father remarried two years later, Del Toro did not get on with his stepmother, and was eventually allowed to study in the United States, at a boarding school in Pennsylvania. He didn't know a great deal of English, and grew up quickly. "I enjoyed being alone," he says. "I also played basketball a lot, and I was quite competitive at it, so I immediately made friends. Then I met a girl, so I was covered! I was lucky." Expected to follow his family into the legal profession, Del Toro decided to buck with tradition. He enrolled in a business course at the University of California in San Diego - but, after auditioning for a college play, got bitten by the bug and soon moved to New York to study with Stella Adler.

After becoming, at 21, the youngest ever actor to play a James Bond villain, in 1989's Licence to Kill, Del Toro floundered for the next few years in small roles. It wasn't until 1995, when he played in the Hollywood satire Swimming with Sharks and then in The Usual Suspects, that filmgoers took notice. "I see The Usual Suspects as the time where I was, quote unquote, discovered," says Del Toro. "It took me six, seven years to get to that place. And it was not easy. You're fighting with people who doubt you and your choice of career. There are a lot of doubts - and you have to stay focused with what you want. I never put a time limit on me being successful or not. I just cared about the work as an actor. But it wasn't easy because there were a lot of ups and downs. I don't know if you know much about baseball, but baseball is the game of failure. You deal with failure - strike, strike, strike - all the time. Acting is like that. You have to have a very thick skin in a way - your hair is too dark, you're too ugly for the part, your audition wasn't good."

In reality, Del Toro is a most eligible bachelor. He's dated the Italian actresses Valeria Golino and Chiara Mastroianni, been attached in the press to his Excess Baggage co-star Alicia Silverstone, and was rumoured to have enjoyed a close encounter with Scarlett Johansson in a lift. Recently, he's been stepping out with the 23-year-old rising starlet Sara Foster. It can't hurt his chances with the ladies that his coffers swelled by $5m last autumn, after he signed on for American Gangster, a film that he and Denzel Washington were slated to star in. It became an even sweeter payday, given that Universal cancelled the project in pre-production but were contractually forced to furnish Del Toro with his fee.

It's a fair indication of where he is now in the Hollywood pecking order. Traffic, aside from the Oscar, netted him a Bafta, a Golden Globe, a Silver Bear (from the Berlin Film Festival) and a Screen Actors' Guild award, as well as turning the spotlight right on him. Was he bothered? "I do get more recognised now," he admits. "If I go to dinner, people look at me more now and whisper. But as an actor I would be no one without the people who come and see me. So it would be ridiculous for it to bother me. It just bothers me when I'm intoxicated."

Even if it's not as a romantic lead, Del Toro's desire to make it to the top of the bill looks set to come true. He remains cast in the lead of the long-gestating Che, a biopic of the Cuban revolutionary Ernesto "Che" Guevara, set during the last months of his life in Bolivia. Originally to be directed by Terrence Malick, it has since fallen into the hands of Soderbergh.

So what does Guevara mean to him? Del Toro struggles to find a coherent answer. "Man, it's difficult to say what he means to me. It's many things. I don't think many people - that carry his image - know exactly what he stood for. You can do him as a hero or as an evil person, but there's no doubt in my mind that I have much respect for him, his family and what he stood for. He was a defender of the real people." Which makes a man like Benicio Del Toro perfect casting.

'Sin City' opens on 3 June