Thursday, March 25, 2010

Benicio Del Toro Interview

The Feral Nature of Benicio Del Toro and the impossibility of man
written by Gregg LaGambina photographed by Kurt Iswarienko

A puerto rican man with a hangdog look rubs at his tired eyes. A blossom of hard silver—a lion’s head worn on his left ring finger—stares back out at the room, upside down. Rain whips at the windows, sounding like handfuls of small marbles thrown by hoodlums in search of a dumb fight. A patio table hops and upends, its umbrella snapped open by a gust, dragging the entire contraption out into the street. An old lady draped in clear plastic, a yellow cane hooked around her thin left wrist, peers into the storefront, agape. A quick glimpse of messy teeth disappears behind the cloud of her exhale.

“She was looking at you!” exclaims the Puerto Rican man, startled, as the woman backs into the storm and continues along her path.

The city is not itself. Brentwood, the wealthy western enclave of Los Angeles, is a mess of flooded storm drains and deep puddles thrown into the air in foamy explosions by passing sedans. The agitated wetness everywhere sounds like tin foil being unspooled in giant sheets, the metallic rattle making everything and everyone nervous.

The Puerto Rican man holding court at a corner table inside this Spanish restaurant is Benicio Del Toro. The melancholic mumbler that made him well known in The Usual Suspects years ago is long gone. The eyes oft described as drooped, sad, slow, are in fact darting around the room now, settling on nothing, seeking out cues to propel his stories. The talk is quick and clear. And in harmony with the prevailing mood (right before that mad woman tapped at the glass with a dry dirty fingernail), Del Toro was describing lagoons and hunchbacks and the jittery light that flickered through his childhood home.

“The first movies I remember seeing as a kid actually weren’t the movies,” he says. “They were these super-8 movies. They would play for three minutes. They were edited from horror movies. Creature from the Black Lagoon. Dracula. Frankenstein, The Mummy, The Hunchback of Notre Dame—that’s the only home entertainment I can recall as a kid. We’d put all this monster stuff together and project it on the wall with an old projector.”

Del Toro’s childhood was brief. Uprooted from his birthplace in San Juan, Puerto Rico at age nine, after the death of his mother, Del Toro found himself in rural Pennsylvania, enrolled in boarding school, and enduring a brand of military-style parenting necessarily improvised by his father in the wake of fresh circumstance. In ushering along the recent remake of The Wolfman, Del Toro might just be aiming to recapture those moments in the dark, hidden from the demands of adulthood when his family was still intact, at home, where he belonged.

“What, now I’m talking to a psychiatrist?” laughs Del Toro, putting on a puffed-up tough-guy demeanor to mock any notion of a tormented childhood. “Fuck off! They told me to wear a suit and tie! Fuck all of you! They told me to wash my hands before dinner. Go fuck yourself! I’m different!’”

He admits that after the labor-intensive shoot for Steven Soderbergh’s Che, he was desperate to have fun again and The Wolfman afforded him the opportunity to channel some of the fantasies he’s carried with him ever since he glared at those rickety projections of monsters in his youth. The tepid response—both critically and commercially—to the four-hour plus biopic of Cuban (by way of Argentina) revolutionary Che Guevara was a disappointment. During press for the film, he was consistently put on the defensive by questions concerning Guevara’s legacy of violence. He famously walked out of one interview. The film flopped in the States.

“Movies come at you. They don’t care what you think,” he says, pondering the potential legacy of Che. “I think it takes time. Things can get better as time goes by. The same thing can happen with a book, a painting. And also, probably with nature. You might see a tree that you’ve been looking at all your life and then one day it just clicks and one day you go, ‘That’s a beautiful tree.’ Not everything is like that. Not everything you do can be like that. But hopefully Che has that. I hope so. That was the hardest movie ever.”

After a similar reaction to Terry Gilliam’s adaptation of Hunter S. Thompson’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas in 1998, it was reported that Del Toro was so disappointed by the film’s reception, he took time off until appearing in Guy Ritchie’s Snatch two years later. It was speculated that after his full investment in the character of Dr. Gonzo—the weight gain, the self-inflicted cigarette burns, the near perpetual dementia—his confidence was shaken, particularly after his performance was singled out for being unnecessarily over the top. Whether or not there’s any truth in these claims, the film has been redeemed by exactly the kind of slow boil he anticipates for Che. And over a decade after the fact, it’s clear that if he ever did give a shit, he doesn’t give a shit anymore.

“Hunter saw the movie and he liked it. He really liked it. I know I can speak for Johnny [Depp], too. That is the best compliment we got. And Fear and Loathing eventually found its own audience.”

A waiter scurries away to find more coffee. Someone is outside gathering the scattered umbrellas and plastic chairs strewn across the wet lawn. The notes of sirens off in the distance distort and bend on the wind. The whole day is gray except for a lone traffic light that seems superimposed on the sky, dangling from a wire above an intersection and bleeding bright colors onto the bleak scene like something artificially colorized and dropped into an old black and white movie. Del Toro fiddles with his lion ring. There’s a lull.
“Are you a Leo?”
“Any significance to that ring there?”
“No, not really.”

