Benicio Del Toro is an accomplished Puerto Rican born actor who emerged in the mid-’90s as one of the most magnetic character actors to come along in years. A favorite of film buffs, Benicio gained mainstream public attention as the conflicted but basically honest Mexican cop in Steven Soderbergh’s Traffic (2000) for which he won the Best Supporting Actor Academy Award and Golden Globe.
He re-teamed with Soderbergh to star in the two-part biography of Che Guevera. Che: Part One and Che: Part Two, which premiered at the Cannes Film Festival in 2008 and were released in the US in January 2009. Benicio will next star in a remake of a classic horror film, The Wolf Man, starring opposite Anthony Hopkins.
Benicio Del Toro was born on February 19th, 1967, in Santurce, Puerto Rico, to lawyer parents Gustavo Del Toro and Fausta Sanchez-Del Toro.
When Benicio was nine years old, his mother died after being chronically ill for several years.
In Miramar, Puerto Rico, Benicio went to a Catholic school, the Academy of Our Lady of Perpetual Help. The nuns and priests gave him hell at times because he was branded as a troublemaker. According to Benicio, a few teachers were capable of seeing the real child behind the mask he put on. Nevertheless, to most of them he was simply “Benicio the Troublemaker“. Benicio intentionally caused problems in order to call attention to himself. His father was a strict disciplinarian and Benicio would thrive on breaking rules, which caused a lot of conflict in their relationship.
When Benicio was eleven, his father remarried. According to Benicio, he didn’t get along with the new wife (his father has since divorced her and is now married to his third wife). Partly because of the tension between him and the second wife, Benicio was allowed to move to the United States.
From business to acting
Benicio was sent off to boarding school in Mercersburg, Pennsylvania, when he was 13, as his father wanted him to get the high education that he expected from a future lawyer son. A basketball player with an interest in painting and acting, Benicio decided to follow the family way and study business at the University of California in San Diego. However, acting career was waiting just around the corner.
Benicio auditioned for a play at the university, but the audition required that he be either a sophomore or a theater major. And with that, the college freshman switched out of business to theater. Soon afterwards he moved to New York where he studied at the Circle in the Square Acting School. Later, he won a scholarship to the renowned Stella Adler Acting Conservatory in Los Angeles. Benicio hid his new studies from his family for a little while telling his father that he was still taking courses in business.
Benicio earned enough to cover his expenses by helping to construct a theater at the Conservatory. After two years in Los Angeles, he got his first job as a guest star in the TV series Miami Vice. That motivated Benicio, but he didn’t get any other parts for quite some time. It was particularly hard in the beginning because his family didn’t approve of his career choice.
In addition to Miami Vice, Benicio began to surface in small television parts during the late 1980s, playing mostly thugs and drug dealers on programs like Private Eye, Ohara and the NBC miniseries, Drug Wars: The Camarena Story. Work in films followed, beginning with his debut in Big Top Pee-Wee and in the 007 film Licence to Kill, in which 21-year-old Benicio held the distinction of being the youngest actor ever to play a Bond villain.
Even though both films were considered box office disappointments, Benicio continued to give worthy performances in movies like The Indian Runner (1991), Christopher Columbus: The Discovery (1992), Money for Nothing (1993), Fearless (1993), China Moon (1994) and Swimming with Sharks (1994).
The unusual suspect
Benicio took critics and film buffs by storm as the mumbling, mysterious gangster in Bryan Singer’s The Usual Suspects (1995). Benicio won an Independent Spirit Award for Best Supporting Actor for the role in the Oscar-winning film.
Staying true to his independent roots, he next gave a charismatic turn as cold-blooded gangster Gaspare in The Funeral (1996) directed by Abel Ferrara. He also appeared as Benny Dalmau in Basquiat (1996), directed by artist friend Julian Schnabel. That year also marked his first truly commercial film, as he played cocky Spanish baseball star Juan Primo in The Fan (1996), which starred Robert De Niro.
Benicio took his first leading man role in Excess Baggage (1997), starring and produced by Alicia Silverstone. Hand-picked by Silverstone, Benicio’s performance was pretty much the only thing critics praised about the film, and showed the level of consciousness he was beginning to have in the minds of film fans.
In 1998, Benicio co-starred with Johnny Depp in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, the film adaptation of Hunter S. Thompson’s famous novel, directed by the legendary Terry Gilliam. Benicio gained 40 pounds for the role of Dr. Gonzo, the drug-addicted lawyer to sports writer Raoul Duke.
Benicio’s highly immersive performance divided critics and audiences. The negative reviews upset him, as he had fully invested himself in the role both emotionally and physically. However, the surrealistic film has earned a cult following over the years.
A traffic stopper
After taking a short break, Benicio came back with a bang in 2000 with an impressive string of performances in four high-profile films.
He first appeared in The Way of the Gun (2000), directed by friend and The Usual Suspects writer Christopher McQuarrie. Then he went to work for actor’s director Steven Soderbergh in Traffic (2000). A complex and graphic film, it nonetheless became a widespread hit and Oscar winner.
Benicio’s Javier Rodriguez, a conflicted Mexican cop, functions as the movie’s real heart amid an all-star ensemble cast, and many praised it as the year’s best performance, a sentiment validated by a Screen Actor’s Guild Award for Best Actor. The role also earned him a Golden Globe and Oscar for Best Supporting Actor, as well as Best Supporting Actor awards from the New York Film Critics, the San Diego Film Critics, the Las Vegas Film Critics, and the National Society of Film Critics, among many more.
Benicio also gave a brief, notable performance as the diamond thief Franky Four Fingers in Guy Ritchie’s crime comedy Snatch. (2000). In addition, he gave a powerful performance as a mentally-challenged Native American in The Pledge (2001), directed by old friend Sean Penn.
Although he stayed out of the limelight in 2002, Benicio had another great year in 2003 with the release of The Hunted, an action thriller co-starring Tommy Lee Jones. The highly praised 21 Grams, directed by Alejandro González Iñárritu, garnered him a Best Supporting Actor Oscar nomination.
Benicio was recently seen in the impressive film adaptation of Frank Miller’s graphic novel Sin City (2005), directed by Robert Rodriguez.
He also starred as a recovering drug addict in Things We Lost in the Fire, which premiered in the US on October 19th, 2007. The film, also starring Halle Berry and David Duchovny, has been directed by Oscar-nominated Danish director Susanne Bier.