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Every Word Counts, if He Can Help It

Los Angeles writer Hugh Hart is a frequent contributor to Calendar

Benicio Del Toro asks a lot of questions. Some might even say he’s a handful. But directors who don’t mind being challenged are happy to put the 33-year-old Method man atop this year’s character actor It List. Recent films directed by Steven Soderbergh, Sean Penn, Guy Ritchie and Christopher McQuarrie have all benefited from the Del Toro touch, characterized by a nearly obsessive attention to detail and a conviction that pictures often tell the tale more effectively than words. Which means, in a world where actors routinely lobby for more lines, Del Toro just as often asks for his dialogue to be cut.

Cradling a cappuccino in a corner booth of a West L.A. cafe, Del Toro says, “I’m a firm believer that cinema is visuals and sound. Sometimes the sound of a plate breaking can say so many things. That broken glass can tell you something that a line [of dialogue] could not say.”

An example: In “Traffic,” Soderbergh’s much-buzzed-about look at America’s drug problem (now playing in L.A. and set for a nationwide release Jan. 5), Del Toro portrays Javier, a Mexican policeman. The story required that a snitch be brought in for questioning. Soderbergh wanted something less familiar than the usual van-full-of-narcs-plucking-the-suspect-off-the-street scene. Speaking by phone from his Burbank production office for “Ocean’s Eleven,” Soderbergh recalls, “We’re sitting around talking, ‘How do we get Franky?’ and Benicio says to me, ‘The guy’s gay, right? Why don’t we have Javier pick him up at a gay bar?’ ” The resulting scene advanced the narrative in a fresh way with minimal histrionics. Says Del Toro, “There was a little bit of dialogue, we took it out. You don’t need words. To me, that scene conveys exactly what I’m doing: A condom and a pack of cigarettes. Boom! Right there, you decide. We involve the audience in part of the storytelling in some way, where they make the connection and go, ‘OK, OK.’ ”

In the original “Traffic” script, Javier was the type of character viewers had seen in drug stories dozens of times before: calculating and corrupt. Del Toro urged Soderbergh and writer Stephen Gaghan to reshape the part. “The thing is, I had to believe that this guy stood for something. So many times we’ve done movies and used an ethnic group to just make a statement about this and that. I think, ‘Hey, it’s time to show the other side too.’ I’m talking about bucking stereotypes. Mexico has this intense history. It’s important to say there’s a lot of people, the majority, who are honest, hard-working people.

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“Steven and I thought about Javier being almost like a couple of characters out of a Bruce Springsteen song, like ‘The Ballad of Tom Joad'--you know, ‘Hunger is a powerful thing.’ These people are just trying to come across the border, trying to make a better living than [they] had before. It’s important that my character show some hope. You know, in Colombia, something like 80 supreme court judges have been killed--no one talks about those guys putting their lives on the line.”

As rewritten, Javier emerges as an essentially good-hearted man faced with an ethical dilemma. Del Toro’s grounded performance, which earlier this month earned him a Golden Globe nomination for best supporting actor and an award in the same category from the New York Film Critics Circle, gives “Traffic” a character audiences can get behind. Says Soderbergh, “Javier is standing in front of the biggest dike with the most holes, so you root for him. Plus, you can’t underestimate Benicio’s charm. Watching Benicio is like watching an actor in a D.W. Griffith movie: He’s so expressive, but not so much in what he says or the action--he’s just able to make the emotion so clear.”

In “Snatch” (opening in wide release Jan. 19), Guy Ritchie’s rambunctious follow-up to “Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels,” Del Toro portrays Frankie Four Fingers, a dim hood with a weakness for gambling. And he also appears in “The Pledge” (Jan. 12), a dark tale of murder directed by Sean Penn. All this comes in the wake of “The Way of the Gun.” Released last fall as the directorial debut of Oscar-winning writer McQuarrie (“The Usual Suspects”), the movie starred Del Toro and Ryan Phillippe as a pair of small-time thieves who get in way over their heads when they kidnap a pregnant surrogate mother.

McQuarrie, speaking by phone from his home in Seattle, says, “Benicio’s pursuit of the truth can be maddening, but it’s not about making him the star. It’s about making his character truthful, making his character honest.”

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It’s also, McQuarrie might have added, about making directors jumpy. “He will at times drive you completely crazy,” McQuarrie says, laughing. At one point during the film’s shoot, Del Toro insisted on knowing how much the $15-million cash ransom would actually weigh. “I told him, ‘Who cares?’ and he says, ‘I care.’ ”

Del Toro goaded McQuarrie to demonstrate why his partner (Phillippe) would betray him by secretly phoning a doctor for help. McQuarrie came up with a three-page scene. He recalls, “Benicio comes back the next morning and says, ‘These lines are the only ones that matter; it’s great that you found the answer, now throw out the scene.’ Toward the end of the shoot, I’d be telling him, ‘I found a way to cut out all your dialogue today,’ and he’d go, ‘Good.’ ”

Del Toro makes no apologies for his hands-on approach. “Sometimes you look at Chris’ script and go, ‘There’s poetry here, and there’s poetry here, and some great lines here and there, therefore I will save the poetry and let’s see if some of the other lines we can tone them down a little bit just to grab hold to that poetry.”

McQuarrie first experienced the Way of Del Toro during production of 1995’s “The Usual Suspects,” in which the actor played a crook named Fenster. Soon after production began, McQuarrie got a phone call from Del Toro in the middle of the night. “He tells me his character wouldn’t say these lines. And I tried to explain Fenster’s background . . . and finally told him, ‘If you don’t want to say the lines, don’t say them.’ ”

Del Toro says he decided Fenster should mumble his lines unintelligibly: “I said to the director, Bryan Singer, ‘Why is this guy even in the story? His only purpose is to die. It doesn’t matter what he says.” For a young actor working for the first time with talent like Kevin Spacey and Gabriel Byrne, talking gibberish was an audacious move. But the gambit paid off, making the small role memorable, earning Del Toro an Independent Spirit Award for best supporting actor and catching the attention of casting agents. He’s made 13 films since “Suspects.”

