He was into drugs as a child, thrown into jail as a teenager and now, reformed, he's the busiest actor in Hollywood
Robert Rodriguez's Machete Kills is on Blu-ray and DVD through Icon Home Entertainment from March 12. Rated: MA15+ (strong bloody violence, coarse language and sexual references)
DANNY Trejo is by far the most prolific actor in the business. He's already locked into 26 films in production this year alone – that's one a fortnight. And another six in development, so far.
And there are very few TV shows he hasn't appeared in – he's done Modern Family, Breaking Bad (of course), Desperate Housewives, Bones, Burn Notice, Alias, The X Files and on and on.
From his big break as a hoodlum boxer on Runaway Train, his craggy, devilish looks and threatening presence have ensured him an eternal career as a heavyweight heavy, long-sought by directors. He's 70 this May.
I was chatting to him about Machete Kills, his latest exploitation film on DVD, by phone from the film location of Bad Ass 3 in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. He's gentle, respectful and very accommodating. Nothing at all like his terrifying screen presence, which evidently stems from a troubled childhood – he was a child criminal and drug addict and, while still a teenager, an inmate at San Quentin – which inevitably etched itself into his persona.
But I'm getting ahead of myself.
Here on Machete Kills you're working with some wonderful people. Sofia Vergara is clearly having the time of her life!
God! Sofia Vergara, look, she's a little kiss from God's lips! She's absolutely beautiful and just a great person. She's fun to work with. Her comedic timing is unbelievable. She's funny and she's also a good person.
And what about Gaga?
She's just so sweet and grounded. Hey, I've got Gaga's pots and pans at home. She cooks her own food because she's so health-conscious and she had her own pots and pans in the trailer on set. When she left I asked her "Gaga, are you taking your pots and pans?" "I don't know." So I took them all home and I have a little plaque that says: "Gaga's pots and pans on Machete Kills." It's the second movie I've done with Lady Gaga. I just finished Muppets Most Wanted and she's in that.
Gaga's pots and pans on Machete Kills
How did Gaga get the role?
I met her in a tattoo shop. I came into Shamrock Tattoo on Sunset Boulevarde in Hollywood and I told the owner, Mark Mahoney: "Mark, I’m gonna do Machete Kills." And Lady Gaga happened to be there getting a tattoo and she says "Oh, God, I would love to be in that!" I said: "Well, hang on." I called Robert Rodriguez and told him "Robert, Gaga wants in on Machete Kills" and he says "I'm on it!"
As if you'd say no!
Yeah, for sure. Robert just kept saying: "I got Gaga! I got Gaga!" It was just awesome.
What a coup! What tattoo was she getting? And where?
She was getting a scene on her arm, I think that's what it was. I was getting a portrait of my children and Jesus Christ on my back.
Watch Lady Gaga as La Camaleón in Machete Kills [03.16]:
Mel Gibson is also in the film – he hasn't done much for ages.
Yeah, that was awesome. I had a swordfight with Mel. When Robert yells "Action!" I threw my sword down and he says "What's wrong?" "I'm fighting William Wallace from Braveheart?! Are you crazy?!" Everybody just laughed, even Mel.
We got quite a cast. We got Demian Bechir. He's got a TV series goin' right now called The Bridge. And, oh God, there's Michelle Rodriguez again. She's awesome. That girl is just go-to-hell beautiful.
Watch the trailer for Machete Kills [01.08]:
Your work schedule is horrendous. Why do you put yourself through it?
Yeah, I keep pretty busy [laughs]. I love the work. I know people who go to work hating their job. I love getting up in the morning and going to work. Here I am in Baton Rouge, being treated very well by everybody. Everybody likes me. I get to travel and work with great people. Right now I'm working with Danny Glover and John Amos [on Bad Ass 3] and we're having a blast.
Which movie of your hundreds stands out the most?
