“I hope you don’t mind cigars,” Benicio Del Toro’s publicist murmurs to i-D. A plume of blue-grey, oaky smoke has just eased out of the Knightsbridge hotel room tasked with keeping Del Toro comfortable for the day.
The man behind Do Gonzo, Fred Fenster and Che Guevara is in town to promote Savages, Oliver Stone’s sensitive take on the Mexican cartels that provide California’s beach bums with their kicks. Freshly shaven, finely cut, hair as black as ink and a silver skull on his finger, Del Toro talks Hollywood stereotypes, drug legalisation, Marco Rubio and Julian Castro…
Your character in Savages isn’t the most compassionate bloke. Do you feel more freedom as an actor when portraying antagonistic characters? Playing the bad guy allows you to do stuff that you wouldn’t normally dare to do. You’re given license to act in a way that you wouldn’t normally approve. Bad guys have been in movies since the beginning of cinema. The Great Train Robbery came out in 1903 and that was really vicious. Those bad guys are relentless. I saw it for the first time when I was working on Savages. It’s vicious. This is the beginning of movies, and it was so hardcore. It made my character in Savages look like a cupcake. It’s not true that I only play bad guys, I play noble characters as well. The Usual Suspects; I’m the victim in that film. And I play a decent guy in Traffic. There’s many actors I look up to, and some of them have played the bad guy more than once, so I don’t feel I’m alone when it comes to playing the bad guy.
American cinema seems incapable of portraying Latin America without portraying the drug trade. Is that something you’re conscious of? There is a problem with drugs in some Latin American countries. It’s because of money and opportunity, and about how the system in these countries aren’t taking care of their people. You can say all of that stuff. There are drug problems in the new world, Europe or Asia; it’s global, and it’s an issue that has stories. If you open the newspaper, there are going to be stories about drugs. It’s happening right now. All the time. Hollywood is going to use that. In Hollywood movies – if there’s a suitcase, it’s going to contain drugs or drug money, or sometimes diamonds and body parts.
Do you get frustrated with Latino stereotypes in Hollywood? There are stereotypes in Hollywood. It’s not like a chapter has closed in Hollywood, but it is morphing bit by bit. Oftentimes, the people dealing drugs are Latinos. But in this movie there’s a sarcasm. Oliver could have done this film in two ways; with sarcasm or with realism. I would have had to talk to him long and hard if he wanted to make a realist film like Traffic with this subject. That’s a different film – it worries about both sides. But I think the film talks about why violence surrounds a drug that isn’t a lot worse than alcohol. It’s a problem for Mexico and for America. It’s a problem of violence. People are looking for chances. When they grow up in a situation where there’s no hope, no respect for life, you’re going to find drug pushers. Without violence, drugs really wouldn’t be much of an issue. So perhaps legalising it and keeping a really tight lid on it is the way forward.
Two Americans from Cuban and Mexican heritage – Marco Rubio and Julian Castro – created real excitement at the Republican and Democratic conventions recently. As someone who moved from Puerto Rica to America at 13, what have been the biggest changes in your lifetime in terms of Latin America’s role in American cultural life? I think it’s a sign of the times. There are people from all over the world in America; that’s the idea. Latin America is America’s southern neighbour, so there are many Latin Americans in America. They’re an important part of it. I think it’s great we have representatives of one of the fastest growing minorities in the country; whether I support their views is separate. It’s a good thing. But that doesn’t mean that the stereotype in Hollywood has changed.
Savages is in cinemas today.
Text: Tom Seymour