Benicio Del Toro on What ‘Sicario’ Got Right (and Wrong)


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“It’s a character I haven’t played,” Benicio Del Toro said of his role in the film, from Denis Villeneuve.

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Alberto E. Rodriguez/Getty Images for Afi

Natural-born brooder and a man in possession of Hollywood’s slinkiest pair of bedroom eyes, Benicio Del Toro fits seamlessly into characters who at a moment’s notice might either pull a shiv or erupt into twitchy, maniacal laughter. In Denis Villeneuve’s drug war opus, “Sicario,” it is hard to fathom any other actor as Alejandro, a tormented Mexican ex-prosecutor turned avenger who alternately menaces and protects the F.B.I. agent played by Emily Blunt. Mr. Del Toro’s performance has foisted him into Oscar contention for best supporting actor, a category he won in 2001, for his role in “Traffic.” He was nominated again in 2004 for “21 Grams.”

In October, Mr. Del Toro, 48, dressed in black and wearing a silver skull ring, sat down with the Bagger in the swish Asiate restaurant overlooking Central Park, and spoke about Alejandro’s dark motivations and why the mayor of Juárez’s calls to boycott “Sicario” cut especially deep. Here are edited excerpts from the conversation:

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Benicio Del Toro in “Sicario,” in which he plays a tormented Mexican ex-prosecutor turned avenger.

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Richard Foreman, Jr./Lionsgate

Q. In a lot of your films, you seem almost like a portal between two worlds: an ambassador from the English world to the Spanish world and vice versa. You grew up in Puerto Rico and then Pennsylvania. Is the shift between those two worlds a natural state for you?

A. It became a natural state. In Puerto Rico, there is this Latin culture and the American culture is really coming at it like a kind of petri dish. I can’t help but be a product of it. The first time I ever acted in Spanish was in “Traffic,” and what I thought really strange was listening was different. My training is in English, and the tricky thing about acting is listening. I think maybe it’s a tricky thing in life in general.

With Alejandro, was it one of these no-brainers? Did you take any convincing to do it?

I looked at it and went, “O.K., I don’t know, do I need to do another movie that takes place in the war on drugs?” I didn’t feel I needed to, but there was an element about the character that I felt like if Clint Eastwood got a chance to play that character, he’s going to knock it out of the park. Also it’s a character I haven’t played.

You’ve played different iterations of it.

Not the revenge guy. I was aware that we needed to play it as if he might be a good guy or might not, but I understand him. I don’t agree with him but I understand. He represents everyone south of the border whose family had been hurt one way or the other, the innocent people, or people that have fought in this war on the right side. It was easy to understand a man with such dark frustration of years of violence that have attacked his innocence and his family and people he probably knows.

You excel at ambiguity on screen. It’s hard to know what you’re going to next.

Well, yeah. Let’s keep a little mystery.

Juárez’s mayor got really mad about the movie. Did you hear about that?

Yeah. It was really bad there five years ago, and that’s around the time the script was conceived. It’s gotten better, which I didn’t know, and which is great to hear. Movies are inspired by real life, and as an actor this same story could have taken place in let’s say East St. Louis [Ill.], or some places in Brazil or in Caracas. It was never our intention to offend anyone in Juárez, and the movie’s not really about Juárez. It’s really about this guy going down to get this drug lord.

Does it bother you that there’s a backlash from Juárez?

Yeah because they’re really trying to come out of this problem. I’m really rooting for them. And to be part of what they consider maybe an obstacle bothers me. I have a strong sentiment toward Mexico. I’ve played many roles in Mexico, so I’m Mexico by adoption, in a way.



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