“Sicario” was released in theaters nationwide over the weekend, and the reception so far has been very positive. The movie features excellent performances from Emily Blunt and Josh Brolin, but it’s the outstanding acting work from Benicio del Toro that has really gotten people talking in particular. Del Toro stopped by The Landmark Theater in Los Angeles after a screening last Saturday evening for a fascinating Q&A session.
For twenty minutes, del Toro gave the audience some insight into his working relationship with director Denis Villeneuve, the chemistry he developed with co-stars Blunt and Brolin, and how he prepared himself before playing such a violent, complex character in Alejandro Gillick. **There are quite a few spoilers and major plot points discussed below** in the Q&A so, if you haven’t seen the movie yet, you may want to tread lightly. You can also listen to audio of the entire interview at the bottom of the last page. Check it out.
Congratulations on another great movie. You’re one of those actors where your ratio between hits and misses is pretty high. Are you picky about screenplays?
I’m actually picky about —well, screenplays— but also the team. The team that makes movies. The movies are put together with a group: director, actors, and in this case, the cinematographer [Roger Deakins]. Usually, the script is the first thing that calls your attention when it’s original. Usually, if I read the script, I look at it and I go like, “Do I believe this?” and if I don’t, “Could it happen?”
How did Taylor Sheridan’s script find its way to you?
It went through my agency but it came in with Denis [Villeneuve]. I read it and quickly met with Denis and he was really enthusiastic and very prepared. His vision was kinda clear and there was a sensibility about the subject too. He was someone who’d done his homework, so that was really what convinced me.
It’s funny because he tends to make these very, very dark movies… and yet he’s the sweetest, funniest, gentlest man. You would know better than I do, maybe he’s hiding [his dark side].
No, he’s good. I think that what he has is that he gets really good people around him. He manages to push everybody to give 110% and then he manages to take all that [and] goes into post and does a great job of telling the story.
You’ve obviously made films before that sort of deal with this area of drug cartels. Was there any hesitation in playing this part again?
Well, I haven’t played this part. I’ve played characters in this world before, but I’ve never played that guy who’s main engine is revenge. So that was new, for me to go out and play that kind of character.
In preparing for this role, you probably knew some [of these characters] from “Traffic” and “Pablo Escobar.”
Before that, one of the first things I did was a TV mini-series called “Drug Wars” and it was based on the true story about a DEA agent called Kiki Camarena that went into Mexico and he was killed. The mini-series had a great cast, and through that I met several DEA [agents] that I’m still friends [with] to this day. And so, because of the films like that and “Traffic,” I’ve stayed in contact with them and been kept updated with what’s going on with the war on drugs. So that’s part of the preparation for it, but usually the preparation for this film was based on the script.
Was there any additional preparation that was new for Alejandro?
Not really. I mean, my thing was —because he’s the Sicario, the hitman— that was kinda like, you know, how do you play a hitman? And I remember a story that I read about a Japanese samurai, and he was given an order to go and kill this evil lord on assignment. And as he went, he found him and had him cornered and pulled out his sword. Just as he was about to strike him, the evil lord spat at him and this caused a feeling of anger. Having those emotions, he put down his sword and walked away. He never killed the evil lord. To me, what that story was saying was that in order to be a hitman, you can’t have feelings. They have to be compartmentalized. So that was my approach to this character. Then again, you can’t play him completely without feeling, because otherwise you’re playing a mannequin. So that was the balance to play in there and that was my initial approach.
Was the film shot at all chronologically or all over the place?
All over the place. But people think when you go do movies that it’s kinda like a party or something, but it really isn’t. You have to be on your toes. Everytime you finish, you go home and you gotta make sure you know where you’re gonna be tomorrowiIn the story. And sometimes you have to re-read the script back and forth just to see where you’re gonna be tomorrow. Like, “What scene is that? 67B and D?” and it jumps all over the place. It’s kind of boring, kinda like going to school.
Is it tough to be in this character’s headspace, or are you able to turn it off at the end of the day?
I’ve been doing this for awhile, so I turn it off pretty quick. That’s one of the things as an actor that you learn —that you have to have a short-term memory and it starts early. It starts when you’re going to auditions and you get rejected all the time. So you train your short-term memory to be really efficient and you do that with characters as well.
What was the most difficult scene for you to do?
Maybe the very last scene with Emily [Blunt] where Alejandro shows up and makes her sign the affidavit. Not because it was difficult, but it was a scene where we were talking about it —Emily, Denis and myself— and we were supposed to shoot it halfway through the shooting schedule, but it was what you call a cover set, so that scene could be moved at anytime. We had plenty of time to do it, usually on weekends: you sit down and talk about the scenes where you might not completely understand it, and that was one of them. But there was rain coming [the day of the shoot] and it was moved without any notice. And so that day was very interesting because Denis was really sensitive about the fact that we needed to sit down and discuss the scene. He allowed Emily and myself to be in the room for some time and we worked it to the point where we were kinda happy, especially when Emily had that moment where she breaks down and signs the piece of paper, because it’s like the essence of her character had just been destroyed. When she broke down, we knew we had a good scene.
You worked with Emily and Josh before. Do you think that helped? Because the chemistry onscreen is really fun.
It does help because you have that trust. You can really trust the other actors and Josh and Emily are very similar —they’re very professional in front of the camera, but then when you hear cut, they turn the set into a sitcom. They’re real funny and really enjoy having a good laugh. I’m different: I kinda keep to the side a little bit to myself, but they really got me out of my shell.
I want to talk about the “family dinner scene.” You have kids in the shot, and it’s very intense. Was that a hard scene?
It was hard because we had to shoot another version of the scene [because] the studio was not really sure that the scene we had would work. So we shot that scene and we shot the other scene, but it didn’t take that long. Maybe half a day, or night, as they were night shots. So we shot this version first and then we went ahead and did a second version where it’s the same scene, but I let the kids and the wife live. But Denis and myself, we thought, we’ve seen that scene before, but this one, I don’t think we’ve seen. Not quite like this.
I’m curious, especially when you were starting out, how often did you go out for roles that didn’t specify race? Color blind casting, basically?
That’s a tough question in a way. Being Latino in Hollywood kinda limits your window of opportunity. It’s not Hollywood’s fault necessarily, it’s just there’s not those stories that explore the Latino life in the U.S., but I think it’s changing a little bit for the better. There’s a lot more opportunity now, more channels and movies, and I think there’s more filmmakers that are from Latino origin and are bringing that into stories that turn into movies here in the U.S. But it still limits you if you’re a Latino or Latina. It’s just gonna be a little bit more limited than if you’re not. When I first came to LA, I was asked to change my name…
What did they want you to change it to?
Well, “Start with Benny.” [laughs] “We’ll make up the last name.” But, I just said “No, I’m not gonna change my name.” It’s a struggle, but I had a teacher when I started acting who said, “You gotta be three times better in order to get a job.” And that might be true, but I don’t let it bog me down.
Audience member: Now that your character’s got his revenge, what happens to him?
I don’t know. I think there’s something of a ticking bomb to it. I don’t know how you could just survive that and go to sleep completely. I don’t think I could say that guy feels good and goes to have a cheeseburger. And I know there’s been talk about a sequel or something like that, but I don’t know where the writer’s gonna take the character —if the character is gonna be in the sequel. I don’t know.
See, I heard the sequel was gonna be about your character…
Where’d you hear that?
I heard it in Variety so it must be true.
Yeah well, ok then. [laughs]