His Time Is Now
by Holly Millea
Benicio Del Toro may be on the verge of becoming a superstar actor, but as a conversation with the man reveals, he's still a hell of a character.
This guy slumped down on a couch in the chic minimalist lobby of the Sunset Marquis Hotel looks as if he's been driving all night and has gotten off at the wrong truck stop. It's been a long haul from Puerto Rico to Pennsylvania to Hollywood. And right now he'd rather be anywhere but here. He's sporting a white high-topped polyester baseball cap pulled down low; it's emblazoned with a buffalo skull. His black hair, streaked with gray, Bozos out on both sides. His hands are shoved deep into the pockets of his short leather jacket, and his legs, splayed wide, are covered in black denim bunching up at the ankles of his black boots. Benicio Del Toro is so anticool, he's cool. But that doesn't interest him.
"We all thought he was cool long before anyone else knew who he was," says Ryan Phillippe, Del Toro's costar in The Way of the Gun. "If there's such a thing as street-cred among actors, Benicio's got it. You don't get the feeling he's doing something he saw someone else do. There's nothing contrived about him." For nearly 10 years Del Toro escaped major notice outside Hollywood's city limits, but stealing scenes in Fearless, Basquiat, and The Usual Suspects and, more recently, in Traffic, Snatch, and The Pledge, changed all that. It was only a matter of time before actors started sealing from him.
Check out his costar Brad Pitt's uncomprehensible trailer park gypsy in Snatch, a performance more than a little inspired by Del Toro's mumbly-mouthed Fenster in The Usual Suspects. "I don't think he ripped me off," Del Toro says. "We talked about it. He came up to me and told me he was doing a version of what I did, and I said, 'I'm dying to see it.' He did a terrific job. If he hadn't, I would have said, 'Fuck.'"
Del Toro's nuanced portrayal of a morally resolute Mexican cop in Traffic won him a Golden Globe for Best Supporting Actor and makes him a definite Oscar contender. But the guy whose first thought was "Oh, no" when they called out his name isn't interested in that, either.
"Benny is not a typical actor,"says Julian Schnabel, who directed him in Basquiat. Del Toro sees himself as working-class, though he comes from a family successful in law and medicine. "He's a behavioral scientist," Schnabel continues. "He looks at life, people... He doesn't miss a thing." When Del Toro rises from the couch, all six feet two inches of him, and gently shakes your hand, you can see in his face the weight of the world. Or maybe it's the lives of every policeman, gambler, gangster, and petty criminal he's played in the last decade.
It's the kind of face that men admire and women desire. A forehead lined with deep thoughts. Heavy-lidded hazel eyes above dark sleepless circles and lips so full, so blood-red they're sexually distracting. "He's a soulful person. Anyone who has their own kind of thing going on attracts people," Phillippe says.
"Benicio is egoless. It's about creativity for him," says Basquiat's Claire Fornali. "The most powerful thing I could impart to you about working with him is that he frees you. Whehn you're acting with Benicio you feel like you're flying." In addition to Fornali, with whom he remains close friends, Del Toro has been linked to his Excess Baggage costar Alicia Silverstone and to actress Minnie Driver. But in reality, says Schnabel, "he's not someone who's chasing girls. I've seen him absolutely ignore the advances of some very beautiful, very famous women."
Del Toro's few true loves are more obscure, among them Italian actress Valeria Golino, and the daughter of CAtherine Deneuve and Marcello Mastroianni, Chiara Mastroianni, whom he met while in Cannes to promote Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. ("It was like that moment in West Side Story when Tony meets Maria," recalls Schnabel, who witness their introduction. "Everybody else in the room just disappeared.")
Del Toro pulls a disappearing act of his own in his next film. He costars in director William Friedkin's The Hunted as a serial killer tracked by Tommy Lee JOnes. But tracking Del Toro might not be so easy....
TALK: Congratulations on your Golden Globe win for Traffic. You're a safe bet for an Oscar.
BDT: Oh, I don't know about that. They thought the Titanic was a safe bet too.
TALK: Tell me about hanging out with DEA agents. My goal in life.
BDT: Oh yeah?
TALK: How sexy.
BDT: Well, I've been lucky to hang out with the ones I hang out with, who are very smart.
TALK: As opposed to those stupid ones.
