Oliver Stone’s new thriller, Savages, features multiple themes that recur in his movies: layered power struggles, shifting loyalties, examinations of the best and worst of human nature, explorations of complex family relationships and a compelling look at damaged people, some of whom find their own kind of heroism. Academy Award winner Benicio Del Toro plays Lado, a brutal enforcer who works for Elena (Salma Hayek), the merciless head of the Baja Cartel. As Elena’s man up north, Lado runs the Southern California side of the BC’s operation and uses brutal tactics to accomplish his goals. Academy Award nominee Demián Bichir plays Alex, the Cartel’s urbane lawyer and chief negotiator.
MoviesOnline sat down at a press conference with Del Toro and Bichir, who last worked together on Steven Soderbergh’s Che, to talk about their dark roles in Stone’s new film, Savages. They told us what inspired their approach to their characters, how having the opportunity to work opposite great actors elevated their performance, what the directing process was like with Stone, and how playing such intense characters was an exhausting process of transformation. Bichir also discussed how the film dealt with the strong themes and situations that Mexico is facing right now.
Q: In Che you guys played heroic characters, but in Savages your characters’ relationship is less pleasant. How is it to work with the same guy from the previous movie in a completely different context?
Benicio del Toro: He was somebody else and I was somebody else. Yes, it’s possible. When you do movies, I think it’s possible.
Demián Bichir: I think the result is right there on the screen. As soon as you believe what’s happening there, all the fights that we had back stage don’t really count.
Q: What do you mean “fights”?
Del Toro: It’s a joke.
Bichir: It’s always a pleasure to play with great players. I love soccer and tennis, and when that happens, when you have a great player playing against you, your game always improves.
Q: How was your relationship in this case?
Bichir: Well, you know, he’s one of the greatest actors in the world. It’s always a pleasure to be on the same set with somebody like Benicio because it’s a joy. It’s a really easy ride and you always learn a lot.
Del Toro: Really, I have to say, now that we’re talking about us…(laughs)…like he says, it is a pleasure to work with someone that you admire that gets the [work]. Whatever you do in front of the camera…I don’t know what it is, but actors have this thing. You recognize someone that makes you better, and when you do that, it’s a great feeling. It’s like playing a sport, like he says. It’s fun. It can be a lot of fun.
Q: Benicio, can you talk about working with Oliver Stone? Did he give you a lot of room for improvisation?
Del Toro: It’s one of the reasons I’m sure that both of us are here. The main reason for me first was Oliver Stone as a filmmaker. He allowed it. He will want you to. I think in a way he wants you to make sure that you commit to it and so he might present some questions to make you think about your choices and sometimes you have to be on your toes that way. But he allowed, I wouldn’t say total improvisations, but a sense of being able to be free and able to explore things. And then, when you’re working with actors like Demián, it makes it easier in a way to explore things and I think for both the actors. He makes sure that you’re understanding where you are in the story. He knows that story back and forth. It’s like a coach in a way. It goes back to sports in a way.
Q: What was it about your characters that resonated with you and what inspired your approach to them?
Bichir: When I read the novel, I was really impressed with not only the way Winslow tells the story, but how accurate everything was. This is one of those stories that you want to play any role. You want to be a part of it. You want to be the kids. You want to be Lado (Benicio’s character) and you want to be any of those characters. So, when I first met Oliver, we talked about that and we talked about Alex (Bichir’s character) and it was a chance for me to go into a whole different direction from what I did in A Better Life. That’s what you want as an actor. You sometimes have to say no to some other characters or projects because they’re so similar to whatever you’ve played before. Of course, if Oliver Stone calls, you say yes and that’s that. You don’t even ask. I was lucky enough to not only be there for this project with him, but also, to be a part of this fabulous cast, and I’m playing this role that allowed me the chance to go into a different direction.
Q: What about you, Benicio?
Del Toro: Pretty much the same thing in a way. It’s like the book, the story is fantastic. The satire of it, for me, was something different, too. I’ve done stuff like this, but it was Oliver Stone, the cast, and the story. That makes you want to get up and work. That’s the order pretty much.
Q: I know it’s Oliver Stone and it’s a famous book, but did you have any concerns at any point about playing these characters? If you had been offered these roles at the beginning of your careers with a different director, wouldn’t you have said no?
Del Toro: Not necessarily. I don’t think so. Dude, I’ve played drug dealers all my life. I’ve made a career of killing people, all kinds of killers, all kinds of people. I mean really, no, I don’t think you would. Listen, I think you’re right in a way that you as a Latino, you think about the portrait of the Latino, but it’s not one-handed necessarily. There’s a lot of issues in there that get explored on both sides, whether it’s Latino, or in this case, American. So, there is some sort of balance that is not blaming one person. When you blame just one group, it’s a problem. But I think here, in my opinion and the way I look at it, it’s a bigger issue. The message of the picture is the violence, drugs, and in the way it portrays an exaggeration of this. It’s fiction. So it is that for me. I do understand your question and the concern, but to me, that’s how I looked at it. It’s more complex. Sometimes truth is stranger than fiction. Just open the newspaper.
