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'This Is My Life'

            The Miami Herald - El Nuevo Herald

As told to Gabriel de Lerma

October 10, 1997

Benicio Del Toro - Memories of a bittersweet childhood

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I was born on February 19, 1967 in Santurce, Puerto Rico. My father's name is Gustavo Del Toro. He's a lawyer and my mother, Fausta Sanchez-Del Toro was also a lawyer. She died when I was 9 years old. I have a brother who is two years older than I am. His name is also Gustavo, he's a physician, and lives in New York.

 

From my childhood in Puerto Rico I remember that I loved basketball and monster movies: movies of Frankenstein, The Wolf Man, and The Creature From The Black Lagoon. Reptiles and dinosaurs fascinated me.

 

A large part of these childhood hobbies was inherited from my cousins - I have about twenty. I remember frequent trips to my parents' farm, but I preferred going to the beach. At that age I hated going to the farm. But now, looking back, I realize that those were good times for thinking, since I would spend long hours alone. I would let my imagination fly, creating my own new world.

 

Then my mother died. She died of hepatitis after being chronically ill for a very long time. The performances I would do to make her laugh were probably my first acting efforts.

 

Incredibly, I took her death very well. When things like that happen at such an early age, you accept them as a fact. It's like they are part of the tree of life.

 

I remember that the only movie that my mother took us to see was Papillon. I loved it and it still means a lot to me. But I never thought that I would be in the movies.

 

My brother and I did not have computers or electronic games. We had to create our own world using our imagination. I would imagine that I was Tarzan. Our dogs would become bears or lions. All these images from childhood have strongly influenced me. I think that my time in Puerto Rico from the ages of 5 to 9 was the most important part of my life.

 

After my mother's death, my godmother - Sarah Torres - helped us out a lot.

 

In Puerto Rico I went to a Catholic school - The Academy of Our Lady of Perpetual Help. The nuns and priests gave me hell at times. I was branded as a troublemaker. A few teachers were capable of seeing the real child behind the mask I put. But to most of them I was simply Benicio The Troublemaker.

 

I caused many problems at school. I think that I did it to call attention to myself. Since my father was a strict disciplinarian and I would thrive on breaking rules, a conflict developed between us. It lasted until the end of my teens. When I was 11, my father remarried. I didn't get along with his second wife (he has since divorced her and is now married to his third wife). Since I didn't get along with his second wife, my father allowed me to come to The United States to study.

 

That's how I arrived here, at the age of 13. I went to a boarding school in Pennsylvania. I was lucky there, because even though I would do a lot of pranks, I spent a lot of time practicing basketball.

 

In the beginning, I had communication problems due to the language barrier. But through sports I could communicate perfectly. I made friends quickly. My passion for music - particularly rock and roll, which had begun in Puerto Rico, blossomed in the States.

 

It was a positive experience. I would spend a lot of time with my friends. Some of them were older than me and this could create problems.

 

By leaving Puerto Rico and finding myself all alone, I grew up rapidly. Fending for myself was the only way to survive. It was the first time that I looked at my inner self instead of looking outside.

 

In boarding school I discovered things such as painting - something that I still a feel a passion for. Even though my mother took my brother and I to painting classes when we were very young, when I turned seven years old we quit those classes. Several years later, in high school, I rediscovered painting.

 

But discovering art did not prevent me from causing trouble. One terrible prank stands out. A friend's friend (whom I didn't know) had his house burglarized by thieves. My friend gave me his friend's phone number. For a week, I placed multiple calls to this house, telling them I was one of the thieves who had robbed them, and swearing that we would break into their house again. I kept harassing them until they moved. They changed their phone number and left the house. I made them move...Now I remember those pranks and realize how stupid I was.

 

My family wanted me to become a lawyer. My father, as well as my godmother (who is an attorney as well), insisted until very recently that I follow the family tradition by going to law school. Even now, my godmother will say at times: 'You know, you can go back to college, study, and graduate...'

 

I discovered acting thanks to a theater play that was being organized by the college I attended. I auditioned for a role and got it. The rules said that, in order to act in the play, I had to either be a senior (I was a freshman) or be a drama major.

