With 183 films under his belt, veteran tough guy Danny Trejo finally gets a shot at a starring role, in Robert Rodriguez’s “Machete” out this month.
The Hardest Working Hombre in Hollywood
You may not recognize Danny Trejo’s name, but you definitely know his carved- granite face from one of the nearly 200 films he’s appeared in since the mid-eighties. His prolific, 25-year career was launched almost by accident, when he was working as a drug counsellor on the set of the 1995 film Runaway Train and was asked to be Eric Robert’s boxing coach for the film.
That led to a role in the movie, and since then, Trejo has been Central Casting’s walking, talking, gun-toting, knife-wielding definition of a badass for everything from B-movie prison flicks to Michael Mann’s Heist classic Heat. He started out as a bit player with maybe one line of dialogue — usually “Kill’em all,” he jokes — but has gradually expanded his repertoire to include bigger roles, parts in family films (Bubble Boy, Spy Kids), TV (Desperate Housewives, Breaking Bad), and videogame voiceovers (Grand Theft Auto).
Now, in this month’s Machete, directed by Robert Rodriguez and Ethan Maniquis, the 66-year-old steps into his first starring role, playing an ex-federale contracted to assassinate a corrupt senator in Texas. The contract turns out to be a setup, and after his employers try to take him out, Machete embarks on a brutal quest for revenge.
The hotly anticipated film, which began as a faux trailer in the Robert Rodriguez-Quentin Tarantino double feature Grindhouse, is as certain to stir up controversy for its take on U.S.-Mexico border issues as it is to kick ass. Much ass. While taking names.
We spoke with Trejo before the film’s release, and he told us about the origins of Machete, his criminal past (he did time for armed robbery in several prisons, and was welterweight boxing champ at San Quentin), his work as a drug counsellor (he’s a recovering addict), and the strange effect kissing Jessica Alba can have on your friends.
Machete has everything: a kickass title, you, Robert De Niro, Jessica Alba, Michelle Rodriguez, Steven Seagal, Cheech Marin, Don Johnson — and Lindsay Lohan in a nun’s outfit. How fun was it to make?
Well, all of Robert’s movies are fun, and this one was just unbelievable. He is such a great director. I think he is gonna stand alone, as a director, in history. This one is a culmination of Desperado and Once Upon a Time in Mexico, and if you look back at those, I think Robert was training me for this role. He told me about Machete when we were doing Desperado 15 years ago. He said, “I wanna do this movie about a Federale that helps fight [for] immigration.”
What do you think of Arizona’s new immigration law? Rodriguez issued a special Machete trailer for the people of Arizona on Cinco de Mayo.
Yeah. Well, it’s really fucked because [after we finished that trailer], I rode home on the plane from Austin with Karl Rove. He had just come out and said that Obama was too soft on immigration. But as far as the law goes. it’s a double-edged sword, because we’ve gotta stop the crime, but you can’t step on the Constitution. You have to have probable cause. You can’t racial-profile. And right now, if somebody asked me to prove I was an American citizen, well, they better take my driver’s license, because that’s all I got.
Did Rove know who you were?
Oh, yeah. I happened to help a lady with her bags, and he said, “I won’t tell anybody you’re a nice guy.” But the funny part is that. uh, God, Anchorman — who did I do Anchorman with?
Will Ferrell. Will Ferrell did that unbelievable skit, You’re Welcome America, about George Bush? Okay, well, he was on the plane, too.
You, Ferrell, and Rove were all on the same flight?
Yeah. But when I got off the plane, the paparazzi hit me. It was TMZ, and they were like, “Hey, Danny, what do you think about that immigration law?” I said, “There’s Karl Rove. Why don’t you ask him?”
They attacked him.
How does the movie treat the border issue? Is it pretty controversial?
We get ’em all. It’s gonna piss off both sides.
It’s already pissed off some right-wing bloggers.
Robert De Niro plays a crooked senator, right? When we were shooting the movie and he was making a speech, real people started arguing on the street. You know, picketing and screaming. Finally, we went over and said, “Hey, this is just a movie.” And they’re like, “Oh — we’re sorry.”
This is your first starring role. How much harder is it to be the lead, as opposed to a supporting role?
Usually you just kind of show up, remember your lines, and don’t bump into the furniture. But this time you’re kind of … the furniture. And I got the starring role, with De Niro [in the cast]. I mean, you can shoot me now. Career don’t get no better.
