The menacing actor tells Time Out about tackling his first starring role
Never mind the photographic evidence: Danny Trejo is beautiful. You’ve seen the 66-year-old before, supplying gravitas to the roles of dozens of quiet gangsters and ex-cons. More substantially, he played fully believable scenes with Robert De Niro in the crime neo-classic Heat. And he’s the only one who can talk sense to a drunken Ron Burgundy in Anchorman: ‘You know, times are changing… Ladies can do stuff now!’ (Ron, confused, admits he can’t speak Spanish).
‘All the way back to Desperado, Robert Rodriguez noticed the way people reacted to me, with all my tattoos,’ Trejo recalls from his suburban home in California’s San Fernando Valley. ‘Robert told me, “These people think you’re the star of my movie!”’ Trejo didn’t exactly disagree with him.
Machete, an enjoyably crude action film (and the veteran supporting actor’s first starring role), is the culmination of that 1995 exchange. It’s a long-discussed collaboration between actor and director, one with an unusual tryout in 2007’s Grindhouse, where a two-minute fake trailer for the as-yet-unmade exploitation flick brought down the house – garnering more applause than the main attractions. Rodriguez was definitely listening.
‘Audiences wouldn’t leave me alone after that – I got more requests for a Machete movie than even for a Sin City sequel,’ says Rodriguez. His feature version is cut from the same lovably crummy visual cloth as the teaser (the filmmaker made an express point of retro-fitting all of his earlier footage into the new story). ‘We had to go beyond the trailer too,’ he adds.
Like the best Corman-esque B pics, the resulting movie smuggles in its fair share of politics. A second Machete trailer, released online by Rodriguez around the time of the Arizona immigration controversy in the US earlier this year, drew the ire of right-wing pundits displeased with images of an armed Mexican federale visiting vengeance upon the white man.
‘Something has to be done about that situation, but we can’t trample on the Constitution to do it,’ Trejo says, speaking to his movie’s real-world echo. ‘I make it a point that every time I go to Arizona, I have no ID on me whatsoever.’ Rodriguez, for his part, gently refuses a political comment, saying only that he was honouring traditions of showmanship with his clip, released on Mexican public holiday Cinco de Mayo: ‘If this were an exploitation film, they would have done the same thing – TORN FROM THE HEADLINES!’
The earthiness of actual man-on-the-street issues never seems far from Trejo’s mind. His own infamous, crime-riddled history, which includes prison stints in San Quentin, Soledad and Folsom, in addition to a host of defeated drug addictions, grounds his gruff persona in authenticity. ‘Acting is a lot easier than armed robbery,’ he offers. ‘Then again, you really have to make a decision if you’re going to be a gangster or a citizen. And you have to be that person 24/7.’ Trejo found work as an adviser on crime movies while supporting himself as a drug counsellor after his 1972 release and rehabilitation. His own look proved too compelling to filmmakers.
‘I think the work of an actor is exactly the same as a plumber or a painter or a carpenter; it’s just a job,’ Trejo says, emphasising the benefits of a routine in which he finds daily strength. ‘If another leading role comes up, I’ll take it. If they want me to paint the house across the street, I’ll do it.’ He shifts the conversation, gently, to the subject of a friend: ‘Lindsay Lohan was so professional on the set of Machete. I almost wanted to tell her, ‘Hey, act like this in your real life, and you’d be f****** awesome.’”
Trejo is allowing himself a little fun in the limelight with Machete, but the ethos of a survivor takes hold when he talks about what it means for his career. He doesn’t want to squander the chance to shepherd more serious projects, perhaps films about the prison system. ‘My son’s 22 – he’s producing a film. At 22, I was in San Quentin [California’s state prison]. In Machete, I get kisses from Jessica Alba and Michelle Rodriguez. They’re like kisses from God’s lips.’ Machete is in cinemas on November 18. Read our review next week.