Small Screen: Del Toro dug deep for real-life Escape at Dannemora

LOS ANGELES — Escape at Dannemora, a seven-part drama based on a true story that’s scheduled to air on Showtime, features Benicio del Toro as swaggering career criminal Richard Matt, who is serving time in a New York prison. Matt, along with young grifter David Sweat (Paul Dano), escape in a story that seems too strange to be based in fact.

Directed by Ben Stiller, the short-run series follows events in the summer of 2015 that spawned a statewide manhunt for two convicted murderers. A married female prison employee (played by Patricia Arquette) aided in their escape and carried on months-long affairs with both men.

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Over the years, del Toro has played characters based on real people and those created by writers. The process for him changes because with a real person, he has a lot of background material.

In the case of playing Matt, del Toro was able to put together a relatively detailed blueprint.

“He’s a real sad story. He’s a guy who grew up without any love, no mother. Meets his father, I think, for the first time in jail when he was in his 20s. Grows up going from foster home to another foster home and then he goes to jail, and that’s all he knows, going in and out of jail,” del Toro said. “I feel that, in order to survive for him, it’s all about fear, cruelty, dealing in lies. But, in the end, he’s a human being. He has many feelings just like anybody else. Just because he’s that, he doesn’t turn purple or some colour.

“So I personally think that there was a talent there. He had at least a talent to get to organize something, even if it’s a wrong thing. So I feel that had he not had the upbringing that he had, I think he probably would have been successful at something legal or that could have been not where he ended up.”

The research del Toro did led him to the conclusion that few people are born bad. He believes society and life experience are what makes someone such as Matt.

Del Toro recalls watching news coverage of the prison escape when it originally happened. If he would have had a chance to talk with Matt before filming the Showtime project, del Toro would have tried to fill in some details, such as what the men took with them when they escaped. Without access to Matt, del Toro had to decide on his own just how a person survives locked in a prison cell for years or even decades.

“I think we survive as human beings, but we might have to do things we wouldn’t want to do,” del Toro says. “The human spirit is a survivor.”

Stiller praises del Toro, Arquette and Dano for their commitment to the project, as they had to go deep with the characters for almost eight months. The challenge was for them to show the roles they were playing were based on real multilayered people, while not glorifying their actions. Stiller said that was possible because of the choices the actors made and the ideas they brought to filming.

Escape at Dannemora will air on television, but del Toro doesn’t look at it as the longest-running project for the small screen he has ever done. He prefers to look at the production as a very long movie. That fits in with the bulk of the work the Puerto Rico native has done over the years from Big Top Pee-wee to Star Wars: The Last Jedi.

The constant for del Toro is a performance starts with the script. He praises Brett Johnson (Mad Men) and Michael Tolkin (The Player) for creating a superb psychological plot that told the story in such detail.

“The work that I bring to it, basically, is trying to make the things sound right or be in the place. But it was really on the page. A lot of it was on the page, this psychological way of creating a friendship that I felt was also very unique in the fact that it’s almost like two children trying to trying to get something done,” del Toro said. “I think there’s something that tickles you and makes you laugh, but it’s not really funny. It’s just like when you see children.”

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