Would you like to do more leading roles?
Yeah. I usually go from movie to movie to movie, and this way, you get to stay on one for a while. And you don’t die. And you get the girl. My love interests were Jessica Alba and Michelle Rodriguez. So, thank you, Jesus.
Not too bad.
I have a kissing scene with Jessica Alba, and I had three of my friends there. I kissed her about eight times — you know, eight takes. And afterward my friends were trying to kiss me. They said, “Gimme your kiss! You kissed this gal!” I was like, “Get away from me, you punks.” But man, she is a sweetheart.
I think some daring casting director ought to put you in the lead for a romantic comedy, opposite Katherine Heigl or someone like that.
[Laughs] Well, I can always be a good bad guy. But it’s gonna be tough to sell me just as a good guy. There’s gotta be some edge somewhere, because, you know, people still get out of my way when I walk down the street. Even if I’m smiling.
You have real-world experience with drug addiction, prison, armed robbery, and boxing. What movies have really gotten it right on those topics, in your opinion? Let’s start with drug addiction.
There’s a movie that my son wrote, called A Love Story — when that one comes out, that’ll be the best drug-addiction movie you’ve ever seen. But [otherwise] look at The Salton Sea, with Val Kilmer.
That’s a good one; underrated, too.
Ohhh. That is crystal meth. Just the insanity of it. Because [most movies] always put some kind of romantic turn in it, you know? But that one just shows the fucking degradation of drug addiction.
How about boxing?
Raging Bull, with Bobby D, Bobby De Niro.
Armed rob — Heat! C’mon, homey! [Laughs] That one, every time I’ve been stopped by the police, they’ll say, “Hey, you’re the guy from Heat!” Then they’ll hand me back my driver’s license, and they’ll say, “Everything that the police did in that movie was tactically correct.” And that’s Michael Mann — he’s a stickler for that stuff.
You were the armed-robbery consultant, right?
That’s what I started as, and then I ran into Michael Mann, and I had done a movie called Drug Wars: The Camarena Story with him. We talked, and he knew my uncle in Folsom, because he went to Folsom to film The Jericho Mile. He said, “Hey, how’s Gilbert doing?” And I said, “Gilbert OD’d; he died.” And he says, “Oh, man, come on, I got a role for you in this movie.” So he pulled me and Eddie Bunker — we were the armed-robbery consultants [and Trejo had a speaking part]. Eddie Bunker was a really famous writer. Probably one of the greatest American criminal novelists there ever was. He wrote a book called Education of a Felon. If you really want to get into the mind of a criminal, read that.
What’s the best weapon for an armed robbery?
It depends on what you’re doing. Now, they’ve got AK-47s and blah, blah, blah. But back in the day, a sawed-off shotgun was the best thing there was. Because it was just scary.
What’s the best prison movie?
Blood In Blood Out got the best of that.
You’ve been in San Quentin, Soledad, and Folsom. Which was the toughest of those?
Soledad is the toughest because people are still trying to prove themselves. But you gotta remember, in prison — any prison — you have a choice: Because there’s only two kinds of people — predator and prey — you have to decide what you want to be. If you’re going to be a predator, that means you’re a predator 24/7. And well … I mean, if you’re in a pile of shit, I’d rather be on top.
What’s the best advice for someone doing his first bid in prison?
Education. Here’s a little food for thought: If you get involved in school in prison you tend to stay out of the mix, because your time is taken. There’s a difference between an inmate and a convict. An inmate is a guy that goes to school, the guy that’s always busy, the guy that’s doing something. A convict is the guy who, 24/7, is looking to get something. To either get drugs, or alcohol, or money.
I’ve read that you found God while in solitary at Soledad. Can you tell our readers about that?
Well, in 1968 — on Cinco de Mayo — me and two other guys were involved in a riot. Involved — we started a riot. An outside baseball team came in to play, and we got into a fight with them. It was alleged that I hit a prison officer in the head with a rock. It was alleged that one of my friends socked a free person, and it was alleged that my other friend injured the visiting coach. We went to the hole. I got out of the hole in August. So May, June, July, we were in there. When we went to court, the prison officer made the mistake of saying, “One of them threw the rock. I don’t know which one.” But in a court of law, three people can’t throw a rock. So that case got washed.
You were off the hook.
