- The Washington Times - Monday, January 22, 2001

Not since Walter Matthau has there been an actor so chronically hangdog, so gloriously rumpled as Benicio Del Toro. He shot blanks in the box-office misfire, "The Way Of the Gun," yet by the close of the year, Mr. Del Toro was reaping a whirlwind of praise for his role as a conscience-stricken, compromised Mexican cop in Steven Soderbergh's "Traffic."

Not bad for a guy who began his film career as Duke the Dog-Faced Boy in 1988's "Big Top Pee-Wee."

Right now, Mr. Del Toro is not only a safe bet for an Academy Award nomination for "Traffic," he is the front-runner. This is remarkable considering that Mr. Del Toro delivers most of his dialogue in Spanish. Also, he was happy just to be able to get the part.

"I was glad to contribute," he says. "It was great to get involved and make it work. It was a challenge." Of course, speaking Spanish was no obstacle for the Puerto Rico-born actor. His lawyer parents relocated the family to Pennsylvania when Mr. Del Toro was a teen-ager.

"I learned Puerto Rican Spanish when I was growing up," he recalls. "I stopped learning it around 11 or 12. But I needed a dialogue coach. We had to make the speech as authentically Mexican and as fast-paced as we could."

Mr. Del Toro admits he was drawn to "Traffic" by its moral ambiguity. The characters in this sprawling ensemble piece are not starkly profiled as good or evil, but are instead portrayed in a more realistic and emotionally affecting light.

"That's what I liked about the script," he says. "When I approach a character, I'll play a bad guy as a good guy and a good guy as a bad guy. It's more fun that way.

"For instance, if my character is getting angry, I won't scream. But I think everyone in this film is a good guy in some way. Circumstances force people to make decisions they might regret, but what is a bad guy? Is it Frankenstein? He was a good guy who was misunderstood. The 'Creature From the Black Lagoon'? Again, misunderstood. There's reason why bad guys become bad."

Certainly, a "good guy" in Mr. Del Toro's book is his "Traffic" director, Steven Soderbergh. He appreciated how Mr. Soderbergh respects his actors, giving them a wide berth in the creation of their characters.

"Steven understands that every actor has a process," he says. "He adjusts to every process and he makes everybody feel good. He makes everybody better around him. He understands every aspect of filmmaking. He's been in front of the camera, behind the camera. He's a great editor. And he's full of trust."

Mr. Del Toro also has nice things to say about Sean Penn, who directed him in one of his two other films currently in release, "The Pledge." But it's the role in "Traffic" that may turn Mr. Del Toro into a movie star.

One reason he is so convincing in "Traffic" is the 33-year-old actor took a south-of-the-border pilgrimage to research the lives of Mexican police officers. He marvels at the harshness of their conditions.

"I went to Tijuana," he recalls. "I spent time with a cop down there. I learned a lot. For instance, if you're a Mexican policeman, you pretty much have to buy your own equipment, your bullets and guns. The department will not provide for you.

"Think if you only make $350 a month. There's a scene in the movie where they steal our handcuffs. Now, we've got to go out and buy our own handcuffs. That gives you an idea of how easy it would be to look the other way and just let a truck go by and you make a lot of money. Then again, a lot of cops still won't sell out. But it's still all about putting food on the table."

"Traffic" is a rare film that is unusually candid and clear-eyed in its depiction of the drug culture and the drug war. Perhaps true to the spirit of "Traffic," Mr. Del Toro is philosophical about the effectiveness of governmental intervention.

"Drugs have been around since the dinosaurs," he laughs. "I don't know if anyone can do anything about it."

Mr. Del Toro has become a staple of quirky indie films. He won back-to-back Independent Spirit awards for Best Supporting Actor for "The Usual Suspects" and "Basquiat." But an attempt at a leading man role in "Excess Baggage," a romantic comedy, failed.

Currently featured in Guy Ritchie's ensemble cast in "Snatch," he would still relish a chance to do broader parts.

"I would love to do another romantic comedy, but I have to get a script first," he says. "Actors can't work by themselves. I mean, if it were left up to me, I would've played Superman."

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