Bichir: You’re right, I agree with you. In Mexico, everyone is so concerned about the choices you make as an actor. When they hear that I did, for example, this film for kids in Ireland where I play a pilot who’s supposed to be traveling with some emeralds, they say “Another drug dealer!” Everyone is really concerned and worried about that. And then, I always think, wow, Al Pacino couldn’t have made any career in Mexico or Robert DeNiro playing gangsters all the time. It’s not about what the character does for a living, but about the project and the power of the character itself. There are so many films about trials, for example, or cops, and there are so many ways of telling the same story or the same character or the same occupation. It’s not about that. It’s about many other things. I play also bad guys or drug dealers or good guys, any kind of different character just like Benicio has. I’ve got to agree with you that there are some projects that you say no to them when the director is not what you want or the cast is not what you dreamt of. That’s why I said before that all that together makes the whole thing fortunate for me. It’s a blessing for you as an actor to be a part of this type of a project.
Del Toro: We’re actors.
Bichir: We’re actors and that’s what we do.
Del Toro: Elements of this happen every day in many places.
Bichir: And this is going on as we speak.
Del Toro: And it’s a problem.
Q: The film deals with very strong themes and situations that Mexico is facing right now. What are your thought on everything that is going on there at the moment, with the cartels and the presidential elections?
Bichir: It’s very interesting. Mexico is living through very crucial times now and this film came just at the right time and the same thing with Colosio which is another film that’s just starting to be shown in Mexico. Cinema serves as a constant reminder to us of who we are and what we are made of. What we’re doing is we’re basically historians. We’re chronicling things that are happening now. Colosio is just arriving in cinemas now. It was 18 or 20 years ago that this happened and it’s very important for people to remember the PRI (Institutional Revolutionary Party) and PAN (Partido Acción Nacional) and to know the history of those political parties and how each of those parties have had a chance but they haven’t been able to do anything, and the only thing they’ve been able to do is make a big mess of everything that’s going on in Mexico. I’m not just talking about the vast amount of poverty and inequality that there is in Mexico, but rather cultural depravity and misery and the moral decline in Mexico, and this is a key moment for this kind of thing with such an important voice as that of Oliver Stone. Oliver Stone has really been able to put his finger on the problem. It’s not just a problem for Mexico, it’s a worldwide problem. This film could have been made in many different ways. It could be a local film but people wouldn’t find out about it. There’s a much deeper dimension to the film. I think it’s important that you have [something] to counteract all of the publicity and media that Mexico is using to manipulate people and change people’s minds in spite of 132 (Mexico’s burgeoning student movement, called YoSoy132 or ”I am 132”). And it’s also on the side of culture and art. I do think it’s really important for people to get information, not just what’s on television, but reliable information that’s clearer and less manipulative, so cinema can also serve that purpose.
Q: Benicio, what were the conversations like between you and Oliver about how to approach your character so that he’s grounded in reality but is also seen as a villain?
Del Toro: It really starts with the book. The book is the first thing. That became like the background of the characters, for every character, so that becomes the history. The script is somewhat different than the book. I talked to Oliver with a lot of respect and I tried not to drive him crazy.
Q: Would you try some things and he would say “Bring it back”?
Del Toro: Yeah, bring it back. (laughs)
Q: Your characters were very intense in different ways. Were you exhausted at the end of the day?
Bichir: It was pretty exhausting. Any film, any project exhausts you because there’s a lot of work way before you go to the set. I remember seeing Benicio for the first time, as Lado, as the character, and I remember thinking in my home “What is this guy going to do with the character? How is he going to make him or dress him? What will he look like?” That’s really exciting. When I saw him for the first time, it was beautiful to see how that transformation happens, or what Salma did, which I think is one of her best works ever. And then, to see John Travolta, in the screenplay playing that guy like that. That transformation, to me, is magic. It’s exhausting. And that day, it was really, really exhausting too. But a great director always makes sure that everything on the table is safe and ready to go for you to perform your best.
Del Toro: Oliver didn’t say “Bring it back” to him. He didn’t have to.
Q: Benicio, this reminds me of your great performance in Traffic and I saw some similarities in the subject matter of the film. Also, your character ends both films watching a baseball game. Did you have any concerns about similarities or comparisons?
Del Toro: No. The baseball thing, that’s eerie. I haven’t really thought about it. And you’re right. What do you want me to say?
Q: Maybe the two films could be companion pieces together? A double feature maybe?
Del Toro: That’s another good idea. Damn! Yeah. Let’s go! Do it! Go on, jump! Any other good ideas? We’re good!
Savages opens in theaters on July 6th.