In the drug thriller Sicario 2, Benicio Del Toro firms up his tough-guy persona. But for the Puerto Rican actor, Hollywood itself has been tough.
Mr. Del Toro, drug crime has been a theme throughout your career. Why do you focus so intensely on this difficult subject?
It’s not that I or my family were every directly affected by drug crime, but I would say that the fact that this problem continues to exist is a sign that it’s one of the big issues of our time. Perhaps it’s evem one of the biggest international conflicts of our generation.
That doesn’t explain why you have played in practially of all these major drug thrillers – from Traffic and Escobar: Paradise Lost to the Sicario films.
I’m simply a child of this generation, but of course my Hispanic roots play a role as well. What was most important to me, however, was playing completely different characters in each of these films. I’ve played investigators and merciless killers, a drug kingpin and a small-time drug user. There’s probably nothing I don’t know about the drug wars, and I understand all of these men, each in their own way.
The well-received thriller Sicario, in which you played the lead, was based on a novel without a sequel. Were you surprised to learn that the story was being spun further for the big screen?
I wasn’t just surprised, I was somewhat concerned. Sicario was special, not the kind of film you make every day. It would be a hard act to follow, I knew, which is why I was skeptical. But I also had lots of faith in Taylor Sheridan, the scriptwriter. When the screenplay was finished, all my doubts vanished into thin air. Even more than in the first film, some of the scenes in the sequel Sicario: Day of the Soldado really took my breath away.
What drew you to the unsavory character of Agent Alejandro Gillick, a killer deeply involved in organized crime on the border between the U.S. and Mexico?
I always find it most interesting to play characters who do things that are removed from my own experience. This definitely applies here because I have never killed anyone and certainly don’t intend to. I was also fascinated by the man’s aloofness, something that is always attractive to an actor. Perhaps it was just a little bit in my blood to play a representative of the law: My paternal grandfather and some of his brothers were cops. What I like about Sicario: Day of the Soldado is that Gillick shows sides of himself that he didn’t in the first film.
It’s quite noticeable, however, that you keep playing bad guys or at least dubious characters. Don’t you feel constrained by these roles?
Not at all. I don’t feel like all my characters are cut from the same cloth, even if they are not the most endearing. But even if they were, so what! The crucial thing for me is being surrounded by so many wonderful, talented people in my work.
That’s a very modest thing to say, especially considering that actors all supposedly have big egos.
There’s nothing wrong with that! They just shouldn’t get too big. When an ego boils over, it scalds everything around it and creates unpleasantness. But don’t confuse ego with self-confidence. For an actor, the latter is essential.
As as Oscar winner, that’s surely not something you lack. But as a young, up-and-coming actor, what did you draw on for confidence?
If I’m honest, I drew on my own stupidity for a long time, or shall we say: my own ignorance. Not really thinking about things can work wonders. Many an obstacle is easier to overcome if you don’t even realize it’s there.
Latinos in Hollywood start from the end of the line
Are you referring to your heritage? You’re originally from Puerto Rico and as everyone knows, Hollywood doesn’t exactly throw its doors wide open to Latinos …
You can say that again. But I’m obviously not the first Latino to have struggled to gain entrance and lots of people supported me along the way. But there’s no point in sugarcoating the facts: My background was a disadvantage. Latinos in Hollywood start from the end of the line.
Did your success eventually change that?
Sure, things have become easier over the years. I’ve been allowed to play many fascinating characters, many of which were not even Latino. And that is what going beyond a person’s background, skin color or gender is all about: being offered complex, interesting roles. But even if Hollywood is slowly starting to open up, things are still difficult for Latinos and I have to keep battling the clichés.
Puerto Ricans are U.S. citizens by birth. Was moving to the U.S. still a culture shock for you?
Absolutely! I was 13 when we moved to Pennsylvania. My mother had died a few years earlier and my father sent me to a boarding school although I hardly spoke any English. The only way I could communicate was through sports – basketball became my language. It was later followed by music and painting.
Until you eventually discovered acting?
Exactly. To me, it was the best vehicle for expressing my emotions. But my father was not at all pleased when I told him I had found my vocation. He was happy enough for me to study acting in college, but for him, the outcome was too vague. When you study law, you become a lawyer, when you study medicine, a doctor. But when you study acting? What exactly are your options? I found his objections extremely parochial at the time, but I have to admit that since becoming a father, I can understand him much better.