BDT: Well, you know. They're great guys. I got a lot of help for Traffic from a DEA agent and another friend of mine who used to be SWAT. I've known them for a while because I did a TV miniseries a long time ago called Drug Wars
TALK: Everyone's saying you're the Latin Marlon Brando.
BDT: What's that? It's kind of generic. I could say the same thing about many actors - that they could be like Brando.
TALK: Is this rush of attention strange? Are you getting more and more recognized?
BDT: People want some time, and my instinct is to say yes, to be very nice. And then I find myself without me. Do you know what I'm saying? The attention is fine. My problem is me.
BDT: Someone talks to me and I feel like I've got to talk to them. I can't say, "Listen, I've got things to do." People ask me for autographs and that kind of stuff. That's cool. Especially if it's a kid. I mean I'd never, God forbid, say no. It's just that I have to concentrate on what I want, what I have tod o, and sometimes the attention becomes a distraction. It's like if you were one of those people who are really into themselves and you lived in a house full of mirrors. YOu'd never leave the house. Because you'd be going from one mirror to the other, from one side of your face to the other. It makes the world really small, too. It makes the world into a small town. And you know what happens?
TALK: Everybody knows your business.
BDT: And you want to split, and then you go into your shell.
TALK: Most people in Hollywood start out as leading men and develop into something else as they getolder - like character actors. You started out as a character actor and now seem primed to become a leading man.
BDT: I'm just an actor. A leading man is where you play a hero of some sort?
TALK: I'm sure you've been offered romantic leads. Which ones have you taken a pass on?
BDT: I don't pass because it's a romantic lead. If I pass on something it's because I don't understand what's going on.
TALK: Tell me about some films you turned down.
BDT: A more interesting aspect of what I do is when I get turned down, which is like 90 percent of the time. I don't care about what I don't get. I care about what I get. And sometimes when I get turned down for a part, I go, God bless. I do'nt have to deal with it. Because my process means a lot of excavating. It's work. It's like being a professional boxer. Let's say there's going to be a fight no SAturday. Let's say Trinidad and De La Hoya are fighting. Usually the night before I think, "What are those guys going through right now?" The intensity, the anxiety. Everybody is going to be watching you. How do you sleep? To a lesser degree, the day before an important scene you have that doubt. But at the same time it's exciting; you have high expectations.
TALK: It's like love.
BDT: Yeah. And there's this constant pull where I'm glad I'm here but at the same time I wish I could go.
TALK: Do you remember a scene in a movie where you had that fear?
BDT: I couldn't tell you one where I didn't. So you've got to be as focused as possible. On the set of Traffic Steven [Soderbergh] was a master of allowing that focus to be sustained all through the day. Not attacking you ecause he didn't like what you did. Just the big picture, the big picture, the focus, the focus.
TALK: You grew up in Santurce, Puerto Rico.
BDT: Yeah. Then I moved to Pennsylvania when I was nine.
TALK: What kind of culture shock was that?
BDT: It wasn't like going to China. Puerto Rico is like, you know, Miami in some ways. And I had older cousins in Pennsylvania. I immediately became part of a group. I played basketball a lot. And they turned me on to the Rolling Stones.
TALK: No Ricky Martin?
BDT: His music isn't the music I listen to.
TALK: What did you put on today?
BDT: Dolly Parton. The album that came out, I think, last year, called The Grass Is Blue. It's fantastic. Her voice is so truthful... [Lights cigarette] Do you smoke?
TALK: Yes. A little.
BDT: Do you have a pen?
TALK: Yeah, why?
BDT: Because I'm documenting. [Pulls out a dog-eared diary]
TALK: You have to write down how much you're smoking?
TALK: Are you trying to quit?
BDT: No, document.
TALK: You're just documenting?
TALK: And what is documenting going to do for you?
BDT: It will stimulate my memory.
TALK: Do you smoke a lot?
BDT: Well, nowadays, I smoke a lot.
TALK: Why? Nervous?
BDT: I guess I've been forced to, you know, come out and talk. I've got three movies out there. I'm a walking commercial.
TALK: Were you social when you were younger?
TALK: Troublemaker, right?
TALK: Funny, cocky?
BDT: How do you know that? I was cocky. I'm sure if I bumped into me now as I was 15, 16, 17 years ago, I'd put me in a headlock.
TALK: Did you ever get into trouble with teh cops? Have you ever been arrested?
