Benicio Del Toro is a fan.
He’s a fan of fellow actors, a lifelong fan of James Bond, and a fan of playing baddies. He’s even a recent convert to the wonders of the Sydney Harbour Bridge climb. Visiting our fair shores to promote his latest dastardly turn as Mexican drug thug Lado in Oliver Stone’s pulpy crime thriller Savages - in which he shares the screen with Salma Hayek, Blake Lively and his childhood idol John Travolta - Del Toro muses on playing hard to get, and about finding the colour and the comedy in villainy. He also calls out the directors he’s still hoping to work for, as well as revealing his own filmmaking ambitions.
Welcome to Sydney! Has it been a whirlwind tour?
I was in London, Spain, then went back to LA, then I came here for the first time. I climbed the Sydney Harbour Bridge.
It’s pretty wicked isn’t it?
It’s pretty amazing. Very exciting. It feels like you’re doing something wrong, like you’re not supposed to be there. But what a great idea!
Now, I imagine it’s every actor’s dream to get the phone call from Oliver Stone.
So walk me through it, what happens when Oliver Stone calls. You run?
Actually it was a friend of Oliver Stone who gave me the heads up that he was going to call. I think I met him at his office and he gave me the script and it was almost 90% that I was going to say yes to it.
Wait, almost 90%? Not an easy 100%?
He might have just wanted something that you go, “Well, I don’t know if I want to do that.” There’s a chance you can say no even to the great filmmakers. Listen it would have been 100%, but you have to play hard to get! You have to have a little bit of pride, so that’s why I didn’t go 100% right away. I said, “Well let me think about it. I’ll have a read and let you know.”
I like it! Keep him guessing.
I mean it’s been many years as an actor, when you’re always hearing, “Don’t call us, we’ll call you.” So once you get a chance like that, you’ve got to play hard to get a little bit.
So once you’ve accepted the role, I have to ask you about your character’s brilliant moustache. It’s very impressive. What kind of prep are we talking about here? A phone call to Tom Selleck?
I don’t know. I talked to Oliver about it, and we had like a goatee and I said, “Why don’t we take off the bottom part?” And the moustache was there and we liked it. I don’t think I’ve done a movie with a moustache…well, actually I did, I actually did in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, I had a moustache in that. So anyway we decided to go with it, and people do talk about it. It’s funny.
Well what struck me post about the film is it’s tongue-in-cheek tone. Was that important to you in terms of approaching an archetypical Mexican drug thug?
So is that something you developed in the character?
Tried to. You’re really working with stereotypes so you just make those stereotypes colourful. I think that Oliver, like myself, [saw that if] there was a chance get a laugh without pushing for the laugh, [he would] allow it to happen. I think especially my character, but a lot of the characters have that tongue-in-cheek kind of thing. Because otherwise I think if you make this movie really hardcore, I think it would be a little bit hard to take.
You still get a chainsaw though!
There’s a chainsaw, yeah and there’s torture. There’s a lot of killing. But I know this isn’t the first movie that tries to [balance violence and comedy] and I know it’s not going to be the last. So there’s that element that if there was could be a laugh, I think that [Oliver] in the editing room kept it, and if it was happening [on set] he would encourage it.
You’ve walked that line before with films like The Usual Suspects and Snatch…
Definitely Snatch. And Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.
Of course! So you like to find the comedy amidst the killing?
I like to laugh! I don’t know. In some movies it’s fun to get a good laugh. If it’s not too pushed. If it is too pushed – and I’m not saying…maybe some of it is pushed in Savages – but you hope it’s subtle. It’s a thin line; it’s a narrow line that you have to walk with your interpretation.
Some of my favourite scenes in the film are with you and Salma Hayek. Talk about establishing that onscreen power play? It looked like too much fun.
Yeah. It was kind of like she’s the boss; she’s a woman, and I am (my character) is a male chauvinistic pig who is working under this beautiful woman – who I think at some point he probably wanted to sleep with her, and she turned him down. He’s got a huge ego; he’s that kind of guy, [a] disgusting guy that you don’t want to hang out with. And then she’s the boss who treats my character…condescends my character. In a way she was kind of like the mother and I’m kind of like the child who is fed up with being told what to do all the time. And I just don’t like being in that position and I am totally condescended.
