By Piya Sinha-Roy
June 29, 2018 at 09:00 AM EDT
Richard Foreman, Jr. SMPSP/Sony Pictures

With his furrowed brows and rugged facade, it’s hard to imagine a soft side to Benicio Del Toro’s gruff, deadly Sicario hitman Alejandro. But in Stefano Sollima’s Sicario: Day of the Soldado, the sequel to 2015’s Sicario (which translates to a cartel hitman), Alejandro finds himself on an unexpected emotional journey as he is initially contracted to help kidnap Isabel, the teenage daughter of a drug lord, and then finds her life in his hands.

Del Toro, 51, tells EW that in Soldado, in theaters June 29, Alejandro has to face the reality of his descent into becoming a ruthless killer after a cartel killed his wife and daughter, and the presence of Isabel (Isabela Moner) “sparked the embers of a conscious in him.”

“He finds himself in a little bit of a nightmare because part of the covert operation is to kidnap an innocent girl who’s about the same age as his daughter was when she was kidnapped and killed,” the actor says. “He puts this girl through perhaps the same experience that his daughter had when she was kidnapped, terrorizing her, and little by little, this starts to work in his psyche.”

While Soldado may feel timely as it tackles the tensions of the U.S.-Mexico border (at one point, Josh Brolin’s DEA agent Matt Graver calls the unnamed U.S. president a “coward”) and the decades-long war on drugs, Del Toro said the film is not trying to make a political statement. Rather, he adds, it just reflects that the war on drugs “is still fresh, it’s out there, it’s in the news, there’s no solution.”

“Writers can set stories in these settings of the war on drugs and explore the human condition, whether it’s good versus evil, morality, corruption, vengeance, greed, heroism or mortality,” Del Toro say.

Del Toro has carved a prestigious career with often critically acclaimed performances playing criminals or men on the fringes of society, characters that are often tormented with a moral or existential dilemma. There’s his mainstream breakout role as a henchman in 1989’s James Bond film Licence to Kill; as the erratic Dr. Gonzo in 1998’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas; tackling cartels and corruption as a police officer in 2000’s Traffic, a role that won him an Oscar for best supporting actor; playing Argentinian revolutionary Che Guevara in the 2008 two-part drama Che.

The Puerto Rican actor said he gravitates towards roles and projects that involve great filmmakers.

While he doesn’t think he’s been typecast to play the complicated men that he tends to portray, he also says “as an actor, you don’t control what you want to do.” He joked that perhaps he was “a little bit typecast to be out in space” with his recent roles as The Collector in the Marvel Cinematic Universe and as the thief DJ in Star Wars: The Last Jedi — while he saya he hasn’t had any conversations for the upcoming Star Wars: Episode IX, he’d like to continue playing both roles “because they’re fun and the characters are up for evolution.”

“As actors, we have limitations,” he saya. “Maybe I am convincing in these roles of looking at characters that have more than one side. But I’m open and hopefully something will come in that’s a little bit different, maybe (I’ll) try a comedy, though I try to be funny in every role — perhaps not with Alejandro, he’s not really that funny — but I like to laugh.”