`21 Grams' starts Oscar buzz for actor

Chance encounter turns into terrific role for Del Toro

January 02, 2004|By Steven Rea | Steven Rea,KNIGHT RIDDER/TRIBUNE

TORONTO -- Benicio Del Toro and Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu crossed paths during the 2001 Academy Awards. Del Toro, who won the supporting-actor trophy that night for his work as a Mexican narcotics cop in Traffic, was, well, coming out of the men's room.

And Inarritu, whose debut film, Mexico's Amores Perros, was nominated for best foreign-language pic, was, well, going in.

"We talked for just a couple of minutes, in Spanish and in English," Del Toro recalls. "I hadn't seen Amores Perros yet. I saw it later. Loved that film. So, yeah, it was kind of inauspicious, that meeting."

Not so the next time. In summer 2002, Del Toro -- who rose through the ranks of indie stardom thanks to a winningly bizarre turn as an incomprehensible crook in 1995's The Usual Suspects -- got a call saying the Mexican director wanted to meet.

"We got together," the actor says. "We talked. He said he wanted to do this movie, 21 Grams. He told me he had already talked to Sean Penn and that he wanted Naomi Watts for the woman, and he told me there were three stories and that they all came together -- like Amores Perros, in parallel time, cutting back, overlapping. What do you say? Two of my favorite actors and Alejandro.

"I read the script. I said, `Boy, this is it.' We took it from there."

A stark study of strangers brought together by cruel circumstance, 21 Grams brought Del Toro and Watts acting prizes at the Venice Film Festival in September. Penn won the best-actor citation from the National Board of Review a few weeks ago. All three are considered contenders for Oscars.

Del Toro plays Jack Jordan -- a sad-eyed perennial screw-up who's been in and out of jail since he was 16. He's on the straight-and-narrow now: sober, clean, married (Melissa Leo is tough and terrific as his wife), with a young son and daughter. He has a caddy job at a country club. He volunteers at a church center, where he clings to a fire-and-brimstone brand of Christianity with fervent desperation. And, then, on the night of his birthday, his truck hits three pedestrians, and he panics.

"To me, it was obvious that it was really about a guy going through depression," says the 36-year-old actor. He's dressed in black, his big head of hair wavy and flecked with gray.

"Whether his faith is religion or rock-and-roll, whatever it is, it's really about a guy going through a depression. And I found out there's this thing called survival guilt -- if you get into an accident and you survive it and then you start questioning, `Why am I still here and that father and those two girls are no longer around? Why can my wife enjoy me, my kids, while that other wife cannot?' And Jack Jordan is not the most educated man, so he has to deal with these issues in a very limited way."

Director Inarritu has described Del Toro as a questioning, analytical actor.

"He wanted to know a reason for everything before the shooting starts. He wants to know the character in every aspect you could possibly imagine," Inarritu is quoted as saying in the film's production notes.

"One of the most important things in an actor is their interior life, and Benicio has a deep one. You can see a lot of things going on in him just by putting the camera in front of his face. By doing nothing, he speaks with his eyes, and a lot of things are going on."

The actor counts three films as pivotal, personally and professionally, in his career: Bryan Singer's The Usual Suspects, in which Del Toro played the mumbling, disheveled Fred Fenster, "for the fact that it was a movie that was just the ultimate dark horse. ... And for the fact that I got to work with a director who gave me a lot of freedom with that character."

There is 1998's Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, Terry Gilliam's hallucinogenic adaptation of the crazed Hunter S. Thompson odyssey, in which Del Toro plays Dr. Gonzo to Johnny Depp's Raoul Duke. "It was my introduction to Hunter S. Thompson," says Del Toro, who is hoping to direct another Thompson work, The Rum Diary. "And the fact that, from that movie, I started reading much more. Reading Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas really stimulated my interest in books."

And then there is Traffic, Steven Soderbergh's masterful, multitiered drug saga, nominated for five Academy Awards.

Del Toro and Soderbergh plan to work again, on Che, about the Cuban revolutionary Ernesto "Che" Guevara. Originally, Soderbergh was to direct. Now he'll produce, and The Thin Red Line 's Terrence Malick -- a likewise legendary figure who has made but three films in 30 years -- will direct.

In an interview earlier this year, Soderbergh said, "We went to Cuba and met with Che's widow and her son. And two of the five guys that got out of Bolivia alive that were with him in 1967 [when he was slain] ...

"Benicio is a great guy," Soderbergh added. "A substantial person and a soulful person, and I think they really responded to him."

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