Actor. Born February 19, 1967, in Santurce, Puerto Rico. Del Toro’s mother died when he was nine years old, and his family moved to a farm in Pennsylvania four years later. Del Toro enrolled at the University of California at San Diego after high school with the intention of becoming a lawyer. Instead, his love of acting (developed in freshman drama classes) led him to pursue serious theater training. He moved to New York City, where he attended the Circle in the Square Professional Theater School before winning a scholarship to the renowned Stella Adler Conservatory.
After appearing in guest spots on such television shows as Miami Vice, Del Toro landed his first feature film role, portraying a circus performer called Duke the Dog-Faced Boy in Big Top Pee-wee (1988), a forgettable big screen vehicle for Paul Reubens’ manic TV alter ego, Pee-Wee Herman. Del Toro subsequently had small roles in the Timothy Dalton James Bond film License to Kill (1989), as well as The Indian Runner (1991), the acclaimed actor Sean Penn’s first directorial effort.
Over the next several years, he turned in memorable performances in such films as Christopher Columbus: The Discovery (1992), China Moon (1991), starring Ed Harris, and the independent favorite Swimming with Sharks (1994). He first gained serious critical attention in 1995, however, for his scene-stealing turn as Fred Fenster, the mumbling, doomed hoodlum with a flair for fashion in the acclaimed crime drama The Usual Suspects, costarring Kevin Spacey and Gabriel Byrne. Del Toro earned an Independent Spirit Award for the performance—the first of two, it turned out, as he picked up another the following year for his supporting turn in Basquiat, as the best friend of the titular artist (played by fellow indie favorite Jeffrey Wright).
Del Toro’s first mainstream leading role, in the critically drubbed Excess Baggage (1997), costarring Alicia Silverstone, did little to advance his otherwise promising career. He put on a good deal of weight for his next film, the little-seen Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1998), in which he played Dr. Gonzo, the lawyer-sidekick of the film’s star (Johnny Depp), a Hunter Thompson-esque journalist. Another edgy offering, 2000’s The Way of the Gun, also failed to click with audiences.
With the release of Steven Soderbergh’s drug-war saga Traffic in late 2000, Del Toro found himself at the middle of a virtual storm of critical praise and media attention. A standout even among the film’s impressive ensemble cast (including Michael Douglas, Catherine Zeta-Jones, and Don Cheadle), Del Toro’s bilingual (English and Spanish) performance as Javier Rodriguez, a Mexican police officer, earned the actor a Golden Globe and an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor. (The role was so central to the film that at the yearly Screen Actors Guild honors, Del Toro took home the award for Best Actor, beating out such leading men as Russell Crowe, Tom Hanks, and Geoffrey Rush.)
In the first months of 2001, Del Toro was seemingly ubiquitous; in addition to Traffic, he played the gangster Frankie Four Fingers in Snatch (also late 2000), a crime caper directed by Guy Ritchie and costarring Brad Pitt. He also appeared in Sean Penn’s The Pledge (2001), starring Jack Nicholson, as a mentally disturbed Native American man wrongly convicted of the rape and murder of a young girl. Del Toro continued to take on challenging roles over the next few years. He played a born-again ex-con in 21 Grams (2003) with Naomi Watts and Sean Penn, which garnered him an Academy Award nomination for best supporting actor. He went on to portray a violent cop in Sin City (2005), which was based on Frank Miller’s graphic novels and directed by Roberto Rodriguez. Upcoming films include Things We Lost in The Fire and The Argentine, in which he portrays revolutionary Ernesto “Che” Guevara.
Del Toro has also had a taste of the other side of filmmaking: hesto “Che” wrote, produced, and directed a short film, Submission, starring Matthew McConaughey, which screened at the Venice Film Festival in 1995.