The handsome 36-year-old star of "The Usual Suspects" and "Traffic" stopped at New York's posh Regency Hotel recently to chat with reporters about playing an ex-convict who finds God, then suffers a crisis of faith after he unwittingly sets into motion a chain of tragic events.
Widely regarded as one of his generation's most fascinating performers, Del Toro has played complex, off-beat characters in "China Moon," "Basquiat," "The Pledge" and "The Funeral." Asked what appealed to him most about starring in Iñárritu's study of life, death, love and faith, Del Toro admitted it was, first and foremost, the chance to work with the acclaimed director of "Amores perros" and the distinguished cast he assembled.
"The director was the first thing that came my way," he said. "The director, and then there was Sean Penn being involved in it. Naomi Watts being considered, and the script, and it's a character-driven piece, and actors kill for parts like this."
Interrupted throughout by frequent flash-back and flash-forward sequences, "21 Grams" tells three separate stories: an unhappily married professor (Penn) receives a heart transplant; a young mother (Watts) enjoys a happy life after beating drugs; and an ex-convict (Del Toro) tries to rebuild his life with his wife and children by following the Bible, sometimes a little too literally. Precisely how these three people's lives are forever intertwined is not immediately disclosed.
Sound confusing? Don't feel bad. Del Toro said even he was a bit lost by the fractured story-telling technique. However, both Del Toro and the filmmaker pointed out how realistically the story unravels since, in real life, people don't always get the "big picture" right away. Truth is revealed in snippets, not all at once, Iñárritu said.
"You know, the script was very much like that," Del Toro told United Press International. "Chopped up like that. When I saw the movie, the first 35 minutes, I was like, 'Huh?' But in a good way. It just pulls you in. I don't know if this story was told in a linear fashion if it would have the same pull. It could, but I don't know if it would. The fact that there is a side of you -- because this is a dark movie -- but there is a side of you putting this thing together. Making you get involved. Making you think. Not only about the soul and this and that, but think about the plot."
Del Toro said he relished the depth he explored playing a flawed, but basically decent man desperately coping with a huge mistake he has made. Noting how the three-dimensional character has a vulnerable, as well as a semi-violent side, the actor said he was intrigued by how his ex-con character is so distraught when he accidentally kills several people, he not only turns himself in, but believes himself unworthy of God's mercy.
"I wanted to show the contradictions, but at the same time show how a simple guy, a simple man, can ... be hard-core and almost noble, that he doesn't deserve to enjoy another day when (the) father (of the victims) doesn't get to enjoy another day," he said. "There is something noble about him. He does the right thing most of the time. He's a little too slow, or too fast, but he turns himself in. I mean, the guy's going through a depression. That's the bottom line. It is a thing called survivor guilt. People suffer from that. It's a disease."
To illustrate his character's state of mind, Del Toro pointed to a recent tragedy involving a Staten Island Ferry pilot who tried to commit suicide after his ship crashed and killed 10 passengers.
"He went to his home and slashed his wrists," Del Toro said. "Terrible guilt. So, that's what (my character's) going through and most of these people ... like some of the people who survived the Oklahoma bombing, they were sent to places to get treatment, and drawing and painting was one of the steps. Most of the people made circles. That was what they were doing. That's basically what (my character) is going through. He's in a spiral. He's in a circle and he can't get out. He's not from Park Avenue. He can't go see a psychiatrist and get some pills and be there the next day. He uses the Bible, and hoping for the Bible he believes is black and white."
Recalling how his character defies his on-screen wife (Melissa Leo) by turning himself in to the police, Del Toro said he believes the couple really did love each other, but each was too broken to help the other.
"I think he's incapable (of loving and caring for his family) at that point," the actor said. "He's stuck to that thought of guilt and pain. He's got a disease, and I don't think the wife can help him either. The wife is going: 'Snap out of it! Snap out of it.' Try doing that to a crackhead. You know? I wish it could be as easy as that. I'm sure a lot of people wish that, but the wife is not capable or does not have the tools. I mean, she's thinking about herself, too. It's very realistic. I don't think she's doing it out of a malicious thing. She wants him home. There's definitely love there. ... They're just handicapped. They're human beings. They're not seeing right through. They're very real."
Asked if he prefers playing dark, flawed characters to lighter roles, Del Toro said: "That's how life is. We all have problems. We all have cousins who have problems."
"21 Grams" opens Nov. 21.