You know what? I would've loved the original Machete even if I wasn't in it. I just love a movie that starts out killin' 12 people [laughs]. In Machete I chop off four people's heads in the first couple of minutes. And in Machete Kills me and Jessica Alba kill about 25 people in the first four minutes.
You like a film where there are absolutely no boundaries?
Exactly. But it has to be fun. I hate violence for its own sake. And in Machete, if you notice, all the violence is kind of funny. It’s not just blood and guts. My Mom who's 85 saw the first Machete. She laughed. I cut off four people's heads and then they bounce on the floor! Robbie Rodriguez has a way of slipping over the bar and making it funny.
What is it about humour that changes the message of violence?
You can laugh at it. The message is this is fun, we're not being mean. That's the biggest message. A lot of the films that upset people, that people don't want kids to see, are all films just for violence's sake. You know, let's blow up 12 people and have their arms flyin' all over the place. Well, Robbie finds a way to make that funny.
Hear Danny talk about violence in his films [02.43]:
How does Rodriguez run the set – chaotic or well-ordered?
It's very well choreographed chaos. Everybody knows what they’re doing but it's the most fun you’re ever gonna have on a film. Robert wouldn't be doin' this stuff if he wasn't havin' fun. And he's havin a lot of fun. My kids are there, his kids are there. All the kids know what "Rolling!" means and they gotta be quiet. We have babies crying on the set and when Robert yells "Rolling!" they're quiet. Everybody understands movie rules.
Some of Rodriguez's stunts are very off-the-wall and I imagine don’t always go the way he wants. How flexible is he? Does he rewrite at the last minute?
I gotta say something. The stunts we did on Machete and Machete Kills, they're choreographed by a guy named Jeff Dashnaw, a great stunt co-ordinator. My stunt guy is Norm Mora and he and I have worked together for a long time. . He's never had like a real accident. He and Robert have done 11 movies together. He won't do stuff unless it's safe.
Everything go smoothly on Machete Kills?
It all went great, yeah. I got to kiss Amber Heard! That was my favourite part of the movie
Your break into films was working with Jon Voight on Runaway Train. How did you get that job?
I was actually a drug counsellor and one of the kids I was working with was a PA on the movie. He called me up and said "Danny, would you come down and hang out with me? I think I'm gonna get loaded". I went down to hang out with him and I ran into a friend of mine who I was in prison with, Eddie Bunker, and he said "Danny, what are you doin' here?" I said "Hangin' out with this kid 'cos he wants to stay clean." 'Cos I was clean and sober, I don't drink, I don't use drugs. So Eddie said "Hey, are you still boxing?" He saw me win the welterweight and lightweight titles up in San Quentin prison and I said "Yeah, I'm training." "We need someone to train some of the actors how to box." And I said "What's it pay?" And he said "$320 a day." Which was scale and I said "Oh, how bad do you want this guy beat up?" I thought, well, $320 – how bad they must want me to kick somebody's arse! I woulda done it for 50 bucks.
I started training Eric Roberts [Julia Roberts' older brother] how to box for the movie and Eric was – I don’t wanna say scared of me, Eric was, er, ah, he respected me a lot, right? So he would do whatever I told him to do. The director had no problems with that and he just came up to me and said "Have you been in movies?" That was the start of my career. It was so funny because the first five years of my career I played inmate No 1. I never had a name. Finally someone said "Aren't you afraid of being typecast?" I said "As what?" "You're always playing the mean Chicago dude with tattoos." And I thought about it and I am the mean Chicago dude with tattoos!
Aren't you afraid of being typecast as the mean Chicago dude with tattoos? "But I AM the mean Chicago dude with tattoos!"
How old were you when you went to prison?
The first time I was in trouble I was about 12 or 13. The first time I went to the john I was about 17.
You were very fortunate to be able to turn that around for an amazing career.
