Benicio Del Toro on 'Che'

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Benicio Del Toro tells Dave Calhoun about the appeal of playing the iconic Che Guevara in Steven Soderbergh's new two-part movie , 'Che' - and why it's like being Batman

‘Got good news! Got good news!’ Benicio del Toro is spitting out the words like a maniac. He’s doing an impression of Hunter S Thompson, the writer and gonzo journalist he met and became friends with in 1998 when they were making an adaptation of Thompson’s 1971 book  ‘Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas’ together. In the years that followed, Thompson would call Del Toro at random intervals, often in the middle of the night, and scream excitedly down the phone. ‘It was an honour to be woken by Hunter at four in the morning,’ he laughs. As their friendship developed, Thompson suggested that Del Toro should direct the  movie of his novel ‘The Rum Diary’. ‘He said, “I want you to direct my movie! And you don’t know shit about directing!” Then he hung up – before calling me back: “Oh, I forgot to tell you. I just got married!” ’

The directing gig never happened, although the film of Thompson’s ‘The Rum Diary’ will finally go into production this spring with Bruce Robinson, the director of ‘Withnail and I’ at the helm. ‘That’s a good choice,’ muses Del Toro. ‘And Johnny Depp’s involved, too, and if anyone’s gonna take care of that and do a good job, it’s Johnny.’ But he and Thompson stayed in touch. ‘I was talking to Hunter almost until the day he decided, “Right, I’m out the window!” ’ he remembers – Thompson committed suicide in 2005 by shooting himself. ‘I think Bill Murray was the last person Hunter talked to. They were very good friends. And Bill Murray’s speech at the memorial for Hunter was maybe one of the most amazing things I’ve ever seen. It was stunning. Stunning. It was like seeing the Beatles play.’

He may not have become a gonzo director – yet – but Del Toro is pretty busy. We are talking today because he has just given a blistering performance as the revolutionary Che Guevara in a four-hour epic by Steven Soderbergh.

Del Toro’s relationship with Soderbergh goes back to 1999, when they made ‘Traffic’ together, a film that won them both a  sackful of awards. It was Del Toro’s Puerto Rican background that inspired Hunter S Thompson to connect him with his Puerto Rico-set novel; it was those same roots that pushed the actor towards initiating and making ‘Che’. ‘Having Latin American roots, I felt like I could attempt an interpretation,’ he says. He’s one of the film’s producers and spent several years raising money until the cameras finally rolled for 11 weeks in the summer of 2007 in Spain, Puerto Rico and Mexico. ‘Everybody came in with lots of will,’ says Del Toro, who at a young age moved from Puerto Rico to Pennsylvania with his parents. ‘We didn’t have much in the back pocket,’ he laughs. ‘But there was a lot of will!’

Del Toro’s brilliant performance in the film is deadly serious, but in person 41-year-old Del Toro isn’t one to justify the film or his performance on political or personal grounds or with vain references to his craft. He’s too laid back for that. As an interviewee, he’s a wild card, stumbling and mumbling and spitting out words and joking a lot. He’s good, relaxed company. He seems to have been brushed up for a day of interviews – but underneath the gloss, he looks like a guy who’d prefer to be hanging about this hotel in his boxer shorts.

There’s something of the charming stoner about Del Toro. He’s serious when he wants to be, telling me in detail about the journeys he made around the world to meet Guevara’s surviving family and comrades (even Fidel Castro) but he can’t help cracking a joke or getting tongue-tied or slipping into non sequiturs. What does he think is the enduring appeal of Che, I ask? What inspires today’s students to pin a poster of a long-dead South American radical to their walls?

‘Because he walked the walk and talked the talk!’ says Del Toro, whose way of talking is like being pelted by a random series ofitalics. ‘He fought against injustice. That’s… Batman! That’s… Superman! That’s… Spider-Man!’ He goes quiet. ‘Um… um… that’s Aquaman!’ He’s on a roll now and bursts out laughing. ‘That’s Waterman!’ Another pause. ‘That’s all the men!’ A waiter drops off a coffee for him. ‘You want something?’ he asks me. ‘What about a steak? Heh, heh, heh. Hey! Get me a steak and some shrimp!’

