A show of force

Metro San Juan

November 2008

Exclusive Interview by Valerie López

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Even before entering the Mercer Hotel in New York 's bohemian SoHo district, I heard the buzz. A young couple sitting on the benches outside the swanky hostelry's entrance talked about sighting Benicio Del Toro inside. Indeed, the 41-year-old Boricua actor was there while promoting his latest film “Che,” which had screened earlier that week at the New York Film Festival. After the film fest, it was on to Spain , then the London Film Festival, Brazil and then back to Los Angeles , where “Che” screens at the AFI Fest on Nov. 1. Del Toro has been on a roll, filming four movies back to back: “Things We Lost in the Fire,” with Halle Berry ; “Che,” originally shot as two films (“The Argentine” and “Guerilla”); and the gothic horror story “The Wolf Man,” which opens next April. But “Che” holds a special place in Del Toro's heart, as it's a project that he has been involved with since its conception nine years ago while he was filming the acclaimed drug drama “Traffic” with Oscar-winning director Steven Soderbergh and producer Laura Bickford. Such was his enthusiasm for the project that Soderbergh and Bickford jumped right on board with him.

“Since this is more of an independent film, it's more like a mom and pop joint. Es más como un restaurante que abre la familia y tienen que cocinar,” Del Toro comments about the process of getting “Che” off the ground. “El cocinero tiene que lavar los platos y buscar la comida, lavar los cubiertos, buscar las toallas y los manteles. Tiene que hacer muchas cosas, no sólo viajar como actor. Hay que hacer muchas cosas.”

Just a few minutes after arriving at the Mercer's lobby, the affable actor walked in, dressed casually in darkwash jeans, a plaid shirt, a navy sport blazer and his trademark trucker hat. He ordered two cups of espresso and some water, which the hostess brought to our table shortly after we began the interview. It had been five years since my last sitdown with Del Toro, at that time promoting “21 Grams,” at the Regency Hotel in Park Avenue. Again in New York , Del Toro caught up with Metro, poniéndonos al día with all his projects, starting with “Che.”

“Che” is one project that you've worked on for almost 10 years. I remember one of the first times we talked, when that project was in its embryonic stages. I also remember at that time, you were going through the research and interviewing the people who knew Che. That process changed your idea of who Che was…

I don't know if I had a different idea, I just didn't know that much about him. That's probably what it was. Through the process of doing the research, I learned a lot about him, Cuban history, and Latin American history too.

What things surprised you about him?

The main thing is how he, you know, when he got to the top of [his power] he went back and did it again, and again. Not only did he do it for his people, let's say that the Cubans could be his people, being Latin Americans, but he went to Africa, and then he went to Bolivia . That's really amazing stuff, how he did it again and again. He didn't just get to power and settle... And [it was] not just him but the people that were around him, I have to say. That surprised me. When I met the survivors, I felt that there was a Che Guevara in all of them.

What were the biggest challenges in playing such a polarizing figure? I ask because Che was like Evita [Perón], a figure that, at least in cultural perception was loved by some and hated by others.

I really think that with Che, unlike Evita, even the people that hated him respected him because he didn't hide behind anything. He said everything that he was going to do… He was in many ways, very much a man who talked the talk but also walked the walk.

I don't know people who don't like Che. I can understand people not liking a man with a weapon. The man, in order to change something, he's got to do it with a weapon. But he was doing it with a weapon because the people that were fighting had weapons. And also the fact that it's a period in time that was very volatile. The ‘60s were extremely violent. I understand the people who didn't like him, didn't like what he stood for, but at the time when the revolution in Cuba happened, a lot of people liked him in Cuba. I thought that there was a majority of the people who liked him.

I think that you can't have everybody like you, but I think most people respected him because he spoke the truth. He said it many times and he felt like man was exploiting man in many places in America . And I'm sorry but it's happening right now. And he used his body and intellect to let the world know.