One of the things about prison is, well, prison is a warehouse for insanity. Especially in California. One of the things that saved me was the 12-step program. I got into it while I was in prison. It was like OK, this is the bottom line. You’re gonna spend the rest of your damn life in prison or you're gonna stay in this program. And it's like, yeah, OK, let me try this program. I came out of the joint in 1969 and I dedicated my life to helpin' other people. That's what the 12-step programs are about. Inmates, convicts, prisoners, bad guys, they're all about self. And the minute we get out of "self" and start working with "us" and "we" it's like, you know, life gets better.
Take us through the 12 steps.
Recovery is all about, well, first of all, be with people who are clean and sober. If you're clean and sober you have no business runnin' 'round with somebody who's using drugs. The 12-step program teaches you how to get things back. If you look around Hollywood and you look at the people who are having all the trouble, they're very very selfish, very very self-centred, they're very very all about what's in it for me? And until you get out of it and you start speaking at high schools, working with youth, talking at juvenile hall, you're gonna stay in that mess.
It's like you have to completely get out of yourself because Hollywood has a way of saying you are the most important thing. You know, you get on a movie set and they treat you like a king so it's like you have to in your own mind remember, hey, this is make-believe, I'm not this tough. It’s like I better go to some school and let these kids know what they're in for. I watch actors who actually think, well, hey, wait a minute, you ain't Rambo, I can knock the crap out of you! You understand? Hollywood is make-believe. You can't believe it. But they believe it.
You worked with Charlie Sheen ["introducing Carlos Estevez", according to the credits] on Machete Kills. He's had some rough patches.
Ah, yeah, yeah. I got him shivered back. Charlie's doin' great right now. Like the more you do for other people, the better your life gets. It's that simple.
You have children. What are the most important things you put into their lives?
The most important thing you gotta give your children is about not bein' selfish. Hey look, you got a head start and if you use that for good then you’re gonna stay ahead of the game but if you start using it for bad you're in trouble. My kids have had the same problems every other kid has. I'm there. That’s the main thing about a dad. Anybody, anybody, can be a father. It takes a bad mother-%$@&er to be a dad.
Thank you for a wonderful interview. I appreciate everything you have said.
Thank you, sir.
And thank you, sir. ❏
Danny Trejo will return in Machete Kills Again... In Space! right after Robert Rodriguez makes Sin City 2: A Dame to Kill For with Bruce Willis, Jessica Alba, Mickey Rourke, Rosario Dawson and Powers Boothe from the original Sin City (2005), along with Lady Gaga.
■ Danny Trejo on IMDb.
■ Machete Kills on IMDb.
■ Machete Kills on EzyDVD.
■ Read Ian's other interviews:
Review of Privates on Parade – Parading Your Privates
Review of Twists and Turns cabaret – Matthew Mitcham drops his dacks
Simon Vowles for Queens of the Outback – A frock and a rock hit town!
Nick Atkins for A Boy & A Bean – Jack, the giant killer
Matthew Mitcham for Twists and Turns cabaret – Matthew . . . all singing, all talking, all dancing!
Debbie Reynolds for Behind the Candelabra – What a glorious feelin’, I’m workin’ again
Lily Tomlin for Web Therapy – Lily caught in Phoebe's web!
Todd McKenney for Grease – Todd’s got chills, they’re multiplyin’
Matthew Rhys for The Scapegoat – Seeing double . . . and the Walkers' wine was real!
Casey Donovan for Mama Cass tribute – Casey has found her own idol
Amanda Muggleton for The Book Club – A book club for those who'd rather laugh than read!
Rachel Griffiths for Magazine Wars – We owe a big debt to Ita and Dulcie
Simon Burke for Mrs Warren’s Profession – A timeless take on the oldest profession
Ellen's mum, Betty DeGeneres on marriage equality – Not supporting gay marriage is bullying
Amanda Muggleton for Torch Song Trilogy – Amanda returns to the spotlight
Matthew Mitcham for Twists and Turns book – He couldn't believe it would last . . . and it didn't