Nominated for best supporting actor
Benicio Del Toro traffics in acclaim
(CNN) -- Many actors believe the importance of their roles is directly proportional to the number of lines they have. But not all of them.
For his role in "Traffic" Benicio Del Toro turned that wisdom on its head. He reportedly asked director Steven Soderbergh to cut his character's dialogue, believing he could convey more with facial expressions than with speech.
Del Toro's character is the moral center of Soderbergh's well-received film, an honest Mexican cop caught in the slippery politics and bloody machinations of the drug trade. His performance has earned him an Oscar nomination for best supporting actor. He's already won a Golden Globe and several honors from film critics' groups around the world.
Though "Traffic" has made him a name overnight, Del Toro has been acting in films since the early '90s. He's known for physically immersing himself in his characters: gaining 45 pounds in nine weeks for "Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas" (1998), and thinning his eyebrows and shaving his hairline for his first major success, "The Usual Suspects" (1995).
He also has a reputation for deftly adapting accents. In the recent film "Snatch," he played the Jewish tough guy Franky Four Fingers, shading the role with a vaguely Yiddish accent; for "Traffic," the Puerto Rican-born Del Toro was determined that his Mexican accent sound authentic.
"It was important that it didn't sound Caribbean," he said. "It (needed to) sound more Mexican-American."
Del Toro knows at least a little of what he speaks. He's not unfamiliar with Tijuana, Mexico, one of the settings of "Traffic"; he became familiar with the Mexican border city while a student at the University of California at San Diego.
"We used to go to Tijuana at night because the drinking age there was 18 and in San Diego it was 21," he recalled. "I was 19."
"Traffic"'s filming was full of road trips across the Southwestern United States. He still laughs about the experience.
"At some point we were like a bad country band doing some sort of Southwest tour," he said.
'I saw it as a marriage'
Del Toro has said he had no plans to become an actor. The son of lawyers, he was expected to go into the family business, or do something similar. But while studying business at the UCSD, he suddenly decided to switch majors.
"I discovered acting thanks to a theater play that was being organized by the college I attended," Del Toro recalled in an October 1997 interview with the Miami (Florida) Herald. "I auditioned for a role and got it. The rules said that, in order to act in the play, I had to be either a senior -- I was a freshman -- or be a drama major.
"That's how I changed my major without telling anybody," he recalled.
The acting bug may have been inside all along, burrowed away, Del Toro said. His mother died when he was a child, and he recalled trying to make her laugh while she lay in bed, sick with hepatitis. "The performances I would do to make her laugh were probably my first acting efforts," he told the newspaper.
Regardless of the source of his interest, Del Toro went into acting full tilt, never considering that he might try it for a time and give up if success didn't come calling. "I didn't see it that way," he said. "I saw it as a marriage."
The union, obviously, has borne fruit.
CNN Showbiz Today Reports correspondent Paul Vercammen contributed to this article.
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