Recently I got the opportunity to sit down with a couple of other media outlets for a roundtable discussion with the ex-Federale himself for the upcoming release of the Machete DVD (Buy it from CHUD!). Aside from the pouring rain (about which native Angelenos still manage to freak when it occurs), it was a lovely little affair, taking place at the Four Seasons – Beverly Wilshire Hotel, right smack in the middle of the 90210 (OK, actually the 90212). They even fed us (some salad with a nice vinaigrette and some tasty little cakes in case you were wondering). The wait wasn’t too long, the publicity people were nice, friendly and helpful, and they even validated. But of course the highlight was having the chance to speak with Robert Rodriguez’ #1 go-to guy in his first starring role.
Something one quickly learns about Danny Trejo is that he’s not an assuming guy by any means. You ask him a straight question, he’ll give you a straight answer. And more than anything, the man lives to work. If you doubt that, check his IMDB page. We had a little over 12 minutes to shoot the shit with the hardest working Latino in show business. I wasn’t sure about the protocol for bringing up Trejo’s copious history with the California penal system. But since the first question from one of the other media reps focused on precisely that (to my surprise), it was clear that Trejo not only doesn’t shy away from the topic, it’s become a source of great strength for him and, oddly enough, the foundations for the beginning of his career.
Media Outlet #1: [Re: Putting up a tough front while in prison.] Would you say that that that was your first acting class?
Danny Trejo: I would say that uh…you have to learn how to act. ‘Cause when you’re standing outside in the yard in San Quentin and something’s going to come down and you’re scared to death, you can’t show it. So it’s like, inside you’re dying, but outside, you’re like, “Bring it!”. Yeah, I think that was the first way of trying to cover up the feeling that’s inside. Fear is anger turned outward. That’s just automatic. Some people don’t even play with fear, they just go straight to rage and that’s the best weapon you can have when you’re under attack.
Media Outlet #1: A lot of the movies you’ve done have been comedies. Do you think that…I’ve known people who were former criminals and they can’t watch an episode of The Sopranos…it’s too close to home. Do you think that’s why you gravitate to a lot of these movies that are more lighthearted?
DT: You know, I’ll do what you got. Bring me what you got. I did a TV series for a while called Kingpin and I… I just thought that was funny. I take this as a job, you know? Acting is a job. Like a house painter, a plumber, an electrician. I show up and work. What do ya got? Some of it is really easy because I’ve done it. It makes it real simple.
Me: Does Robert Rodriguez have carte blanche with you? Will you do anything he asks, sight unseen?
DT: Absolutely. Absolutely. He’s got a standing “Yes” at the office. He calls and the first thing is “Yes! We’ll do it. What’s next?”
Me: With the number of movies you do, you have over 200 credits and you’ve been doing this for 25 years, so you’re averaging almost 10 movies and TV shows a year. Do you ever have time to just catch your breath on all this?
DT: I love what I’m doing, you know? I love doing this. To me, being on a movie set is fun. It’s not even like work. When I have to act, that’s the work…. I remember someone once asked me, “When do you go on vacation?” And I was in Capetown, South Africa [laughs]. People wait their whole lives to get here. So it’s like, in the work, there’s fun. I was in Hawaii for three months doing a movie called Six Days, Seven Nights with Harrison Ford and Anne Heche. I was there three months, I probably worked 15 days. I got tired of scuba diving, snorkeling… So to me, my life is a vacation; something that I love doing.
Media Outlet #2: You didn’t come into the movie industry the way that a lot of people do. Was Runaway Train your first film?
DT: Runaway Train was my first film and I got there completely by accident. I was a drug counselor, I was working for Western Pacific Med Corp, and one of the kids I was working with called me up and said, “There’s a lot of blow down here on my job. Can you come down and hang with me?” You know, for support, and I said, “Sure.” That’s what I do, I support people who want to stay clean and sober. So I went down there, and I walked onto a movie set and he was a P.A. [production assistant, a.k.a. gopher a.k.a. slave, human toilet, punching bag, etc.], and I literally got overwhelmed, because everybody was dressed like convicts and everybody was trying to be hard.
And it was funny, because this guy came up to me and said, “Hey, you want to be in this movie?” And I said, “What do I got to do?”
And he said, “You want to be an extra?” And I said, “An extra what?” He said, “Can you act like a convict?” And it was funny because I’d been in every penitentiary in the state of California. I said, “I’ll give it a shot.” They gave me a blue shirt, and I took off mine, and I have a big tattoo on my chest, and the minute I took off my shirt, a guy came over and said, “You’re Danny Trejo.” And I said, “Yeah.” He said, “I’m Eddie Bunker.” “I know you [Eddie Bunker], a guy I was in prison with.” I said, what are you doing here?” He said, “I wrote the script.” He said, “You want a job?” And I said, “I’ve got one. They’re going to give me fifty bucks for acting like a convict.” He said, “No, no, we need someone to train one of the actors how to box.” Because he knew that I boxed [in prison].
