Benicio Del Toro: The (Un)usual Suspect

With 'Che,' the actor secures his place as Hollywood's revolutionary rogue

Actor Benicio Del Toro from the film 'Che', poses for a portrait during the 2008 Toronto International Film Festival at The Sutton Place Hotel in Toronto, Canada, on September 10, 2008. Credit: Matt Carr/Getty

Early on a sunny Saturday afternoon, Benicio Del Toro angles into the lobby of Manhattan's Mercer Hotel, scans the deluxe surroundings, takes a seat and orders breakfast ("I want three fried eggs and some sliced tomatoes, Canadian bacon — some of that — and do you have a combination of carrot juice and orange juice?"), pokes at the spotless green trucker cap bal­anced on his sizable head, hems and haws, says a few passing words about his movie Che, mumbles like he's still playing Fred Fenster, from The Usual Suspects, stares off blankly, bares his teeth, pulls on his chin and then ac­tually manages to shed some light on himself. "Have I ever been suicidal?" he says. "Not long enough. Not long enough. But there has been the ques­tion, To be or not to be?' Hey, I've thought about it. Would I go through with it? No. But feeling alone, feeling like a failure, feeling like there's no one out there. I've had those feelings, though they don't last."

So often this kind of introspection has been missing from the Benny files. So often he has shown up as Benny the Puerto Rican ne'er-do-well scoundrel, ragged and beat-looking, like proba­bly the guy wouldn't think twice be­fore doing Scarlett Johansson against an elevator wall after an awards show, urgently, as has been rumored — later denials from her notwithstanding. That Benny chain-smokes. He's got deep, sor­rowful bags under his eyes. He's a real bamboozler and makes big-name writers from big-name magazines write barfable lines like, "The Brando in him is gleaming tonight, and don't he know it, boy?" And then that Benny sallies forth, hidden be­hind a fog of mannerisms, tics and odd­ball phraseologies.

Even today, it sometimes seems like he's headed in that direction. He starts off breezily enough, if only because the topic is Che. Directed by his friend Steven Soderbergh, the movie tells the story of be­ret-wearing guerrilla Ernesto "Che" Gue­vara, runs four hours and 17 minutes and delivers Del Toro's greatest (or at least lon­gest) performance ever. It won him the best-actor award at Cannes, with Oscar buzz starting immediately thereafter. But about lots of other things, he's decidedly skittish. It was recently reported in the New York Post that after Che screened at the Toronto Film Festival, Del Toro and Soderbergh spent the rest of the night par­tying at a local strip club. "By 12:30, Benicio and Steven had 12 girls [visit] the VIP room," said one apparent witness. "The dancers were pouring 360 Vodka shots in their mouths while giving them the lap dances." Fantastic, wonderful, who could blame a single guy like him? But accord­ing to Del Toro, he hardly even drinks, never mind the rest of it. "I drink, but I'm not a drinker," he says with a wave of his hand. "I can and sometimes do go a month without drinking if I want to."

And for a while, that's just how it goes.

What made Benny was the mumble. Be­fore that, he was just the guy who played Duke the Dog-Faced Boy in Big Top Pee-Wee, in 1988, his first movie role. He went on auditions, got bit parts, played drug dealers and gave directors what they said they wanted. "I was just grateful to have a job," he likes to say. "I was afraid that if I trusted my instincts, I would never work again." But he wasn't happy. He had plans for his act­ing — dreams, ambitions. He felt stuff. He wanted to express that stuff. Only, when he did, it would usually be like what hap­pened to him while making Swimming With Sharks, in 1994. The director started yelling, "He's playing it like a fag! He's stoned! I don't know what he's doing!" And then his agent would call him to say some­thing like, "We can't go on like this. Every movie you work on, it's a nightmare." And so a year later, on his first day of shooting The Usual Suspects, Benny had good rea­son to worry. He'd slaved over his grease-ball-gangster Fred Fenster character, and knew what he wanted to do. But sitting there watching other actors do their thing, he began to have his doubts. Maybe it was wrong to mumble. Maybe mumbling was exactly the wrong career move. Finally, the time came for him to speak. It was now or never. He opened his mouth, rolled his shoulders and said, "[Mumble]."

"This is how I remember that moment," says Usual Suspects director Bryan Singer. The first thing that occurred to me after he spoke is, 'This is a practical joke, right?' But then I thought, 'Wait a minute. What if it's a choice?' The last thing you want to do is laugh at an actor's choice. So I walked up to him and said, 'Is that how you're going to do it? That's how you're going to say your lines?' He said, 'Yeah, unless you don't want me to.' And I'm like, 'No, it's fine.' And for the rest of the movie, that's how it was."

The result was a minor sensation, and next thing you know, he's showing up onscreen alongside Robert De Niro, Christopher Walken and Johnny Depp; dating Alicia Silverstone; and, in 2000, digging deep to play an honorable Tijua­na cop in Traffic, winning an Oscar for his understated efforts. And all because he mumbled.

Actually, no, that's not quite right. It's not because he mumbled. It's because he had the guts to mumble. As Singer says, "Benicio understands that you get to do these experiences only once, so you might as well make bold choices." And that's one thing to understand about Benny. He makes bold choices and really likes to hang himself out there, consequences be damned. For the role of Oscar Zeta Acosta opposite Johnny Depp's Hunter S. Thompson in the 1998 version of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, he gained 40 pounds and as the cameras rolled pushed a lit cigarette into his forearm several times, no acting involved, because the real Acosta had once done it himself. The scene didn't make the final cut, but the scars are forever. "I did it a bunch," Del Toro says today, rolling up his sleeve, showing off the tiny dimples and making a sizzling noise. "I was hanging out with Hunter, God bless him. But how dumb."

