'Traffic's' Top Cop Feels The Heat

Benicio del Toro is so cool he even knows how to catch a fly the right way. Resting his unlit Marlboro on a table in Manhattan's Mercer Hotel lobby, the "Traffic" star demonstrates: proper form is backhanded and quick, like the Karate Kid doing wax-on, wax-off. Never, ever swat frantically. Not cool. Del Toro says he learned it from one of the first books he can recall reading: "Rockin' Steady" by New York Knicks legend Walt (Clyde) Frazier, the actor's boyhood hero. "You gotta find it," he says in his wild, sandy voice, the one he slurred into an unintelligible mumble for his breakout role as Fenster in 1995's "The Usual Suspects." "It was like a guide to being cool. An absolute classic. Really." Then he laughs, making it clear he knows both how ridiculous and how deeply, deeply important all of this is.

Now, with his simmering performance--almost entirely in Spanish--as a cartel-chasing Tijuana cop in "Traffic," Del Toro's coolness quotient is on the rise again. Already up for a best-supporting-actor Golden Globe, the 33-year-old, who also shines in British director Guy Ritchie's forthcoming crime caper "Snatch," could add an Oscar nomination next month. If it were up to the critics, he'd probably win both. And if it were up to his family, he wouldn't get squat. "After my brother saw the film," Del Toro says with a laugh, "he said to me, 'You know, [costar] Don Cheadle is the f---ing man. You were good. But he was great. You should learn from him'.

With all due respect to Mr. Cheadle, we think Del Toro's brother has it backward. As the soft-spoken Javier Rodriguez, Del Toro is the beating heart at the core of "Traffic." His squinting eyes and weathered skin glow with the dignity--and resignation--of a man trying to hold back a tidal wave with his bare hands. It's a surprisingly restrained performance from an actor who made his mark with go-for-broke turns in "The Usual Suspects" and "Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas," in which he played Hunter Thompson's drug-guzzling, pot-bellied attorney, Dr. Gonzo. "This is my minimal stage," Del Toro suggests. "You know, like Picasso's blue stage."

The zany theatrics of Del Toro's early roles were the last vestige of his teenage years as a jock in rural Pennsylvania. Born into a well-to-do family of lawyers in Puerto Rico--his father still lives there; his mother died when he was 9--Del Toro was shipped off to boarding school in the States at the age of 12. Basketball helped him blend in. "I really liked to hot-dog," he says. "Behind-the-back stuff, no-look passes." His teammates called him Benicio Del Turnover.

These days, his hot-dogging behind him, Del Toro has settled into his Zen-cool vibe. The Oscar talk excites him, but as with his approach to acting, honed at the Stella Adler Conservatory in Los Angeles, Del Toro is meticulous about his emotions, analyzing them almost scientifically. "One day," he says, recalling a recent dream, "I woke up, looked myself in the mirror and I realized I had won. And damn, I was feeling good all day long! Then the next day, I wake up and I lost. I wasn't even nominated that day. And I'm down all f---ing day. I can't do anything. But it was all in my head--both of them. There's that great Kipling poem, 'If...' You've gotta see those two impostors with the same face. Just keep your head and do your thing." Now be honest, Benicio, did Walt Frazier teach you to say that?