When he’s not joking, he’s getting caught up in the pitfalls of playing it straight. I suggest that outside of Latin America, most audiences won’t know very much about Guevara and so won’t know whether the film is accurate or not. ‘I was more afraid of the people that know a lot about him. Because you can fool some of the people some of the time, er, like Bob Marley said, but you can’t fool all of the people, er, all of the time… Er, you can fool the people that don’t know. You can’t fool the people that know. My concern is to… not… fool… the people… that know.’

I think I know what he means. The more he talks, the more I get flashbacks from the TV comedy series ‘Entourage’, a boyish, wink-wink tale of an Italian-American guy called Vince from Queens, New York, who ends up being hot property in Hollywood and brings all his mates along for the ride. It’s apparently modelled on the show’s exec producer, Mark Wahlberg, but there’s something about Del Toro and the whole ‘Che’ story that fits the bill too. In ‘Entourage’, Vince ends up in the jungle with a crazy director fresh out of Sundance who’s making an independent epic movie for zero dollars which they nervously take to Cannes for its premiere. Rewind to May last year, and Soderbergh and Del Toro (who’s got something of Vince about him) were in a position not a million miles away from that: they travelled to Cannes with a film that clocked in at a bum-destroying four and a half hours and was so fresh from the edit that it didn’t have an opening sequence or credits. The screening was so long there was an interval.

Industry paper Variety moaned that the film ‘offers far too many aggravations for its paltry rewards’ and was a ‘commercial impossibility’, while others were more impressed: Time Out’s Geoff Andrew thought it ‘a work of remarkable audacity and rare intelligence… most definitely worth seeing.’

For my money, ‘Che’ is an impressive and intelligent work that knows exactly what it wants to achieve and does it with daring vigour. The Cannes jury, led by Sean Penn, was also won over: it awarded Del Toro best actor.

Six months later, and ‘Che’ is being released in two parts – the first this week, the second next month – with about 15 minutes shaved off since Cannes. The films may not be to everyone’s taste: the makers refuse to play to the gallery by adopting the usual, predictable tropes of biopics, and Soderbergh and writer Peter Buchman stick doggedly with portraying Che the soldier. His family and personal life remain unexamined. Del Toro explains why: ‘Stephen said: “We all have families, why show that? Show him in Cuba behind a desk? Boring. Talking economics? Boring.” ’ The result is that this is a political biography based heavily on Che’s writings. This is a portrait of the public Che.

You could view Soderbergh’s two films as a continuation of the territory explored by ‘The Motorcycle Diaries’, the 2004 film by Brazilian director Walter Salles in which Gael García Bernal played the 23-year-old Guevara, then a medical student, who leaves Buenos Aires to travel around South America and whose journey opens his eyes to the poverty and exploitation of the continent. ‘Che: Part One’ is rooted in the campaign from 1956 to 1958 which saw Castro, Guevara and an expanding band of guerillas fight until they forced General Batista to flee Havana on New Year’s Day 1959 – 50 years ago this week. The second film, ‘Che: Part Two’, which charts Guevara’s final days fighting in the jungles of Bolivia, is a more downbeat affair: rejecting the ’Scope framing and brighter colours of the first film to shoot handheld on darker, grainier stock, infusing almost every frame with a sense of the monotony and disappointment and failure of that adventure. Both are first and foremost war movies – or, as Del Toro describes them, ‘It’s boom, boom! Boom, boom! Boom, boom!’

He turns serious again, showing, behind the gags, just how much of a passion project this has been for him. ‘I think people will see we’re not trying to feed them a bunch of baloney. The movie is based number one, on his writings and number two, on all the research we did. We really peeled our skin to get information and to meet people in his life who were pivotal and are still alive. There was a lot of vertigo involved in making this, but I think “Che” is a story that needs be told – probably over and over again.’
Che: Part One’ opens on Jan 2. ‘Che: Part Two’ opens on Feb 20.


Author: Dave Calhoun



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