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.