'Escobar' Star Benicio Del Toro on the Method, Playing Bad Guys and Considering TV and Broadway

Benicio del Toro donostia award - H 2014
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Benicio del Toro donostia award - H 2014

One of the better performances that I saw on last year's awards circuit is only now reaching theaters. It is the one given by Benicio Del Toro, the 48-year-old Oscar winner, as Colombian drug lord Pablo Escobar in Andrea Di Stefano's directorial debut Escobar: Paradise Lost. For a variety of reasons, Radius, the film's distributor, elected to push back the film's release to this summer, something that is very fortunate for people seeking an alternative to the mindless sequels, remakes and adaptations of pre-existing crap that is currently dominating cinemas.

Besides, any opportunity to see Del Toro in action is a treat. Considering his standout work in a wide variety of acclaimed films — among them The Usual Suspects (1995), Traffic (2000), 21 Grams (2003), Things We Lost in the Fire (2007), Che (2008) and Guardians of the Galaxy (2014) — few would disagree that the Puerto Rican is one of our greatest living actors.

Last week, I sat down with Del Toro for a wide-ranging conversation about his life, career and experience portraying "The King of Cocaine."

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Was acting something that you wanted to pursue from an early age?

I never really thought about acting. I mean, maybe pretended I was Batman at some point like any kid does, but I never really thought about acting probably until I got to college.

You went off to college with the intention of doing something completely different. What was the plan at that point?

Well, I liked painting, but the college I went to, UCSD, didn't have a major in painting, so I had to have a major, and the major I picked was business — and I'm not good with money. So I took an acting class because I wanted to try to make my schedule easier. That's how it happened, really.

And you just got good feedback?

I felt like there was something about it, like, "This is fun." And there's a logic to it. There's an angle to it. And you can say something by acting — you know, you can express yourself. So there was something to it that caught my attention. At the beginning it was like, "How hard can it be?" But then, it was like, "Oh, this is cool. You can do stuff that you've maybe thought about. You can create. You can use your imagination." If anything, it was freeing, you know? I was lucky that the University of California San Diego has a really strong theater program.

Did you start working right out of college?

I went to New York to do Joseph Papp's college tournament of plays, where different colleges bring their plays and do them. So we did it there, and then I stayed in New York with a cousin of mine, and then I went to acting school in New York and I said, "I want to pursue this in New York. I want to stay in New York." Then I came back to L.A. because I couldn't do it in New York — I got defeated, I lost in New York. So I was going to go back to college. And this, really, was the thing that changed my whole thing, my life — well, many things have changed my life along the way. But I came here for like, a weekend, three days — my brother was going to UCLA and I stayed with him — and I went to see this agent, and she said, "Well, if you're going to be in San Diego, you're far away. You finish school and then you come back here." That'd be three years or whatever. But then she said, "Well, they're auditioning for a scholarship, I could call this place if you want me to, I could make an appointment for you." Well, it happened that this was the Stella Adler Conservatory — I had no idea who she was or what it meant or anything — and it was one of those things where I was just lucky and got the scholarship and landed in one of the best schools of acting, this amazing place where acting was really serious. And that's what changed it, when I went there —the seriousness of the approach toward the profession of acting was so intense that it really moved me, you know? It was treated like it was any other profession that I thought I should be doing, either being a doctor or a lawyer or whatever — if you're going to be a fireman, you prepare for it — and that, to me, is the thing that I learned there, the respect and dignified approach to the work of the actor.

For people who may not know much about Stella Adler or what she taught — to Marlon Brando and many others — can you explain what the Method is?

Yeah. The Method has a bad rap, you know? People think you gotta go see a psychotherapist after you go into the Method. But the Method is common sense. There's three teachers, and I've studied with all of them, in a way — not with all the teachers, because they weren't around when I was studying except for Stella — but the other two were [Sanford] Meisner and [Lee] Strasberg. Those are the three. They all come from Stanislavski, in a way. Strasberg is about going into yourself, finding those feelings that we all have and then either magnifying them or shrinking them for a particular character. Meisner is about repetition. And Stella is about using your imagination. But they all come from that Method thing, looking into yourself, looking at the human being kind of like a psychoanalyst. And what I learned the most from Stella is interpretation — really understanding the writer, what he's trying to do and then telling the story as an actor, as well. Like, don't rely on just the writer to tell the story; the actor tells the story. Whatever choice you make, you're influencing the story. As an actor, if you make a choice of screaming, it'll say something. If, instead of screaming at that person, you say it mellow, you're influencing the story. So it's knowing your story. But, it all comes from trying to understand yourself and trying to understand life and understand human behavior. Acting is you're feeling things, you're bringing it in. But then all that changes when you get in front of the camera. Then you have to be your own. You have to create your own angle on things.

