Benicio del Toro is on a roll. On February 1, he won the prestigious Goya award in Spain for "best actor" in the Steven Soderbergh epic on Che Guevara. At the Cannes Film Festival last May, he also won "best actor." The movie has now opened across the United States. Despite being more than four hours long and virtually entirely in Spanish, audiences have filled theaters. "Every thing you do turns to gold," one female fan told him at a recent special showing in Washington D.C. "And my mom's in love with you." I caught up with BDT after that screening and asked him to elaborate on what it meant to play Che Guevara and make this movie.
How does this movie transform the Icon into the Man?
I think that is what we tried to do, to make him human. Steven [Soderbergh] tried to pick the details, and the vulnerability and aspects [of his life] that make him human. I think the movie did that. Some people say we just glorified him and made him into a super hero. But I think we made him human.
All those millions of young people wearing Che tee-shirts. What do you want them to know about Che Guevara from this film?
You know what, I think there is a misconception about the tee-shirts. I'm a tee-shirt wearing man. And when I wear a tee-shirt it means something. It's like a removable tattoo. When you see someone wearing a Che tee-shirt, they are saying something that captures in some way the essence of Che--whether it's the underdog, the guy who didn't sell out, the guy who did the sacrifice, the guy who fought against injustice...that is my experience with the people who wear those tee-shirts of Che.
This movie can only add to that--add to that other more specific details and events about Che, I think. If they wear that Che tee-shirt, I think they will find elements of what that tee-shirt represents to them in the movie. They might not know the details: they might not know that he was Argentinian; they might not know that he was under Fidel ['s command]. They might not know where and how he died. But when it comes to Che it is that other essence that is really important.
You spent years preparing for the role. How does an actor prepare to play such a legendary figure such as Che Guevara?
Well, I didn't spend years preparing for the role. I spent years working on the story, you know, as a producer mostly. Usually I get a script, the script is written and then I come in and do my ingredients as an actor. Here, I was working on the story. Yes, I was learning things about the character. It wasn't like I had a script and I spent seven years doing research on a character where the script was already written. That character was being written, and the script was getting thicker and thicker to the point where it turned into two movies...or a long-ass movie, not two movies, but a movie with two parts.
And preparing for the role?
At some point you have all that knowledge but you do what I was telling you about. If you try to look like him, sound like him, move like him you will fall into being a robot. You will start mimicking him to an extent. And you don't want to do that because then you lose him. You won't be able to react, which is 50 percent of acting. What is most important is to do the homework, but at some point you have to throw it away...and play the scene with what you learned. You have to throw it away. At some point you have to let it go.
To play Che you don't have to sound like him, you don't have look like him or move like him. You just have to understand what he stood for, and play him. As an interpreter of Che--and I'm not the first or the last--that's the only advice that I send out for the future Che interpretations.
So, the movie, Che, is really two movies: "The Argentine" which covers the Cuban revolution, and "Guerilla" which deals with Che's failed insurrection in Bolivia. The first movie is about victory; the second is about defeat.
Both movies are about effort, you know.
What did you learn about Che Guevara that surprised you the most?
What surprised me the most? His writing. I think his will was incredible. His discipline was incredible. You know what really surprised me was his formative years. He came from a good family, from a good childhood. He was born in a small town, Rosario. But after he had several asthma attacks, his family moved to another part of Argentina [for better weather]. All for the benefit of that child. I learned that he grew up in this really normal, protective family that encouraged education. He had a normal childhood, and a very protected childhood.
When the movie premiered in Miami there were a lot of protesters outside the theater. How does the movie handle the most controversial issues about Che--his involvement in executions.
First of all, the protesters hadn't seen the movie. They were protesting Che, or Fidel Castro, or Cuba, or the revolution. But they hadn't seen the movie, you know. That was strange for me. I understand [the protests], but at least see the movie. The fact of the matter is that as a military man he believed in capital punishment. The movie doesn't shy away from that [issue]. I mean, we can't show everything, but we do show an execution. We do show what he verbally said about capital punishment and executions in Cuba, and why. But he was no different than any other military man when it comes to capital punishment.
The movie was snubbed by the Oscars. How do you explain that?
Look, "Che" is a Hollywood movie, anyway you want to cut it, it is a Hollywood movie. But it is a Hollywood movie that takes the position of another country, in the language of that country, and makes a criticism of the United States government. I don't know any other movie that has done it that clear. This movie is as good as any movie that got nominated for an Oscar...better. But we got zilch all through the Oscars, and all through the Golden Globes.
What do you think about the state of U.S.-Cuban relations?
The embargo doesn't make any sense. I find it silly, obsolete, and archaic. But it is real. It is something the Cubans have to deal with everyday. The embargo creates an atmosphere of still being at war, from the Cuban point of view. I feel for the Cuban people. They get caught in the crossfire. It is amazing how Cuba has been able to stick it out.
Can the movie contribute in any way to better relations?
Hopefully it will bring some issues afloat...bring these issues out into the open. Relations between Cuba and the U.S., between the U.S. and Latin America. Issues such as poverty, lack of a middle class, lack of education, lack of medicines, food. And people learn about Cuba. For younger generations it will be an interesting pamphlet on Che and Cuba. For younger generations it will become a point of reference. Time will tell.