The town car Del Toro arrived in waits outside looking like a recently bathed black animal. The engine is on, exhaust billowing out in white tufts like it’s taking deep breaths after a sprint. The driver inside is keeping warm on what is considered a cold day for Southern California. Del Toro tosses an American Express gold card into a black plastic tray, but makes no gesture to get up. It is probably for this reason (and a thousand others) that he’s a good actor. The silence doesn’t make him the least bit uncomfortable. He’s too comfortable, actually. He’s said almost nothing about himself. He’s revealed little. The driver will have to wait.
“Do you have any idea what a man is supposed to be like?”

It’s a half-court Hail Mary heave; a Barbara Walters-styled bullshit question. But what the fuck. There’s more coffee. The weather is bad. That woman might still be out there with her goddamned cane and that look in her eyes. You’re sitting at a table with Benicio Del Toro. Why the fuck not ask him, “What is a man?” Is it really any better or worse than asking him how long it took every morning to make him look like a fucking werewolf? Thought so. Go make your own coffee. Come back. We’ll be right here.

“I’ll tell you one thing I don’t like. I don’t like it when people lie. I can understand if someone is on a mission. But when people flat out lie to your face, and you catch them in that lie, and then they lie again. That shit I don’t like. You know what I mean?”
This is Benicio Del Toro. This is coming from somewhere. Notions of manhood? Boredom? The rain?

“I lost my mom when I was very young,” he continues, pursuing the thought. “For a while it was just me and my brother and my dad. And my dad was ROTC. He was very strict. ‘Gotta get up! Gotta make the bed! Shine your shoes on Sunday!’ What makes a fucking man? I don’t know. What makes anyone? I don’t think a man has to be macho. I thought that when I was 16. Sometimes I still feel like I’m 12. But I realize I can’t jump as high. I can’t deal with a hangover as easy as I could back in the day. But that’s just life, man. You go through it. I don’t know if I’m ever gonna figure it out.

“Maybe the thing I like the most when I meet someone—man or a woman—is their ability to see that everyone is different. The ability to see that you can be smart in different ways. I hate when they try to pigeonhole everyone. Everything you do has to be this or that.”
Someone across the room gets up from his table and waves goodbye. Benicio smiles and waves back. A couple embraces, one holding the door open for the other. The place is almost empty. There’s an entire section with chairs up on tables. The rain has stopped. A waiter is erasing words from a chalkboard.

“Are you where you want to be at this point in your life?”
Now that’s just an outright fumble. But he graciously grabs at it, and if he doesn’t run with it, he gives it a noble jog. A good sport, Del Toro.

“After Traffic, I was flying first class. Before Traffic, I was flying coach. Between The Usual Suspects and Traffic, I was flying in the bulkhead. I’m in the cockpit now. I’ve earned it. No one gave it to me. I’ve earned it and I enjoy doing it. So far, I do. You know, I’ve been doing movies now for a long time. I like to pretend I’m still 21, but I’ve been doing movies for 22 years. That’s a long time. I started young. I didn’t finish college. I had no idea about movies. Nothing about movies. But I knew I had seen life. I knew I had a lot more life at that age because of my upbringing. Life happened. It came at me in some ways. I knew I had things I could draw from. I found myself experiencing something I didn’t know I was going to experience. I was 19. I was so young.”

He sighs and smiles, seeming to marvel at all that time. He stares down at the table.
“Are you going to have a midlife crisis? Right here, right now?”
“No. Fuck no! My crisis was six years ago. Damn it’s been a long road I’ve been walking through. The reality hits, ‘Oh, we’re all gonna die.’ There was a whole year where I was going, ‘Oh fuck, oh fuck, oh fuck.’ But then you’re like, ‘What can you do?’ Nothing. There’s things I enjoy now that I never enjoyed before.”

Let’s pretend here at precisely this moment that the sun breaks through the clouds after its daylong determination to shine. Illumination pours through the window of a Spanish restaurant to reveal two men seated with two coffees at a corner table. One man gets up, shakes hands with the other and politely departs. Once outside, the departing man bends slightly, grabs at his coat and enters into a waiting black town car. The car drives off.

The other man, still inside the restaurant, waits a moment, and reaches to turn off his tape recorder. He has an idea. He’s up from his chair now. He’s outside. He’s moving briskly down the damp sidewalk. And when he finds that old woman with the yellow cane and the mortal stare and the plastic coat, he’s going to ask her right there in the street, “Do you have any idea what a woman is supposed to be like?”

What else would you do on a rainy day in Brentwood after the actor Benicio Del Toro has told you over a cup of coffee that we’re all going to die?

Article kindly provided by The Confluence and featured in latest issue of Flaunt Magazine (#108 The Abandonment Issue).