When you were training to be an actor, it was for the stage, right?

Exactly, the theater.

So was it a big learning curve, learning how to act for the camera?

You know, it's the same. There are a couple of different processes that it takes time to learn to survive in a movie — when you do a play, you have that rehearsal period, where first you read it and then you get up and you move, and now you're in the space and you're trying this, you're trying that, and everyone is coming together, putting the thing together. In movies, you don't have that. In movies, you show up, and there is a room, and it's like, now you have to do the scene —

Out of order ...

Out of order, yeah.

Do you find that you prefer one medium over the other?

Well, I miss the rehearsing thing. The rehearsing thing would be great, but the rehearsing thing would have to be as disciplined as they do it for theater, because in movies you sometimes get rehearsing and people sit down and start reading the scene, and you might talk a little bit about it, but you don't have that much time, and that time is spent getting to know the other actors, getting to know the assistant director and the director, getting to know the writer. So it's not the same, the rehearsal. There's some rehearsal in movies, you don't go to the location and really rehearse in the room that you're going to do the scene in or the park where you're going to do the scene. You don't go. So yeah, I do miss that, in a way. In a movie you have to be prepared but, at the same time, you have to be loose enough to adjust, and that took time for me to learn, and I think for most actors it's got to be the same, you know? The idea that you prepare a scene, you've got it down, you get to the scene and it's like, "Whoa, this is a completely different set than I had in mind — they said a bedroom and now the director has changed it and we're doing the scene in a car."

Or a pool [a reference to a celebrated scene in Traffic] ...

Or a swimming pool, you know? But I changed that. It was going to be in a hotel and I suggested, "Let's do it in a swimming pool."

If somebody came to you with a great production and said, "Hey, we want you to come to Broadway," would you consider going back to the stage at this point?

Yeah — yeah, but it would have to be really something that I like. I've become kind of like a movie person. It's terrible to say — I mean, Stella would kick me out of the room right now — but I do think in terms of that rectangle. So there would have to be something in there that really moves me, like the actor. If Dustin Hoffman says he wants to do a play with me, then we'll talk, you know? But it would have to be more than just, "Let's do a play on Broadway." I've seen great actors on the stage — like movie actors. It would be cool.

Movies, for financial reasons, have become more and more just remakes and sequels and adaptations, so if you're an actors' actor, like yourself, it seems like the options are really limited today, and if you want a meaty part you really have to go to the stage or to TV.

Yeah, TV is completely different. When I first started, if you did TV — TV was kinda like a little bit, let's say, "light." If you wanted to go deep, you'd go do movies. But now you can go really deep on TV.

Have you ever entertained that idea?

Yeah, I'm actually involved with something. I'm involved with doing something for HBO, something, The Conquest of Mexico. So that's something that's time consuming, but yeah, that's an idea that we have, bringing that to TV. But, yeah, TV is completely different now.

So at the beginning, when you were first working professionally and finding your footing, you did a little bit of TV, but what was "the big break," in your mind? Was it License to Kill or was it not really until The Usual Suspects?

The moment that I got the part for the James Bond movie was, like — everything became brighter, because it's really hard as an actor going around, driving around this city when you're not from here, when you don't have family here, going around and getting, for the most part, rejected. I was doing this Stella Adler Conservatory and that was kinda where I kept my sanity, you know? But going on auditions was up and down for the most part. But the moment I got the James Bond movie? I remember that day. That was really exciting, when I got the part. I couldn't believe it.

You were the youngest-ever Bond villain, right?