“I said, “What’s it pay?” He said, “$320 a day.” And I said, “How bad do you want this guy beat up? [laughter all around]. He said, “No, you got to be careful. Actors are a little high strung and he might sock you.” I said, “Eddie, for $320 a day, give him a stick.” I wasn’t making $320 a week. So, I started training Eric Roberts how to box for the movie, Runaway Train. And Andrey Konchalovskiy, the director, saw that Eric would do whatever I told him to do, so he hired me. And the rest is like history. I went from movie to movie to movie. For the first five years of my career, I was like, “Inmate #1,” or “Bad Guy With Tattoos #1.” The first time I got a name was in Death Wish IV, I played with Charles Bronson. I was Art Sanella, and you know, I thought I’d made it. I couldn’t believe it and then it just kept on and kept on, going from movie to movie. My agent keeps me working and they know that the worst time for me is when I’m not working. And when I’m not working I have three vintage cars that I love working on. But I can only do that so long and then I’ll start calling, “Get Danny a job!”
Me: Is there any kind of movie role that you won’t do?
DT: You know, like where the bad guy is going to get away with the crime, I won’t do it, ‘cause it’s just not real. The bad guy’s gotta die.
Media Outlet #1: You were also Machete in the Spy Kids movies. Do you think the Spy Kids would be shocked to see what their Uncle Machete was up to?
DT: [Laughs] That’s what Uncle Machete does when he’s not playing the game.
Media Outlet #1: Is he supposed to be the same guy?
DT: We named Uncle Machete in Spy Kids as an homage or whatever you call it because we hadn’t done the trailer yet. We didn’t know if that movie would ever be made, but Robert, because he just loves that character, so he just named him “Uncle Machete.” And then when we did the trailer, the trades came out with, “This is the best thing in Grindhouse.” And when we walked out of the premiere of Grindhouse, me and Robert just looked at each other and started laughing. And we knew we had to make this movie.
Me: I heard that he created Machete for you back around the time of Desperado.
DT: Yeah, when we were doing Desperado…Antonio Banderas could be standing right next to me…and no one knew who he was, it was his first starring role. And we were in Mexico, and he’s from Spain, and everybody was asking me for autographs. And I remember Robert saying, “They think you’re the star of the movie.” And I said, “I am.” We had a blast and that’s when he told me about Machete. That was 16, 17 years ago.
[By now we were told we had about a minute left in the interview]
Media Outlet #2: Do you know anything about the Texas situation? The governor of Texas?
DT: Yeah he got kind of upset. But, it’s funny because, the Film Commission, and they were on the set, they read the script, so nothing that was in that movie was a surprise to them. So I couldn’t understand why they did what they did.
Me: You did The Young and the Restless a couple of years ago. And that seems to be an underground new trend –
DT: I started it.
Me: Yeah, with people like James Franco doing it. How did that come about?
DT: Let me tell you something. I’ve been in this business for 25 years. My mother never thought I had a job. I’d go over to my mother’s house and I’d be like, “Mom, I just worked with Robert De Niro!” And she’d say, “I know, miho, but when are you going to get a job? Let me make you a lunch.” And I’d be like, “Mom!” Then I do two episodes of The Young and the Restless, and I’d come back home and she’d say, “[Gasp] Miho, you made it! We saw you! You were on the novella!”
Me: Did you ever think you’d make it to being the star of a film and did you respond more to the pressure, or do you prefer the atmosphere of being a supporting player?
DT: I never gave it much thought. You know, as long as I’m working, I’m working. And for a long time, Hollywood had us fooled into thinking that a star had to have a certain look. He’s got to be, you know, purty. And not that that’s bad, but you know, we were all like that and it was Robert Rodriguez who was like, “This is bullshit. So wait a minute…” But I was completely content to just be working all the time. I remember, we were doing Once Upon A Time In Mexico, and I’d be with Antonio Banderas and Johnny Depp and they’d be hanging around me and I’d be like, “What, are you having a bad day?” It was like, ridiculous. These guys are pretty, and there’s nothing wrong with being pretty. But you don’t have to be pretty to be a leading man. So Robert was like, “No, we’re going to make the plumber, the mechanic or the guy who shows up at your house to fix your sink [the star]… that’s me, I’m that guy. So I was glad, I loved being the leading man. But it’s hard to call yourself the leading man when you have Robert De Niro right there.
Media Outlet #2: We saw you recently play a comedic role on Modern Family and a recurring role on King of the Hill, so we know that you obviously have good comedic chops. Are you interested in playing more comic roles?
DT: Give me what you’ve got! I’ll play a tree if you want me to. If you want fruit on it, pay me more money.
Me: Could you see yourself headlining a sitcom for any length of stretch?
DT: Sounds like work to me. Whatever, I love working, I love what I do. If you’ve got a good script that’s going to be a lot of fun, make a lot of people laugh…my passion is talking to kids. Talking to juvenile halls and youth authorities, high schools, that’s my passion. The more I do in film, the more I get their attention. The moment I walk onto a campus, they want to hear what I want to say simply because they’ve seen me in their living rooms, they’ve seen me on the big screen. So my message is: “Stay off of drugs and alcohol, education is the key to success… anything you want to do…people who help other people seem to have better lives.” So, they’re not only listening to me, they’re hearing what I’ve got to say, simply because I did Desperate Housewives, I did Con Air, I did the Muppets Movie coming up… Harold and Kumar, I did that. I just finished a movie in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Seven degrees and I just did…it’s called House of the Rising Sun. All these youngsters, they watch these movies and when I walk onto campus, I’ve got their attention. Kids that don’t usually go to assemblies are fighting to get in the door.
This was a very, very cool experience. Machete comes out on DVD on January 4, 2011.