In Sicario – the new film from Denis Villenueve (Prisoners, Enemy) – Benicio Del Toro plays Alejandro, a hitman with ambiguous intentions who leads Emily Blunt's idealistic FBI agent Kate Macer on a corrupt mission into the unknown.
We sat down with the Traffic actor to dicuss his career highlights, winning an Oscar and just how one gets into the mindset of a hitman.
Alejandro must have been a tough character to pin down; how do you approach someone who keeps his emotions at bay despite battling with so much on the inside?
When I realised Alejandro is a hitman – a sicario – I remembered an old story I once read, I can’t remember where [it's from novelist Joseph Campbell]. It was about a samurai who's avenging a death – he trains for years, plans his attack – and when it comes to the moment, he has his samurai raised – ready to kill – but the man turns to him and spits in his face; the samurai puts his sword down and walks away. He feels anger. The minute a hitman feels any kind of emotion over what they’re doing, they have to walk away. I had to find a way for Alejandro to compartmentalise his emotion. It’s okay to show emotion the rest of the time, but when you’re getting down to doing what he does, what a hitman does, that emotion can’t be there. He’s got to be able to do what he does then go have a sandwich; a bit like me now.
What was it like working with Emily Blunt?
The scene where she breaks down and cries after a fight with Josh [Brolin] – that wasn’t in the script. Every now and then – and it’s only happened five or six times in my career – you witness a moment where an actor just changes the room. When she broke down, I was stood there thinking “oh fuck.” Everyone felt it – the actors, Denis, Roger [Deakins, cinematographer]. Denis went, “Okay, that’s enough for today. Emily? Yeah, Emily, you did alright.” It’s kind of like you sitting here right now and then these walls just turn pink – you know, and you’re not on acid. It’s special when you see moments like that. They're rare.
What’s the highlight of your career so far?
I don’t know – there have been a few: The Usual Suspects getting the Independent Spirit award; Traffic, and winning the Oscar and the BAFTA; Che was a great moment. You’re only as good as the role and that comes from the writing.
So you wouldn’t count the Oscar as a personal achievement?
I mean, getting home afterwards and looking in the mirror while you’re holding that Oscar? You look fucking good. You’ve won a fucking Oscar. But when it comes down to it, it’s a group effort: the writers, the director, the editors – your fellow actors. It’s a collective achievement.
What advice would you give to your 20-year-old self?
I don’t know. What would I say? Don’t get caught in the middle. I’d also tell him to read the poem If by Rudyard Kipling – it’s fundamentally about success and failure being the same thing. I’m probably only mentioning Kipling because we’re in Britain. If we were in America, I’d probably say another poem. But it’s all there in If.
Sicario is released on 8 October