It wasn't until he portrayed a mumbling crook in 1995's "The Usual Suspects" that Benicio Del Toro's sleepy good looks became readily recognizable to mainstream moviegoers. Three years ago, critical mass turned into critical raves as the native of Puerto Rico accepted a Screen Actors Guild best actor award and a best supporting actor Oscar, just for starters, for playing a conflicted Mexican cop in Steven Soderbergh's "Traffic."
Del Toro, 36, can next be seen as a former special forces assassin gone bonkers in William Friedkin's "The Hunted," due out Friday. An extended cat-and-mouse game, the film pits a retired teacher of warfare (Tommy Lee Jones) against his former student (Del Toro), for whom violence is a way of life.
Your parents were both lawyers and, after moving to Pennsylvania for your high school years, you spent a lot of time on a farm. On screen, though, you play mostly gritty urban types. Your choice -- or Hollywood's?
Few actors get to a place where they can control their professional destiny. You take what you can get because there are studios, producers, directors, casting agents -- it's not a one-man show. And the Latino thing -- dark hair, dark skin -- makes Hollywood see me a certain way. Unless you accept that as part of the job, you can get frustrated, blinded by it. In this system there will always be a bigger fish, and it's not clear-cut who the good guys and bad guys are. If you don't like it, say no to the job. Tell the casting directors out there that I don't sing -- but I'd give it a shot.
Did the year-end awards for "Traffic" make life any easier?
Let's just say that I'm treated very differently now than I was five years ago. Though I'm no Jack Nicholson, my name, it seems, helps a film get off the ground. The awards were a little bit of reassurance that what I've been doing all these years has paid off. You don't do it for the recognition, but we're all human beings -- full of doubt. This kept the doubt in the closet awhile longer. I take my hat off to those who survive in this fragile industry. You don't know how difficult it is until you're inside.
In "The Hunted," your character could be described as a moralistic killing machine -- either an antihero or a villain.
Each of us is a mix of good and evil. It boils down to the choices we make. I regarded my character as a Frankenstein monster, a victim of the horror of war. I liked that he wasn't a one-sided evil dude but a person crying out for help. I've never gone off the deep end to that extreme, but some people stay in that moment for a lifetime. I also liked that he never uses a gun, killing from afar. The movie was one long fight -- the most physical part I've played.
Friedkin said that you and Jones work very differently: You prepare to the extreme, while he's more intuitive.
I think I'm intuitive. Maybe Billy said that because I ask questions, trying to understand the character. And because his room was across the hall from mine, I was forced to talk to him more. Still, Tommy Lee is a real pro -- good at simplifying, which is the best thing to have as an actor. And Billy? Great with action, creating suspense, which is hard to make original. He's also very collaborative, unafraid of being challenged, so he doesn't put up walls. You can have a great idea, but at the end of the day actors make the movie better.
Do you think a film as violent as this one might suffer commercially if war breaks out?
If anything, the film says that war doesn't finish when the bell rings, and there's a winner and a loser. Those involved in it deal with it on a daily basis for the rest of their lives. This may not be an antiwar picture, but it certainly doesn't try to sell it.