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He has the sleepy sensuality of the young Robert Mitchum--a narcoleptic dreamboat quality that suggests a sleek predator roused from slumber by a poke through his cage. So when Benicio Del Toro got a call around noon Los Angeles time a few weeks ago to be told that he'd won the New York Film Critics Circle's Best Supporting Actor prize for his performance as a Mexican narc in Traffic, the 33-year-old emitted something like a growl. The new lion of Hollywood is a late sleeper and, he says, "I'm not a happy camper when I get woken up."
Luckily for him, the Oscar ceremony doesn't start till late afternoon; Del Toro could fall out of bed and into the glare of an Oscar. He already is due to show up later this month at the Golden Globes (another Traffic nomination). If he wins, he can put that gewgaw next to his older Independent Spirit Awards for his turns in The Usual Suspects, as a crook with a bad attitude and a chronic case of the mumbles, and Basquiat, where he uttered the immortal threat, "What would you do if I kissed ya?" Swoon, maybe, since Del Toro has a sexy smile, when he can summon the energy to flash it.
To research his role in Traffic, he spent time with Mexican policemen. "To be a cop in Mexico is very difficult," he says. "They have to pay for their own equipment, their bullets and handcuffs. The system doesn't provide money for uniforms, for shoes. They get peanuts for a paycheck." Del Toro, who lived in Puerto Rico until he was 12, also studied with a dialect coach to master the rural Mexican accent. "I wanted it to be country, like mountain Mexico," he says, "instead of like Taco Bell or Speedy Gonzales."
Del Toro appreciates the shadings of ethical ambiguity in his Traffic cop. "You don't know if he's going to be good or bad. But you understand he has to survive. I always looked at the guy as a good guy. I do that for every character I play, even a psychopath."
Often, that is what he plays; Hollywood has been slow to exploit Del Toro's sultry good looks. His one leading-man role was in the instantly forgettable--what was it called? oh, yes--Excess Baggage, which cooled off Alicia Silverstone's career in no time flat. Mostly he has ornamented indie films (Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, The Funeral, Way of the Gun) with his loping unpredictability; he built a solidly quirky rep, like Nicolas Cage before he went dolefully mainstream.
Should he become a star, Del Toro will face the challenge Cage did: to focus his danger, his eye-catching weirdness, without losing it. Or he might follow his instincts and go even wilder--become the first leading madman. "Hopefully I'll get more opportunity to do things that will challenge me," says the young lion. "Hopefully I'm getting my freedom, coming out of the cage."
--R.C., with reporting by Jess Cagle/Los Angeles