Having shot part of “Che” in Puerto Rico , what was your impression of the local film industry? This is the first time that you worked in Puerto Rico …

This was my first time working in Puerto Rico and it won't be the last. From the talent, some of the Puerto Rican actors that were in it, to the sound, the grips, the cooks, everything. It was a really good crew. I think they also rose to the occasion, not because of me but because it's a Steven Soderbergh movie.

There have been all these good directors who have gone to Puerto Rico and they have filmed, and there are filmmakers from Puerto Rico that are good filmmakers. But this one is kind of like, it's a whole new generation of new people interested in filming in Puerto Rico and they saw this as an opportunity to really shine. I know that Steven and Laura were very happy with the [result]. The proof is in the film.

I was very happy with the way that actors and actresses and everybody else came in to help this movie.

I ask this because I cover the movie industry and I remember at the very beginning, things were sort of stagnant. People were talking about what needed to be done so Puerto Rico could have a continuous film industry, where we would be making movies constantly and not periodically. Now there seems to be a new boom in which new projects are coming to film in Puerto Rico and local projects are getting done, which is very promising.

Yeah. Puerto Rico is very small, too. But yeah, it is very promising. I think the Che movie, the section that was made in Puerto Rico , which is most of the first movie, “The Argentine,” shows that it can be done. I don't know how many movies can be running simultaneously with Puerto Rican crews, because I don't know how many there were available. I know that at least they can be doing one at a time, that's for sure, because the people who worked on the “Che” movie were competitive with anything that I've worked with, and I've worked in many places all over the world. It made me very proud.

This movie garnered you the Best Actor Award at Cannes. What does it mean for you to have become the first Puerto Rican actor to win this distinction?

Am I the first?


Someone mentioned it yesterday but we weren't sure. [Pauses] Boy, now I know! I think it's great and I'm very proud of it. To me, winning at the Cannes Film Festival, it's a little bit like winning a medal in the Olympics. It would be an equivalent to that. My experience with that festival, because I've gone to that festival quite a few times before, is that the selection are usually top-notch world renowned movies and filmmakers. So winning one of those is an actor's once in a lifetime [opportunity].

Being the first Puerto Rican [to win] that's cool because the film festival…This is THE film festival in Europe … It's like the Oscars in Europe . And I couldn't have done it without the effort of so many people.

Del Toro was going to attend the Festival Internacional de Cine de Morelia in Mexico in early October, when he got the news that his beloved godmother, attorney Sarah Torres Peralta, died suddenly of a heart attack at the age of 84. He flew to Puerto Rico with his brother Gustavo for the burial, during which the Del Toro brothers lovingly eulogized their “Titi Hala.” Only a few months before, Torres Peralta had visited her godson at the London set of “The Wolf Man.” And, according to Del Toro, she took great delight in learning about his win at Cannes .

I'm sure that your Titi Sarah was very proud of the Cannes Award. What was her reaction when she found out you won it?

She was interesting when it comes to that stuff. And you know what? I found out later that she wrote some law books that won some prizes in Puerto Rico for her work and she never talked about those prizes that she won. She was very proud of the fact that this movie was made and she knew the effort behind it. She's very proud that a big section of one of the movies was being shot in Puerto Rico . She was very proud of all that stuff.

There are no words to describe how proud she was. But when it comes to winning in Cannes , it could have rolled the other way. It could have been somebody else winning that and not me. She's very proud of the Oscar but she's more proud of the determination and the effort behind the movies. She knows that it's work. She knows that it's not easy. She's more proud of the effort. But I'm sure that she cracked a smile. [Smiles].

I understand that she visited you on the set of “The Wolf Man” in August.


Did she see you in makeup?

