You’ve seen the T-shirts. Everywhere. With that face - the beard, beret, eyes burning with revolution. Yet, few people know much about the man behind the tee.
Benicio Del Toro hopes to change that, as co-producer and star of “Che,” a four-plus hours tale directed by Steven Soderbergh. For those with short attention spans (or small bladders), fear not - the epic is now screened as two films. “Che: Part 1” covers the early years, when Argentine doctor Ernesto “Che” Guevara transformed himself from a wheezing asthmatic unprepared for guerrilla life in Cuba, to a renowned, media-savvy firebrand who helps bring Fidel Castro to power. “Che: Part 2,” set in 1967, covers his attempt to stir things up in the mountaintops of Bolivia.
Benicio Del Toro, Santiago Cabrera, Demián Bichir, Kahlil Mendez, Rodrigo Santoro, Catalina Sandino Moreno, Marisé Alvarez, Carlos Bardem, Franka Potente, Edgar Ramirez, Elvira Minguez, Benjamin Benitez, Victor Rasuk, Yul Vazquez, Julia Ormond, Lou Diamond Phillips, Joaquim de Almeida
(Focus Features; US theatrical: 12 Dec 2008 (Limited release); UK theatrical: 20 Feb 2009 (General release); 2008)
Quiz Del Toro on any of this, and he passes with flying colors. He researched the role for seven years. Born in Puerto Rico, Del Toro, now 41, moved to Pennsylvania to attend boarding school at age 13, four years after his mother died. He was studying business at University of California, San Diego, when an acting class changed everything, and he found himself moving to New York to study with the famed Stella Adler.
He made his film debut in 1988’s “Big Top Pee-Wee,” and later earned kudos for roles in films like “The Usual Suspects” and “Basquiat.” Then came Soderbergh’s “Traffic,” for which he won an Academy Award for best supporting actor, and “21 Grams,” earning a best actor Oscar nomination. Now, he’s got Che (twice) and, later this year, “The Wolf Man.”
Del Toro recently sat down and lit up a cigar with Joseph V. Amodio at the Regency Hotel in Manhattan.
Q. Are Cuban cigars as good as they say?
A. I think Cubans are really good. (He flashes a smile.) This is a good one, though it’s not Cuban. It’s a Davidoff. I don’t know where the leaves come from. You know, all his revolutionary life Che Guevara was photographed - and very rarely do you see him without a cigar.
Q. It’s amazing to think Castro ever came to power, given how Che was wheezing and dragging himself through the jungle.
A. Yeah. He suffered from asthma. And he smoked a cigar. And he was a doctor. I asked people that knew him, and they thought the action of sucking (he demonstrates on the cigar) helped. Y’know, way back, they thought smoking could be good for you. Medicine has progressed quite a bit.
Q. What did you learn about Che that surprised you the most?
A. How much he read. And ... the discipline. He wrote in a diary every day. It’s amazing. There’s always this optimism. If I was writing that diary, I would’ve said, “Please someone, send a helicopter with a rope.”
Q. What was it like doing research in Cuba - and getting to meet Castro?
A. Very brief. I was invited to meet him at this book fair. I was brought into a room, and he came in. He was aware of the trips we’d made to Cuba, and he said, ‘I’m glad you’ve been doing serious work. You’ve been coming here and trying to find information about the man from the people that made him. Because Che would not be Che without Cuba.’ I wanted to talk to him about Che, but I was flying out, and he said, ‘Well, next time you come ... ’ But next time I came, he was in the hospital.
Q. Playing the Wolf Man after Che must’ve been a huge relief.
A. Totally. You just ... shed. Shed the skin. Maybe too soon, because I finished “Che,” and a month and a half later, I was in London getting makeup on my face, getting tests. And that took five months to do. But it was cool to be in London.
Q. Was the makeup a hassle, or were you into it?
A. You’re “into it” when you’re putting it on. But it’s a hassle to take it off. It takes about two hours to take it all off. So it was uh ... very interesting.
Q. I was sorry to hear that your godmother - I think you called her “Titi Sarah”? - died recently.
A. Thank you.
Q. She was one of several attorneys in your family, and I gather she helped raise you after your mother died.
A. Yeah, there were a few lawyers in there ... my father, mother. But she was ... (He trails off.)
Q. She was always after you to go to law school. I heard she visited you on “The Wolf Man” set. So ... do you think she finally accepted the fact that you seem to be making a go of this acting thing?
A. Yeah. (He chuckles) You know, I’ve loved horror movies since I was a kid, and she knew how much I liked those movies. She used to call it, like, whenever she came over and saw me dressed up for a movie or whatever, she’d say ... Back to the future.”