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Del Toro was born in Puerto Rico. His mother died when he was 9. Four years later, Del Toro, who admits cryptically that he’d been “getting into trouble in school, getting into trouble out of school,” moved with his father and older brother to Pennsylvania, where he attended a private high school. There, his twin passions for the Rolling Stones and basketball meant common ground with his classmates. Still, the transition was jarring. “That was the beginning of me finding myself alone,” Del Toro says.

At UC San Diego, Del Toro started acting in school plays. He then moved to New York, sleeping on his cousin’s couch while studying with the legendary Method teacher Stella Adler. “She was rough. She was rough and tough,” notes Del Toro. “All I knew [about acting] was screaming and breaking things. She’d say anyone can do that, anyone. At first you go, ‘Shut up, you don’t know!’ ” Del Toro grimaces, holding his hands up defensively like a boxer. “The reality is, two weeks later, you’re going, she’s right. Work on it, look at it, deal with it, deal with rejection, deal with failure, and don’t stop, and be a man. Know what you’re playing, know what you’re playing, know what you’re playing.”

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After more study at Circle in the Square Acting School, Del Toro moved to Los Angeles, where he took classes at the Actors Circle Theater and began getting television gigs, including roles in “Miami Vice” and the Emmy-winning miniseries “The Drug Wars.” By 1996, he’d earned critical notice for both “The Usual Suspects” and “Basquiat,” and in 1998 he played Dr. Gonzo, the crazed sidekick to the even more crazed Raoul Duke (Johnny Depp) in “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas,” directed by Terry Gilliam. This time around, Del Toro went to bat for the dialogue. “With Hunter S. Thompson,” he says, “it’s like with Tennessee Williams: You do not touch a word. If you take one word out, the whole thing sinks. When I see [the movie] now, oh, it kills me that they had to take that out. I was inside that mind and I knew you couldn’t take a ‘but’ out. Everything is verbatim. There were many battles.” And his relationship with Gilliam? A long pause. Finally: “It was good.”

Del Toro knows his willingness to wrangle puts him at odds with some studio suits. “In the ‘50s, people saw the Method and went, ‘Wow, what is this?’ In the ‘60s, they’re going, ‘Whoa.’ In the ‘70s, Method peaks. The American actor, the Method actor becomes the actor. In the ‘80s, something happened, and now if you say you’re Method, the studios go, ‘He needs help, send him to see a psychiatrist,’ ” jokes Del Toro. “But to me, Method is just horse sense.”

Soderbergh points out that Del Toro’s preparation is anything but self-indulgent. “Method for some actors can be an excuse, a crutch, a performance in and of itself. Benicio is very un-'Methody’ in that sense. You certainly don’t have to call him ‘Javier’ between takes. He’s just interested in stuff that has practical application. When we were filming in Mexico, he’s not going to eat in the craft services tent. He’d go eat at the taco stand on the streets, where maybe he’ll soak up something he can use in the role.”

“Snatch” proved a respite for Del Toro, coming on the heels of “Traffic” and the grueling “Way of the Gun” shoot. “I had kind of given my soul to ‘Gun,’ then ‘Snatch’ came up,” he recalls. “I know what kind of film it is--sort of slick, engaging, good story, full-out entertainment, not trying to send out a message. Not dry. Quite full. Whereas ‘Way of the Gun’ is kind of dry, a throwback to the ‘70s, to, maybe, a more mature kind of film.”

In Sean Penn’s “The Pledge,” Del Toro plays a feeble-minded man accused of killing a young girl. Penn, who first directed Del Toro in 1991’s “The Indian Runner” after seeing his performance in “Drug Wars,” says, “This is a guy who’s clearly got his own drummer that he’s listening to. Benicio has extreme things to do in ‘The Pledge,’ and I had very little to do with it--I photographed it, and it was magical and great and I knew it would be.”

Del Toro possesses one of the key assets for a great film actor--great eyes--but Penn insists there’s more to his screen presence than an empathetic face. “Benicio could be on his back--he’s a head-to-toe actor. It’s animal-like--it’s the eyes of course, and the flutter of the tail and the roar, and he’s got it all. It boils down to wonderful instincts and boldness beyond boldness and a sense of behavior that’s really quite amazing. There are other actors who are willing to do wild things, but they seem in general to be affectations, whereas Benicio finds things that will affect him.”

While Del Toro has become the go-to guy for cops, robbers and eccentrics, he has not, so far, snared a conventional romantic leading man role. Given his brooding good looks, you wonder, if the sloe-eyed actor has been limited by ethnic stereotyping? Del Toro squints, rolls his head to the side, chews it over for a moment, then demurs: “Hmmm, it’s easy to point fingers. For me, personally, I would have to go through another life, change my name, same background and see how it happens. I’ve been able to, you know, play the fence, I’ve been able to infiltrate, to cross the border in some ways. Because I’ve played many things. I’m part-Italian, part-Spanish, and I think of myself as American.”

Adjusting his baseball cap, emblazoned with “Los Angeles Special Weapons and Tactics Police,” Del Toro leans forward and says, “I look at the Rolling Stones, who took this fusion of country blues, added some reggae and turned it into the best rock ‘n’ roll. They fused everything. And I fuse things, from doing this role and that role, roles that have nothing to do with being like, Latin. I’m more concerned, as I get older, with the story. I’m more like, ‘Give me a good story,’ then I’ll work from there.”

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