The year was early 2004. I was 19, hanging out with my friends around the streets of El Viejo San Juan one night when we spotted a nice-looking girl wearing a black dress. While we pondered which one of us nerds was going to make the first move, out of nowhere we were outwitted by some old-looking bum who was successfully wooing the hell out of this girl. She couldn’t keep her hands off him. “What does he have that we don’t?” asked my friend. Soon we realized that this “bum” was actually…. “Benicio del Toro!” the film buff inside of me screamed out loud. I ignored the girl and went up straight to him and proceeded to make a fool out of myself. I politely interrupted his conversation, said hello and told him his performance on 21 Grams had been intense and amazing. He said “Thank you” and smiled back. My friends never stopped making fun of me for that one.
Fast forward almost 4 years later. It’s hot and I’m hiding under a bush, holding a rifle in the middle of a jungle. I’m wearing an olive-green military fatigue with the rest of my fellow troops. We, “the rebels,” are waiting for instructions from our commander, who is about to make an important announcement.
Suddenly, someone yells “Cuuuut, cuuuuut, airplane flying over!” for the fourth time in a row. Our commander seems used to it by now. “Pa’ lante” he says. The director seems even cooler. The rebels… I mean, the extras, are cool too; content as long as they keep handing us those free bottles of Gatorade. Me? I’m ecstatic. I’m in the middle of Hacienda Carabali in Puerto Rico, which is supposed to be la sierra cubana, surrounded by sweaty, gritty men wearing military uniforms with none other than Academy Award-winning actor Benicio del Toro as Ernesto “Che” Guevara and Academy Award-winning director Steven Soderbergh.
I don’t care how many takes we do, I’ll do a hundred if I have too. I’m recreating an important moment in history for a historic moment in cinema. I had every reason to pull another “Viejo San Juan” on “Benny” but I didn’t. This time, I had to be a professional. When you’re making a movie, no matter how much fun it may seem, it still feels like work. Benny seemed just like a fellow co-worker, another one of us.
Surprisingly enough, most of the extras didn’t even know who Soderbergh was, or didn’t give a damn about Benicio. They were in it for the dough and to get away from their day jobs. At least that’s what they had been saying, until the opportunity came to share some screen time with “el Argentino” himself. Everyone would go nuts and throw their catering service muffins on the floor. “Como es? Una escena con Benny? Apuntame!”. It was funny to see how all of these manly men went gay for Benicio. Suddenly, I didn’t feel alone anymore. I got up from my seat too and showed my sad, puppy eyes to the production assistant. And it worked, I got picked!
For this particular scene, they changed us into some “campesino” wardrobe and took us on a small truck up the mountain. There was Benicio talking with Venezuelan actor Edgar Ramirez (who plays revolutionary captain Ciro Redondo); Soderbergh was setting the camera with his people. I felt more scared than excited. I was expecting that at least they would tell us what was the scene about, or who we were supposed to be playing, but nobody gave us any direction. We were just standing there like cattle until the (real) actors started rehearsing the scene with us, which was a great, fun experience. When the time came to roll camera and Benicio amazingly morphed into el Che, we all started pushing one another in a a very, very subtle way to make sure we would make it inside the camera frame.
After doing the scene for the 400th time, it was a wrap, and we had to go back down the mountain on foot. This time, the small jeep picked up Benicio to take him to another location. One of the extras noticed the vehicle and with a burst of over-confidence went up to the movie star and said “Asi cualquiera ah!?” Benicio, who everyone on set knew was suffering from back pains, replied in good ol’ Puerto Rican slang by saying : “Papi, montate en mi bicicleta pa’ que tu veas y despues hablamos.” That shut up that guy (who I have to admit was really annoying) for the rest of the two-week shoot.
Fast forward exactly a year later, September 2008. After hearing some rather lukewarm reviews from Cannes, I was anxious to see what the final product would actually look like and see if somehow I had made it into the final cut. Tickets for the premier at the 2008 New York Film Festival sold faster than pan caliente so I’ll have to wait a bit more to be able get a taste of the 4 1/2-hour saga .
Thanks to the foggy world of internet piracy, however, someone managed to find the movie online and sent me this:
I did it! My Hollywood debut! For 20 seconds!
Notice how the little guajiro hat doesn’t even fit my head, but no one in the wardrobe department seemed to notice and Soderbergh probably couldn’t care less. Not that it matters anyway, I was just an extra.
I know the next time I see Benny, it won’t be as a fan or as an extra, but as a director.