Jan 5 - 11 2009
BEEN THERE, LIVED THE T-SHIRT
A respected, Oscar-winning actor Benicio Del Toro is a man of many intense parts – none more so, he tells Leigh Singer, than his epic portrayal in two new films of revolutionary icon Che Guevara.
Actors and biopics: it’s like releasing moths into a light bulb factory, and little wonder. Star power plus historical credibility is a heady combination, one that often leads to critical acclaim and awards by the dozen. It helps if the performer bears some physical resemblance to their subject (Denzel Washington as Malcolm X, Jamie Foxx as Ray Charles), but even that isn’t essential (Joaquin Phoenix as Johnny Cash, Anthony Hopkins as Richard Nixon).
But from the first moment you see him, in the iconic beret, cigar clamped in his jaw, there’s no doubt: Benicio Del Toro is Ernesto ‘Che’ Guevara.
For Del Toro, however, Che, now an imposing, 4 1/2 hour diptych (to be released separately as two films, The Argentine and Guerrilla), is no mere vanity project. Yes, he won the Best Actor prize at Cannes last year where the films debuted. But it’s also a story, a life that Del Toro, credited as a co-producer, spent over seven years researching, desperately trying to get made.
“I grew up in Puerto Rico, but I never knew much about Che as a kid,” he explains. “I only knew one side, he had a connotation of being a bad guy.” Only years later, having moved to the US as a teenager, was Del Toro’s curiosity piqued. Starting his film acting career with a role as a sadistic Bond villain’s henchman in Timothy Dalton’s ill-fated Licence To Kill, it was on location in Mexico City – ironically the city where an exiled Guevara joined Fidel Castro’s nascent plans for the Cuban Revolution - that his re-education began.
“I remember going into a bookstore and there was a book on Che and he had a really warm smile,” Del Toro recounts. “And from there I got a book about Che and started to get to know more, and get to know people who knew him. And the love that people had for this man got me more interested.”
In London to promote the film, it would be wrong to describe Del Toro, 41, as a natural dead ringer for Guevara (if you want a real doppelganger, check out co-star Demian Bichir’s eerie resemblance to Castro). His looming 6’2” frame certainly adds to his presence, the natural authority that Che himself exuded. And the mane of oil slick-black hair, albeit trimmed back from the revolutionary’s wild tangle of locks, certainly corresponds to the iconic Guevara headshot that adorns T-shirts and innumerable student bedroom walls worldwide.
The heavy lids that surround Del Toro’s deep, slit-like eyes, on the other hand, so key in giving the actor that intense, inscrutable stare, aren’t one with Guevara’s more soulful, clear-eyed gaze. Moreover, though Spanish was Del Toro’s mother tongue, he’s quick to point out that the sophisticated, Argentine-inflected use of the language that Guevara wielded so potently, was foreign to him. “My Spanish stopped when I was 13,” he points out. “Che is an intellectual. That Spanish — you gotta go to college for that shit.”
The point is, though Del Toro may have seemed like the obvious, perhaps only, choice for the role, and is utterly convincing, he freely admits he never had to work so hard in his life, embarking on a relentless 78-day shoot across five countries. Not just for his obligation to the part, but to the man himself.
“When you do a person who really lived and their history,” he iterates, “your line of choices is very limited. Any choice that you make is based on historical events or what you think is truthful.” He stops, keen to emphasise the point. “And then again, I am not Che. I did an interpretation with my tools of what I understood the best I could.”
It was filmmaker Steven Soderbergh, who previously directed Del Toro to his Academy Award as a Mexican drug enforcement agent in 2000’s Traffic, who harnessed that dedication. Once Soderbergh entered the project, he realised that trying to cram so much material into a single work would be counter-productive. The obvious solution? Two distinct films.