 

That's how I changed my major without telling anybody. Up until that moment I had been a business major, something in which I would have failed. After I changed majors, I decided to become an actor. Soon afterwards, I moved to New York to study acting.

 

I never hated the idea of becoming a lawyer. It always appeared to me as if lawyers (particularly criminal lawyers) who litigate in court do something very similar to what an actor has to do.

 

A lawyer has to convince people and, in a way, I have to do the same. But no one in my family did any acting, singing, or dance. Nothing in the arts.

 

When I started this career, my family saw acting as a very strange thing. A career without a future. They would say that there was no way to make a living as an actor. They would repeat: "A TV ad here, a TV ad there and then what? "

 

When I finally decided to become an actor, I never gave myself a time limit. I never said: "I'll try it for five years and if it works, it works. If not, I'll look for another career."

 

I didn't see it that way. I saw it as a marriage.

 

After New York, I moved to Los Angeles, where my brother was living. He was studying at UCLA. I won a scholarship to study at the Stella Adler Conservatory of Acting. After that, I never returned to college. I studied acting intensively at Stella Adler for three or four years.

 

Every day we would do exercises as well as acting and movement practices. We would also read Shakespeare. I survived thanks to the scholarship and to the fact that I lived in my brother's apartment.

 

I earned enough to cover my expenses, by helping to construct a theater at the Conservatory. I did this for a year. They didn't pay me much.

 

After two years in Los Angeles, I got my first job as a guest star in the TV series "Miami Vice." That motivated me, but I did not get any other parts for quite some time.

 

It was hard in the beginning, because my family would not approve of my career choice. The bottom line is that I survived thanks to the fact that there are many ways of finding food in this country.

 

I frequently travel to Puerto Rico. We Puerto Ricans are almost North Americans, since we have the opportunity of traveling in and out of The United States as we please. Puerto Ricans' peculiar cicumnstances make us completely different from other Latin Americans. We don't need a passport or a green card. We can work in the United States without problems. We come to The States and go back to Puerto Rico at will.

 

Even so, many Puerto Ricans go back to Puerto Rico and stay there, where the film industry is limited. If what happened in Cuba had happened in Puerto Rico, I would also be here now. But, most likely, there would be more people from Puerto Rico involved in the film industry. Instead, there are more Cubans and Mexicans in film.

 

Logically, I feel a great responsibility for being a Latino actor working in Hollywood. For now, though, I am only an actor and can not feel any type of responsibility for the roles I play. My only responsibility is to do my job well. But if I were a director or a movie producer, my responsibilities would be greater.

 

The only thing that I ask is not to be solely seen as a Latino actor. The fact that my name is Benicio Del Toro should not imply that I must be thought of only as a Hispanic actor. Logically, I don't have a problem with playing Latino characters, and would play them more frequently if they were better written.

 

The only thing that I am not interested in is television. In TV, work is done too rapidly; I like to interpret my characters, and there's not much room for that on TV. There's some phenomenal actors on TV, but they are very few.

 

Film is my passion. I'll never stop working on films. That's why what happened with 'The Usual Suspects' was very important for me. A lot of people thought that it was the first movie I had worked on. Of course, since it's 'The Usual Suspects,' I have no problems accepting it as my first.

It was a very good movie and I had an important role. Compared to the films I had worked on up to that time, 'The Usual Suspects' was a big change. Furthermore, the fact that it was a good movie and a box office success led people to respect me as an actor and to appreciate my work.

 

After 'The Usual Suspects,' I worked in four movies within one year. That was too much, since I like to have sufficient time to concentrate on each role I play. Everything has changed. Colleagues appreciate my work, which is something I value highly.

 

The roles I am being offered are better, and the types of projects and stories are more interesting. There were a couple of projects which I liked, but I declined them since I had decided to take some time off.

 

Four movies in a year without time to rest was really tiresome. On top of that, I directed a short film.

 

Nevertheless, even though things are going well, I like to take things very slowly. When you start to become a movie star it's easy to believe that you are Superman. That can fool you.

 

That's why I prefer not to pay much attention to fame. The truth is that I don't give it much thought. I don't suffer. I don't hang my photographs on the wall.

 

Without realizing it, you can enter a vicious circle and think that you really are a superhero. It is at that moment that you are in great trouble.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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