No, she didn't see me with the makeup on [laughs]. She took me to Wimbledon because she loved sports and she also loved to, like you know, la lata. Telling me what I needed to do and all that stuff, she was always like that, you know. Think ahead, think ahead. So I found out that it was great to take her to Wimbledon because you can't talk in a tennis game. She managed to talk and tell me what I needed to do… but it was limited. We had a great time. She loved every sport and I do, too. She was just excited…

And I'm so glad to say that I have those memories.

And if there's any advice from this pain and these sad moments, it's “don't take it for granted.” Do the things and enjoy them with your loved ones. And if you get a chance to do it, take the time to do it and enjoy it because life is short and it's like the commercial says, life comes at you so fast, it's crazy.

Speaking of “The Wolf Man,” I've got here a quote from Rick Baker…

What does he know? [laughs]

This is from EW and this is about when you guys were coming up with the look: “Going from Benicio to Benicio as the Wolf Man isn't a really extreme difference. Like when I did ‘An American Werewolf' in London , we went from this naked man to a four-legged hound from hell, and we had a lot of room to go from the transformation and do a lot of really extreme things. Here we have Benicio Del Toro, who's practically the Wolf Man already, to Benicio Del Toro with more hair and bigger teeth.” How did you and Baker come up with the design for the Wolf Man?

Rick Baker, when it comes to makeup, is the master and he is arguably the best. One thing that he had and I had was that we both agreed, and at least had the same idea, that we wanted to make the 2008 version of the Wolf Man similar to the 1941 version, which is not so much computers and more of the actual makeup, like it used to be back in the day.

We had a really good relationship working together and that helped the understanding of the monster…We wanted to make it more human and less animal, more of the man instead of more of the wolf, you know. Put him on two legs…

How is your Lawrence Talbot different from Lon Chaney Jr.'s?

The story is a little bit different. I got a little bit of a beef with my dad. There's a little bit more of antagonism between father and son than in the original. In the original, there's no actual bones between father and son and in this one there's a little bit of, did the father abandon him? I'm the son of Anthony Hopkins but he shipped me to America when I was a kid so there's this element of like, you turned your back on me. There's a little bit of that, which makes it for a different, no matter where you go, makes for a different Lawrence Talbot than Lon Chaney's because in the relationship between the father and son in the original, there is no friction and in this one there is.

Going to politics now, you support Barack Obama for president. What do you think he will do for the Hispanic community in the U.S. and Puerto Rico ?

I don't know. I think that, of the choices that we have, he's the one who I feel I can trust to make the decisions. I think he understands ethnicity. I also like the idea that he will surround himself and listen to people. He gives me the impression that he's more than [willing] to surround himself with different points of view, to be more democratic before making decisions.

I do know that as President of the United States , you are not going to change anything too fast. But, I have the feeling that he understands different cultures. I've never met him but I think he is the best choice. And I'll tell you one thing. I've been in Europe a lot this summer: Spain , France , England . Just those three places. I feel that in Europe, if the elections were held in Europe , he would win.

If they could vote, they would. They would. But let's see. Let's see what happens. It's a very important time. It would be amazing to have an African-American president in the U.S. When I see him running and I see him on debates, the first feeling that I get is hope. He's not going to be able to get to the White House and change the world in five minutes. It's going to take time. Let's see how he deals with that. I think the guy is smart. Well, time will tell. Hey, Oprah likes him (laughs).

Puerto Rico has been living through a recession for almost three years now. What would you like to see happen in order to straighten out the situation the island is going through? What a lot of people tell me when I ask them this question is that they resent la politiquería, trying to see if we can get somebody who will take care of the mess.

I don't know exactly all the politiquería. I don't know exactly all the charges of corruption. There is corruption everywhere, but that doesn't mean that because there is corruption everywhere that we should deal with corruption, that we should embrace it. I don't know enough of what's going on in Puerto Rico but I've been involved with things like el medio ambiente and all that stuff and I will still be involved in [those].

