Benicio del Toro doesn’t tend to play nice. Even when he’s cast as people doing good — as in his Oscar-winning turn as a DEA agent in Steven Soderbergh’s “Traffic” — the characters are far more complex than that. In “A Perfect Day,” he’s someone everyone would consider saintly: an aid worker in the Balkans in the mid ’90s. But his character is a bit cynical and weary, prone to deceit, even as he tries to help a small village with a seemingly simple problem — a dead body has been thrown in their well, polluting their water — that’s made difficult thanks to bureaucratic red tape. (And the fact that they’re having trouble finding a decent rope to life him out.)
Do people not tend to send you nice guy scripts?
No. Maybe I’ll start getting some nice guy scripts after this article comes out.
Your “A Perfect Day” character isn’t full-on decent. He has flaws and he can be cynical and manipulative.
It was difficult to get that balance between the reality of those situations and the humor without tipping it either way. My characters walks that line. That was what was interesting for me as an actor rather than, “Oh, this is going to be difficult because I’m such a bad guy in real life.”
He’s also an aid worker, which we usually tend to see as saints. But any aid worker will tell you that helping others can be stressful.
I met a few aid works and some Doctors Without Borders, and I tell you, when they tell you a story they like to laugh. They have this sense of humor almost as a self-defense mechanism to deal with the darkness of the job. They’re like any of us would be if we worked in a situation where we had to save people’s lives, because if you f— up people are going to die. That can stress anybody out.
Did the fact that he wasn’t simply good make it more interesting for you?
[I tried] to make him a human being. There’s no human being in this world who’s perfect or just one color. That’s the way I look at the world. Everyone has lied, everyone has been greedy. It just depends on how far you go with that. I feel like he’s got elements of all of that, like we all do. You can make a character human even when they’re doing good. Even good people have lied or tried to steal second base.
On the other side of the spectrum you have someone like Pablo Escobar, who you played in “Paradise Lost,” who is basically objectively evil. How do you find humanity in someone like that?
That’s a bit different, because there’s actual documents on the real person. You look into it and you find he was really close to his family. And that’s bizarre. Here’s a guy who killed families all over the world, and he’s a family man. And that was a fact. The image of him sitting there with his family under a Christmas tree says a lot. You show him killing someone and then playing with his daughter in a doll’s house.
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Do you sometimes find the role as you make it? From the impression I get, a movie like “Che” was something where you find the role and the movie as it was being filmed.
It wasn’t necessarily that we found it as we were making it, as we were making it as we found it. That was a much tougher job than any other movie I’ve done, simply because we needed to do a lot of research. That becomes hard if you want to treat him as he should be treated.
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You and David Bowie, who recently passed, were both in Julian Schnabel’s 1996 biopic “Basquiat.”
I’m bummed out, like everyone is. Just last week I got his new CD, and all of a sudden I got hit by this. Good for him that he worked all the way to the end. But with “Basquiat,” I remember going into the makeup trailer and sitting right next to him. I was looking in the mirror and thinking, “I’m sitting right next to David Bowie.” I mean, how cool is that? He was one of the few rock stars who was also truly a great actor.