One of the biggest surprises of 2015’s drug war thriller Sicario was the emergence of Alejandro Gillick, the shadowy Mexican lawyer turned U.S. government assassin played by Benicio del Toro in a stunningly dark and frightening performance. Gillick is not positioned as the movie’s main character (Emily Blunt’s FBI agent is), but gradually takes over the narrative, so it’s not unexpected to see him take an even more central role in the sequel, Sicario: Day of the Soldado.
Del Toro and Josh Brolin — as federal agent Matt Graver — are both back under the direction of Stefano Sollima, who takes over from Denis Villeneuve. This time out, Gillick and Graver are using even more dubious means, including the kidnapping of a child, to start a war between competing cartels that not just dealing in drugs but human trafficking. But the operation begins to push both men in directions that may put them at odds with each other.
This is the second time Del Toro and Brolin have appeared together onscreen this season: Del Toro made a brief appearance as the Collector opposite Brolin’s Thanos in Avengers: Infinity War. But while that was little more than a cameo, Sicario: Day of the Soldado finds these two great actors going head to head with explosive results.
We got on the phone recently with Del Toro to discuss returning to the role of Alejandro, working with Brolin again, and how the Sicario films (both written by Taylor Sheridan) play into the events unfolding in real life on the U.S.-Mexican border.
Den of Geek: What interested you in coming back to this world and this character and kind of exploring this more?
Benicio del Toro: Anytime you get an opportunity to work on the evolution of a character is a good excuse to jump at it for any actor, to expand on what you did or on the character that you played. That was cool. I thought the script, when I got it, was original and unpredictable. It’s a thriller. The character has an arc that I was interested and surprised with, and kind of made sense, this kind of rehabilitation of Alejandro in a way. Not that he’s innocent.
How would you characterize his journey in this film?
He was a man who lost his wife and kid to the cartel violence, the drug cartel violence. As part of his new assignment or covert operation in Sicario: Day of the Soldado, the objective is to create a war between two or three or more cartels. One of the things they have to do is kidnap a young girl, the daughter of a leader of one of the cartels, and this girl is innocent. They go ahead and kidnap this girl, and she’s about the same age his own daughter was when she was kidnapped and killed.
Now he’s with this young girl, and he’s making her experience pretty much the same horror that his own daughter went through before she was killed, when she was kidnapped before she was killed. Through this mirror we see that he starts to have a conscience. This mirror of his actions, because he’s starting to do exactly the same actions of those he despises, this becomes his own medicine.
What kind of energy did Stefano bring to the project that was different?
He’s very open to collaborating, and that was cool. He came in from Italy. He showed up and met with two actors that have already played the characters that they’re playing in this film, so it could’ve been problematic, but instead he was very loose and very cool about it. He listened to the suggestions, and he embraced them, so that way he was excellent to work with.
I think what Stefano brings that might be different than Denis Villeneuve, who directed the first one, is that I think Stefano when it comes to violence he looks at it straight in the eye. Denis suggests a little bit more.
Are you and Josh different from each other in the way you approach the material and the acting craft?
I don’t think we’re much different. I think we struggle like every actor to try to be truthful in front of that camera. I think I might be a little bit more introverted when I’m working than Josh is, especially in between takes. Josh is a little bit more extroverted between takes. He’s really funny. He likes a good joke. I think the whole crew benefits from it, including myself.
This is a really intense movie and kind of exhausting, and so in between takes it’s nice to be around Josh and Jeffrey Donovan. They’re both jokesters, and they don’t take themselves that serious. They relax everybody else, including me. It became kind of like part of their barbershop talk, and that’s kind of fun. Otherwise, I think Josh and I, we work very similar.
Where do you think the Sicario series sits in relation to what’s happening on the border right now and the policies that are being enacted?
The movie was shot like a year ago, but what’s happening today on the border, with the kids, is really kind of almost a horror movie. I hope they fix that, the sooner the better.
This is what I think: I did a movie in 2001 called Traffic. It took place in the same drug wars. Whether it’s in the border of Mexico or is in other countries or it’s in the US, these drug-war movies, I think storytellers, filmmakers, writers will keep using this world to tell stories. Those stories in this world, the drug wars, these writers can explore many aspects of the human condition like vengeance, the conflict between good versus evil, morality, love, heroism, betrayal, you can explore all kinds of aspects of the human condition. I think that as long as these stories are out there in our newspapers, writers and storytellers will keep using some of what’s happening out there and write fiction to explore character. I think that that’s basically what Sicario: Day of the Soldado does.
That’s my take on that. I think that there are many TV shows, there are even soap operas that take place in that world, there’s many movies, and they’ve been going on for a long time; but as long as there’s a problem, I don’t see a solution to the problem. These stories will keep happening.
Sicario: Day of the Soldado is out in theaters tomorrow (Friday, June 29).