Things [between our characters] show up in the movie [as] kind of funny, and I didn’t even think about it. There’s a moment that she yells at me and I make some face. I didn’t even think about that face, it was just like, Salma, when she lets it go, she can let it go!
Now I’ll be betraying my age here, but before my brothers introduced me to Fred Fenster in The Usual Suspects, I first came across you in Excess Baggage with Alicia Silverstone. That made me wonder, do you find fans’ reactions are coloured by the character of yours that first captures them?
Yes they are, because I’m a fan too. It was like when I saw John Travolta for the first time when I was doing Savages, I went into the make up trailer and there he was, sitting there and my brain just went straight back to when Grease came out and I saw Grease in the movie theatre. I went to see Grease, I don’t know, a bunch of times, and [seeing] John Travolta, it was incredible. It was like seeing a family member, who I hadn’t seen for a long time.
So I’m sure that it does [happen that way with fans], because it’s happened to me and it happens to me with actors and actresses that I see. Or it even happens with music, or books. I think when it becomes your own; when it becomes part of who you are…it’s just you, it’s personal.
I love it. You had the Grease reaction.
I had the total Grease reaction!
Well in Savages John Travolta is obviously playing the crooked cop, while you’ve made a career of portraying the drug trade in many ways, shapes and forms – including your Academy Award winning turn in Traffic – so I’m curious which side of the law is more fun to play?
Well it’s a lot of fun playing the other side of the law because you get to do things that you would never do. For this role you can use your imagination. You can invent stuff. You can invent: from the look, the physical – yes the moustache – the hair, whatever, to the deliver of the lines, to everything. You can create; you can use your imagination. You’re freer with the baddie than with a good guy in a way. I mean, you can also [use your imagination] with the good guy, but there’s something about the bad guy where you can get colourful. I think the pallet of colours, it’s wider, to use when you’re doing a bad guy. I’m not saying it’s easier, but it can be more maybe fun, more colourful.
I like that analogy of colours; you have more shades to play with.
Yes, from the superficial, to the interpretation of the character.
Well speaking of colourful baddies, seeing as we recently celebrated 50 years of Bond, I’d be remiss if I didn’t ask you to reminisce about your turn in License to Kill. How cool it to have a Bond villain on the CV?
It doesn’t compare to the fact that [when] I grew up, in my room in San Juan in Puerto Rico, I was a James Bond as a kid and I had this lobby card of Thunderball that was on my wall. And I never even dreamt that I was going to be an actor. And then I finished high school, then I decided to become an actor, then maybe three or four years after I’m in James Bond movie! It was kind of mind-blowing. When you look back, it’s really like, “that’s wild!” So that was pretty cool, to be the kid who’s growing up with Roger Moore and Sean Connery on his wall, and the toy cars, and The Spy Who Loved Me, and all that stuff, and then suddenly here I was having an audition with [James Bond producer Albert] “Cubby” Broccoli and working with Timothy Dalton on a Bond movie and travelling the world as an actor!
You’ve got to pinch yourself.
It was really bizarre. I actually saw a piece of the movie not to long ago. Boy! I’m a kid. I was a real kid. I think I was 20 or 21.
I think I read that you were the youngest Bond villain…
I heard that too.
That’s a claim to fame.
That’s a claim to fame! That’s something to put up on the board.
Well from Bond to the rest of your enviable filmography. You’ve worked with a who’s who of directors – from Steven Soderbergh, Guy Ritchie, Robert Rodriguez, Terry Gilliam, Alejandro González Iñárritu and now Oliver Stone – what’s the key to a great collaboration?
I don’t know. I didn’t think I was going to be retrospecting [sic] here today sitting on Sydney Harbour!
I have to say there’s been a lot of work, there’s been a lot of luck, and there [have] been a lot of good people around – which could be part of luck. It’s about having a lot of good people around you, helping you in different phases of your career. You really have to share [your success] with the people around you.
