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Benicio Del Toro

From youngest Bond villain to auteur in just 23 years

Benicio Del Toro

“I’d like to try to direct something, to tell a story.” So said Benicio Del Toro two years ago in this very magazine, when quizzed about his plans for the future. He obviously knew more than he was letting on, because 24 months later (ie now) he’s achieved his aim.

7 Days In Havana – a feature-length drama comprising seven short films set in the Cuban capital – sees the 45-year-old Puerto Rican moving to the other side of the camera to take charge of the first 20-minute segment. The result – a booze-addled tale of a young American’s first night in Cuba – represents an encouraging start. But, then, Del Toro has learned from the best…

You’ve worked with some great directors in your time – did you take any tips from them for your debut?

Steven Soderbergh was a big inspiration. I like the way he tells actors, “You’ve got three takes to get this scene, otherwise that’s it.”

What happens if you don’t get the scene in three takes?

Then you don’t have it. You cut the scene or you cut around it. But that method usually gets you the three best takes you could have gotten. It works because otherwise you think, “Ah, I’ll just take my time and warm up.” I also learned a lot from Steven about staying loose if your location isn’t available or your shooting schedule is cut. I have seen Steven turn water into wine, so I’d say he’s a good model not just for directors, but also for anyone who’s trying to build something, creatively.

Who are your other big inspirations?

I just finished a movie [Savages] with Oliver Stone and it was amazing to me how sharp he was on set. I guess I thought that, since he’d already made so many classics, he might be… I don’t know…

…just going through the motions?

Exactly. But it was amazing how well-prepared he was. If I did something slightly different, he’d always know exactly what I’d changed. He was so quick with making decisions, too. There was never any, “Let me think about this for a second.” He makes his mind up straight away. I liked that.

In 10 years’ time, would you rather be known as a director than an actor?

I would definitely like to do more [directing]. But for the next thing I do I’d like to be more of an auteur. I’d like to tell a story that I really want to say. I don’t want to direct just for the sake of directing. I don’t think I’ve ever acted just for the sake of acting.

You starred in Snatch in 2000 with British actors – did you get a taste for UK culture?

Oh man, it wasn’t the guys in Snatch who taught me about British culture; it was the Rolling Stones, The Beatles and The Kinks. But I’ve worked with a lot of great actors and I’m still friends with most of them. I always have a good laugh with Clive Owen. He’s a funny guy.

Have you met any of your British musical heroes?

Yeah, I’ve met Mick Jagger, Keith Richards and Ron Wood. Actually, I happened to be driving through London a couple of years ago and I saw [Rolling Stones drummer] Charlie Watts out of the window. He was standing on the corner of a street, in a suit, looking up at a building. I think he was looking for directions. I told my driver to stop, rolled my window down and got out my camera to take a picture, but there was no film in it. So I just yelled, “I’m a big fan!” He looked at me like I was mad [laughs].

Did he know who you were?

I don’t think so. And I don’t blame him. That was my meeting with Charlie Watts, my favourite drummer of all time.

Another legend you encountered was Hunter S Thompson. What was your favourite moment with him?

Oh man, there are too many. I remember my first meeting with him and Johnny Depp before we started shooting Fear And Loathing…. It was really uncomfortable. Hunter started… testing me.

What do you mean?

He was saying to me, “I don’t think you can be in this movie. I don’t think you’re good enough. You don’t really understand the character.” I turned to Johnny and said, “Is he for real?” Johnny was like, “Relax, he’s testing you. He did the same thing to me.” It was like an initiation. But we became good friends after that. Hunter was really special. I think he was the first true genius I’ve met.

Is it true that you’re a fan of Fulham FC?

[Laughs] I do like soccer, but I couldn’t tell you that I’m a total soccer fan. I grew up playing basketball and baseball. I went to one game at Fulham and it was great, but I’m more a fan of the South American teams.

Finally, you played a villain in Licence To Kill in 1989 – would you want to return to the Bond franchise and havea crack at Daniel Craig?

[Laughs] Hell yeah. I can’t wait to see the new [Bond] film. Am I still the youngest ever Bond villain? [Del Toro was 21 when he starred in Licence To Kill.]

Top of our heads? No idea. More than likely…

Great. That’s a good title to have.

7 Days In Havana is at cinemas nationwide from 6 July

Image: Rex