Benicio Del Toro

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"I don't think my dad is really convinced [about my career]," says the actor with the leonine hair and the sleepy, intense eyes.

"He's a lawyer, and I'm very close to my godmother, who's a lawyer, too. They're always going, 'You get up at 11am every day. If you got up at 8am and went to school, you could study law, little by little. You could be a great lawyer." But Benicio del Toro is a great actor in fact, he's already got an Oscar on the mantelpiece to prove it.

Born in Puerto Rico on February 19, 1967, the younger son of two lawyers, Benicio moved to Pennsylvania in the late Seventies, after his mother died of hepatitis. Although his first loves were basketball and acting, the teenager decided to follow in the family footsteps and won a place at the University of California in San Diego to study business. But after he won a part in an on-campus play, he was forced to change his subjects, as he wouldn't have been allowed to perform unless he declared himself a drama student.

His family was not happy, but Benicio persevered. After graduating, he moved to New York to continue his theatre studies, convinced they would pay off eventually. "I never gave myself a time limit. I didn't see it that way. I saw it as a marriage," he later mused. After New York, the budding thespian won a scholarship to study at the prestigious Stella Adler Conservatory in Los Angeles, where he remained for more than three years.

Benicio's first break came when he was cast in the hit TV series Miami Vice, but TV, with its frantic pace and lack of rehearsal time, was not to his liking and he hankered after a career in the movies. First came the bizarrely titled character of Duke The Dog-Face Boy in a Pee-Wee Herman movie not the best way, it seems, for a budding star to make his name. His next movie, the Bond flick Licence To Kill, in which he was cast as Dario, a drug baron's vicious henchman, was a far better opportunity. At 21, Benicio became the youngest actor ever to play an 007 baddie.

"At that point it was like, 'Oh, I'm a movie star,'" laughed the actor, remembering his lucky break. "I made peanuts for 16 weeks but I thought, 'I'm getting paid a bundle.' I thought I'd made it. Then I didn't work again for a while."

Actor Sean Penn, whose attention had been grabbed by Benicio's portrayal of a drug dealer in the TV series, Drug Wars: The Camarena Story, signed him up for his directing debut, The Indian Runner. But it was Benicio's next movie that gave him his big break 1995's The Usual Suspects. Although he thought the unintelligible mumble he adopted to play Fred Fenster had blown his career, Benicio's portrayal of the gangster won him the Independent Spirit Award for best supporting actor in 1996.

By that time Benicio could pick and choose his roles, and he quickly learned to turn down jobs even ones he liked in order to spend time concentrating on his characters. A year later he was given his first lead by Alicia Silverstone no less, and although the movie, Excess Baggage, was a flop, critics were unanimous in their praise of him.

Next up was a role opposite Johnny Depp in Fear And Loathing In Las Vegas, for which he gained 40lbs to play Oscar Acosta, the drug-addicted lawyer of journalist Hunter S Thompson. Returning to his normal weight, Benicio picked up another drug-related role, this time in award-winning director Steven Soderbergh's all-star project Traffic. His deft treatment of Mexican cop Javier Rodriguez, which kept audiences guessing as to where his loyalties lay, was praised by many pundits as the performance of the year, and there were no surprises when his name was announced as the winner of the Best Supporting Actor statuette at the 2001 Oscars.

Since then, Benicio has garnered glowing notices for his roles in Snatch and The Pledge and has even become something of a Hollywood heart-throb. But the actor, who has been linked with Alicia Silverstone, Claire Forlani, Valeria Golino and Chiara Mastroianni in the past, is not particularly impressed by the trappings of fame. Home is a one-bedroom condo in LA, and he has driven the same four-by-four for the best part of a decade.

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