Del Toro: cool dude with a thick skin

The Usual Suspects icon receives Karlovy Vary President’s Award

by Richard Mowe

Signing on for the fans - Benicio Del Toro at Karlovy Vary International Film Festival
Signing on for the fans - Benicio Del Toro at Karlovy Vary International Film Festival Photo: Karlovy Vary International Film Festival

He is the epitome of cool allure combined with an acting prowess that has won him scores of awards and the approval of his peers.

Benicio Del Toro, for it is he, has rocked up at the Karlovy Vary International Film Festival this weekend to receive the President’s Award from Festival supremo Jiří Bartoška, to acclaim from adoring Czech crowds.

Del Toro’s name seems to inspire a certain reverence from his colleagues. For Brad Pitt, Del Toro's co-star in Guy Ritchie's gangster movie Snatch, "he is about as good as they come. He is amazing."

"He's very cool," agreed Taye Diggs who worked alongside him in Christopher McQuarrie's modern western The Way Of The Gun. "I was watching him work, just stealing from him, waiting for the opportunity to play a character like that, where I can use his subtleties and what he does with his eyes and his furrowed brow. He's something else."

Born in Puerto Rico in 1967, Del Toro moved to Pennsylvania with his lawyer father when he was 12, after the death of his mother.

"One of the reasons for moving for me wasn't so traumatic, was that I wanted to see the Stones' Tattoo You tour," says Del Toro, who had grown up listening to the Beatles, the Stones, the Clash and the Who.

After his father remarried, two years later, Del Toro did not get on with his step-mother, and attended a boarding school. He didn't know a great deal of English, and had to grow 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."

Photo frenzy - Benicio Del Toro keeps the snappers happy at Karlovy Vary International Film Festiva
Photo frenzy - Benicio Del Toro keeps the snappers happy at Karlovy Vary International Film Festiva Photo: Karlovy Vary International Film Festival

After a year studying business at the University of California, he went to drama school in New York, before training with Method master Stella Adler in Los Angeles. He made his film debut as Duke, the Dog-Faced Boy in Randal Kleiser's Big Top Pee-Wee, and popped up in the Bond movie The Living Daylights (at the time the youngest actor ever to play a 007 villain) as well as on TV playing various drug lords.

Later films included Sean Penn's directorial debut The Indian Runner, Peter Weir's underrated Fearless, and George Huang's Hollywood satire Swimming With Sharks. But it wasn't until Bryan Singer cast him as the unintelligible Fred Fenster in The Usual Suspects that Hollywood really noticed him.

The Usual Suspects won Oscars for writer Christopher McQµarrie and for Kevin Spacey as best supporting actor, and suddenly people started taking more notice of this quirky looking, quirky sounding guy. There were roles in Abel Ferrara's The Funeral and The Fan, in which he got stabbed by a psychotic Robert De Niro, before he landed his first lead as a car thief opposite Alicia Silverstone in Marco Brambilla's kidnap comedy Excess Baggage – note one of his finest moments. Not so Terry Gilliam's Fear And Loathing In Las Vegas, which saw him play Gonzo to Johnny Depp's Hunter S Thompson. That movie was a trip in more ways than one, but proved a bit too odd for most audiences.

"I'm a master of movies that have life in video," he once told me with a laugh. "They come out, they don't work and eventually in video everyone goes, 'Oh yeah, it's good’ like Fear And Loathing, which, little by little, has picked up a crowd."

While many of us will remember Del Toro mainly for his hilarious performance as the mumbling, mercurial Latino hood in The Usual Suspects, the actor's star rose rapidly with a series of show-stealing character parts in films such as Basquiat and Fear And Loathing In Las Vegas, culminating in his role as a desperately honest small-town Mexican copy in Soderbergh’s Traffic in 2000 for which he won several awards - including the Best Supporting Actor Golden Globe and Oscar. The next year, Del Toro played a retarded man wrongly accused of murder in director Sean Penn's sad tale of obsession, The Pledge, and earned his second Academy Award nomination for his performance in 21 Grams in 2003.

"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."

Fans frenzy … Benicio Del Toro centre of attention at Karlovy Vary International Film Festival
Fans frenzy … Benicio Del Toro centre of attention at Karlovy Vary International Film Festival Photo: Karlovy Vary International Film Festival

He values artistic integrity far above awards glory although he admits it can be useful. "The Hollywood blockbuster thing - you don't choose it," he says, “They choose you. They come when you're hot. After the Oscar they came. I got lucky."

He wants to be more than an actor. "I've been writing a little bit," he says. "I've got a couple of things on the shelf.” Del Toro already has written and directed a short film Submission, starring Matthew McConaughey.

The trouble with pursuing further this side of his activities is the roles just keep piling in. From Steven Soderbergh’s Che (for which he was named best actor at the 2008 Cannes Film Festival) he went straight into The Wolfman, which he claims was “a good way of shaking off Che’s skin.” “With Che I had to be very precise whereas in The Wolfman I could just imagine anything. I watched the 1935 version starring Henry Hull and, of course, the Lon Chaney jr version and also the Oliver Reed one from the Sixties. Our one is based on the same premise although I haven’t seen it yet. Since The Wolfman I have been working on promoting Che which is really two films, and then it will be the same round for The Wolf Man which is coming out right after. And before that I did Things We Lost In The Fire. In between I have to find a bit of down time.”

In his personal life he remains single but shares a daughter with Deilah with Kimberley Stewart (rock icon Rod Stewart’s offspring). He has dated a string of interesting women in the profession, including Italian actress Valeria Golino and French star Chiara Mastroianni (daughter of Catherine Deneuve). While based in Los Angeles, he keeps a low profile between films and concedes that fame can be intrusive. "You just have to stay focused on what it is you're trying to do. You can hear what everybody says, but you don't have to listen to everything. You need an open mind - it's a tricky thing. I don't know if I've mastered it."

He suggests that in general “awards are great but if they don’t happen then it's not going to change anything." Meanwhile he’s please as punch though with his Karlovy Vary President’s Award while the 55-year-old’s latest role in the crime thriller Reptile opposite Justin Timberlake is due to be unveiled shortly on Netflix.

Benicio Del Toro will take part in a Q and A after the screening of Traffic today at the Karlovy Vary International Film Festival in the Grand Hall. He will receive the President’s Award tomorrow (Saturday 9 July) at the Festival’s closing awards ceremony.

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