21 Grams

In Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu’s “21 Grams,” Benicio Del Toro — whom his director describes as “a complex, interior soul” — delivers an intense performance as Jack Jordan, a born-again ex-con and father who’s tortured by the prospect of reverting to his old ways. But rather than babble on about his demons, the character internalizes them, a trait that seems to fit Del Toro to a T.

“There’s something there with Benicio, he’s a guy who’s always contemplating,” Gonzalez says. “His silences are very powerful.”

The intricately woven, nonlinear story about three lives ravaged by one fateful accident gave the thesp another opportunity to play an intense role, something that he has become known for (most notably as the morally suspect cop in “Traffic,” a supporting perf that earned him the Academy Award). Through Del Toro, Jack simmers over issues of faith, guilt and free will, as he deals with being the source of several families’ pain.

Having seamlessly stepped into the part, it’s hard to imagine that Gonzalez once considered casting Del Toro as Paul, the character ultimately played by Sean Penn, and vice versa.

“(Penn) often plays that edgy part, so in a way Jack was the obvious role for him,” the director says. “But then I thought the opposite would be very interesting, and I’m glad that I did that … Benicio’s a perfect match for Jack. He has a big presence, physically and spiritually.”

Del Toro arrived in Memphis about four months prior to shooting — he was the first actor on set, according to Gonzalez — to develop the character in weekly powwows with the director. The thesp also met with several local preachers and congregations.

“The way he accepted this project, the way he approached it, it’s a dream for any director,” Gonzalez says. “I was so honored by the integrity that he showed doing this project, instead of the other million-dollar things. That’s what I call an artist.”

Coming attractions: “The Rum Diary,” “The Lost City,” “Che,” “Chaos”

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