The youngest villain or henchman, yeah. After that I did a couple of things. I did a TV miniseries called Drug Wars that was pretty good. I did a couple of things. But, really, it was The Usual Suspects. Then, I did a couple of movies, but it took a while — it took about six, seven years — and then The Usual Suspects. When The Usual Suspects came out, that was kinda like— I had been doing stuff in an acting class and I couldn't translate what I was doing in acting class into what I was doing on film, and it was in The Usual Suspects that I felt like I could translate the exploration of characters that I was doing in acting class. I was successful at doing it in a movie that was successful with a great cast and a successful movie. That's the difference, because you can be good in a movie, but if the movie's not good, nobody sees it and it's kinda like, it might put doubts in your head and all that stuff. But I took the chance of doing something that I would've done in acting class, with the discipline of going through with it and staying focused with it, and it worked in The Usual Suspects. And I think that's when I kinda like I could do it — I could do what I was doing in acting class, in a way, I could take chances and have no fear of failure. It also allowed the industry, or people in the industry, to look at me as someone who did interpretations, which is what I was trained to do, in a way.

Isn't it funny, though — I read that when you finished shooting The Usual Suspects, you didn't think it was going to be very much of a movie, right?

I don't think anyone did — maybe Kevin [Spacey] did. But I felt weird about what I had done. It was eccentric and it could be looked at as over the top, silly. I also felt weird that maybe the movie wouldn't work because of me.

So you do The Usual Suspects, in which you do something eccentric and don't think it worked but it did. And then you go and do Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, playing another out-there kind of character, and this time you feel good about your performance, but the movie didn't work.

Well, the movie did work, but no one went to see it. I think the movie did work.

I agree with you — I just mean it wasn't as successful. But does that mess with your confidence?

Completely. Yeah, you've got to do a lot of soul-searching to hang on in there. Because The Usual Suspects did work, you start thinking, "Every time I hit the ball it's just going to be a home run." And then you grab the bat, the same way, with a juicier part, and you just hit it as hard and, in your mind, it goes out of the park — and then some guy out there catches the ball and they call it an out.

And not only that, but they bench you for it, in a sense, right? Because you had a few years after Fear and Loathing but before Traffic when you really didn't work that much.

I did go into some kind of bench, yeah. I mean, but it's always been like that. People say, "Hey, you're going to fail. You're going to fail. Get ready for it, because it's okay to fail." And dah, dah, dah. And you go, "Yeah, it's okay to fail." The problem is, when the failure happens, it's terrible — the feeling there, it can last for a while, and it can really throw you for a spin. But then when you get out of it, you tend to forget how it felt to be a failure. It's incredible. Like, after that, you get Traffic and then suddenly, "Oh, now they know—"

Suddenly you're the greatest thing ever, right?

Yeah. And then you do another movie — I could say about Che. I think the work in Che is the same thing: I grabbed the bat the same way, I hit it the same way — harder, juicier, more — and then it's like, boom, it goes in the air, you're out and it's like, "Whoa." And now you go back into some kind of like — You just have to recognize that, you know?

Well, the great thing about film versus theater is that if somebody doesn't catch it immediately, when it first comes out, they still can down the road. I mean, people are still discovering Che on the Criterion Collection DVDs.

That's probably me buying all the DVDs. [laughs] But yeah, it's kind of funny. I mean, I don't think too much about it, but you bringing it up, you do have a point. But all you can do is just hang in there and stay focused. Now with what's happening with Cuba, Che might find another life, in a way, because Che is a Cuban movie done by three Hollywood people — Steven [Soderbergh], Laura Bickford and myself, you know? We went down there. We took the character of Che, did the whole thing, did the investigation. Nothing in that movie is a lie — we tell the Cuban story with a Hollywood take on it. I'm very proud of it.

In a sense, Che really came out of Traffic and the relationships that you established on that film, right?

Yeah. We had looked at the book earlier on, the producer and myself. We had the book. We went around, tried to get someone to do it, no. Everything went kind of into silence. Then Traffic comes up and now we're, like, on the upswing. Steven was the helicopter with the rope — Steven would hang onto the rope, and say, "Go on, let's go." And so we go to Cuba and we meet with the people and it's really interesting because when we meet with them — Hollywood, you know — "You're going to make a movie about who? We don't trust you, man. Why would we give you all this information? Why would we sit here?" And then, over here, it's also kinda complicated because it's like, "Wait, you're going to do what?" So, we were really treading in the middle, which made it really exciting, you know? We were like Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, you know, just like, running right through the middle. I felt like Steven and I were in the middle of historical times, in a way, and just traveling through it. But yeah, Traffic did help.