The Argentine (Che – Part 1), then, shows Guevara signing up to Fidel Castro’s 1956 attempt to overthrow Cuban dictator General Batista, proving to be an inspirational fighter, strategic planner in the art of guerrilla warfare and vital component in Castro’s forces’ eventual 1959 coup. Guerrilla (Che – Part 2) takes up Guevara’s story almost a decade on, in Bolivia. Under a new identity, Che’s latest attempts to kick-start the Latin American revolution gets bogged down in the jungle, leading eventually to his capture and controversial execution without trial by the country’s CIA-trained military regime.
By cleaving the Guevara legend in two (simplistically put, one trajectory upward into triumphant war hero, one downward into doomed martyr) and often eschewing traditional biopic staples – scenes of downtime and family life, close-up-hugging speeches designed to run as Oscar clips – Soderbergh and Del Toro offer a far more distanced, dissociative portrait of Che; just one cog, albeit a integral one, in the revolutionary machine. And if the more cerebral, less emotive manner of their telling might forego some of Guevara’s human qualities, the man who plays him feels it was the right approach.
“Steven pushed this out of me,” Del Toro maintains. “I think the only way to do this movie was the way that he did it. We'd still be in the jungle right now if it were up to me. I'd be like, ‘How about this other scene? No, okay. Okay, let's do it this way.’ No, you gotta make decisions. That's a very Che thing, too.”
It’s pretty clear that rather than dwell on potential omissions and elisions, Del Toro always returns to his admiration for Guevara. What about all those Che T-shirt wearers, some of whom presumably have little understanding of what he actually did?
“I think, for the most part, anyone who buys a T-shirt of Che has gotta be cool,” he shrugs equitably. “The T-shirts weren't around when I was a kid but if they were, definitely I would have had one. I think most people that wear the T-shirts understand the essence of the guy — like not selling out.” Del Toro’s own accoutrement from the role? An abiding passion for Cuban cigars.
If you want to get Del Toro really riled, suggest that Guevara, whose alleged persecution of Cuban homosexuals isn’t touched on in either film, was as his critics – including the US government - once held, “a terrorist”.
“He was against terrorism,” Del Toro says slowly, bringing the full weight of his steely squint to bear. “He never bombed cafés or stores. He fought against armies, usually stronger and bigger than him. If he was into power, he wouldn't have gone to Bolivia, believe you me. If he really was a bloodthirsty man in Bolivia, if you read his diary, there were many moments there when he could have taken advantage of a situation and create fear in order to get what he wanted. He didn't. He was a man of consequence.”
Colleagues regard Del Toro in much the same way. Though he’s often been drawn to dark roles – tortured ex-cons in 21 Grams and Things We Lost in the Fire, remorseless villains in The Hunted and Sin City – there’s a fundamental decency to his choices. He’ll steal a scene, or even a movie, as with his breakout turn as mumbling gangster Fred Fenster in The Usual Suspects, but he’s still seen as a team player. It’s no surprise then that from the beginning he saw acting as a way to connect.
"Acting was something I needed as a way of allowing me to express myself and not feel inhibited, closed off," explains Del Toro. "When I first started going to boarding school in Pennsylvania, it was hard for me to communicate because I was still working hard on my English. Sports, mainly basketball, was my only outlet, my only means of expressing my passion. That and music."
So rather than follow the family business of law, Del Toro took a chance on drama, studying on both US coasts. It paid off. And early experiments in excess in the name of art – putting on sixty pounds and burning himself with cigarettes for Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas – are a thing of the past. “I’ll never put myself through that again,” he says simply.
Still more a critics favourite than box-office gold, there’s every chance Del Toro’s career could follow that of his Fear and Loathing co-star, Johnny Depp, in taking the slow burn to stardom on his own terms. Hence he’s following the grueling Che with the lead in big-budget special effects blockbuster The Wolf Man.
“It was a good way of getting off the skin [of Che],” he smiles, with obvious relief. “When you’re doing a historical piece, you are really staying very truthful. With Che, you ask yourself, ‘How would he walk with asthma?’ And with The Wolf Man, I could just walk. I can just imagine anything!” He and Ernesto Guevara both.
The Argentine is out January 2nd, 2009; Guerrilla is out Feb 20th.