Actor Benicio del Toro met with Boyle Heights Beat reporters early one Saturday morning in November for a wide-ranging conversation more than an hour long. The actor, who has previously visited Hollenbeck Middle School, heard about the Boyle Heights Beat from a colleague and wanted to meet the student reporters.
The 48-year-old actor, who was born in San Juan, Puerto Rico, said he had never had the opportunity to be interviewed by high school journalists and did not want to pass up the chance.
Youth reporters from Boyle Heights Beat talked to the actor about the struggles of being a Latino actor, his political viewpoints and what it takes to make it in Hollywood. The interview has been edited for length and clarity. This is the first of three parts. Read part two and part three.
BHB: What childhood influences led you to acting?
BDT: I went to movies when I was young, I’d go to movies, but I was never “oh, I want to be an actor.” In my family there were no actors, there was nothing related to the theater or anything like that. I played basketball, that was my initial drive when I was a kid. I wanted to play in the NBA when I was a kid. That was my dream. Through sports I was introduced to do team work, which is a big part of doing movies.
It wasn’t until I went to college… I’ll be honest, I wanted to make my schedule really easy, so I took an acting class because, how can you fail that? I was 18 going on 19, and the teacher said that was the right age to learn about the craft of acting. So I felt I was on time. That teacher saying that really made me feel I could really try it. And then I learned that acting is not hit or miss. You construct the character, there’s a science to acting, you can learn [it].
BHB: Has your ethnicity ever helped you get any specific role or impeded you from getting a role?
BDT: Well, first of all, being an actor, or an actress, is a very difficult job. So it’s difficult for everybody. Being Latino makes it a little bit more difficult. I’ll give you an example. When I started going on auditions they asked me to change my name. I’m sure if my name was John Smith they wouldn’t have asked me to change my name. It’s one more hurdle that you have to climb if you are ethnic. And part of it is because of the stories, movies are stories and there are not that many stories being written from the Latino experience.
When I was in acting school, I had a Latino teacher who said, if you’re going to do this, you have to work twice as hard as John Smith. So I’ve always worked really hard, and it’s got me places. But I always kept that in mind, because you have to deal with the realistic aspect that there are not many roles written for Latinos. You just have to love what you do, because then working very hard is not going to really make a difference. But it is a little bit more complicated.
BHB: A lot of your roles involve drugs and organized crime. Is film a way for you to bring light to some of these issues?
BDT: Let’s take two movies; let’s take “Traffic” and “Sicario.” I did “Traffic” in 2001. The problem with the war on drugs has been going on for 30 years, maybe longer, but the production of drugs has not diminished, neither has the consumption, so nothing has changed really. Perhaps the violence in Mexico has gotten really out of control in some places, not all of Mexico. So a movie like “Sicario” brings that question again, is the war on drugs really gaining any ground?
BHB: Do you think drugs should be legalized in the US and Mexico?
BDT: Not every drug is the same; you can’t say [all] drugs should be legalized. But I think the fact that marihuana has been legalized in some states, and I think there are talks of legalizing in Mexico. I think that can help. Marihuana is still a drug, still can be dangerous, but it’s softer than other drugs, like crack, cocaine, those are really dangerous drugs. I believe that that’s a good step, personally, for marihuana.
BHB: Often a community like Boyle Heights complains about the way it’s portrayed in the media. The mayor of Juarez complained about the way the city is portrayed in “Sicario.” What do you think about that?
BDT: First of all, I think it’s his right to speak out. No one in the movie went out to take out Juarez and to put Juarez down. It was never our intention. Movies do borrow from real events. Juarez, when the script was conceived, was maybe one of the most dangerous cities in the world. So the movie borrowed from that. And as a Latino, I have to face it and really stand and say, it was never our intention to hurt the people of Juarez or put down the city, but movies do borrow from reality.
I understand that when the [mayor] of Juarez made that statement he hadn’t seen the movie. The movie is not necessarily that much about Juarez. It’s really about breaking the laws to do what you believe right, which in my opinion doesn’t work.
I also think the collateral damage is not only in Mexico, it’s also on the American side. The policeman that tries to kill [the character played by Emily Blunt,] he is American, so there’s corruption here as well.
Photo above: Benicio del Toro did not want to pass up a chance to be interviewed by Boyle Heights Beat. All photos: WELA YMCA Youth Institute
In Part Two: Benicio del Toro talks about choosing his roles.
In Part Three: Benicio del Toro talks about his chances of getting a second Oscar.