Having Played a Blackfeet Indian in Montana, Del Toro Delves Into Native Culture, Open Space, and Filmmaking
BY BRIAN D’AMBROSIO
Benicio Del Toro’s countenance defies easy classification. His face at first seems to be that of someone you’ve known, from some back alley or barrio, hard edged and street worn, while conveying an indecipherable ethnicity that adapts easily to film. Put together, almost unsystematically, as if from various regions of the earth, his disparate features merge into the arresting face that has made him, at 47, a raw international screen presence.
“I got lucky I guess as far as the look,” said Del Toro, the Puerto Rican born, Pennsylvania-raised star of Traffic, The Usual Suspects, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, and Savages. “I can use it to my favor. You have to have a thick skin when it comes to your looks, and never doubt or fear it. I should thank my dad and my mom, really.”
He has played a British werewolf, a stressed to the bone Mexican police officer, a mentally disturbed Native American, a gangster called Frankie Four Fingers, and the Argentine revolutionary Ernesto “Che” Guevara.
In Jimmy P: The Psychotherapy of a Plains Indian, Del Toro’s leathery amorphousness reveals itself in the character of Jimmy Picard, a Blackfeet World War II veteran.
“I do have a real responsibility when representing different groups of people and taking on groups of people that, at first, I don’t know that well,” said Del Toro. “It’s a gift. And I’m lucky that way. I’m lucky that way because I have the opportunity to explore culture. As a Puerto Rican, here I am playing a Native American, and that’s a leap of history. I know something about the Native Puerto Ricans, and a little something about the history of the natives in the United States. But I know a little bit more about them now. In Puerto Rico, there were the Arawaks and the Tainos. Every Puerto Rican knows who the Tainos were.”
The year is 1948, and World War II has been over for nearly three years. The setting is a ranch in Montana, where former Army Corporal Picard lives with his older sister Gayle.
Picard suffers from extreme headaches and bouts of dizziness perhaps related to a skull fracture he sustained during his service. Outlying, barely responsive, and seemingly indifferent to life, Jimmy shows symptoms of post traumatic stress disorder.
At first taken to a Topeka military hospital, Picard is soon transferred to the nearby Menninger Clinic, where he bewilders the staff by exhibiting standard brain activity.
The film draws its inspiration from Reality and Dream: Psychotherapy of a Plains Indian, a case study by the ethnologist and psychoanalyst Georges Devereux about his treatment of a Blackfeet Indian whom Devereux encountered at the actual Menninger Clinic in 1948.
Directed by Frenchman Arnaud Desplechin, the film chronicles Jimmy’s advances and relapses and the emergent bond between scholar and patient.
Nominated for the Palme d’Or at Cannes in 2013 and three César Awards, the opening scenes of Jimmy P were shot in Browning and East Glacier in July 2012.
One-hundred-twenty enrolled members or descendants of the Blackfeet tribe were used in the production and several University of Montana professors were among the local cast.
The globe trotting Del Toro said that Montana’s beauty immediately distinguished it from the majority of other places he has visited.
“First thing I thought was, Wow, that is a lot of space,” said Del Toro. “The first time I arrived, I flew in, and then we drove in a Winnebago. I saw the beautiful sky, the beautiful horizons. I stayed at the Super 8 in Cut Bank, and one of the impressions, the first impression, was walking into the bedroom of the motel, and seeing the beautiful skyline, and the train tracks, and a bridge. It was like something out of a John Ford movie, from another era.
“I looked out the window, out of the Super 8, and I took some pictures. The sky. The high rolling train. It was like a painting. If John Steinbeck was a painter, he would paint that. Something about that, it hits the soul and plugs it up, and makes it speak in stereo. God, or call it whatever you call it, was there.”
Del Toro said he spent approximately 10 or 11 days on location in Montana. To understand the Blackfeet people and to cultivate the characteristics of Jimmy P, Del Toro says that he leaned on Blackfeet educator Marvin Weatherwax.
“I met Marvin and I spoke at length with him,” said Del Toro. “I met other people. And even though most of the picture was shot in the Detroit area, Montana is important to it. I got a lot of help for sign language and the history of the [Blackfeet] culture, all of it, even one of the religious ceremonies. I spent time in Browning and I hung out with Marvin, and one thing that struck me was that there were no movie theaters in Browning. They are said to have had one 15, 20 years ago. But there’s no movie theater today, and that’s a little bit of a sad note.”
Del Toro said he holds no misconceptions about the troubles and hardships of the modern day Blackfeet in Browning.
“There has been change, a recent change of the leadership, from what I know,” said Del Toro. “And the people I met were happy about that change. But there is still very little for the youth—not a bowling alley, or a movie theater, or a Boys Club, nothing there. The people need something to pay attention to. With all the space, being a kid with all the space, you can see as far and high as you can look. It’s a place for dreamers, but it would be nice to give Browning a place to work on that dream.”
On the afternoon we spoke, Del Toro was in transit from London to Spain, where he will spend the next 10 weeks working on another film—one more opportunity to demon-strate why he should remain at the top of the ladder. Indeed, Del Toro’s garbled, mumbling voice, twitchy mannerisms, his brooding presence and diverse dark roles are the signature components of a man whose impressive résumé of films has made him a well-respected and in-demand mainstream favorite.
Del Toro says that acting is as much about the exploration of good ideas as it is about mustering the application and dedication to see a project through to its logical conclusion.
“First of all, I’m sprinting,” says Del Toro. “I’m doing a ten week movie, and I suck it up, and I stay focused on the movie, 24/7. With acting, it’s inevitable that you are going 24/7, and you want to stay in character. On the set, I know that when I do a movie, I’m going to focus on the movie. You have an expiration date—a wrap date. There’s a time to put it together. You have a deadline. You do the best you can, until they ring the bell.”
Between pictures and on the set, Del Toro—noted for his rigorous self-examination of the material—enjoys whatever down time he can set aside.
“One of the things you do to relax is music,” said Del Toro. “It allows you to relax and it motivates you to get up. Music gets you through and allows you to wind down, and music is a good motivator. I read a little bit, maybe watch other movies. For me, going out and seeing things of the place that I am in, and the place I am shooting, that helps. You always like to see something or learn something about the place where you are shooting. When in Spain, I will go to a museum. In Montana, you just open the window. But in the city, you go to the museum, and that will energize your batteries. After I finish filming, I might go travel, or sleep in the same bed.”
Del Toro said that when he takes his second trip to Montana it will most likely involve cool leisure rather than sizzling movie lights.
“I’ve been going pretty hard,” he said. “It’s been 18 months of work, work, and work. I would like to get to spend time with my daughter, and do some traveling. But she might be too little to come to Montana. I like to spend some time with nature, because there is something about it that grounds people to life.”
In a state the magnitude of Montana, Del Toro will never exhaust excursion options. And, he said, the very first thing on his agenda when he returns will be an appointment with a fly-rod and tackle box.
“I’ll tell you, one of the things I want to do is some fly-fishing to relax,” said Del Toro. “I’ve never done it. I here that’s a good way of letting go. I guess that we city folks don’t have that connection. You have it in Montana—constantly. I gravitate toward that connection as I get older.”