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.”