Benicio Del Toro made his first film appearance as Duke, The Dog Faced Boy, in 1988’s Big Top Pee Wee. That gig might not have suggested what was to come in the next quarter century; Del Toro continually has surprised and thrilled audiences with an acting talent second to none. Winning the Supporting Actor Oscar for 2000’s Traffic and getting another nomination for 21 Grams, the actor should be in Oscar’s line again for his riveting turn in the drug-cartel drama Sicario, in which he plays Alejandro, a mysterious hit man who may or may not be on the side of the good guys. Del Toro has played variations of this kind of role in many films (Savages, Escobar: Paradise Lost) but he’s never before gone so deep by saying so little. It might be his best work yet.
I’ve seen you in many movies dealing with drugs from a number of different angles, but I’ve never seen you play a character like this.
I got the script and I thought it was original in its content but I also thought structurally it was very interesting. We follow the Emily Blunt character for the entire film and then suddenly, we go into the world of Alejandro for the last third. I wasn’t sure it could work. Then I met Denis Villeneuve, the director. His enthusiasm was great, as was his vision and his sensibility to that world. I’ve done many, many movies that take place in that world. So I know a little bit of what’s going on. I’ve made friends with the DEA.
The script wasn’t exactly what you wound up filming, in terms of your character?
They kind of put that weight on me, that I cut the dialogue. Halfway through the film there was a scene where we’re going into Juarez and we’re about to cross the border. In that scene, Alejandro had this monologue where he explained to Emily’s character his backstory—what happened to him and his family and basically his motivation. In my life experience I’ve met people who have had tragic moments like that, that mark them forever. My experience is that they don’t open up their story to you in the first 24 hours they know you. So (Villeneuve) then gave those lines to Josh (Brolin), a smaller version of it, and Josh did a terrific job.
Denis Villeneuve has called you his muse. That’s quite a compliment.
He probably said that about all the other actors in the film, because what I notice about him, and I think this is a quality of what I consider a good director, or the best that I’ve worked with—they have this thing; they get really talented people around them and they get that talent to give them 110%. He just has that thing where he’s pulling the strings and you don’t see how he’s pulling the strings. He’s a motivator. I think that’s really what puts him there.
Let me ask you about that dinner scene at the end. Was it written differently?
There was a version where I let the kids and the wife go. Denis and myself were very keen on the version that you see now, but the studio was concerned about it. So in order for the studio to allow us to do the scene that is in the film, we shot the other scene. I think when they screened the movie, when they did the report cards and all, people reacted to the scene that’s in the film now.
Oh my god.
Who would have thunk it?
In the final scene with Emily Blunt’s character you mention how she reminds you of your daughter, who died horrifically. And then a few moments later, in a great twist, you have a gun pointed at her neck. What was it like for you to shoot such an intense scene?
(Denis) got everyone out of the stage, and we sat there and spent about two hours deconstructing the scene, sitting there and going through it. I do remember on the very first day, when we did the first take, and we put the gun to her chin, Emily broke down (crying). And I knew right then and there that the scene was good. It was really one of those moments where everybody felt it. You feel when moments like that happen when you’re acting. You feel that everything has changed.
She’s great in this film, by the way.
Emily’s fantastic. I think she struck home in a really strong way. Her strength that she gives to the character is really, really beautiful.
And she’s the audience’s eyes here. Your character is so interesting—it’s like, which way do you go? How far do you go? And there’s that gray line between good and bad and what side you’re on. And through her watching all this, I think the audience gets that.
I also wanted to add that when she did the scene on the balcony—I learned this later—she told Denis that she wanted to shoot me. And Denis said, “No, no, madame. If you do, you’re just like him.” There is an element of strength in the fact that she doesn’t shoot. To me, that’s the real strength; otherwise, she becomes a wolf.
A sequel to Sicario recently has been announced. Do you have any interest in appearing in that or has it been discussed?
I don’t know. I read about it like you did, but nobody talked to me about a sequel. Hey, my team would love the idea. You never know, but it would be great if it happens.
For a look behind the scenes of Sicario featuring Benicio Del Toro, click play below: