What is a movie without villains? We’re referring to the characters Benicio Del Toro and Demián Bichir play in the dark drama Savages. This isn’t exactly a departure from what the actors have previously tackled in their careers. Some could argue that they’re just playing stereotypes, but they beg to differ.
In a nutshell, Savages is a twisted tale about two men trying to save the love of their lives. But it’s a lot darker than that. They aren’t princes. They actually supply some of the finest pot in the west. When a Mexican drug cartel tries to bring them into their fold, they refuse. As payback, they kidnap their mutual girlfriend (Blake Lively). Now it’s up to Ben (Aaron Johnson) and Chon (Taylor Kitsch) to save her from them.
In the Che movies, you [Bichir] played Castro and you [Del Toro] played Che. In Savages, your characters’ relationship is less pleasant. How is it working with someone from a previous movie and seeing each other in a different light?
Benicio Del Toro: Yeah, he was somebody else. He was somebody else and I was somebody else. 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 backstage doesn’t really count. It’s a joke. No, 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. He’s one of the greatest actors in the world.
Benicio Del Toro: Thank you.
Demián Bichir: And 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.
Benicio Del Toro: And really, I have to say—now that we’re talking about us—it is a pleasure to work with someone who, like he says, you admire. Someone who gets that whatever you do in front of the camera, I don’t know what it is, but actors have this thing that 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’s a lot of fun.
Can you talk about working with Oliver Stone? Did he give you a lot of room for improvisation? How loose was it for you?
Benicio Del Toro: One of the reasons that both of us are here—the main reason for me—was Oliver Stone as a filmmaker. Yeah, he allowed it. He will want you to think and he’ll want you to make sure that you commit to it. So he might present some questions that make you think about your choices, and sometimes you have to be on your toes. But he allowed—I wouldn’t say total improvisation—but a sense of being able to be free. Able to explore things. And then when you’re working with actors like Demian, it makes it easier in a way to explore things. 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.
What is it about these characters that resonate with you?
Demián Bichir: When I read the novel, I was really impressed with, not only the way that Don Winslow [the original author] tells the story, but how accurate everything was. It’s 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, you want to be any of those characters. So when I first met Oliver, we talked about Alex and it was a chance for me to go into a whole different direction than what I did in A Better Life. And that’s what you want as an actor. You sometimes have to say no to some other characters, some other projects, because they’re so similar to whatever you’ve played before. And of course, if Oliver Stone calls, you say yes—and that’s that. You don’t even ask. And I was lucky enough to not only be there for this project with him, but to be a part of this fabulous cast and play this role that allowed me to go in a different direction.
Benicio Del Toro: Pretty much the same thing. The book, the story, is fantastic—the satire of it. I’ve done stuff like this but for me, Oliver Stone, the cast, the story, that makes you want to get up and work. That’s the order, pretty much.
Did you have any concern about playing these characters? Because if you were offered these kinds of roles at the beginning of your career with a different director, you would say no.
Benicio Del Toro: Not necessarily. I don’t think so. I’ve played drug dealers all my life. I’ve made a career of killing people. All kinds of killers.
Demián Bichir: And all kinds of people, too
Benicio Del Toro: Listen, I think you’re right in a way that as a Latino, you think about the portrait of the Latino. But it’s not one-handed, necessarily. There’s not a lot of issues that get explored on the other side. On both sides, whether it’s Latino or, in this case, American. So there is some sort of balance. It’s not blaming one person. I think that when you blame just one group, it’s a problem. But I think that here, in the way I look at it, it’s a bigger issue. The message of the picture is the violence, drugs and the way it portrays an exaggeration of this is fiction. So it is that, for me. I do understand your question, the concern of it but for me, that is how I looked at it: it’s more complex. And you know, sometimes truth is stranger than fiction. Just open a newspaper.
Demián Bichir: You’re right, I agree with you. You know, a lot of people in Mexico are so concerned about the choices you make as an actor and this and that. When they hear that I, for example did 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 gets really, really concerned and worried about that. And then I always think Al Pacino couldn’t have made any career in Mexico—or Robert De Niro—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 or cops, and there are so many ways of telling the same story with the same character or the same occupation. It’s not about that. It’s about many other things. I’ve played bad guys or drug dealers or good guys—any kind of different characters, just like Benicio has. So 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 dreamed of. All of that together makes the whole thing. Fortunately for me, it’s a blessing as an actor to be a part of this type of project.
The film deals with very strong themes and situations that Mexico is facing right now. What are your thoughts on everything that is going on there at the moment, with the cartels and the presidential elections?
Demián 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. 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. 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.
Savages debuts in theaters June 6.