Benicio Del Toro emerged from the Bolivian jungle to critical applause for his portrayal of Che Guevara, but, he tells Chris Sullivan, the five-hour, two-part film is more than just a biopic, it is a testament to American tolerance
Benicio Del Toro is on sparkling form. Relaxing into a sofa, his 6ft 2in frame is encased in a black suit, a Clash T-shirt and a pair of almost-Seventies styled zip-up boots while his complexion is clear, his smile is expansive and his eyes are bright.
And he has every reason to be pleased. Having notched up a quite remarkable performance as the Cuban Revolutionary leader, Ernesto "Che" Guevara, in director Steven Soderbergh's forthcoming epic, Che, he has already received the Best Actor Award at Cannes for the role and is now heavily tipped for an Oscar while critics the world over are unanimous in their unbridled praise.
"I am pleasantly surprised by what is up on the screen," he explains with a wry smile, his expressive eyebrows raised almost to his impossibly low hairline. "At one point I thought it was a total disaster that was never going to end, that would never turn into a movie and never end up as a cohesive ... anything. It was like a painting that I thought was going to end up looking like mud."
Yet Che is a triumph: clocking in at just under five hours, and divided into two parts, it is based on the life of the former doctor, diarist and freedom fighter and starts where Walter Salles' The Motorcycle Diaries ends. Part One: The Argentine begins just as Guevara and Fidel Castro, accompanied by a painfully meagre gang of 80 ill-fated insurgents, leave Mexico bound for Cuba to take on the US-backed forces of dictator Fulgencio Batista, and closes just as the triumphant rebels march on Havana in 1959.
Part Two: Guerrilla begins after Che has abandoned his ministerial position in Cuba in favour of global peregrination as a Marxist missionary, which takes him to Bolivia in 1966. Here he leads a rag tag band of a few dozen revolutionaries against an elite detachment of US-trained Bolivian Special Forces with disastrous results.
It was shot on location in New York city, Spain (doubling for Cuba), Mexico, Puerto Rico and in the jungles of Bolivia in just under two and a half months, and it seems that the gruelling schedule put all and sundry to the test. "We shot long hours non-stop, six days a week for about 79 days," groans Del Toro, appearing more amused than distressed. "I remember one day – it was a Monday – on the second movie when we did six big, big scenes. That in any other movie would have taken two to three days, and that was the rhythm of the movie. I remember feeling like it was like Friday on a Monday night. But that was the only way to do this movie. If it was up to me I'd still be there in the jungle asking to try another taking."
I suggest that such conditions might have helped the actor portray the exhausted, starving, asthma-riddled Guevara ensconced in the Bolivian jungle. "Yes, that is sure," replies Del Toro, who also co-produced the picture. " I was so tired – as Che was in real life – that I didn't have to act too much – I reacted."
A veritable master in the art of reaction, the garrulous and extremely animated actor was born Benicio Monserrate Rafael del Toro Sánchez in Puerto Rico on 19 February 1967 to a family of lawyers and moved to Pennsylvania aged 13. He saw the light after taking a drama class while studying for a business degree at the University of California in San Diego. Subsequently, he packed in his course and hotfooted it to New York where he trained with the legendary Method teacher Stella Adler, in the famed Circle in the Square Acting School.
He first seduced the movie-going world in 1995 as the mumbling red-shirted crook Fred Fenster in The Usual Suspects. "I read the script and saw that anything my character said didn't really move the plot along – he was just there to be the first to be killed by Keyser Söze," he recalls. " And as I'd seen Dustin Hoffman as Mumbles in Dick Tracy I so I took Bryan Singer to one side and suggested that I mumble the lines them in this incoherent accent and Bryan went with it." Bigger roles followed in Julian Schnabel's Basquiat and The Fan – opposite Robert De Niro – until in 1998 he stepped up to the mark and put on 40 pounds to play the obese drug-addled lawyer Dr Gonzo in Terry Gilliam's adaptation of Hunter S Thompson's Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.
"After that came out I couldn't get a job in Hollywood for a while," he remarks still obviously in shock. "People actually believed that I'd turned into a drugged out drunken, fat slob."
Such thoughts were banished, however, when, in 2000, Del Toro came storming back, all guns blazing, as the morally conflicted cop Javier Rodriguez in Steven Soderbergh's Traffic, winning the Academy Award for Best Actor in a Supporting Role. To research the role he travelled and stayed in Tijuana for months hanging out with locals and former policemen.
"Once you've done all your homework you have to let it all go and then you can fly," he clarifies, making a little bird with his hands. "Steven [Soderbergh] lets us breathe and doesn't hold us back at all. There were a few moments like that in Che."
And it seems that both director and stars instincts were spot on. Just this week after Del Toro unveiled Che in Havana's Yara cinema, he was treated to a 10-minute standing ovation from the 2,000-strong audience – many of whom were involved in the revolution.
"But this is the role of a lifetime," he says seriously, suddenly. "And I've been working on it for at least seven years yet I didn't really know about Che until I was about 20 years old. I was doing the James Bond movie Licence To Kill in Mexico City and I went to a book store and I saw a picture of this guy smiling that was promoting a book of his letters that he had written to his family – funny, articulate, insightful, intelligent, socially concerned letters. That was the first time I had read anything by him and that was it. I continued to read all he had written and Che wrote quite a bit, and very well."
By 2001 Del Toro had enrolled the help of Traffic producer Laura Bickford. "Movies are not made alone and it was when I got together with a group of people that I respected that the movie started," he explains. "But it was a very difficult film to get made ... especially when Steven decided to do the film in Spanish. [He leans back, pauses and raises his eyebrows.] Potential investors were like, 'and so it's about a communist revolutionary [hand on hips as he pulls a quizzical face] and it's five hours long, and it's in Spanish – ummmm.' But American TV has no money for movies in a foreign language because there are no foreign language movies on TV in the US.
"But it would have been stupid to do the movie any other way in another language or any shorter. A lot of Americans really don't know much about the revolution and I think it is good for a lot of people to see this because they can now see the Cuban revolution from a different point of view. I think this film is a testament to America and to the things I believe in – freedom of speech – and whether we like it or not this film was made by Hollywood people. Fifty years ago I'd be hiding out in France after making this."
Undeniably, Che is a compassionate portrait of a man who seems to very much have the interests of the world's downtrodden at heart. "What Che did was try to give people medicine, education but also self-dignity, especially to those of a different colour," says Del Toro. "To convey this message of what this man was doing this is very important to me and I hope people understand and if they don't, well, I have no control over that.
"My work was based on what I learnt from many, many sources and no one manipulated that. And we got lucky that we met people that knew him, his wife, and some members of his family, people that knew him in Cuba and in Bolivia, Argentina, Cuba, and Cordoba – a few survivors who are still around. We met them all.
"But to play such a great historical figure there is a big responsibility. But when you agree it's like when someone says, 'Do you mind if I throw a party at your house?' And you go, 'Yeah, yeah, fine OK.' And then after a while you think, 'Oh, shit! What have I done?' And then you have to bring in plates and move the furniture, and realise that all these strangers are going to come to my house. It is kind of like that."
And what of the Oscar? I ask. "Well, you know .... did you see my beard in the movie? Maybe I'll get an Oscar just for that. A new category: best beard in a motion picture! Now, wouldn't that be something?"
Part one of 'Che' opens on 2 January, and part two on 20 February