Benicio Del Toro interview: Savages, The Wolfman and more

With Oliver Stone’s Savages out today in the UK, we met with its villain, Benicio Del Toro, for a chat…

Standing outside a nice hotel room in Knightsbridge on a sunny September afternoon shouldn’t be intimidating. Not when there’s a man serving you iced water in a wine glass, and there are what look like homemade cookies sitting on a plate in a neighbouring room. 

But beyond that hotel room door is Benicio Del Toro. And this is Benicio Del Toro the morning after I’ve just seen him in Oliver Stone’s brilliantly-titled new film Savages. It’s a film populated by acts of extreme violence, and, in Del Toro’s Mexican drug cartel enforcer Lado, a film housing one of the most sadistic bad guys of recent times.

So, while I’m sure Del Toro really is a nice guy in person, it’s hard not to think back 24 hours to a scene involving weapons of mass torture. And those homemade cookies are way behind me now, too far gone for a comfort snack.

The truth, of course, is that Del Toro isn’t anything like the character he portrays on screen. He’s dressed head-to-toe in black but exudes such charm and easy-going humour that it’s a wonder he doesn’t bag more leading man roles not involving decapitation or excessive drug use. It’s a charm that serves him well – it’s only when I’m listening to this interview back that I realise he’s an expert in not giving away any more than he has to. Those dream projects of his that I’m so eager to hear about, that Christopher McQuarrie-scripted Western that never was… they remain enigmas. Another time, perhaps.

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Until then, here’s what he had to say about running out of a screening of Savages, why The Wolfman didn’t work, and the only perfect script he’s worked with.

Savages is a pretty intense film. Have you had many journalists come in today feeling a bit intimidated because of your character?

Yeah, a few people have given me some money [laughs].

How much does this kind of film take out of you, then? Because watching it isn’t always easy. There’s a chainsaw scene in the opening seconds!

That’s right, that’s right …

And even before you started on the film, you and Oliver Stone met with some Mexican drug lords. Is that right?

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Yeah. At the beginning it’s kind of like you just throw yourself out there and just hope that there is a rhythm to the character. But at the beginning it would be like when you are about to jump into the swimming pool and the water is really cold. And once you throw yourself out there and you start moving then it ceases to be cold. And perhaps at the beginning it was a little like, “Well, here we go!” And then once you throw yourself out there you have to paddle or sink.

At the beginning it was a little bit like I might have been timid. You know, you have ideas about how the character should be and, “What am I going to do with the character”, and “Is he going to be engaging?” Because you just don’t want to make him boring.

That’s the thing – he isn’t a boring character. I think he’s one of the least sympathetic villains I’ve seen for a long time. A lot of villains these days there’s a line of sympathy that runs through them or a funny line somewhere. But not here.

Yeah, I also didn’t want to make him… there’s a moment at the end where he becomes a rat. And I thought it was important to not make him a man of… he’s a bully, you know? And usually bullies, once you confront them they are the first ones to crumble. There was something about that. He’s a bully, a bad guy. But if you put him in that situation, if you put him in a place where he really would have to… he becomes a begging bag of weakness. 

And there is that one scene where you face off with Salma Hayek’s drug lord.  Up to that point in the film Lado’s been dishing out all this violence and you’ve been the guy everyone is scared of. Then suddenly she’s the one you’re scared of!

Yeah, I think in the emotional arc of the picture, or whatever you want to call it, at that moment it’s almost like you start liking him. It’s almost like the elephant that’s afraid of the mouse. Oooh, you feel really cute towards the elephant because he’s afraid, because he’s so vicious and then here comes the mother, even though she is vicious or maybe even more vicious than he is. This beautiful woman slaps him and he bows down and becomes so submissive. It’s like the loveable lion or tiger but at the end, equally, he’s a snake when he does this thing with Blake’s character. Two minutes later he’s back to the bad guy.

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And I like how that played in the film. Because at the moment where he gets slapped you kind of forget all the… even though he does the torturing and all that stuff there’s something about him where you’re like, “Oh, all he needs is someone to tell him not to do it”.

I happened to see the movie with an audience, in a little screening. It’s kind of strange being in a place with a movie where… I’ve played the bad guy in lots of movies but there is something strange with this one in particular. There was this feeling like… people at the end they were really not forgiving. They wanted to forgive him and everything was “It might go this way, it might go that way”. But the moment he does this one thing, we don’t care.  

