Benicio Del Toro takes on Che-TWICE

Benicio Del Toro plugs new film while shooting 2 Che biopics


Benicio Del Toro admits his name “is a mouthful in any language, even in Spanish,” so when he was starting out in the acting business it came as no surprise that people suggested he shorten it to “Benny” or some other moniker that sounded like it was meant for a character in “West Side Story.”

“There was a lot of pressure to change my name for a little bit,” says Del Toro, who plays a recovering drug addict in “Things We Lost in the Fire,” opening next Friday. “I understand it. There are many people who changed their names to be in the movies, but I just didn’t want to, and I didn’t.”

Smart move. Del Toro’s distinctive name, shabby good looks and acting style have combined to make him one of this country’s most visible, and talented, Latin film stars.

The 40-year-old native of Santurce, Puerto Rico, first entered mainstream consciousness playing the mumbly-mouthed Fred Fenster in the 1995 cult hit “The Usual Suspects.” He became one of only three Boricuas to win an Academy Award when he copped a best supporting actor Oscar for his portrayal of a Mexican cop in the hit 2000 film “Traffic.”

In his latest film, Del Toro is a down-and-out druggie whose best friend (David Duchovny) is a successful architect who has never given up on his troubled buddy. When the friend is murdered, his widow (Halle Berry) asks Del Toro to stay with her for awhile, and the two grieve and get better together.

“The character is someone who’s sick and gets the motivation to get better,” says Del Toro while puffing on a stogie. “It’s not a straight line. It’s the journey of getting better.”

He looks great — tall, slim, cheerful — in a dark suit and open-collared black shirt.

But his scraggly beard gives evidence of his more recent obsession — he’s currently filming back-to-back films about Ernesto (Che) Guevara, both directed by his “Traffic” buddy Steven Soderbergh.

The first, “The Argentine,” which is being shot in the mountains of Puerto Rico, follows Che during his days with Fidel Castro in the Sierra Maestra and ends with the Cuban leader’s ascension to power.

The second, “Guerrilla,” which will shoot in Bolivia and Spain, tells of Che’s misguided attempt to start a revolution among Bolivia’s peasants, which ended in his death 40 years ago yesterday at the age of 39.

Portraying such an icon is a “huge” undertaking, says the actor. “You have nightmares everyday. It’s very difficult, but you just do it. You know it’s never going to be perfect; it can’t be. We’re just trying to stay true to the historical period, showing what he tried to accomplish.”

After finishing the Guevara films, which are due out late next year, Del Toro is set to star as tortured man-beast Lawrence Talbot in a remake of the classic horror film “The Wolf Man.” It’s just another offbeat role in an intriguing career, one that began, like all too many Latino actors, playing gangsters in movies and TV shows like “Miami Vice” and “License to Kill.”

But Del Toro was able to scramble out of that ghetto, and it’s because, he says, he refused to play stereotyped roles stereotypically.

“Not every bad guy is the same. And not every Latin is the same,” he says. “So if one is Martínez, and one is Rodríguez, it don’t matter, they’re not all gonna be the same.”


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