Benicio Del Toro gets to the man behind the T-shirt myth in Che
Clouds of cigar smoke, courtesy of the Cuban Cohiba he's happily chomping, waft around Benicio Del Toro's impressively hairy head. If it's possible to embody his two latest roles in one go - playing the revolutionary leader Che Guevara and the Wolf Man - then he's giving it a decent shot. "You can buy Cuban cigars in London," he says as he relaxes his lanky 6ft 2in frame into the sofa of his Soho hotel suite. "And that's a good thing."
Del Toro is unshaven, with a magnificent growth of stubble spreading up around his chin to meet the collar-length curls peeping out from underneath his baseball cap: being this hirsute must have made the make-up artist's job on The Wolf Man, a remake of the 1941 werewolf classic, that much easier.
The Wolf Man is "a huge studio movie", while Che is "a huge movie with history and all of that stuff. With the Wolf Man I could just imagine anything and with Che you couldn't because you had to honour the man, the history and the facts."
Che is actually two movies although, somewhat confusingly, it will be released as one four-hour epic in selected cinemas in the States in time for Oscar nominations (Del Toro picked up the Best Actor award for it at this year's Cannes Film Festival).
Although there were criticisms that the Cannes cut of the director, Steven Soderbergh, lacked pace (it's since been shortened by some 10 minutes) Del Toro is quite brilliant as the rebel leader. "It's the role of a lifetime," he says. "Myself and Laura (Bickford, the producer) tried to get it made for a long time. At times I feared that it might not happen but then Steven came on board."
Del Toro and Soderbergh first worked together in 2000 on Traffic, in which he played an honest Mexican cop desperately trying to do the right thing as police corruption, drugs and gangsters threaten to swamp his community. The film won four Oscars, including Best Director for Soderbergh and Best Supporting Actor for Del Toro.
They filmed Che over four months on locations in Spain - doubling for Cuba - Bolivia, Mexico, the US and Puerto Rico. It was exhausting, says Del Toro, and left him with that cigar habit and a healthy respect for the elusive nature of film-making.
"It was scary playing Che," he says. "It's something you've thought about for years and suddenly you are doing it and don't have any time to reflect and think about it. I tried to keep a diary but that went out the window. So you try and nail moments that will have some significance and give you an essence of what he was about and what he stood for."
Guevara, an Argentina-born doctor, was a prolific diarist - his formative trip across South America, The Motorcycle Diaries, was a best-selling book and later a film - and provided the starting point for Del Toro to build his portrait of the man behind the T-shirt myth. "You start with the man himself and what he wrote," he says. "This led us to seven years of research into what other people wrote about him."
His research took him to Cuba frequently and on one of his visits he was summoned to meet Fidel Castro. "We got a call saying he wanted to meet us the next day. It was at a book fair and there were a lot of people there and it was very brief. He was tall and looked strong for his age. I remember saying that I was going to lose weight for the part and he said 'You know, Che wasn't skinny.' Healso said that it was good that we were spending time in Cuba because the people there loved Che the most in the world."
The first film, The Argentine, starts in 1956 when Guevara joined an 80-strong band of rebels led by Castro in an ill-judged assault. Only 12 survived but they would form the nucleus of the rebellion that, some two years later, would sweep General Fulgencio Batista's corrupt dictatorship from power.
The second film, Guerrilla, centres on Guevara's life after the coup, when he tried to spread the revolutionary gospel across the world, leading up to his death - which some say was orchestrated by the CIA - in the Bolivian jungle in 1967. Both films are in Spanish. "It would have been crazy to do anything else," Del Toro says.
He was born and spent the first 13 years of his life in Puerto Rico, where his parents were lawyers. "I think I understand Che," he says. "Spanish is my mother tongue and I understand the Latin American spirit and there were things I felt I understood about him better than other characters. It's a piece of history that I felt needed to be explored and, as I learnt about Che and the way his life came to an end, that put the final flame under my desire."
Del Toro and Soderbergh did not want to further romanticise the myth of Che. As a guerrilla leader he was an adept military strategist - and much of the first film feels like a war movie - but he was also ruthless, ordering the execution of those he perceived as traitors to the cause. The film doesn't gloss over his brutality. "I think anyone could relate to him politically for the most part," Del Toro says. "Especially where it concerns Latin America. I don't know if I could relate necessarily to the exact line of communism. I believe in letting people believe in God - but there are churches in Cuba now. I do relate to him fighting injustice. When you look at the history of Latin America - the abuse, pillage, injustice - it started with the Spanish and the Portuguese and it was really bad. I think anyone could feel anger towards that kind of establishment.
"And I think you have to understand that Che was a product of his time and you have to place him and what he did in that context. His warriorness [sic] was directed to other warriors on the other side." His own politics aren't easily defined along party lines. "I believe in freedom of speech and I don't believe in telling other people what to do and I believe in choice - women have the right to decide what to do with their bodies. I believe in God, or whatever you want to call it, and I believe in giving a chance to everyone to have an education."
Does that make him a Democrat? "I'll vote for Barack Obama because I think America needs a change. We need a new, refreshing, sincere president and Obama is my choice."
Del Toro is 41. His mother, Fausta, died when he was 9 and his father, Gustavo, moved him and his older brother to Pennsylvania when Benicio was 13. He was taking a business degree at the University of California in San Diego when he enrolled in a drama lesson and it changed his life. Within months he was heading to New York to train with the legendary Stella Adler at her Circle In The Square Acting School.
Little is known of his private life except that he lives in Los Angeles and is single. He's a big rock'n'roll fan - a devotee of the Rolling Stones - and, at least when he was younger, loved to paint. Of his free time, he now says: "I read, I eat, I see my friends . . . I think I'm good at relaxing, but I'm a workaholic too. I don't paint so much any more."
There have been steady girlfriends in the past, but Del Toro finds it hard to commit fully to a relationship. "I'm happy being single but sometimes I might get lonely," he says. "But I see people. Am I single? Yeah, but I got friends. I just find it hard to do that commitment, you know. I don't want to jump in there if I'm not completely 100 per cent."
And he's a maverick. "The thing with acting is that most actors, including myself, depend on a job coming to them, like an invitation. Me, I like to write my own invitation. I'm still open for people to invite me to a party but I'd like to make my own party. Maybe not so much as an actor, but maybe as a producer or maybe even direct something."
The message - don't pigeonhole me - is clear enough, even if it comes wreathed in the smoke of his beloved Cuban cigars.
Saturday, October 04, 2008
Source: Times Online