Benicio Del Toro is on sparkling form. Relaxing on a sofa in the Soho Hotel in London, his 6ft 2in frame is clad in a black suit, Clash T shirt and a pair of (almost) 70s style zip up boots. His complexion is clear, his smile is expansive and his eyes are bright.
Were you pleased with the movie Che?
I am pleasantly surprised. At one point I thought it was a total disaster that was never going to end, that would never turn into a movie and never end up as a cohesive… anything. It was like a painting that I thought was going to end up looking like mud.
It didn’t look like an easy shoot, either, considering the jungle locations.
We shot long hours: non-stop, six days a week for about 79 days. I remember one day on the second movie we did five big, big scenes on a Monday. In any other movie that would have taken two to three days, and that was the rhythm of the whole shoot. But that was the only way to do this movie. So I’m portraying the exhausted, starving, asthma-suffering Guevara stuck in the fucking Bolivian jungle, and I am so tired (as Che was in real life) that I don’t have to act too much – I react.
Which brings me to your acting style. You made your first big mark as Fenster in The Usual Suspects. How did you come up with that accent?
I read the script and saw that anything my character said didn’t really move the plot along – he was just there to be the first to be killed by Keyser Söze. So I took Bryan Singer [director] to one side and suggested that I mumble the lines them in this incoherent accent and Bryan went with it.
Another great characterisation was Hunter S Thompson’s obese, drug-addled lawyer Dr.Gonzo in Terry Gilliam’s Fear And Loathing In Las Vegas. Didn’t you put on 40 pounds to play him?
Yeah man. After that movie came out I couldn't get a job in Hollywood for a while. People believed I'd turned into a drugged-out, drunken, fat slob.
But you proved them wrong with Traffic, for which you won the Supporting Best Actor Oscar?
I put a lot into that; I researched the role and travelled and stayed in Tijuana for months hanging out with local characters and former cops. Once you’ve done all your homework you have to let it all go and then you can fly. Steven [Soderbergh] doesn’t hold us back at all. He lets us breathe. There were a few moments like that in Che.
Didn’t you get a 10-minute standing ovation for Che when it showed in Havana’s Cine Yara?
Yes, but I think I understand Che. I understand the Latin American spirit and, although I didn’t really know about Che until I was about 20, there were things I felt I shared with him.
How did you first find out about him?
It was while I was doing a James Bond movie (as Bond villain Dario in License To Kill) in Mexico City. I went to a book store and I saw a picture of this guy smiling that was promoting a book of his letters that he had written to his family – funny, articulate, insightful, intelligent, socially concerned letters. That was the first time I had read anything by him and that was it. I continued to read all he had written and Che wrote quite a bit – and he wrote very well.
A lot of actors have come unstuck when they’ve played an important person from history…
There’s a big responsibility when you play such a great historical figure. When you agree it’s like when someone says: ‘Do you mind if I throw a party at your house?’ And you go, ‘Yeah, yeah, OK, fine, no problem.’ And then you think, ‘Oh, shit! What have I done?’ Then you realise that all these strangers are going to come to your and you have to hide the nice plates and move the furniture. It’s kind of like that.
So The Wolfman represented something of a change of pace and genre?
Well I think I could’ve got that part just because of the beard I had in Che. I should have won an Oscar for just that. A whole new category: Best Beard in a Motion Picture. (Laughs)
It wasn’t a movie I’d have expected you to do.
But I was a big fan of those movies as a kid. All those Universal Horror movies with Lon Chaney Jnr. They were the first films that grabbed me when I was four or five years old. There was a magazine called Famous Monsters and there were these model kits of Frankenstein or King Kong that you glued together. They were really gory sometimes. The model of Bride of Frankenstein was the cool one to have. I used to dream I had it because my older cousins had it and I didn’t. So I love all that.
I never had you down as a horror buff.
(Laughs) You know what they say: never judge a book by its cover. It was me and Rick Yorn who proposed doing a remake of the original Wolfman – so I was really paying homage to those Universal classic horror movies.
So we’ve had revolutionaries, Bond villains, crooks, werewolves and lawyers. What’s next?
Che was a lot of hard work and so was The Wolfman because of all the make-up. I was in the chair for hours every day. I think I need a rest. So I’m gonna take it easy with my with my two dogs and two tortoises and put my feet up.
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