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LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - Benicio Del Toro is an Oscar winner with a tough screen persona, but underneath that rugged exterior, the actor has a soft spot for old-time movie monsters like the Wolf Man.
Del Toro, who won an Oscar playing a tough cop in drug film "Traffic" and recently was revolutionary Ernesto Che Guevara in "Che," takes a surprising turn on Friday in the latest movie incarnation of a hairy, man-beast werewolf in "The Wolfman."
But in talking to the 42 year-old actor it is apparent that portraying a monster in a thriller from Universal Pictures, whose history is steeped in characters like Frankenstein and the Mummy, is a perfect fit for the serious dramatist.
In fact, Del Toro took his idea for a remake of 1941's "The Wolf Man" to Universal, and in a way the movie got its start when Del Toro was a child. Back then he had a Wolf Man poster in his bedroom and liked to play-act as the howling beast.
"There was something about those monsters that they weren't only scary, but they were cool looking," Del Toro, 42, told Reuters. "And then there's something about all of them being misunderstood," he said. "So you felt for them, like you wanted to protect them from the human beings, the lynch mob that's going after them."
In "The Wolfman," Del Toro plays an Englishman named Lawrence, who is stricken with a curse that turns him into a werewolf when the moon shines bright.
As the beast, Lawrence rips up country villagers, but he tries to fight the curse, and butts heads with his domineering father (Anthony Hopkins), who is hiding a secret of his own.
Growing up in Puerto Rico, Del Toro said his family always had the magazine "Famous Monsters of Filmland" lying around, and he made model monsters from toy kits.
Del Toro said he always felt like the scale-covered monster in 1954's "Creature from the Black Lagoon" was hiding behind the nearest palm tree waiting for him.
The actor, who also is a co-producer on the "The Wolfman," proposed a remake to Universal that would "pay hommage" to the kinds of monsters made famous by the studio in the 1930s, '40s and '50s, such as the Mummy and Frankenstein.
The makers hired six-time Oscar winning make-up artist Rick Baker, who worked on 1981's "An American Werewolf in London."
"With Rick Baker, what do you do?" Del Toro said. "You turn into a canvas, let him paint all over your face."
Baker joked with reporters that Del Toro is so hairy he already looks like Wolf Man, but he also gave credit to the actor's talents and love of the genre, calling Del Toro "a classic horror film nut."
"His attitude is 'more is more,'" Baker said. "'Can we put bigger teeth in? Can we put more blood in my mouth?'"
But reviving an old horror genre is not easy. Universal found out the hard way with 2004's "Van Helsing," which earned a solid $300 million at global box offices. Still, it proved a minor disappointment because it was the first big-budget Hollywood movie of the summer season that year.
"The Wolfman," too, is meeting some disagreement among critics, earning only a 38 percent positive rating at review website rottentomatoes.com. But the youthful audiences that "Wolfman" targets rarely pay attention to reviews, and Del Toro is hopeful about reaching today's audiences.
"It stays true to the original, and in my opinion, I think it works," he said. "I've heard of a couple kids that have seen it, like 12-year-olds, and they liked the movie, so I'm really excited about that."
Reporting by Alex Dobuzinskis: Editing by Bob Tourtellotte