It was also unsettling to those around him, including director Terry Gilliam. "I was never able to predict what Beni­cio would do, but it would always seem to involve a lot of pain for him," says Gilliam. "He gets pretty deep into his char­acter, and sometimes I thought he was out of control. What I found out is, he's frightening. He required a lot of han­dling, and after a while his need to be so intense wore a lot of us out. I think he felt he wasn't getting as much attention from me as he wanted, but as far as I was con­cerned, I was giving him more than any­body else got. It was frustrating. Always. But the end result is, you've got this in­credible performance."

Even so, critics hated the movie, and when it tanked, Del Toro's career also took a hit. "It was like, 'Oh, the movie collapsed, he's got problems, he's an alcoholic, he's big, he's bloated, he's doing dope,' which was very weird for me," he says. On the other hand, it couldn't have been that weird, because his actions have always caused him problems, extending as far back as he can remember. Growing up well-off in Puerto Rico, where he attended the Academy of Our Lady of Perpetual Help Catholic school, he was constantly in trouble. The same at home. His mom was a lawyer who died when he was nine, leaving him to be raised by his dad, also a lawyer. He burned up a lot of his energy playing basketball. His father raised pigs, too, and Benny was often called upon to help out when castration time rolled around. "I was there, holding and cleaning — and the sound, man," he says, shudder­ing and squealing like a pig.

But the rest of the time, it was one battle after another with his dad. "I'd steal shit just to see if I was going to get caught," he says. "I liked to climb roofs. Roofs are scary to climb. It's dan­gerous. But then my dad told me not to climb roofs." He shrugs and laughs. "What would happen if I got caught?" He laughs again, only not so loudly. "My dad is old-school. He'd chase you with the belt, and if you didn't stop when he told you to, things would start flying."

When Del Toro was 13, his dad shipped him off to Pennsylvania, to a boarding school called Mercersburg Academy. Be­cause of his basketball skills, he had no trouble fitting in with his classmates, most of them white, all of them wealthy. "I was the only freshman on the team, so I belonged immediately and was immediately kind of cool," he says. "I spoke broken English, and the seniors loved to have me order stuff at McDonald's." So he had that going for him. But even there he continued to buck the system, in ways that were apparently so extreme he is loath to confess to them even now, 30 years later. "What you do in Mercersburg," he says snippishly, "stays in Mercersburg."

Actually, certain things about his past make him extremely uncomfortable. He'd rather rehash how, after high school, he attended U.C. San Diego as a business major, auditioned for a play, loved acting, dropped out of college, ended up in Los Angeles studying on a scholarship at the Stella Adler Studio of Acting and in 1987 got his first acting job, playing a drug deal­er on Miami Vice, which led to Duke the Dog-Faced Boy and the rest of it. What he doesn't especially want to talk about is how he once apparently harassed the friends of a friend — guys he did not know but whose house had recently been burglar­ized — with repeated phone calls in which he claimed to be the robber and said he'd be robbing the house again soon, freaking out the guys so much that they packed up and moved. "Who told you that story?" he hisses today. "Listen: Don't believe every­thing you read. But, yeah, OK, I guess I did do that. But it wasn't while I was in prep school. I was in college" — like that makes a huge difference.

And then there's girls. But for the Scar­lett Jo rumor, little is known about Benny and ladies. The 41-year-old tends to keep to himself. In Los Angeles, he often holes up in a small apartment, listening music (the Stones, Hendrix, the Who, Spring­steen), reading (Hemingway, Dostoevsky, Conrad, Capote), painting (oils) and chain-smoking (though he says he quit). One might presume that girls join him there sometimes. But really, it's not even clear that he has a girlfriend. Does he?

"I have friends," he says, shifting. "I have a friend." Then, shifting again, "I have girl­friends." And then, for whatever reason, he relaxes a bit and starts to open up, shed­ding light on his personal life.

"I'm selfish about my time. Are you willing to just not have me around and not checking in every day? When you're in a relationship, you can't just go one way, and I've had moments of being able to accept that responsibility, but I always have an expiration date on it. It's tough. My longest relationship? Oh, probably one and a half years." Was it monogamous? "I was pretty good." He smiles. "I've been sort of good."

So, maybe a new Benny is in the works, because the old Benny, the one with all that brooding stuff in him, would have shut up long ago, even if he was talking to a friend. "Some people you'll never get to know, no matter how many times you hang out with them, and to me Benicio is one of those cats," says actor Luis Guzmán, who co-starred with Del Toro in Traffic. "I remember right be­fore we shot the movie, I tried to engage him in a conversation. It was quite minimal, and I was like, 'OK, I see where you're coming from.' He had his own thing brew­ing. And that's not necessarily a bad thing. That's just how he is."

Or at least how he was, before this new Benny started coming around. This new Benny is thinking about stuff he never thought about before, like the recent pass­ing of his godmother, who took over rais­ing him after his mother died and whose casket, in Puerto Rico, he not long ago car­ried through the cemetery. All this, com­ing at a guy who has, in one way or another, spent most of his life walking on rooftops. This more thoughtful and introspective Benny says, "Have I ever thought I'm a fraud? All the time. I doubt myself. I'm a human being. But as long as I make some­one happy on this freaking planet, I'm fine, I'm not a fraud. At least, that's what I tell myself." He presses his napkin to his lips and stands. He's said a few things, an­swered some questions and raised a few more. But that's just how Benny is. He always goes before you want him to go.

"What do I see when I look in the mir­ror?" he asks. "Most of the time when I look in the mirror it's to see which way my hair is going, because it does anything it wants." He takes off his cap. His hair is a startling, gruesome highway wreck, crum­pled and twisted. He returns the cap to his head.

"After that, I make eye contact with me," he goes on, "just to make sure it's me in there. Yeah. Just to make sure it's me."