BDT: I was arrested in Delaware for flipping my high beams at a cop. I didn't know the road, so I put them down, put them up, put them down. I think he thought I was trying to flip him some code: "Pull me over." I was in high school, out with a friend of mine. The cop said, "You guys have been drinking. I'm going to prove it." And I said, "No, we haven't." So we were taken in to a 24-hour court. It was, like, two in the morning. I was my own lawyer and I lost teh case. I had to pay $55 or something like that.
Some people go around saying, "I've been arrested" and telling stories. But there's nothing great about getting arrested. It was a drag. It's only a good story because I pleaded my own case and lost.
TALK: And you come from a family of lawyers.
BDT: [Laughs] That was a sign right there that I shouldn't follow in their footsteps - I should just move on and pick my own career. Because I couldn't save myself.
TALK: But I bet you were a good student in school.
BDT: No. I was lazy.
TALK: Lazy but smart.
BDT: Well, yeah, but if you don't get good grades... There were a couple of friends of mine who also got bad grades but were really smart, and we were always the renegades. There were a lot of teachers who turned their backs on us because we were doing pranks and they couldn't catch us.
TALK: A mark of your intelligence.
BDT: Right, like Flipper.
BDT: Flipper, the dolphin. Very smart. But he couldn't say your name if you put a gun to his head.
TALK: Any extracirricular activities in high school besides basketball?
BDT: Painting. And I had a girlfriend in high school, too. She was very smart. And she got good grades. She helped me a lot. She was my steady for three years.
TALK: Oh, monogamist.
TALK: You went to college in San Diego to study business?
BDT: I wanted to major in painting, but they only had a minor. So I said, "Well, I'll put business down." Then I took an acting class and changed it to theater.
TALK: First play you were in?
BDT: A Sam Shephard play. An obscure play. There's a great monologue about a moth that gets attracted to a light and breaks through the window and kills himself. But I forget the name of the play.
TALK: Do you have that monologue?
BDT: No, the other actor had it.
TALK: Do you prefer working in film?
BDT: I understand it better. But I'm sure if I got a play that I Really liked... There's that rush when you're nailing it. You've got the audience right there. That's a great feeling. It's sublime.
I studied in L.A. with Stella Adler, and then with another guy who was very influential: Arthur Mendoza. He taught under her.
TALK: Describe Stella Adler.
BDT: You knew she was in the room without knowing who she was. She had a presence. she would sit there and everybody would bow to her. There was a line outside, because people would come in and audit the class. It was alwyas packed. She really had things to say about some great laywrights: Clifford Odets, Arthur Miller, Tennessee Williams. She didn't like plays that were written after 1962. She didn't like the language. She didn't like that F-U-C-K word.
TALK: Who else was in the class?
BDT: Mark Ruffalo [You Can Count on Me], Bud Coret [Harold and Maude]. But, you know, working actors didn't want to go in there and be told, "You stink." She was tough. I mean, people cried in that class. People walked out. It wasn't like you were having fun. No, no, no. It was do or die. It was like gladiators. I would say 75 percent of what she said I didn't want to hear. But everything she said was right.
TALK: What didn't you want to hear?
BDT: That I was limited. The rumor was that if Stella didn't like a scene she'd stop right in the middle. So we're going through a scene and I'm telling myself, "Boy, she's digging it." Then we finish and the whole classroom stands up and claps. And she goes, "Sit down." And then she says, "Mr. Del Toro, do you like big parts?" I say, "I guess." "Well, you ain't ready yet." And she was right. The scene was written for a 33-year-old. I was 20. She said, "Stick to your own age. Stick to something you can play."
TALK: What was your response?
BDT: The same as when your dad or your mom tells you you can't go out this weekend: "I'm going to trash this room. I'm going to come back tomorrow. I'm going to do another scene. I'm going to keep going."
TALK: What are your three greatest strengths?
BDT: Well, I'm a dreamer. I'm... I care. And it's very hard for me to give up. I care about doing the best I can do. But I'm a good loser.
TALK: You're gracious?
BDT: Yeah. I'm a good loser becuase I don't care about winning. I care about doing the best I can.
TALK: Your dad must be so proud of you.
TALK: Were he always?
BDT: No, it took time.
TALK: Was he a strict father?
TALK: How many brothers and sisters do you have?
BDT: One half-sister and one older brother. He lives in Manhattan. He's a pediatric oncologist. He deals with kids with cancer. Tough.
