Thursday 18 January 2018

I'm a daddy, not a baddie

Benicio Del Toro is Hollywood's go-to villain but, as Julia Molony finds out, fatherhood has made him ponder family, responsibility and child-rearing

Benicio Del Toro leans forward in his chair in a London hotel suite, half-smoked cigarette in hand. He's wearing a crisp suit, an oversized silver ring. His hair stands up in luxurious, jet-black swathes.

As on film, he seems an almost cartoonish creation -- features and physicality so perfectly drawn for louche villainy that he appears more an invention of fiction than nature.

It's a quality used to powerful effect in his latest film Savages, a dirty, sexy, bloody gangster romp directed by Oliver Stone. Del Toro plays Lado, a Mexican drug cartel member known for his unmitigated viciousness.

But is he that much of a badass in reality? With so much opportunity to act out every possible monstrous, violent human impulse, I'm expecting him to be pretty Zen. Surely, there's no room for repressed anger when one's day job involves violently dispatching one's enemies.

"I still get angry in real life," he says with a small smile, pulling on his cigarette.

But is there something about being able to vent? "To an extent, but not really. You're just acting. Hoping that there is truth in it. That it's convincing, that it's not boring, that it's not too hammy."

His position as Hollywood's go-to baddie has been established since his big break in The Usual Suspects at the age of 21. He's played a long line-up of dark and twisted characters, which has given him plenty of time to reflect on what the psychological mechanisms behind evil behaviour are. Being bad is his on-screen metier.

It's something he's given a lot of thought to, unsurprisingly. "I think they might be born with that inkling. And when they are thrown into a society that doesn't give a f*** about them, then they are more prone to become ... home doesn't exist and there's the makings of a storm.

"I think it's home. I think we see it, it's not a mystery. You see anyone who is in the life of crime, you track it down. For the most part you'd say that there is some characteristics of their past that are going to be similar."

He speaks in long, considered monologues which often change tack, with wide-ranging digressions covering everything from turn-of-the-century cinema to what conditions create the sort of teenagers behind high-school massacres.

And one wonders whether thinking about these themes is something that has become more relevant to him now that he's become a father.

Last year, Kimberly Stewart gave birth to his daughter Delilah after the pair had a short relationship, and while they are no longer together, he's actively involved.

Perhaps that might go some way to explaining why he's been thinking about what makes the difference between a happy well-adjusted child, and one who takes a gun into their high-school and opens fire.

"There was only one thing that was constant between all of the kids behind them," he says of a study he recently read on the subject.

"None of them sat with their families to eat. It's very interesting. None of them had dinner or lunch or breakfast with their family. They ate alone. What it is, is that the mother or the father is not there. And then you put that in a society or the peer pressure in a school where schools are really big and teachers have a classroom that's like 100 students or 50 students and there's no connection and then that creature is alone and ... violence is kind of like the only way."

Presumably then, there will be lots of shared meals in the Stewart-Del Toro postmodern family. Certainly, he admits that parenthood has changed his outlook.

"You've gotta make sure, economically, now you are living for someone else. So there's a responsibility here that I never had before. When I worked, I only looked at myself and now I've gotta think there's someone else. We need to make some savings so that she goes to school. Eventually she'll decide what she wants to do, but there is this element of being ready for the options. And that's kind of different.

"We're still in the process of organising all of that. But now, when I work, I'm not just working for my sandwiches and my pizza. Now it's a little bit different.

"Perhaps I will like to get involved with things that have to do for kids, within the world of cinema," he says. "And I've always kind of wanted to, because I am a kid myself in a way."

So watch this space for Benicio putting down the machine gun and popping up in a cartoon.

"And so having a child now," he goes on, coming back to his point, "you look back at yourself and you have to think about things that are important that you learn from your parents and your upbringing and move it forward."

Bloodlines seem to be on his mind. He moved from Puerto Rico to America when he was 13. His parents were both lawyers, but his mother died when he was nine and his godmother, also a lawyer, played a large hand in raising him.

"I don't know much about lawyers," he says in his gravelly, lazy baritone. "But I do know that there is an element of theatrics, if you do jury cases and stuff like that," he says, on how his own upbringing shaped his career.

"You have to get your point across and you have to somehow influence the judge. So there is that element. And there is another thing of lawyers in a way, they have to use logic to work something. And in acting there is an element of that too.

"You have to be convincing, so you have believe what you are saying, whether you agree or not with it.

"So I think there is that element and probably it runs in my blood."

Savages review, page 21

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