I remember doing a movie and feeling like an outsider during the filming of the movie. And I remember the guy who was the caterer in charge of the food, I don’t know, he came in one day and said, “I really like what you’ve done! I just saw a little clip and it was so good!” And from that - a little moment that boosts you up to dare again, to challenge yourself, to solidify your instincts – so from that to a manager and agents who have helped along the way, then to teachers, to other actors, and then you go to the filmmakers. I’ve had a chance to work with…it’s amazing really…I’ve managed to work with some of the best, [but] there are still a lot of good ones that I haven’t worked with.
Yes? Anyone you’d like to shout out to?
Well, there’s always the Coen Brothers. There’s always Woody Allen. But I’ve been very lucky. And as I get older [I think] I’d like to direct.
Well you have recently with 7 Days In Havana.
I did a little thing in 7 Days in Havana, which is like a short. And it was a script that was given to me and an opportunity to get behind a camera and to do that story, and I said, “yes,” and it was a great experience. But I feel like there’s this thing in me that wants to take that extra challenge, or new adventure, which would be getting behind a camera and telling a story that I want to tell. And I’ve gone to the best film school anyone could have hoped for. I’ve worked with some of the best actors in business, some of the best filmmakers in the business, some of the best at everything in the business…
And you’re just like a sponge?
Inevitably! I don’t think when I [started] this career I would be directing, or telling my own story, but it’s something that is brewing in my head and I’d like to give it a shot because I think there is a real excitement to that unknown, and the possibility of doing something new, and the possibility of failing something.
Well you’ve already stepped up to be the producer on Che. Are there any other stories you’re keen to get up on the big screen?
Well yeah. I think it’s a lot of fun to go out, and you do a movie as an actor and you’re invested to an extent. But when you’re involved as a producer, when you’re involved as a director, or the only actor in the movie, then it becomes really intense. [In] Savages, I share, we all share with Salma Hayek, with Blake [Lively], I share it with all the other actors. But when you do something as a director it becomes - I don’t know how to explain it - it becomes almost personal. And you have the possibility of getting hurt, but also there is an intensity to protecting and to the commitment to that piece that is really intense.
Like with Che, being involved with it, and it was a difficult movie to make, a difficult movie to sell, a difficult movie to show. But we were walking around basically with the movie in our backpacks putting in it on the table in movie theatres. And there’s something hands on when you’re involved like that and I’d like to do it again. I just find it fun. It’s exhausting! So I’ll keep doing it as long as I have the energy to do it, and if not I’ll just start painting on a canvas behind a palm tree somewhere.
Well finally, much has been made about Oliver Stone returning to U Turn vibe, but considering his work as a cinematic historian, I wondered if you also bonded over history – given your experiences in Che.
That’s my geek question.
Well it’s not a geek question; it’s the question! Oliver Stone is perhaps the only guy – it’s amazing what he’s done. I feel American, but I very easily because of my Latin American roots, my blood and my upbringing, and where I come from, I [feel] like I’m American but I’m also Latin American, [so] I can step outside and look at the US, look at cinema in the US. And one thing that I find really amazing is that Oliver Stone, whether you like his movies or not, he’s managed to do something that I consider unique, which is: as an outsider looking into the cinema of the United States, Oliver Stone has shown the world [about] freedom. That he can auto-criticise his own government, and show the world that it’s ok to auto-criticise your own government and it’s not a condescending thing, it’s not a negative thing, it’s part of freedom. Part of being American is being able to criticise the system and Oliver Stone has managed to do that and when you are an outsider and you look at American cinema and Oliver Stone movies are always going to be there. Then you can say, “look at America, look at Hollywood cinema: it can auto-criticise the government, and still make it art at the highest level.”
You can take a filmmaker like Ken Loach – a master of British Cinema – and he also does it, but that Hollywood does it too, and that Oliver has managed to allow that to come from Hollywood…he’s got to get a lot of credit for showing the world that Hollywood can also auto-criticise the superpower system somehow. He’s not the only one, but as an outsider you look at Hollywood, and if you see and Oliver Stone movie you go, “[He made] JFK, and he’s still making movies?! He’s still allowed to make movies?!”
And that is healthy. There might be a kid in Italy that one day will make a movie about something in the system of Italy and it’s going to be influenced by Oliver Stone.
Published on TheVine