Going back to your analogy, then, about this being like a cold swimming pool. Do you ever want to dive into a warm swimming pool? Do the romantic leading man, for example? 

There’s no warm swimming pool [grins]. Even if you’re playing that… it’s always cold. Because you have to create a reality, you know?

You seem to be more selective in your film roles now. Is that deliberate on your part?

I’ve always been kind of selective. I have to work, you know? But I’ve always been kind of selective. I don’t think I’m more, perhaps maybe now because I’m thinking in terms of getting behind a camera, maybe telling a story, that I’m kind of feeling like I want to work but I have other thoughts and other things I want to do. But I’ve always been selective with projects. I think an original script with a good director… it’s a good motivator to jump into the swimming pool, you know? 

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And there are quite challenging directors you have worked with over the years. Running through your work, The Funeral and…

The Funeral, yeah!

I remember seeing that a long time ago…

That’s a great movie.

Yeah, I saw it as a double bill with The Addiction. Incredible. But that was a tough night out. Are those challenging films the kinds of films you like to watch?

I’m attracted to watch all the filmmakers I’ve worked with. For the most part I watch any other movies, whether I’m in them or not. I’ve been very lucky. I’ve worked with some of the best directors, contemporary directors, in the world. You know, I’ve worked with really good filmmakers, I’ve been very lucky that way.

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And even now you have talked about moving into directing. You’ve directed one of the segments in 7 Days In Havana. How did that come about?

There was a producer who I’ve known, he came up to me and he had this selection of short stories and he knew or he had his own idea that maybe I would like to direct and he said, “Hey, how about if you direct one of these stories?” And I said, “Well, why don’t you send me one of them?”

And he sent me a story and I said “Yeah, okay”. I worked a little bit on the story, went to Cuba, and in five days we did the casting, the locations, and then shot it in another five days. And it was really cool.

I took what they gave me, I didn’t go to them with “This is what I want to do”, you know? They gave me this and I said, “Okay”. So it was kind of like old school. Here’s the story, get it out. So that was the approach on that. But if I was going to direct again, it would be a little bit different. It would be like, “This is what I want to go out there and try to do”. Not like, “You have something for me? Boom, okay, I’ll do it.” You know?

Are there dream projects you have, then? Because The Wolfman seemed exactly that, a project you’d wanted to do for a long time based on the original film. Are there other films on your wish list? 

Yeah, The Wolfman was a story that had some problems on the way because we had a director who got out, like left the ship, abandoned the ship. The director got out and there was another director who came in but the ship was already out and it was like, boom! The first director couldn’t take it and that put the whole thing kind of like in a weird situation. 

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If that situation came about now would you think about taking charge of that, being that director?

Well, I don’t know about taking charge on that right now, but if I would be in a situation like that I would really have a different approach. I don’t know which one would be the approach but I would have had a different approach than just ploughing ahead. Sometimes you have to do that. Who knows? Maybe it would be the same approach but it was really an off-balancing situation.

Also, I think that with The Wolfman there was something to learn about it because when you have a movie where you put a lot of money in, then it becomes a business, you want to bring people in. And I think with The Wolfman we were very limited because it was an R-rated movie. And the story of The Wolfman, when I remember it, it was when I was nine years old watching that movie and really liking it. So it should really appeal to kids.

I bet you anything you put that movie to a ten year-old, 12 year-old, 13 year-old, they like that movie. And I know kids that have snuck in, or their parents have put it on, they really liked that movie. They really liked the movie that came out.

But the original director had a different take on it, like it was more psychological. But at the end of the day it’s The Wolfman, you know? When you grab someone it’s going to be the nostalgic people, the people who saw it when they were kids and are parents now. So it’s like you want to bring in as many people as possible 

The project I was quite fascinated by was around the time of The Way Of The Gun. There was talk about Christopher McQuarrie and you working on a Western. How far along did that get? Is that something that might resurface?

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Well, Chris is directing again. He’s directed a movie which I haven’t seen and he’s actually here working on something.

Jack Reacher?

Right. And there’s another movie he is doing right now, I don’t know.

But you seemed to have a close working relationship. Could that Western ever come about?

Well, I’ve only ever worked with one perfect script, and that’s The Usual Suspects.

And like that… he’s gone. A grin from Del Toro and our time is up. Benicio Del Toro, thank you very much. 

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Savages is out in the UK today.

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