For the cast of Savages, the undeniable draw of Relativity Media’s new crime drama was the opportunity to work with Academy Award-winning director Oliver Stone.
"He allowed, I wouldn't say total improvisations, but that sense of like being able to be free -- able to explore things," actor Benicio Del Toro said at a recent press conference in Beverly Hills. "He makes sure that you're understanding where you are in the story."
"He was incredibly generous because we really did work as a team, all of us and he really welcomes your input in the character,” co-star Salma Hayek added. "Well actually, he would not like you if you don't have something to give, you know?
"He wants you to fight with him," Blake Lively interjected.
"He wants you to fight, but he wants you to bring something to the plate," Hayek continued. "So, we worked really well together."
Based on the bestselling 2010 crime novel by Don Winslow, Savages centers on the nontraditional love story of Laguna Beach marijuana growers Ben (played by Aaron Johnson) and Chon (Taylor Kitsch) and their mutual girlfriend O (Lively). When the head of a Mexican drug cartel (Hayek) and her enforcer (Del Toro) try to muscle their way into Southern California, they soon find they’ve underestimated the trio.
“We’re really kind of like yin and yang because Chon’s this ex-marine and kind of a fighter and my character is more kind of a sensitive, hippie kind of guy,” explained Johnson, who plays peaceful botanist Ben. “So we’re kind of that balance that she looks for. She’s just fucking greedy!”
When Johnson and Kitsch were asked whether it’s possible for two men to be in a relationship with one woman, Johnson interrupted the question with a firm"No.”
“I think that says a lot about these guys that they – that there’s no shame in their relationship and there’s no jealousy and there’s a bond that’s stronger than that," he said.
Kitsch agreed with that assessment, noting that it was tricky to pull off the trio's love story given the limited number of scenes they share. “We have barely any scenes with her so we have to get it basically in one scene," he said. "In one scene you have to show this connection between three people that would literally die for each other."
When asked how they prepared for the intimate scenes their characters share with Lively, Kitsch joked about "sexual improv" before getting serious. “You block it out with Oliver,” he said. “We talked, God knows we had two weeks’ rehearsal, so we talked it until we were about to pass out. That was the first week of shooting. So it was just trusting Blake and Oliver like you do on any set and I was just glad it was over with, to be honest. It’s very awkward to do."
Del Toro and Demián Bichir were asked whether they had concerns about playing characters who might be construed as perpetuating Latino stereotypes. While Del Toro allowed that he does think about how Latinos are portrayed on film, for him, there are other concerns to consider.
"I think that when you blame just one group it's a problem, but I think here, in my opinion and the way I look at it, it's a bigger issue. I think that the message of the picture is the violence, drugs and the way it portrays an exaggeration of this -- it's fiction."
Bichir agreed, saying, "I always think, ‘Wow. Al Pacino couldn't have made any [kind of] career in Mexico, nor Robert De Niro, you know, playing gangsters all the time."
Hayek, whose character Elena is a vicious cartel boss with a vulnerable side, was asked if being a mother helped her to find her character's complexity. "In reality, that's what we would think, but being a mother can make you find actually the toughest -- the inhumanity of the character. Because you, as a mother, for your children, you're willing and capable to do anything." She also related that her character's distinctive look is based on something she’s noticed about iconic women in power. "These women design themselves,” she said. “They don't want to be versatile. No! They want you to always remember them. It's a very stupid thing, but I would say, 'OK, I have to design her in a way that somebody could dress up as her for Halloween."
Hayek also addressed the decision for her character to speak in both English and Spanish, noting it wasn’t driven by marketing concerns."I have to tell you, he would never use English because it's for the market -- not Oliver,” she said. “If it was the right thing to do the whole movie in Spanish, he would do it in Spanish in a heartbeat and he would fight for it. However, when I start cursing, you can not beat the beauty of the variety of the sounds and images that comes from Mexican cursing."
Lively was quick to credit Hayek with the decision to curse in Spanish, but Hayek said that she had Stone's encouragement: "Oliver likes it when you talk dirty.”
Savages opens today nationwide.