- The Washington Times - Friday, March 21, 2003

NEW YORK CITY — "Where is he?" actor Benicio Del Toro inquires, allud-ing to William Friedkin, the director of the chase thriller "The Hunted." A press junket at the Essex House Hotel for the movie, which finds Mr. Del Toro being pursued from forest to city and back to forest by Tommy Lee Jones, has dwindled to one cast member and one technical adviser, professional tracker Tom Brown Jr., who lives in New Jersey and schooled co-stars Jones and Del Toro in woodland survival skills.
When the actor, adorned with sideburns and chin whiskers for his current role (a drug-world melodrama co-starring Sean Penn called "21 Grams"), mutters, "I don't believe it; he should be here," a silent amen echoes among the press.
Mr. Del Toro testifies to a conspicuous Friedkin presence throughout the production, which was based in Portland, Ore. Cast as a former Special Forces soldier, Aaron Hallam, who has gone berserk, Mr. Del Toro pretends to terrorize hunters in the area before being captured by Mr. Jones as L.T. Bonham, his former teacher and mentor, in league with FBI officers under the command of actress Connie Nielsen.
An escape obliges Bonham, modeled to some extent on Tom Brown, to track down his errant pupil a second time. They face each other with knives hewn on the run from scrap metal (Mr. Del Toro) and stone (Mr. Jones).
A question about the difference between his working methods and those of Mr. Jones, a talking point in press material, irks Mr. Del Toro. "The only difference I noticed was that Tommy Lee was staying somewhere else," the actor recalls. "Billy and I had rooms right across from each other at the same hotel. We'd see each other at work and after work. We're not gonna talk about sailing the Caribbean. We talked about the movie. We talked a lot about my character. … Maybe I talked a lot more with Billy than Tommy Lee had to, since he's playing a character who's always sane."
Mr. Del Toro added that sometimes the discussion stops. "Billy can pull rank when he wants to," he reflects. "He might say, 'I directed "The French Connection"; trust me.'"
Despite brooding about the inner turmoil of renegade Aaron, the actor says he stopped short of tracing his character's homicidal bent to childhood traumas. "I didn't go that far," he explains. "I settled on the idea that he was more vulnerable than he realized."
Mr. Del Toro, who was born in Puerto Rico, grew up for the most part in Pennsylvania and attended the University of San Diego, concentrating on acting and painting courses. A drama festival at the Lafayette Theater in New York City persuaded him to seek a professional acting career.
At the age of 22, he made his film debut in the 1989 James Bond thriller "License to Kill." A succession of small roles culminated with a distinctive appearance as a short-lived gang member in "The Usual Suspects." Mr. Del Toro was given free rein to improvise behavioral oddities because the sole purpose of his character was "to be the first of the usual suspects to die, kind of like the first pretty girl sacrificed in a 'Friday the 13th' picture."
Two years ago, he won the Academy Award as best supporting actor for portraying a resourceful narcotics cop in "Traffic."
Asked about his hand-to-hand fight scenes with Tommy Lee Jones, Mr. Del Toro defers to the prowess of the senior member of the cast. "I wouldn't want to be going against Tommy Lee in a serious way," the actor says. "He's very strong. I'd rather be on his team."
In fact, Mr. Del Toro suffered an injury when he and Mr. Jones were obliged to dive for the same weapon. "Tommy fell on top of me, and I broke my wrist right here," he explains. Mr. Jones? "Unharmed."
Tom Brown Jr. arrives with a replica of the knife Mr. Del Toro used in this sequence of the film. According to the expert, both actors took to his instructions like fish to water. "If they [werent good], I'd tell you," Mr. Brown declares. "I was impressed by how fast they were, and how enthusiastic. I had eager students. The script grabbed them. They wanted to achieve that tension when they played their scenes. But all sorts of guys on the crew got into the wilderness and survival techniques. They started making arrowheads and stuff in their spare time. One of the prop guys would tend to wander off in order to look for tracks."
I regret to report that Mr. Brown was too preoccupied to confirm the following description of his own skills, ascribed to Mr. Friedkin in the press material: "Tom could come into this room, get down and look at the carpet, and tell you how many people had been here in the last few hours. He could tell whether they were men or women, what size shoes they wore and what emotional anxiety they might have been harboring just by the way they stood or walked."
Mr. Brown describes himself as "a primitive wilderness survivalist, meaning I teach people to go into the bush with nothing and make whatever they need." From buckskin clothing to teddy bears, he adds, without specifying a situation that would demand a teddy bear. The pre-eminent handy tool, of course, is the knife.
"A reporter once asked me what tool I would take above all others," Mr. Brown recalls. "When I said a knife, he asked what kind, and at that time I didn't know. It hadn't been invented. So I eventually did it. It took me seven years and about 30 prototypes. This is the actual weapon that Benicio used in the movie. Go ahead. Pass it around. That will do any conceivable job, from making a fine bow and arrow to gutting a moose. Anything you could possibly want to do. How does it throw? Beautifully. Like a tomahawk or a knife. Either way. It's beautifully balanced."
Mr. Brown seems to be the living inspiration for the movie. He explains, "Billy Friedkin and I go back about a decade. Originally, he wanted to do a story about my life. It got tabled because a studio got bought out, but we kept in touch. When "The Hunted" came along, he asked me to give Benicio and Tommy Lee my skills.
"The story is fabricated, but elements of it came from my life. I had trained somebody who went bad, and I had to track him.
"Most of my classes are for the general public. I've been doing them every other week for the last 25 years. Usually 75 to 100 people in a group. I also teach some military classes, emphasizing skills needed to escape, evade, detect trip wires, plus camouflage and high-speed invisible survival. At one time, I began to go through the same dilemma experienced by Tommy Lee's character. I found that the military groups were distorting the skills needed to keep them safe and help them out of sticky situations. They were becoming more efficient killers. So I stopped teaching them."
Until the events of September 11, 2001. "The whole story is on the Web site," Mr. Brown explains, "but my brother-in-law was the first officer of the United plane that hit the World Trade Center. I re-evaluated, but I screen the military people in my classes more carefully than I once did."

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