When did you first know that it was unusually special? And did the Oscar change things for you?

I think it was special my first meeting with Steven because Steven's first question was, "What would make a great relationship? What would be your ideal relationship between you and a director?" And I thought that was really interesting. It was the first time any director had asked me something where it's, like, putting it on me, you know? So I thought that was very interesting. During the movie we collaborated well, but I didn't have much expectations of the film. Michael Douglas was in it so it was kinda like, "Okay, that's cool." And Luis Guzman and Don Cheadle. There was a great cast. But I wasn't really working with them — I had a little moment with Michael, a little moment that is in the film. It wasn't until — I don't know exactly when it was, but at some point there was a review or something that really praised the movie and praised the performances in the movie. And then, when I saw it, I just felt like I was in something special, the whole texture of the film. But I'm not a good judge of my work. I really am not that good of a judge. I'll tell you, I think I know when I get something when I'm acting in it. But when I see it, you know, I kinda have a hard time seeing it like that. And then the Oscars? Winning the Oscar was, like, surreal. I still kinda go, "Oh, I did win an Oscar." Someone, maybe six months later, sent me a tape of the Oscars, and I put it on and when the thing came up of like, "Okay, and the nominees are, blah, blah, blah," I got so anxious watching it. It was like watching myself walk on a tightrope or something. It was like, "Whoa, I did it already!"

With regard to your latest film, Escobar: Paradise Lost, the thing that I really was amazed to discover was that you signed on to the film — to play this really complex and intense character — only 10 weeks before it went into production. I believe that you had worked with Josh Hutcherson once before, so perhaps that helped to some extent, but how did you get into the right frame of mind and make a character who could have been very one dimensional almost seductive? It reminded me of The Godfather, where Brando behaves one way around his family and another way when it comes to business.

A little bit of that is in the writing of the structure of the character, that I was going to be seductive, but I just felt like, you know, you just got to, like, hunker down, in a way, and try to get as much footage of the guy. But, eventually, you have to play this character, you know? You have to trust your instincts. Trusting your instincts is one of those things that sometimes I'm better at than other times. But I feel like trusting your instincts is like putting in time. You have to practice hard. And that means you've got to try to read as much as you can and kind of be disciplined about that and stay focused while you're shooting the film — and I mean not just 10 days of the 20 days that you're working, not 15 days, but 22 days, including a day before and a day after. You've got to stay focused until the very end. If you have three bad days in a row, which happens all the time, you want to quit — I want to quit my focus — but I'll just hang in there. That's always been consistent with me, just staying focused when I'm doing a movie. And then have fun. At the end, you've got to have fun. Even when I'm having a hard time trying to achieve something, I'm trying to have fun in that, in the pain in the ass that it is to try to achieve what I'm trying to do.

And you can do that even when you're playing a horrible person? You've played a few of those.

Yeah. Even when you're playing a horrible person, you have to be having fun playing that horrible person. It makes no sense, it's kind of crazy and schizophrenic, but it's like — it's acting. It's acting. You have to. Maybe it's not "having fun." Maybe it's enthusiasm. It's energy to get up and try to do it and go in there. And you might get there and you might not really like this line and you're going to take it out and you're going to do whatever. They make you wait a little bit longer. But when you're doing it, you've got to have fun and have fun with the other actors while you're working. You can have fun also after or outside, but you've got to have some enthusiasm that drives you to it. And it's easier if you have a director who takes his time — in this case, Andrea [Di Stefano] is a first-time director, but I liked how he took his time.

Maybe he "gets" what you need because he's also an actor?

Maybe. We got to a scene and we had, like, two hours, and we were going to try to do that scene. We rushed to rehearse it all — it was, like, three pages or four pages. I'm going like, "Boy, we're going to jump that fence now, man. It's going to be really hard. People are going to get hurt." [laughs] And he just very calmly came out and said, "We'll do it tomorrow, guys. Go home. Get some rest and we'll come back tomorrow and we'll rehearse it and then go through it." That helps. You know, that helps. I got to give him kudos for that. He's got a great sense of protecting the process, maybe because he's an actor, yeah.