"Being on the jury is a job. It's a serious thing. Right?," inquires Benicio Del Toro over the phone last Friday afternoon in Los Angeles.
He's referring, of course, to serving on the jury of the Cannes Film Festival, presided over by Tim Burton and including fellow film world colleagues Alberto Barbera, Kate Beckinsale, Emmanuel Carre, Victor Erice, Shekhar Kapur, and Giovanna Mezzogiorno. The jury will judge 16 official selections in competition, including Alejandro González Iñárritu's Biutiful (Spain-Mexico), Nikita Mikhalkov's Burnt by the Sun 2 (Germany-France-Russia), and Doug Liman's Fair Game (U.S.), the Valerie Plame story starring Naomi Watts and Sean Penn.
Cannes is set to kick-off this evening with the premiere of Ridley Scott's Robin Hood, starring Russell Crowe and Cate Blanchett. Ridley's movie is not in competition, but the premiere is destined to bring the stars out in droves and amp up the anticipation for what discoveries this year's jury might yield. (Assuming no residual volcanic ash washes o'er the red carpet and puts a damper on the events.)
A filmmaker who receives a Palme d'Or enjoys an upward trajectory in his or her career, and can look forward to a distribution deal (if this was not a promise or a guarantee prior to the festival), often in multiple countries, ensuring enough momentum and opportunity to make at least one more film, and often many more. To date, Jane Campion is the only woman to ever win the prestigious Palme d'Or, for her 1993 film, The Piano. Kathryn Bigelow's Oscar wins for Best Picture and Best Director for The Hurt Locker may help shift the international stage and make way for a larger presence and recognition of women in filmmaking.
It is abundantly clear that Benicio is fully capable of answering his own questions. "Judging? I don't know how to judge anything. I've never been part of a jury of anything, not even in school, so it's going to be an experience for me," he shares candidly, straddling a balance beam weighted with grand enthusiasm on one end and a slight teenage-like dubiousness engulfing his confidence on the other. "It's about celebrating cinema from all over the world, so that's exciting!"
As of Friday he wasn't looking forward to the task of packing and seemed to be enjoying the lack of any pressure of a start date for several of the films he is attached to, but aren't yet ready to roll. Benicio has a cameo in Sofia Coppola's Somewhere, set to debut at the Venice Film Festival in September.
"Sofia called me up and asked me if I could do a cameo in her film. I love her work -- 'I want you to be in an elevator with Stephen Dorff,' she said - and I've been in elevators with Stephen Dorff before," he laughs, indicating the preparation for Somewhere was a far cry from the months of research he did in order to shoot Steven Soderbergh's Che: Part One and Che: Part Two, where he had to "read books, travel, meet people to talk about Che, learn about the history of the country, and the history of the times."
So just what inspires this man and propels his artistic drive forward from one picture to the next? "Anyone who does anything! Right now I've been watching the NBA playoffs, so a lot of those coaches and players inspire me. Even some of the commercials in between those games inspire me," he says, the words amusing and surprising him at the same time. "There are so many filmmakers living and not living who inspire me. Filmmakers I've worked with inspire me -- some of them," he quantifies.
"Watching the Suns the other day (May 5th) play against San Antonio (Spurs), and the way they wore those jerseys that said 'Los Suns' -- against the law that had been passed in Arizona, that was inspiring. That's the latest piece of inspiration, I think -- watching that basketball team say something needs to be done regarding that bill."
"I love to watch how they adjust to problems and how they deal with situations," Benicio continues, referring to the coaches and players. You can feel the instant replay running across the ticker tape of his mind as the passion courses through his voice. "I live in LA, so I have to go for 'Los Lakers,'" he laughs.
Benicio looks toward where his inspiration might take him further down the line. "I would like to get behind the camera. That might be a challenge. Get behind a camera and tell a story."
The thoughts roll easily off his tongue, as if they are second nature. "That's something I think I'd like to try at one point. In the meantime, it's really and truly an honor to be part of the jury of the Cannes Film Festival, and I'm looking forward to it."