TALK: Your mom died when you were young, and she was only 33.
TALK: How did you get through that?
BDT: When you're young it's just, like... that's the scene you have to play. That's the story you know.
TALK: It's easier when you're younger?
BDT: I don't know if it's easier, because I think what happens is you grow up withouts omeone. You don't know any better. You grow up with that vacuum, and it takes years to understand there was a vacuum there. There was and there is.
TALK:Were you old enough that you could remember your mother?
BDT: Yeah. I was nine. She was very wise. And my dad was really graceful and great when she passed away. We would talk about her. My dad and my brother and I, we looked it straight in the eyes. Talked about memories and all that stuff. It was quite healthy. YOu realize that mothers are huge. I think for boys it's different. I think the mother figure is really that other side. My dad was very strict and very man. And my mother...
TALK: When was the last time you cried?
BDT: Not too long ago. I saw a film with George C. Scott called Islands in the Stream, based on the Hemingway book. He made me cry.
I had it on video, and I was reading about the composer, Jerry Goldsmith. It's about a father who runs away from his three kids and moves to the Bahamas in the '40s. He's an artist. Then his kids come to visit him and he's all nervous. He doesn't want to deal with that. But he falls in love with those kids in the end. And then the kids go away.
TALK: Do you want to have kids?
BDT: Yeah. I love kids. And I like when they get to that age of four, five, six, when you can say, "Check out what Spider-Man can do, man."
TALK: You're 34. Any significant other in your life?
BDT: What do you mean by that?
TALK: I mean, like a...
BDT: Get to the point, huh?
TALK: I mean, a person that you kiss hard on the mouth.
BDT: [Heavy sigh]
TALK: Are you nodding a yes?
BDT: That's for me to know and you to find out.
TALK: Okay, I'm finding out.
BDT: Well, you're not going to get it from me... What do you mean? Do I, like...?
TALK: ...have a girlfriend?
BDT: No. A girlfriend is someone you're with most of the time, right?
BDT: No. Right now I"m going fast - a rolling stone gathers no moss - I'm going to start a movie pretty soon aid it's, like, Whoa.
TALK: Do you have a boyfriend?
BDT: You mean that I kiss on the mouth?
BDT: Not that I know of.
TALK: You're breaking hearts all over the place.
TALK: I'm sure your website gets hit millions of times a week by men who are in love with you too. YOu're teh kind of guy women love and men love.
BDT: Okay. What am I supposed to do?
TALK: You're not supposed to do anything.
BDT: Okay, it's a good thing. That's who I am.
TALK: Any pets?
BDT: I went to a pet shop in Las Vegas when I was doing Fear and Loathing. They had a capuchin monkey for sale for $6,000. And, boy, was I close to jumping on that.
TALK: You want a monkey?
BDT: Well, I thought it would be cool to have a monkey. But then reality takes over. You have to take care of this creature all the time. It's like having a permanent two-year-old for forty years.
TALK: Seems to me you've got your hands full taking care of yourself.
BDT: Right now there's a big wave coming, and I've got to get on that wave. If I had a significant other right now, she'd have to be really understanding that I have to go here, there, bam, bam, get on a plane, go to New York.... And then I've got to sit down and work or read something and lock the door and be by myself for a long time. There's an aspect of a loner in how I go about it. I enjoy being alone. When you're in a relationship you have to work at it. It's a job. And if you get married you have to get wood and throw it on the fire if you want it to keep going. Right now I haven't had a chance to kick back adn just relax. If it was up to me, I"d like tot ake some time, read some stuff, grow a little bit in a different direction. But now I"m going right into another picture. I also think if I'm going to start something serious now there's a sense of responsibility. When you getlder you want to look for someone, maybe start a family.
TALK: You grew up Catholic. Do you go to church?
BDT: I believe in God. The Teletubbies...
TALK: What about them?
BDT: They have a baby for a god.
TALK: The Teletubbies do?
BDT: Yeah, up in the sky.
TALK: The sun baby.
BDT: I thought it was God.
TALK: Is that how you envision God?
BDT: Yeah. Fuck yeah.
TALK: You're smiling, so you think it's all good.
BDT: I think it's all in the Teletubbies.
TALK: Which one is your favorite Teletubby?
BDT: The one with the purse. The one with the purse said, "Fuck it, I"m carrying a purse."
TALK:Do you watch the Teletubbies?
BDT: I've seen a few of them.
