Benicio Del Toro, Hollywood’s Instant Antihero, Goes the Distance

If it's a choice between breaking a stereotype or taking a good part, he'll take the part, adding, “I have my own life — I can make sure to break the stereotype there.”

Recently, Benicio Del Toro realized that he’s a sprinter.

He’s always identified with athletes — the rigorous training, the full-body commitment, the pitiless tug-of-war between ability and dumb luck. As an actor in movies like “The Usual Suspects,” “Traffic” and, in a recent galactic detour,“Star Wars: The Last Jedi” and a pair of “Avengers” films, he’s been a strikingly economical player, if not always the most valuable one, averaging an unusually high ratio of memorable moments to minutes on screen.

But it wasn’t until a recent endurance test that Mr. Del Toro understood what kind of athlete that made him. He was filming “Escape at Dannemora,” an eight-part mini-series for Showtime and his first television role in more than two decades. The shoot stretched nearly seven months.

“It was a marathon,” he recalled on the other side of it, in an interview at Sony’s Manhattan tower late last month. “I had to learn to pull back and to breathe, or else I was going to explode.”

Credit...Jody Rogac for The New York Times

The lesson may prove useful. The Showtime mini-series and “Sicario: Day of the Soldado,” an unlikely sequel to his bracing 2015 thriller in theaters June 29, inaugurate a new era of longevity for Mr. Del Toro’s onscreen personas, suggesting that his extensive career may yet find a new gear.

They also mark a weightier achievement: Mr. Del Toro, who was born in Puerto Rico, is now one of only a few Latinos to headline a film franchise released by Hollywood, where Hispanic actors still must often settle for supporting parts, when they exist at all.

At 51, he is tall and broad with an unruly pile of jet-black hair, sunken cheeks and eyelids that stay partly shuttered, as if guarding a loose flame. He has an air of quiet sensitivity and a slightly adenoidal voice that suggests an off-hours version of the antiheroes and rogues he has embodied on camera.

Since his breakout performance in “The Usual Suspects” in 1995, as a minor character named Fenster, whom he turned into an indelibly marble-mouthed mystery man, Mr. Del Toro has sprinted his way through gritty ensemble fare, including “Snatch,” “21 Grams” and “Sin City,” blazing trails that still smoldered long after he’d delivered his last line.

A best-supporting Oscar for “Traffic” (2000) did not turn him into a boldface name overnight, but he rambled toward a quiet kind of leading-man status, which he flexed opposite Halle Berry in “Things We Lost in the Fire” (2007), and in the two-part Che Guevara biopic “Che” (2008) — a passion project that he also produced.

If audiences are still more likely to recognize Mr. Del Toro as an intriguing side than as a main course, his character in the “Sicario” films is notably something in between the two, both the hit man of the film’s Spanish title and a near mythical figure who manages to be more feared than seen.

“He represents the rage against the violence of the drug war — the evil of it,”Mr. Del Toro said of the character, an inexhaustibly vengeful soldier of fortune known in the films as Alejandro. “He’s a victim of the drug cartels, and so he’s become completely callous, like an ice cube.”

Few expected “Sicario” to return. The original film, which also starred Emily Blunt and Josh Brolin, was a haunting, R-rated meditation on moral ambiguity and unremitting violence across the Texas-Mexico border. Directed by Denis Villeneuve, it had the mood and pacing of art-house fare and the box office debut to match, grossing just $12 million domestically on its opening weekend.

But positive reviews, strong word of mouth and a healthy performance internationally eventually turned the movie into a modest hit, with a worldwide gross to date of $85 million on a production budget of $30 million. The film’s writer, Taylor Sheridan, pitched the producers Black Label Media and Thunder Road Pictures on a trilogy that would include “Soldado” and a third “Sicario” film (which has not yet been greenlit).

“There was no talk of a sequel when we were shooting the original” Mr. Del Toro said. “But it was one of those things where I thought: Why not? Let’s go.”

“Day of the Soldado” follows Alejandro and Mr. Brolin’s character, a cocksure government bulldog, on a mission to incite a war between rival drug cartels in Mexico. Mr. Del Toro and Mr. Brolin anchor the film — neither Ms. Blunt nor Mr. Villeneuve returned — and were unusually empowered, in collaboration with a new director, Stefano Sollima, to take liberties with Mr. Sheridan’s script.

“Taylor’s a great writer, but we definitely started ripping it apart,” Mr. Brolin said.

Scenes were expanded or discarded; subplots and transitions were created on the fly, and Mr. Del Toro, as he has throughout his career, occupied himself by endowing his character with vivid and imaginative details.

