Benicio del Toro: Mild at heart
Published 05/02/2010 | 05:00
Breakfast for Benicio del Toro is an espresso and a Marlboro. For all I know, he may well have got in a bowl of muesli and a spot of yoga before we meet on a grey Saturday morning in Dublin.
Even so, he inhales the shot of coffee and taps out a cigarette from a pack on the table in front of him with quick, practised movements. This is definitely routine.
It's the only sense of urgency revealed by the actor. Those two basic requirements fulfilled, he exhales deeply and leans back in his seat.
"I went to some good places in Dublin last night," he says, once the espresso has kicked in. "I was in Residence for dinner -- the food was very good. And then we went to meet Ryan [Tubridy -- del Toro had appeared that night on the Late Late] in the Dylan hotel. Yeah, good night."
And here we now are, Ryan Tubridy apparently having kept Benicio up past his bedtime. It's an amusing picture -- the bookish Tubbers wearing out the Hollywood actor famed for his bad boy looks and dark, intense performances.
"How did I look on the Late Show?" he asks. I tell him he looked substantial, as most people do beside Tubridy. "Fat?" he asks. No, tall. He laughs, but it's true. The common experience with meeting Hollywood stars is that they can be disappointingly less impressive in the flesh than they are on screen. The opposite is true of del Toro. He measures 6ft 2in but such has been his line in melancholic or criminal characters that he often seems to hunch into his roles, looking tortured or shifty.
"Yes, I've been told I shrink into the character," he agrees pleasantly. "I've heard people say, 'You're much taller than I thought'. I wonder if it's something to do with when I played basketball, I played point guard. That's usually the shortest guy of the squad. I'm tall, but in the basketball world, I'm short. Maybe I carry that with me."
It's not quite the exploration of inhabiting character that one would expect from a method actor who won a scholarship to the prestigious Stella Adler Conservatory in LA at the age of 19. "Do we have to look so deep? I don't know," he laughs.
Alright then -- back to last night. There was a full moon out, the brightest we're going to see this year, apparently. That's quite the coincidence, having del Toro prowling the town and promoting the remake of the werewolf horror classic The Wolfman.
"There are no coincidences," says del Toro, in a mock-serious tone. "It's like, in a weird way, I was always a fan of these classic horror movies from Universal. They were the first movies I recall knowing their titles and the names of the actors in them. And here I am doing one of them. This was way before I thought I could be an actor, so maybe it's a coincidence, maybe it's destiny, but who am I to say?"
It certainly seems that there has been some hand of fate steering Del Toro's path to stardom. It wouldn't have seemed credible that the baby boy, Benicio Monserrate Rafael del Toro Sanchez, born to two lawyers in Puerto Rico, would one day become a film star in the English-speaking world.
Forty-two years later, del Toro has been honoured at every significant event in the awards calendar, including the Oscars and Golden Globes in 2000, where he took Best Supporting Actor gongs for his conflicted Mexican police officer in Traffic. He claims not to have much use for awards -- it's the experience of working with great actors and directors that he brings forward with him -- but he likes that he is only the third Puerto Rican actor to win an Academy Award.
"I'm number three Puerto Rican," he says, suddenly animated, "Jose Ferrer for Cyrano de Bergerac; Rita Morena for West Side Story," ticking the other two off on his right thumb and forefinger.
It's an achievement on two counts. One, because his Oscar-winning performance was mostly conducted in the Spanish language. Two, because del Toro's distinctly Latino looks and pouchy-eyed insouciance has mostly been translated by directors into the role of outsider, criminal or oddball. His first big role was as the youngest-ever Bond baddie at the age of 21 in Licence to Kill and he has long been a cult-film favourite, bringing his mumbling magnificence as Fenster to The Usual Suspects and as Dr Gonzo to Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. He burned himself with cigarettes and piled on more than 50 pounds to play Gonzo.
Maybe for this reason -- being perennially cast as the outsider, but also taking pride in being one -- the awards he appreciates most of all come from outside the back-slapping hothouse of Hollywood.
"I got the Palme d'Or and a Goya for Che, and that was all in Spanish," he says. (I think he means the Best Actor award in Cannes, rather than the Palme d'Or which is the award for best film). "Those were both won in 2008. Those are the last couple I've gotten so they're very important," he laughs.
You're only as good as your last award? "Yeah, yeah, yeah," he laughs, "you're only as good as your last award."
He turns serious for a moment. "Well, really, I liked getting them because, you know, Cannes is kind of like the Olympics. The Oscars is more like being in the pros in America. It's like we have the NBA, it's every year. In Cannes, the jury is a composition of film-makers not just from one place but from all over the world. There is an element of cinema in it that makes it cool to be recognised. Even to be in the festival, to be in competition. It's quite cool."
Del Toro doesn't have to worry too much about what's cool. He is cool. Even in his mismatched, red-checked lumberjack shirt and formal blazer. Even in The Wolfman, through the layers of CGI, lupine make-up -- "man, taking that stuff off at the end of the day was painful" -- and the distraction of co-star Anthony Hopkins hamming it up to the high heavens, he manages to arrest your attention.
He just doesn't seem to take himself too seriously. When he talks about loving Dublin writer Bram Stoker's version of Dracula and I ask if he would like to add a vampire to his CV of monsters, he replies laconically: "How much money have you got? I did Wolfman because for me it's really a nostalgic thing. Money doesn't motivate me, it's never motivated me, but it sounds good when you say it: 'I did it for the money'."
The Wolfman probably isn't going to add to his awards cabinet, but he thinks it's "cool" that his manager saw a movie poster of the original 1941 movie in his house and, next thing you know, del Toro's acting out his boyhood fantasies.
It might be the stereotype of the fiery Latino temperament and the effect of his powerful physicality, but it's a surprise that del Toro is so laid back. His sentences are peppered with pauses and tangents, and frequently trail off into mid-air. (On the importance of those awards in making him a Hollywood player: "It's kind of like one of those things, it's, ah, I don't think that, Universal, I don't know, it's hard to tell, but I think it does help.")
Yet, when he acknowledges that "we all have our dark side", you believe those brooding performances must come from somewhere. Certainly his early life can't have been easy, his mother dying when he was just nine, and the whole family decamping to the States when he was 13, del Toro unable to speak English and sent to a rigidly conservative Catholic school.
The Wolfman has some poignancy when you consider that the backstory of del Toro's character, Laurence Talbot, is so similar to his own. Talbot's mother also dies at a young age, and he is sent to America to his extended family and separated from all that was familiar from his childhood. Del Toro concedes that his own mother's death was "a major event" for him. But he is notoriously private about his off-screen life.
I wonder if he's in a relationship but then remember that he 'jokingly' told a previous interviewer that he had several dogs who he would let loose on him should he ask any more personal questions. Considering he might think I called him fat at the start of this interview, I don't push it.
We talk of The Wolfman exploring the notion that all humans struggle with baser, primal instincts. "Thank goodness for the conscience!" says del Toro. But can he relate to that primal rage?
"I can relate to moments of rage," he says, after shifting in his seat a bit and scrubbing his chin. "What makes me mad? People condescending would make me mad. Not to the point of 'grab that TV and bash it over your head', but.. People who flat out and lie. Bullying. Abuse. Disrespect."
Then, sensing we're getting into "deep" territory, he cracks a slow smile. "I could get a little cranky if I haven't eaten."
Waiter -- bowl of muesli, please.