‘Get hold their attention and never let go!’ That’s the generic, go-to advice in film production. It’s what a great film does- takes hold our attention and doesn’t let it go. It seems simple enough, but those nine words hold enough equivocacy to be interpreted in an infinite number of ways.
How do you hold someone’s attention? What’s the secret? What’s the go-to piece of advice in answer to this question? The truth is you can gain this coveted form of acclaim in an infinite number of ways. You could be exceptionally funny and quick-witted. This human trait often demands people’s attention. You could be beautiful. This is another powerful trait that succeeds in gaining attention. You could be the strongest, or the fastest, or the loudest. There’s multiple number of ways to get someone to notice you in this increasingly perverse world. But what is consistent is for there to be star quality there has to be the ability to hold attention.
In modern day cinema the skills most paid for and so would suggest most likely to gain people’s attention are the more gauche human skills: strength (to be an actor these days you’d think you’d have to be an athlete), beauty (an obvious one), and intonation (think Di Caprio going from reticent to ballistic/screwed-up/red-in-the-face fury in the blink of an eye, which he does so well).
But if you ignore the shouting for just a moment, and look beyond the flapping eyes and the bulging muscles, you’ll find more subtle techniques which don’t so much demand your attention as acquire it.
Let us take three performances as an example of the ‘subtler approach’: Mexican police detective Javier Rodriguez in the multi-stranded drug smuggling story Traffic. Perennial down-on-his-luck failure Jack Jordan in 21 Grams. And iconic Argentine Marxist revolutionary Che Guevara in Che. Each performance holds within it great conflict: the detective fighting against corruption, the father fighting for redemption, the leader fighting for freedom. These aspects of each character’s story allows for fantastic space to shout and scream and take a shirt off and fight! However the actor who played these roles chose to portray this conflict in a different way.
The actor in question is Benicio Del Toro, and what he did to portray these conflicts was to go the opposite way- to play these roles with a large dose of restraint. Maybe this could be considered lazy acting. Or maybe it is far more skilful to communicate vice and struggle without the tools of brawn and clamour.
When acting Del Toro takes difficult circumstance and holds it within himself, letting the reaction slowly effervesce through the scene, and if this technique is done correctly it can have just as powerful an effect as a scene filled with aliens and explosions and falling buildings whilst the lead protagonist jumps from window to window.
Take Javier Rodriguez guilefully smiling at tourists reporting a crime and telling them ‘this is how it works in Mexico City’. Or Rodriguez sitting silently in front of the feared General Arturo Salazar receiving an implied explanation as to how punishment should be administered in the Latin Americas. How about Jack Jordan arriving late at his surprise birthday party only to sit in his car in the driveway, shaking, quietly explaining to his wife that he ran over a father and two children on his way home. We fall further into Jordan’s despair watching his belief in God collapse till he’s sitting in a motel room silently cutting his arm and pouring vodka into the wound.
In a career high-water mark Del Toro was given the lead role in one of the most poignant and famous stories Hollywood’s ever portrayed; Che Guevara. And within the role of the Guerrilla General you could count on one hand the amount of times he went ballistic. Del Toro played Guevara with solemnity and pride, ruling his army through the look of his eyes rather than the strength of his voice.
Most recently Del Toro played Allejandro Gillick in Sicario. Gillick is an assassin scorned working for the CIA to bring down drug lord Fausto Alarcon who previously ordered the murder of Gillick’s wife and child. It’s an action packed role with Del Toro wielding a gun and moving through action scenes whilst killing multiple enemies, however there is still that insistence to play even this hardened killer with restraint. At one point Gillick interrogates a suspect for information with permission to use torture. The torture? To stand directly over the suspect and not say a word. Undoubtedly the suspect cracks. Right at the end of the film Del Toro has to convince Kate Macer (Emily Blunt) to sign a form declaring everything done to achieve the CIA’s aims was done with legality. It was not. Macer knows this and refuses to sign. But no matter how stubborn she comes across throughout the film, when it comes to the final battle with her greatest adversary, she collapses. How? Whilst pointing a gun at him from a balcony with Gillick stood in a car park facing her, looking at her, just…there.
All this brings me to the tagline at the top of the article- ‘play the man’. Why? Because whilst Del Toro was learning his trade he entered the Stella Adler Studio of Acting in Los Angeles. In a famous story Adler (a prodigious actor herself in the 40s) asked the 6foot 2inch Puerto Rican to do an improvisation exercise which involved Del Toro playing someone in trouble sat in a chair. When Del Toro sat he naturally hunched his shoulders, physically exhibiting a man in distress. Adler stopped him there and said ‘Benicio sit back and hold your head up. Play the man. Always play the man.’ It is the single most mesmerizing trait of Del Toro’s performances- silent and strong. A lesson we can all learn from and take into this increasingly noisy life.
Benicio Del Toro is currently working on Sicario2 and is booked to star in the next Star Wars- Episode VIII.