I know that there have been accusations and you are innocent until proven guilty. I don't know the facts but I know that there have been people put in jail. There's been corruption for years; people stealing money that was like… I really don't feel too much for anyone who has been stealing money that doesn't belong to them. I feel bad that they felt the inkling to steal or do something just for their own benefit, I feel bad that they went that way, but the fact that they got caught and they have to pay for the fact that they got caught, I don't feel anything.

If you do the crime, you do the time.

Yeah, definitely. If you get caught with your hands in the thing, hey man, you know. But I know this much, there're video tapes on some of these people and you know what they say, like what my cousin said to me, “when they got you on video, you are a star.” And I say you know what? Adiós!

There you go.I would understand if someone did something like, hey I'm going to move this money because I was trying to do this, but it is not for my own gain. But when people start putting their own gain [ahead of everything], hey. (Smiles). I have no sympathy…

No sympathy for the devil.

There you go. No sympathy for the cangrimán.

There you go! You've mentioned earlier, during your visits to the island, you take the time to participate in activities related to the environment, film education and awareness against cancer, among others. Why are these causes important to you?

Probably because I'm at a distance. Being away, you look at Puerto Rico and it becomes this precious thing. The last thing that I did was to meet these guys that are really going against the building of incinerators. I had the opportunity to learn from people that that's what they do. There was this guy Paul Connett. He's English. He lives in New York . He's gone to Puerto Rico a few times. These people study that stuff. They study it every day. It's not a guessing game. It's a fact, proven facts by numbers, that incinerators, bottom line, are bad not only economically but for the health of all Puerto Ricans… And the fact that there is talk of making more in Puerto Rico … You have places like L.A. that is twice as big and they are working at it to try to stop that stuff.

And one of the things that [Connet] says is that—without pointing any fingers at anyone—he said whoever it is behind these incinerators here in Puerto Rico, they are doing a lot of back-pocket thinking. There's something there for someone to make money for now at the risk of us paying for tomorrow not just with our money but with our skin and bones…There's all these heads from the Cancer Society in Puerto Rico . All of these doctors are in agreement. Some of the best thinkers in Puerto Rico are in agreement. I wish the politicians would just make decisions based on the benefit for all instead of the benefit for just a few. You know, that's all I can do, just go in there. I'm not a scientist but I know that the credentials of these people are top-notch.

What [Connett] was saying is that Puerto Rico could show America if they do this thing, if they do recycling, and they do all these steps and we could start teaching this in schools, in 20 years, Puerto Rico could be ahead of the U.S. in that and be able to show many places in the United States and many places in the world and use Puerto Rico as an example that we do give a damn about this planet. My job is just to go in there and, maybe bring some attention [to this issue]. But what I was amazed about was that there were big heads and thinkers that were coming from outside, not only the man that I was talking about.

The other thing is that, in the long run, there will be more jobs if we do the alternatives—recycling and all that stuff. In the long run, it will be better. Might not be in the next four years but in the next 16 years, there will be more jobs and it will be better for the back pocket and for the skin and the bones and the brain.

Once our encounter was over, Del Toro amicably bid Metro goodnight. One interview was over but there are still many more to complete before “Che” finishes its festival run and approaches its theatrical release. “Che” will screen for one week in New York and Los Angeles in December to qualify for Academy Award contention. Then, “Che” will be split into its two original halves. Part one, “The Argentine,” comes out in January while “Guerrilla” will be released after the Oscar nominations are announced on Jan. 22. Landing the Best Actor Award in Cannes gives Del Toro a great chance to obtain his third Oscar nod, the first in the lead actor category. As a matter of fact, his name is already mentioned in some stateside film critics' Oscar noms short list, along with Frank Langella, Sean Penn, Mickey Rourke and Leonardo Di Caprio. Conquering a nomination for this project would be a sweet victoria for Del Toro and “Che's” band of film guerrilleros. And if Del Toro and “Che” make it to the 2009 Academy Awards, it could very well be hasta la victoria siempre.












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