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Benicio Del Toro: A Look at the Ruggedly Handsome Actor’s Path From Indie Films to the Oscars

He's always been good at playing bad guys!

Not many Hollywood stars display such integrity as Benicio Del Toro does. Throughout his 30-plus year career, the 57-year-old actor has never been after the big payout or box office numbers. Instead, he chose roles with substance, always remaining true to who he is as an actor. 

The Puerto Rican-born star started in the ’80s and ’90s in a series of TV shows and indie flicks before jumping to studio films. His breakthrough role as a conflicted police detective in 2000’s Traffic earned him an Academy Award. 

While not necessarily typecast, the actor is best known for playing brooding, dark, tortured souls with his deep, raspy voice and dark circles under his eyes. In three decades, he’s racked up more than 60 credits. Del Toro will be back on screens in the future, with a role in acclaimed director Wes Anderson‘s highly anticipated film The Phoenician Scheme. Here’s a look back at Benicio Del Toro’s celebrated career.

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Benicio Del Toro: the early years 

Benicio Del Toro (birth name: Benicio Monserrate Rafael Del Toro Sanchez) was born on February 19, 1967, in San Germán, Puerto Rico, to parents who were both attorneys. His early years were marked by both personal and geographic transitions. Del Toro’s mother passed away when he was 9 years old, leading to significant changes in his family dynamics. Following her death, his father uprooted the family to rural Pennsylvania. 

The 6’2” star initially planned to pursue a career in business and enrolled at the University of California in San Diego. Given the fact that he was born into a family of lawyers, it was assumed he would follow in their footsteps. 

man with oscar award
Benicio Del Toro with his Oscar in 2001David McNew/Getty

However, an elective acting class changed his trajectory, sparking a passion for the performing arts. He dropped out of UCSD and moved to New York City to study at the renowned Circle in the Square Theatre School — initially hiding it from his family, who wouldn’t be supportive of his new career choice. His training continued at the Stella Adler Academy of Acting in Los Angeles, where he honed his craft and prepared for a career in the arts​. 

Despite early challenges, Del Toro’s determination and talent paved the way for his destiny in Hollywood, where he would later become known for his intense performances in various complex roles.

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man looking worried
Benicio Del Toro in The Funeral (1996)Archive Photos/Getty

Benicio Del Toro’s early career: The ’80s and ’90s 

In the ’80s, Del Toro made a number of appearances in shows like Miami Vice and the NBC miniseries Drug Wars: The Camarena Story before moving to the big screen in Big Top Pee-Wee in 1988.

The end of the decade proved to be a turning point for Del Toro, as he landed the part of a henchman in the James Bond film License to Kill. At age 21, he was the youngest actor in the franchise’s history to portray one of Bond’s villains. Unfortunately, it wasn’t one of the most popular Bond films, but Del Toro’s career was off and running. 

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Man looking angry
Benicio Del Toro in License to Kill (1989)

Del Toro entered the ’90s with a series of film roles, including The Indian Runner (1991), Christopher Columbus: The Discovery (1992), Money for Nothing (1993), Fearless (1993) and China Moon (1994), the latter two of which earned him early critical praise. 

Men standing in police station
Benicio Del Toro in The Usual Suspects (1995)

Midway through the ’90s, Del Toro emerged as a sought-after star who added a sense of compelling mystery every time he showed up onscreen. After a turn in the Hollywood crime comedy Swimming with Sharks (1994), he wowed fans and critics with his portrayal of a mysterious gangster in the 1995 hit The Usual Suspects.

Just because Del Toro was becoming a big-screen star didn’t mean he was only seeking out mainstream parts. In the late ’90s, he appeared in independent films like The Funeral (1996) and Basquiat (1996).

After starring alongside Robert De Niro in the baseball movie The Fan (1996), Del Toro took his first leading man role in 1997’s Excess Baggage. While the Alicia Silverstone-starring flick was largely a box office bomb, critics praised Del Toro’s performance. Another starring role followed in the 1998 adaptation Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas

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Benicio Del Toro and Johnny Depp in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1998)

Fully immersing himself in the role of Dr. Gonzo, Del Toro gained 40 pounds and took up smoking, even purposely burning himself with a cigarette. Even with that impressive transformation, he was largely panned by critics who felt his performance went too over the top. 

During this time, Del Toro was so busy acting it seemed he didn’t have much room for a personal life. But that all changed in the ’00s. 

Benicio Del Toro in the ’00s 

Despite the harsh criticism he received for Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, Del Toro continued onwards, appearing in The Way of the Gun, Snatch, and Traffic in 2000. The latter film not only earned him an Oscar, but he also ended up in a two-year relationship with costar Catherine Keener. A year later, he starred in Sean Penn’s The Pledge.

Man next to a car
Benicio Del Toro in The Way of the Gun (2000)

While Del Toro was becoming increasingly successful, he kept a realistic perspective and forged his own path of complicated roles, saying, “I wouldn’t mind doing something light, but that’s going to be work. Those roles don’t come to me first usually, but [the films] about guys who are conflicted with things exploding come to me. Why is that? You could say typecasting or because of the shape of my eyes. You could say many things. I don’t care. Good stuff is good stuff, I don’t care if it’s upside down or inside out.”

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Benicio Del Toro in 2000 Rossa W. Cole/Getty

After becoming a respected actor, Del Toro veered into heartthrob status, being called “the Spanish Brad Pitt,” and making People’s 50 Most Beautiful People list. During the ’00s, he was rumored to have had flings with starlets like Lindsay Lohan and Scarlett Johansson, and had a relationship with Rod Stewart’s daughter, Kimberly, with whom he had a daughter named Delilah. The couple split but remain friends and amicable co-parents today, even spending holidays together

Del Toro remained busy in Hollywood from 2010 to 2020, with a succession of roles in blockbusters like Sicario (2015), Star Wars Episode VIII: The Last Jedi (2017) and Guardians of the Galaxy (2014).

The actor today 

Today, Del Toro remains one of Hollywood’s most eligible bachelors. In 2023, he joined previous costar Alicia Silverstone and Justin Timberlake for the Netflix thriller Reptile, and earlier this year it was announced that he’ll be starring in Wes Anderson’s next film (he’d previously won praise in another Anderson film, The French Dispatch, in 2021).

Man smiling
Benicio Del Toro in 2023 Vittorio Zunino Celotto/Getty

Del Toro is still going strong and winning over viewers with his signature grit decades into his career, but he’s stayed humble through it all, saying, “Rejection is part of an actor’s training. It’s something that stays with you, it’s always there. You feel that perhaps you’re not going to work anymore. But you can’t despair and just accept anything or do something that doesn’t really interest you, that doesn’t excite you, because you’re afraid you won’t get work. There are ways to keep yourself busy without having to be filming all the time.”

Clearly, Del Toro doesn’t have an ego, and this grounded quality makes him all the more fascinating to watch — even when he’s playing a decidedly devious character.

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