Yeah, and the free person that my friend [allegedly] tore the lip off, they couldn’t find him. He left the state. And the baseball coach had retired and left. So they had no witnesses, and we got out. But when I walked into the hole three months earlier, I remember saying a prayer. I said, “God, if you’re there, it’s gonna be all right. If you’re not, I’m fucked.” I got out of the hole in August, and I dedicated my life to helping other people. That’s all I’ve been doing since 1968. I got out of the joint on August 23, 1969, and I’ve been on a mission to help anybody I can. Everything good that has happened to me in my life has come as a direct result of helping someone else. Everything.
You do drug counseling now, in addition to acting.
I work for Western Pacific rehab in Glendale. I’ve worked for them since 1973.
Which is more rewarding?
Let me tell you something about the acting. My passion is talking to kids. Going to juvenile halls, high schools, junior high schools, penitentiaries. In order to talk to kids, you first have to get their attention, which is impossible because they have the attention span of a gnat. Then you have to keep their attention, and that’s impossible because they’re worried about what they’re going to do on Friday night. Then you’ve got to show them that you’re cool, which is impossible because nobody’s as cool as them. And then you have to deliver your message. Well, the good thing about the movies is that when I walk onto any campus, I already have their attention. They already want to hear what I have to say. See, I wish more people in the film industry would get involved in talking to our kids.
They’d have a head start in reaching the kids.
Exactly. But you’ll find all the people in the film industry who are having trouble in their lives — and I don’t mean divorce, or none of that stuff, ’cause that’s just standard shit — I mean drug problems, alcohol problems, spousal-abuse problems. The reason they’re having that problem is because they’re so fucking selfish, they’re not giving nothing back. But my life is a dream. I just keep putting it in the bank. I just keep going to them schools. I’m going up to Oxnard tomorrow and speaking to a juvenile hall up there.
What do you tell them? Because I could see a “scared-straight” approach working for you.
You know what? Screw that “scared” shit. Fuck that. I’m giving them facts! I’m going to say, “Whatever you’re going through right now — if you’re having trouble with your parents — [if you’re using] drugs, it’s gonna get worse. Without drugs, it’s gonna get better.” That’s a fact. And then I say, “Here’s another fact: Thugs are broke. Gang bangers go to jail. People who help other people seem to have better lives.” Those are facts. Every time I say that, every girl who has a thug for a boyfriend will like, elbow him — I see it: Yeah, you’re always broke, fucker.
There’s a Mexican rock band called Plastilina Mosh —
You’ve heard their song “Danny Trejo”?
I was coming out of the Omni Hotel in Austin, and some fans ran up and said, “Have you heard your song?” I said, “What song?” So my son went to the computer and we heard it. Pretty soon, they were rocking it all over Austin. It’s kind of weird. Then I was in London, and some people had tattooed Machete — you know that picture of me with all the machetes? — on their backs. I thought, Whoa! I hope they like the movie [laughs].
You’ve worked with just about everybody, from De Niro to Clooney to child actors to Snoop Dogg. Is there anyone you’d still like to work with?
Ah, whoever, whatever movie’s being shot, call me. I mean, I just show up. I’m like a house painter. I’ll paint this house, that house, it don’t matter. Some people really take this seriously. To me, it’s my job. And I love doing it. But I’m like a plumber, a body-and-fender guy. It keeps me grounded. Because the film industry is made to seduce you into thinking you’re really something special. Here’s food for thought: “The whole world can think you’re a movie star, but you can’t.” That’s a quote from Eddie Bunker.
That approach has worked for you.
Yeah, it’s great. My kid’s getting ready to produce a movie, he’s 22 years old. I’m so proud of him. He might’ve been a mailman; I don’t know where he got so smart. The good thing — he looks just like me. Well, he looks just like me without the ten years of prison [laughs].
Is he going to do more acting, or just producing?
He’s in Machete — he’s done some work with me, but he once said, “Dad, every time I go with you to actors’ houses, they got pictures of themselves and all these actors on the wall. But every time I go to a producer’s house, they got Rembrandts and Andy Warhols and … ” He goes, “I think I wanna be a producer.”
Smart kid. All right, last question: Are you on Twitter?
I knew it: Badasses don’t tweet.
Badasses don’t tweet — that’s cool. Put that in there: Danny says, “Badasses don’t tweet.”