'Awards Chatter' Podcast — Benicio Del Toro ('Sicario')

The 'Traffic' Oscar winner discusses his journey from Puerto Rico to Hollywood, the lack of rhyme and reason about big screen success and why he's drawn to stories about the war on drugs.
Joe Pugliese
Benicio Del Toro

"You're forcing me to look back," says Benicio Del Toro, once one of the most highly regarded actors of his generation, as we sit down to talk about his remarkable life, work and latest film — Denis Villeneuve's acclaimed film Sicario, in which he plays a mysterious figure operating in the shadows of the war on drugs — for the 14th episode of THR's 'Awards Chatter' podcast. He adds, in a voice that is unexpectedly soft-spoken, "And when I look back, I can't believe it."

(You can play the full conversation below or download it — and past episodes with Will Smith, Amy Schumer, Eddie Redmayne, Brie Larson, Ridley Scott, Kate Winslet/Seth Rogen/Danny Boyle, Jason Segel, Ian McKellen, Sarah Silverman, Michael Moore and others — on iTunes.)

The 48-year-old, who won the best supporting actor Oscar for Steven Soderbergh's Traffic (2000), is once again in serious contention for the award, this time for Sicario. He has collected some of the best notices of his career ever since the film premiered at Cannes in May and began rolling out in September. And while the Puerto Rico-born thesp, who wound up moving to mainland America and studying with Stella Adler, clearly is happy about the response, he also has a tendency to be guarded, having experienced more ups and downs in his career than most.

At 22, Del Toro became the youngest person ever to play a villain in a Bond film, License to Kill (1989), an achievement that suggested bigger things to come. Then, however, he struggled to find work again, so much so that, he recalls, "there was almost a family intervention." He came out of his funk with The Usual Suspects (1995), which exploded the careers of many members of its strong ensemble. But then he appeared in a series of films that failed to click, such as Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1999), and he was once again down on his luck. It was only when Traffic came along that he really made it back.

A second Oscar nom for 21 Grams (2003) proved that his first was no fluke, but even in the years since then he's been on something of a roller coaster. "It's a mystery to me, it really is," he says of his career trajectory. "It goes up and down. Some projects do work, some other projects don't work. Some projects you think are going to work and don't work. Some projects are good but don't find an audience. [Author's note: Like 2007's Things We Lost in the Fire and Soderbergh's 2008 two-parter Che.] Some less good projects find an audience. [Author: Like 2005's Sin City and 2010's The Wolfman.]"

"I'm talking to you right now because I'm hot at this moment," he says, before trailing off, "But maybe two years ago …"

In Sicario, which takes place over the course of several days, Del Toro plays Alejandro, a man of few words, clearly haunted by the past, who steps up to do a rough job that most others don't have the stomach to do themselves. (In that way, Alejandro is not unlike many of the characters portrayed in Westerns by John Wayne, one of the actor's major influences.)

"When I read it, I believed it," says Del Toro. "I believed that my character represented the frustration of many policemen, on both sides of the border, who have given their lives to this war on drugs. I believed this guy would have been that enraged by the fact that his family had been destroyed by the cartels, so that was number one. Number two was since the violence in Mexico has gotten so out of control, I believed that this guy would join the Americans to use that American might to fight the evil that was eating their country. So once I believed [those things], I could believe anything in the script."

Del Toro doesn't have all that much to do in the film until its final third, which was just fine with him, since the first two-thirds were carried by actors for whom he has a great deal of respect. "I always see this movie as a relay race of 400 meters — Emily [Blunt] and Josh [Brolin] carry that baton and they pass it to me in the last lap and then I take it for the last lap … and then boom, suddenly I've got my solo … but it's really a work of teamwork."

Some might wonder if drugs are of particular interest to Del Toro, in light of the fact that, in addition to Traffic and Sicario, he also appeared in a number of other films that deal, directly or tangentially, with the subject: Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, 21 Grams, Things We Lost in the Fire, Savages (2012) and Escobar: Paradise Lost (2014). The actor says it's coincidental, but that the subject is "important to me."

Noting that Humphrey Bogart starred in numerous gangster movies during the 1930s and 1940s, when Prohibition was still on people's minds, he says, "I happen to be an actor at this time when movies take from reality" — but adds that he sees great value in them: "These movies bring the problem to the foreground. There is no solution in sight, and it's good for people to keep working at trying to find a solution. The problem hasn't been solved." In fact, he points out, "Not much has changed since Traffic."

Sicario, a Lionsgate release, was released Sept. 18 and is still in select theaters. Awards voters are being asked to consider the film for best picture and Del Toro for best supporting actor.

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