“Benny would show up to set after staying up all night having come up with five new scenes and all these ideas: ‘What if we tried this? What if we got into that?’” recalled Mr. Brolin, who also appeared briefly with Mr. Del Toro in “Avengers: Infinity War.” “When he’s working, he’s really inside what we’re doing. It’s not, ‘What lines do I have to learn, and then I’m going to go party afterward.’”

Mr. Del Toro’s innovations extended to the arcs of other characters in the story, including one who helps Alejandro survive while on the lam. At Mr. Del Toro’s suggestion, that character was rewritten as a deaf man who communicates in sign language, leading to an unexpected revelation — also conceived by Mr. Del Toro — about Alejandro’s back story.

In another instance, Mr. Del Toro reimagined an early execution scene, deciding on a ferocious, rapid-fire shooting style for his character in which one index finger, turned palm-side down, is repeatedly rammed against the trigger of a pistol.

The result played so well on camera that it was used in the movie’s trailer and became a meme.

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A preview of the film.CreditCredit...Richard Foreman/Sony

“He’s always looking for new ways to express the character’s personality,”Mr. Sollima said. “You look at footage after a shoot, and somehow he’s invented this completely different person.”

Mr. Brolin argued that while many actors adopt affectations to personify words on a page, few are as consistently convincing as Mr. Del Toro. “If you try to steal scenes, or stand out, you can lose all respect from everyone,” said Mr. Brolin, who was a contemporary of Mr. Del Toro’s in Stella Adler’s acting classes in the 1980s. “But with Benny it’s the opposite — he’s getting further and deeper into a character that he’s created, and all you want to do as a viewer is invest more and more.”

Mr. Del Toro, who lives in Los Angeles and has a 6-year-old daughter with the socialite Kimberly Stewart, infuses his character work with shards of personal history. DJ, the mercenary hacker he played in “The Last Jedi,” had a distinctive stutter that Mr. Del Toro said was based on that of his father (fan theories about its greater symbolism not withstanding). “We used to imitate him behind his back,” Mr. Del Toro said, meaning him and his brother, Gustavo, now a doctor in Brooklyn.

His father, who still lives in Puerto Rico, was an indirect source for the execution scene in “Day of the Soldado,” too. Mr. Del Toro got the idea for the rapid-fire method years ago, after seeing someone use it at a shooting range.

“I grew up with guns,” he said, recalling shooting bottle targets with the elder Mr. Del Toro on his family’s farm in Puerto Rico. “My father was in the military and my grandfather was a cop — I had a respect for guns, but also an understanding of how dangerous they can be.”

In his films, Mr. Del Toro has often played violent characters who shoot to kill, many of them on one side of the drug war or the other. He’s sanguine about his professional reputation — “Humphrey Bogart, Al Pacino and Denzel Washington also played a lot of bad guys,” he said — but cleareyed about the role his ethnicity has played in defining his career.

“It’s very difficult when your name ends with an ‘O’ and your last name ends with an ‘O,’” he said. “If you’re a Latino actor and you get a job in movies, it’s going to be as some kind of gangster.”

For Mr. Del Toro, that has sometimes pit his desire to excel as an actor against a competing impulse to challenge negative stereotypes, a predicament faced by many actors of color. Mr. Del Toro said that he decided to focus only on how well a character is written and on the merits of the filmmakers involved.

“If I have to pick between breaking the stereotype and going for the good part, I’m always going to go for the good part,” he said. “I just think the good part is always going to be more satisfying. And I have my own life — I can make sure to break the stereotype there.”

In “Escape at Dannemora,” his Showtime mini-series premiering later this year, Mr. Del Toro plays a convict who teams with a fellow inmate, played by Paul Dano, in an improbable attempt to fly the coop. (The series, directed by Ben Stiller, is based on the 2015 prison escape at the Clinton Correctional Facility in New York.)

“Dannemora” partly prohibited Mr. Del Toro’s usual creative process — as is common in television, latter episodes of the series were still being written after filming started, meaning he gave much of his performance without knowing his character’s fate — but he said he would repeat the experience, granted a modest caveat: “I’d like to have a little bit more … uh, uh … power,” he said.

He’d like to produce more and has even written a few things, although he won’t tell you what. And, if the right part surfaces, he said, he’d even relish the opportunity to leave the guns behind and play an upstanding, salt-of-the-earth type — a prosecutor, maybe, or a pilot, or a firefighter.

In other words, a hero, no “anti” attached, with all of the privileges that affords.

“I wouldn’t mind playing someone that gets the girl in the end,” he said.

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