It's no surprise, therefore, to see him in the new chase thriller, The Hunted, playing a trained commando who can blend into any environment.
On this particular Sunday morning in New York City, Del Toro is keeping up the game. Sitting in a hotel room across from Central Park to talk about the film and his career heretofore, he literally looks like he spent the night in the park.
With those trademark dark eyes, sideburns down to his jaw-line and sporting a ratty, mesh ballcap that reads simply "Memphis USA," Del Toro looks more like a cardboard-box inhabitant than an Oscar winner. But his recent award is never far from memory. Around the room, every marketing piece for The Hunted screams, "Academy Award Winner Benicio Del Toro."
The actor studies the life-size movie posters hanging around him
What makes it "OK" is that the award has opened up doors for him to work with better directors and to have his voice heard during the filmmaking process, he says.
Take The Hunted. While he chose the project even before he was nominated for his Traffic performance, he said he was getting more calls from producers with serious, interesting work after Traffic's release. The one that caught his attention was the chance to work with legendary director William Friedkin on The Hunted.
Del Toro says it was Friedkin's résumé -- including influential films The French Connection and The Exorcist -- that spoke most loudly during their first meetings about the film.
"Billy Friedkin is a strong director," he says. "He's been doing it for a long time. That's the top. Some other movies, some other directors might not have the batting average of Billy Friedkin. They could go crazy and have too many captains on the ship."
But Del Toro also didn't want to make a good film with a great director unless he felt his own part was evenly fleshed out. That was not the case with the first draft of The Hunted script. Del Toro says he worked with Friedkin to make his character -- a decorated killer for the U.S. military whose guilt derails his career and sanity -- less one-dimensional.
Now, he says, the story is much more compelling. The film's story opens in Kosovo in 1999, following the fleet-footed Aaron Hallam (Del Toro) as he infiltrates enemy headquarters to dispose of the leader. For his valor, he is given military honors. But the job wears on him, and he goes AWOL.
Soon, hunters are being found throughout the Oregon wilderness, executed in the same bloody style that was Hallam's trademark. Local authorities bring in L.T. Bonham (Tommy Lee Jones), who trained Hallam to survive and kill, to find his protégé.
Tom Brown, a noted survivalist and consultant for the film, says Del Toro picked up his unique skills very quickly.
"Benicio was one of the fastest learners I've ever met," Brown says. "He spends most of the first half of the movie in camouflage, and there's a certain, very difficult way of movement that you have to master. He nailed it right away."
As is often the case with Del Toro, he got consumed by the role to the point of danger. There's a story told throughout Hollywood about his method-acting ways on the set of Fear and Loathing. On the first take of a scene, he surprised everyone on set when he burned himself with a lit cigarette. Even more surprising was when he did it over and over again with each take.
Not surprisingly, Del Toro gave the fight scenes in The Hunted everything he had. Close to the end of filming, during a pivotal knife fight scene with Jones, he broke his right wrist. Production was delayed while he healed.
"It wasn't so bad," he says of the forced sabbatical. "I found peace in it. No one could bug me for months."
Obviously cherishing his freedom, Del Toro says that's one thing he had to adjust to while doing a big-budget Hollywood film, after a string of low-budget indies. After principal production on The Hunted wrapped, he was told that he could be called back at any time to reshoot. In no uncertain terms, he says, when you are the star of a production, the studio owns you.
So does he accept that or resent it?
"Well, you have to accept it," he says. "That's the business. But I do resent it. That's my nature. I guess I'm rebellious that way. But not for the hell of it."
After all, Del Toro says, he prefers being an actor to being a star. It's easier to blend in that way. ©