Del Toro to head Un Certain Regard jury in Cannes

Organisers hail 'artist who knows no boundaries'

by Richard Mowe

Benicio Del Toro, president of Un Certain Regard jury in Cannes: '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'
Benicio Del Toro, president of Un Certain Regard jury in Cannes: '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' Photo: BAFTA
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. Now Sicario and Star Wars star Benicio Del Toro scales the heights of a different kind of challenge by taking on the presidency of this year's jury of the Un Certain Regard section of the Cannes Film Festival.

Making the announcement, Cannes organisers described him as “an artist who knows no boundaries". Del Toro has previous form on Cannes jury service. Eight years ago, along with Tim Burton and other members of the main Competition jury, they selected Thai director Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s Uncle Boonmee (The One Who Can Recall His Past Lives) as the winner of the Palme d’Or.

He is said to be a great admirer of Jean Vigo and Charlie Chaplin and apparently would have loved to have met Bela Lugosi, Lon Chaney, Toshiro Mifune or Humphrey Bogart. Organisers also divulged that, when he was 20 years old, he discovered The 400 Blows and the films of Fellini, Eisenstein, Bergman, Eustache, Kurosawa. The Naked Island, by Kaneto Shindo, became his film of reference.

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."

Benicio as Fenster in The Unusual Suspects: 'I see The Usual Suspects as the time where I was quote/unquote discovered'
Benicio as Fenster in The Unusual Suspects: 'I see The Usual Suspects as the time where I was quote/unquote discovered'
"He's very cool,” concurred 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,” he confided to me once in an interview. He 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 stepmother, 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 told me. "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."

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 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.

Benicio de Toro: 'After the Oscar they came. I got lucky'
Benicio de Toro: 'After the Oscar they came. I got lucky' Photo: Myrna Suarez
There followed 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 – not 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. One of his biggest challenges was taking on Ersnest ‘Che’ Guevara, a two-part, four-hour epic (Che: The Argentine and Che: Guerilla) for Steven Soderbergh.

"I'm a master of movies that have life in video," he once said. "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 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. He also appeared in the 8th episode of the saga Star Wars: The Last Jedi last year.

"I see The Usual Suspects as the time where I was quote/unquote discovered,” he told me. "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."

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.”

The Cannes Film Festival runs from May 8 to 19, the full programme will be launched on April 12.

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