Interview : Benicio Del Toro

Quietly spoken and fiercely shy, one has the distinct impression that Oscar winner Benicio del Toro would rather be working on the set of his latest film, than talking to the press in a New York hotel room at 8 am on a Sunday morning. But the actor is begrudgingly accepting of the publicity aspect of moviemaking, as he grins and bears talking about his role in "The Hunted".

Directed by veteran William Friedkin, Del Toro plays a U.S. military assassin who goes criminally psycho back in the States after nightmarish experiences in Kosovo. His original trainer, an eccentric recluse played by Tommy Lee Jones, is brought out of retirement to track him down. The film uses minimal dialogue in this outdoors-set thriller and one wonders whether the film’s silences attracted Del Toro to this unusual film. “For me then attraction was Billy Friedkin and that’s how I got pulled into the story”, the actor says, quietly. "I met with him and we talked about it and then the character was a bit different. It was a little bit one-dimensional, you know, and after a series of conversations with Billy, we started working on it to make it less one-dimensional, more in the grey." The actor jokingly says that Friedkin’s uniqueness is derived from “his refusal to do any press and sends me here.” But that aside, he says Friedkin brings a unique quality to his work. “When I first saw The Hunted, I realised what a great ear he had because the sound of the film is fantastic and on the set, he’s a director who knows what he wants. He really knew that this movie was going to move which was kinda good.”

As for the film’s lengthy silences, Del Toro says that he ultimately enjoyed the challenge of playing a character not defined by what he says. “I think it brings the audience into his psyche and kind of forces you to ask: What is he thinking instead of explaining it all the time.” In order to prepare for the film, Del Toro and co-star Lee Jones were required to literally attend a hunting school, where the pair learned how to master a knife and survive in the woods. The actor may have been a fast learner according to real-life tracker and teacher Tom Brown, but Del Toro sheepishly admits that he learned "Very little!" from the hunting school experience and would demand a cell phone if dropped in the woods now.

Del Toro has effortlessly moved from independent, quirky character roles, to the less comfortable world of mainstream Hollywood and emerged in the mid-90s as one of the most watchable and charismatic character actors to surface in years who gained mainstream public attention as the conflicted, "one good cop" in Steven Soderbergh’s Traffic (2000). Born in Puerto Rico on February 19, 1967, Benicio was the son of lawyer parents. His mother died when he was young, and his father moved the family to a farm in Pennsylvania. A basketball player with an interest in acting, he decided to follow the family way and study business at the University of California in San Diego. A class in acting renewed the acting bug, and he subsequently dropped out and began studying with legendary acting teacher Stella Adler in Los Angeles and at the Circle in the Square Acting School in New York City. Telling his parents that he was taking courses in business, Del Toro hid his new studies from his family for a little while. During the late 80s he made a few TV appearances, most notably on an episode of "Miami Vice" and in the NBC miniseries "Drug Wars: The Kiki Camarena Story". Del Toro’s big screen career got off to a slower start however. His first role was Duke the Dog-Faced Boy in "Big Top Pee-Wee". Things looked better, however, when he landed the role of the Dario, vicious henchman in the James Bond film Licence to Kill (1989). Surprising his co-stars, Del Toro was the youngest actor ever to portray a Bond villain, only 21 years old at the time. The potential break however was spoiled as Licence to Kill (1989) became one of the most disappointing Bond films ever; it was lost amid bigger summer competition. Benicio gave creditable performances in many overlooked films for the next few years, such as The Indian Runner (1991), Christopher Columbus: The Discovery (1992), and Money For Nothing (1993). His roles in Fearless (1993) and China Moon (1991) gained him more critical notices. 1995 proved to be the first of his years as he gave a memorable performance in Swimming with Sharks (1995) before taking critics and film buffs by storm as the mumbling, mysterious gangster in Usual Suspects. An Oscar-winning film, Del Toro won an Independent Spirit Award for Best Supporting actor for the role. Staying true to his independent roots, he next gave a charismatic turn as cold-blooded gangster Gaspare in The Funeral (1996) directed by Abel Ferrara. He also appeared in Basquiat (1996) directed by artist friend Julian Schnabel. The year also marked his first truly commercial film as he played cocky Spanish baseball star Juan Primo in The Fan (1996) which starred Robert De Niro. Del Toro took his first leading man role in Excess Baggage (1997), starring and produced by Alicia Silverstone. Hand-picked by Silverstone, his performance was about the only thing critics praised about the film, and showed the level of consciousness he was beginning to have in the minds of film fans. In 1998, Benicio del Toro took a leading role with Johnny Depp in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1998), directed by legendary director Terry Gilliam. Taking a short break, he worked solidly in 2000, first appearing in Way of the Gun, (2000) directed by friend and "Usual Suspects" writer Christopher McQuarrie. Then he went to work for Steven Soderbergh in Traffic (2000) which earned him an Oscar. Reluctant to talk about the Oscar win specifically, he was genuinely surprised at the win. “Standing up there looking out at the crowd and suddenly you see Dustin Hoffman looking at you. THAT’S pretty shocking, and that’s MY memory when I was up there.” Del Toro does confirm that the Academy Award has changed the industry’s perceptions of him. “I do get more choices of things which is a blessing AND a curse”, he concedes. “Because you can only do one at a time so you don’t know which way to go.” He feels that he has “done pretty well” in choosing projects. “I’ve liked most of the films that I’ve been in and those are the kinds of films I like to see.”

Though far more comfortable working in smaller films, there’s an uneasy irony that The Hunted is as big-budget and mainstream as you can get. Commenting on the differences, this most reluctant of Hollywood stars says "There’s more money and the trailer is a little bit nicer. Some things are very nice, but they will keep you there for a while. The movie can go over. We went back to film again (for re-shoots on several scenes). When there’s money, they go: ‘Yeah, we own you!’ "You have to accept it. I resent it to an extent, you know, but that’s my nature."

He is far more enthusiastic about 21 Grams, from director Alejandro González Iñárritu of Amores Perros fame. The film also stars Sean Penn and Aussie actress Naomi Watts. “I play this guy who has been to jail, now he’s clean, trying to stick to this kind of born again way of living, but in a very black or white way.” Working with Penn and Watts, he says, was like a dream come true. “The best way to describe it is, when you’re off camera, it’s great because you’re watching a great show happening right in front of you.”

THE HUNTED OPENS THIS FRIDAY