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Che way: Steven Soderbergh on how to play a famous historical character

Benicio Del Toro is stepping into the shoes of Che Guevara. But how does an actor bring a great historical figure to life? Here, Steven Soderbergh, the 'Che' director, reveals his favourite period performances, from the camp to the downright insane

Two hours before my interview with Steven Soderbergh, I get a call from the PR. The Hollywood director hasn't had time to consider our request – to think about his five favourite screen depictions of historical characters. This, you see, was to tie in with his new project, Che, a wildly ambitious double-bill biopic of Che Guevara, which has already seen Benicio Del Toro win Best Actor in Cannes for his tremendous turn as the Cuban revolutionary.

Not that he could be accused of indolence. Since completing Che, Soderbergh has already shot two further films, the whistleblower comedy The Informant , starring Matt Damon, and low-budget call-girl drama The Girlfriend Experience. Now 45, that makes a staggering 20 films – or 21, if you count Che as two movies – since launching his career in 1989 with the Palme d'Or-winning Sex, Lies, and Videotape. And he's already planning the next – a 3-D musical about Cleopatra.

This leaves me with the task of suggesting five performances to discuss. ("I'm not doing your job for you," he cackles, mischievously.) Not that there was any need to worry. Looking like a trendy academic in brown corduroy jacket, black-rimmed glasses and T-shirt with the word "Dope" on it, the erudite Soderbergh's knowledge of cinema is encyclopaedic.

As it turns out, Soderbergh hasn't seen Anthony Hopkins in Oliver Stone's Nixon (1995) – but he's seen everything else on my list, and his ability to recall the work in detail is quite scary. What emerges from his answers is just how crucial it is to humanise historical figures. In the case of Che, "I didn't just want to see him hanging around big-shots," says Soderbergh, who sets out to show the man behind the T-shirt image. "I wanted to see him interacting with people who were at ground level."

Covering the lead-up to the Cuban revolution in Part One – also known as The Argentine – and the Bolivia years in Part Two (Guerrilla), the film sees Del Toro, who previously worked with Soderbergh on the Oscar-winning drugs drama Traffic (2000), portray Che as ruthless strategist rather than idealistic icon. While Soderbergh is reluctant to claim it's Del Toro's best work – "Well, he's got a lot of movies ahead of him" – like all the performances below, it looks set to stand the test of time. And what more could you ask for from an actor entrusted to bring a historical figure to life?

Soderbergh on...

Cate Blanchett as Elizabeth I in Elizabeth and Elizabeth: The Golden Age (Shekhar Kapur, 1998, 2007)

"I'm biased – though I liked her before I worked with her [on 2006's 1940s period drama The Good German]. She's mesmerising, she never makes it look like heavy lifting. It's fun to see her play a part like Elizabeth. You have to believe, at that point in time, that it really was about being good in the room, that your personal charisma drove your ability to get stuff done. If you're Elizabeth, and you can't be in a room and be smarter than everyone else, and keep them at bay constantly, then you lose! And Cate is believable as someone who can wield that personal power. It's kind of like Fidel [Castro]. But [Elizabeth] had no newsreel, no press releases... you've got to be in that room and you've got to convince people. And that's where [Cate] really delivers. I just buy her as somebody who could seduce everyone into following her ideas. It's hard to fake being smart."

Bruno Ganz as Adolf Hitler in Downfall (Oliver Hirschbiegel, 2004)

"Chock-filled with laughs! I love Bruno Ganz, for one, so I loved watching him in this. His performance is absolutely a worthy addition to the pantheon of Hitler portrayals. But I haven't seen the Alec Guinness one [1973's Hitler: The Last Ten Days]. We had Hitler in [2002's] Full Frontal too, with Nicky Katt playing him. But I think Ganz did a great job of examining an interesting question: is everyone allowed to be in pain? Is Hitler allowed to be in pain? Is Hitler allowed to be in agony? This is a philosophical question. And I think for the purposes of art you have to say: 'Yes'. In this case, I thought he did a great job of showing that there is a mechanism, even within someone like that, for terror, fear, pain, agony... that's what I thought was interesting about it. It pushed you into this place, like, 'Wow! Can I empathise with the pain that this guy is in? Is that possible?' I think that's a legitimate, artistic philosophical question."

Denzel Washington as Malcolm X in Malcolm X (Spike Lee, 1992)

"I really like Malcolm X a lot. It's an underrated movie. I remember when it came out, feeling that Spike had really done something and Denzel had really done something. It was a thoughtful and well-mounted film. I was disappointed that it didn't get more attention than it did. And Spike had a tough job on Malcolm X. They're trying to do that thing where they do 20 years of a guy's life, which we weren't on Che. We're doing two very specific sections, not that far apart. Denzel's got to play this whole series of evolutions – and that's hard. By definition, it's got to be the most challenging [role of his career]. If we can agree that he delivers, then you've got to say that may be the best thing he's done. I thought he was totally dialled in. It was pure pleasure to watch him. He's the guy. I felt the same about Benicio. He's the guy too!"

Elizabeth Taylor as Cleopatra in Cleopatra (Joseph L Mankiewicz, 1963)

"Patrick Stewart tells this story about giving an audition where he does this monologue. There's a long pause and out of the dark, this voice goes, 'Bravely played!' So all I can think of when I watch Elizabeth Taylor in Cleopatra is, 'Well, it's brave!' She's got both feet in. When you look at what she has to say and what she has to wear and the sets she has to walk around in, again the fact that she kept a straight face during all that, that's a testament to her fortitude. God, I hope we can recreate some of those crazy-ass costumes. Our version [of the Cleopatra story] will be like an Elvis musical in 3-D. It's a total rock'n'roll, 1966 aesthetic – like Viva Las Vegas meets Tommy. I've wanted my whole career to make a musical. And the 3-D makes it more challenging but makes it more fun. Based on the way I want to shoot it, I think it's going to really pay off. But our treatment of her is pretty modern, let's say."

Omar Sharif and Gael Garcia Bernal as Ernesto 'Che' Guevara in Che! (Richard Fleischer, 1969) and The Motorcycle Diaries (Walter Salles, 2004) respectively

"You've got to see Omar Sharif as Che and Jack Palance as Fidel, who plays him as a combination of Tony Soprano and Groucho Marx. I am not kidding! It's really wild. It scared me a little. My laughter caught in my throat. I thought, 'They're shooting a lot of the same scenes we are. What if ours looks like this?' It was a little disconcerting. But I remember when I was shooting Kafka, I had a nightmare that I'd shown up on set and Paul Hogan had been cast as Kafka. So Omar playing Che is not so bad. The movie is so wacky, and Palance is so insane! I thought Gael was terrific in The Motorcycle Diaries. That film is the prequel for us. It's the beginning of the outrage, the beginning of the anger, and we're just dealing with the anger. The clean-slate aspect of him, open, was really well portrayed. I was thrilled that they made that movie because for us it really was a great entrée into the next part of his life. I can't look at that and say, 'I think you should've done this.' For that part of his story, [what they did] was the right pitch."

'Che Part One' opens on Friday; 'Che Part Two' is released on 20 February