TALK: Watching them makes me feel like I'm on Prozac or something.
BDT: Yeah, but they can freak me out, too, a little bit.
BDT: Because I can't tell one from the other.
TALK: You need to look at the tops of their heads.
[Del Toro reaches for yet another cigarette and documents it]
TALK: Tell me about this ring. [Points to a sterling silver ring on the ring finger of Del Toro's right hand]
BDT: It's my good luck ring.
TALK: What's the stone?
BDT: It's wood.
TALK: Who gave you this ring?
BDT: I got it in Arizona. What I like is that I can knock on wood anytime. Do you know what I'm saying? I don't need wood to knock on wood, becuase I've got the wood. [Raps ring on the metal table]
TALK: What are you attracted to in a woman? What's your type?
BDT: I don't know if I have a type. But first o fall there's got to be a physical attraction. And then I like brains. YOu get into a relationship or you go outn a date and 95 percent of the time you're goin to be talking, so it can't all be looks. And there's got to be something else. It's hard to describe. It could range from looking at the same thing th esame way to, like, she knows. And you know what she's feeling. And guts. Strength. Compassion. Compassion and strength, which you could say are opposites, but they're not really.
TALK: How many times have you truly been in love?
BDT: Maybe five times.
TALK: You had a long-term relationship with Chiara Mastroianni. How did you hook up with a French girl?
BDT: All you've got to do is look at her.
TALK: Do you speak French?
TALK: But you know how to French kiss...
BDT: Yeah. I have French-kissing techniques.
TALK: You just had a birthday.
BDT: A friend of mine told me it's on the same day as Lee Marvin's.
TALK: Let's look it up in my personology book.
TALK: "Those born on February 19: Copernicus, astronomer. Smokey Robinson. Lee Marvin. Stan Kenton, jazz player..." Oh look, Prince Andrew also shares your birthday.
BDT: Who's that?
TALK: Prince Andrew?
BDT: Don't know. I'm working-class.
TALK: You know who Prince Andrew is, Married to Fergie, the chubby chick with the red hair.
BDT: He decided he didn't want to be a king?
BDT: Okay. What did he do? Or is he just blue-blood?
TALK: He's just blue-blood.
BDT: Okay, well, there you go.
TALK: "Your three strengths: daring, imaginative, and forceful."
BDT: They don't say lazy?
TALK: That's not a strength. "Your weaknesses: rash, hardened..."
BDT: What is rash? Uncontrolled, rambunctious? You should see my apartment. My apartment is uncontrolled, that's for sure.
TALK: Is your bed made?
BDT: What are you talking about?
TALK: Do you make your bed? No? You don't. What color sheets do you have?
TALK: What kind of pattern?
BDT: Just kidding. I don't know. I dont' even know the color of my sheets.
TALK: Down or foam pillow kind of guy?
BDT: I'm a mattress kind of guy. That's about it. Give me a mattress. Actaully, I really want to get a bed. A real nice bed, so I can sleep.
TALK: This book also says that you're accident-prone...
BDT: I forget my keys all the time. Is that an accident?
TALK: ...and taht you're an honorable person.
BDT: What's that supposed to mean?
TALK: You would do the honorable thing. You look like teh kind of guy who would do the honorable thing.
BDT: Who am I to break your dream? I'm going to tell you yes, yes, yes.
TALK: Now that you've told me yes, tell me if it's true.
TALK: Are you honorable?
BDT: You mean can you trust me?
BDT: Yeah... No.
TALK: Forget it, this is a losing game.
BDT: What, your game?
TALK: I'm not playing a game.
BDT: It's hard to talk about me. Come on!
TALK: Give it up. You're only as sick as your secrets. Speaking of which, I have it on good authority that you have two safes in your apartment that are the size of refridgerators. Now why does a guy need two safes the size of refridgerators? What have you got in there?
TALK: That's it?
BDT: [No response]
TALK: What's your biggest secret?
BDT: The one I'll never know...
TALK: I suppose that means I'll never know it either.
BDT: You know, some people have sick dreams.
TALK: Last night I had a dream that Russell Crowe showed up for this interview. How sick is that?
BDT: Wouldn't that be funny if someone else had shown up?
TALK: Who would you have sent to this interview?
BDT: I don't know. I would have sent someone I know is going to be funny, someone who could make it all up. [Big smile] I would have sent the guy you're looking at.