Benicio Del Toro: 1967—: Actor, Writer Biography
Puerto Rican-born Benicio Del Toro has been called the Marlon Brando of his generation, a label he eschewed. "Everybody's like Brando," he told Harper's Bazaar. His own opinion notwithstanding, the tall, dark, somewhat mysterious actor has made his mark by fully inhabiting his various film roles, to critical and popular success. From his first major film, The Usual Suspects, Del Toro was recognized as a force to be reckoned with in Hollywood. His Oscar-winning turn in Steven Soderbergh's Traffic cemented Del Toro's place as a significant actor in major motion pictures.
Del Toro was born February 19, 1967, in Santurce, Puerto Rico, the youngest of two sons of Gustavo, a prosperous lawyer, and, Fausta Del Toro, also a lawyer. His mother died when Benicio was just nine years old. "The performances I would do to make her laugh were probably my first acting efforts," Del Toro told the Miami Herald in 1997. "Incredibly, I took her death very well. When things like that happen at such an early age, you accept them as a fact." In the Miami Herald, Del Toro recalled making up imaginary stories as a child with his brother, imagining himself as Tarzan, their dogs as bears or lions. After his mother's death, Del Toro's father built a basketball court across the street from the family's home and the boy threw himself into the game. His godmother, Sarah Torres, assumed a very strong and influential role in the boy's life, acting as a mother figure.
Del Toro, nicknamed "Beno," was a popular troublemaker at the Academy of Our Lady of Perpetual Help, the Catholic school he attended through eighth grade. Unable to get along with his new stepmother, Del Toro's father sent him to Mercersburg Academy, a boarding school in Mercersburg, Pennsylvania. There, he scored average grades and was co-captain of the basketball team in his senior year. The language barrier was a problem for Del Toro at boarding school—there was no real Hispanic community in Pennsylvania. He focused on basketball, which made him feel like he "could communicate perfectly," as he told the Miami Herald, and he made friends more easily through sports. He discovered oil painting at boarding school, and remained an avid painter.
Expected to become a lawyer like his father—Del Toro's brother, Gustavo, is a doctor in Manhattan—Del Toro enrolled as a business major at the University of California at San Diego in 1985. In an attempt to lighten his course load, he took one acting class. He was hooked. He switched his major to acting without telling his family, and then left college to pursue acting professionally. Shortly thereafter, he moved to New York City to study acting at the Circle Square Theater. His father was not thrilled about Del Toro's change of plans, but accepted his son's decision. His family could not comprehend how anyone could expect to make a living as an actor. When he made the decision to act, Del Toro told the Miami Herald, he was so committed that "I saw it as a marriage." After New York, Del Toro moved to Los Angeles, where he studied intensively on a scholarship at the Stella Adler Conservatory of Acting for the next three or four years. He lived with his brother, who was studying at UCLA, and helped the Adler school build a theater to help cover his expenses. In 1987 Del Toro got his first job as a guest star on the television series Miami Vice. The experience motivated the young actor, but it was the only work he saw for some time.
Del Toro was never terribly interested in television work. Because it is produced too quickly, there is no time for him to fully interpret and develop a character. His real passion has always been film. Though he appeared in small roles in such films as Big Top Peewee, License To Kill, Money For Nothing, and Swimming With Sharks, many people consider The Usual Suspects his first film. Released in 1995, the film starred Kevin Spacey. Del Toro thinned his eyebrows and shaved his hairline for the role of Fenster, a sketchy, mumbling criminal involved in a mysterious heist. The film found critical and box office success, and launched Del Toro as a major up-and-coming talent in Hollywood.
In the year after he finished The Usual Suspects, Del Toro completed four films. De Toro disliked this pace, since it did not give him enough time to concentrate as much as he would have liked on each role. On top of all that, he also directed a short film that year, called Submission.
Del Toro has always enjoyed the freedom of being able to travel freely back and forth between the United States and Puerto Rico, with no passport or green card required. In his career, he would prefer not to be seen solely as a Latino actor. Though he admitted to feeling a responsibility for being a working Latino actor in Hollywood, he felt that his primary responsibility as an actor was, as he told the Miami Herald "to do my job well."
In addition to doing his job well, Del Toro, who insisted that he is not chasing money or glamour, also had to contend with his blossoming stardom. "When you start to become a movie star it's easy to believe that you are Superman. That can fool you," Del Toro told the Miami Herald. "That's why I prefer not to pay much attention to fame. Without realizing it, you can enter a vicious circle and think that you really are a superhero." The actor has often mocked Hollywood convention and celebrity culture in interviews. Though Del Toro's success changed his life, it hasn't changed the way he lives—he continued to live in the same one-bedroom condo in Los Angeles, and drove the same beat-up SUV. While he may not be celebrity-driven, Del Toro thrived on working with such actors as Robert De Niro, Johnny Depp, and Brad Pitt. He got a chance to work with his favorite painter, Julian Schnabel, when he played a role in Schnabel's 1996 film, Basquiat.
Del Toro has become known for his chameleon-like ability to lose himself and fully become a character. He put on 45 pounds for his role in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas in just nine weeks, eating everything in sight. Based on the novel by Hunter S. Thompson, the film did not fare well. It drew poor reviews, and Del Toro has admitted it was a very low period in his life. To prepare for Traffic, he poured over books about the drug war, met with Tijuana cops, and worked to perfect a Mexican accent.
In Traffic, Del Toro played Javier Rodriguez, a soft-spoken police officer trying to fight his battles in the drug war. The film was a blockbuster and critical hit. Del Toro came away from it with a slough of awards for his performance, a Golden Globe and Academy Award among them. Backstage at the Oscars, surrounded by Hollywood's biggest stars, Del Toro was as near ecstatic as his reserved persona would allow. "It feels pretty good," he said, according to People.
Del Toro's next projects, to be released in 2002 and 2003, included: The Hunted, Julia, toda en mi (Julia, All in Me), Bring Me The Head of Alfredo Garcia, and the biographical film Che Guevara: A Revolutionary Life. "I've been lucky," he told Harper's Bazaar. "What I'm doing is getting respect, and I'm getting better at what I do."
Big Top Pee-wee, 1988.
License To Kill, 1989.
The Indian Runner, 1991.
Christopher Columbus: The Discovery, 1992.
Huevos de Oro, 1993.
Money For Nothing, 1993.
China Moon, 1994.
The Usual Suspects, 1995.
Swimming With Sharks, 1995.
The Funeral, 1996.
The Fan, 1996.
Excess Baggage, 1997.
Cannes Man, 1997.
Fear & Loathing in Las Vegas, 1998.
The Way of the Gun, 2000.
Bread and Roses, 2001.
The Pledge, 2001.
The Hunted, 2002.
Julia, toda en mi (Julia, All in Me), 2002.
Bring Me The Head of Alfredo Garcia, 2003.
Che Guevara: A Revolutionary Life, 2003.
Harper's Bazaar, February 2001, p. 236.
Miami Herald, October 10, 1997.
Newsweek, January 8, 2001, p. 63.
People, April 16, 2001, p. 69.
The Benicio Del Toro Zone: The Official Web Pages, http;//www.beniciodeltoro.com (June 15, 2001).
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