It’s not every day you get to meet a living cinema legend. And it’s even rarer that said legend turns out, in a good way, to be the polar opposite of what you expected him or her to be. Case in point is Danny Trejo, the iconic bad-ass and tough-guy with well over two-hundred screen credits to his name, who in real-life is one of the nicest and most personable movie stars you could ever imagine.
At almost 70 years-old, Mr. Trejo is in incredible physical shape, putting many men half his age to shame. He’s been making movies for nearly thirty-years and has a resume that includes classics such as Runaway Train (his first film), Heat,Con-Air and From Dusk Till Dawn. He’s been on countless television programs, voiced cartoons and video games, and he can even boast as having had the most memorable cameo in “Breaking Bad’s“ historic run, playing “Tortuga” (the cartel informer who ended up with his head on an explosive tortoise.)
Danny finally got his first major leading-man role in Robert Rodriguez’s Machete (2010) and he reprises the part of the vengeful Ex- Federale in the upcoming Machete Kills (opening October 11, 2013), a spoof and homage to the grindhouse films of the seventies.
Mr. Trejo was in Phoenix recently promoting his new movie and NERDVANA was honored to be able to sit in on a roundtable interview with the surprisingly mild-mannered gentleman.
Machete is a lot like a superhero, but he doesn’t have superpowers. What’s it like to play a ‘Mexican Batman?’
That’s one of the things that Robert [Rodriguez] wanted to do, he wanted to make this guy somebody that people could identify with. Because none of us can identify with somebody that flies, or somebody who can melt steel or stretch. He’s just a regular guy that will kick ass if he has to, so that was the idea, to make this guy identifiable.
Did you already know how to throw knives, or did you have to learn for the films?
Well, Robert gave me a knife for our first movie, ‘Desperado,’ twenty years ago, and I had to learn how to throw it, and throw it; but he certainly wasn’t going to let me throw it at Antonio Banderas, so in this one there is a lot of movie magic.
In the film, there are a lot of car and helicopter scenes. How do you prepare for those?
First of all I love cars, any kind. Jesse James built the cars for Machete and that was a lot of fun working with him. I’ve got five oldies but goodies, low-riders, cars that I love.
What is your favorite scene from Machete Kills?
Kissing Amber Heard [laughs]. You’re not going to top that.
Are there plans for a third Machete movie?
I hope so [laughs]! This one is doing pretty good already; there is a lot of buzz. Everybody says, ‘How come you did another one?’ I say, because the last one made money – and that’s the reality – so if people like it, yeah, we’ll probably do another one.
Machete is a physically demanding movie, and you are one of the busiest guys in Hollywood. How do stay in fit during your movie shoots?
I was going to a gym in LA, 24 Hour Fitness, and I was going at one o’clock in the morning, that way everybody would leave me alone; but then people found out that I would go at one o’clock in the morning, so all of a sudden there is 40 or 50 people there and I’m signing autographs and stuff. So I finally just had to put the gym in my house and I just work out, try to stay in shape and walk a lot.
I ran the LA Marathon before I turned sixty, so nine years ago I ran it; and I’ve been thinking about doing it before I turn seventy, but, whew, that’s coming up real quick and it takes time to get into shape.
Machete takes on jobs that the US Government doesn’t want to do. What would he do about the budget crisis that going on right now?
[Laughs] Go take all the money back that we’ve given to the Middle-East. [Laughs] I’m glad that they’re handling all that because I don’t have a clue what’s going on. All you gotta do is just go down and take all the drug money being spent in Mexico and bring it back.
Robert Rodriguez movies are always a lot fun to watch. Are they as much fun to make as they are to watch?
Absolutely, the set is so relaxed, and your kids are on it – you could just open up a day care center there are so many kids around. And his deals are a family affair, you’ll see his sister in one and his kids in one, it’s a family owned business and if you watch he uses a lot of the same people, even the crew- that’s a family – so his extended family is really great too.
Is it true you are related to him?
I found out that I’m his second-cousin while we were doing ‘Desperado,’ because all of my family is from San Antonio, Texas, I was the only one born in Los Angeles, and Robert was born in San Antonio and his family is from San Antonio. So when we were shooting in Acuña, Mexico, my family came down to visit me and my Uncle ran into Robert and said, ‘Hey, we’re related to him!’ You know second-cousins or something. It was kind of cool, like, alright Cuz, let’s make my part a little bigger.
You’re incredibly interesting and you have a lot to say. Is there ever going to be an autobiography?
If I ever find the time or if somebody can keep up with me, I think I would do it. It’s funny, we’ve had a couple of people try, but writers, a lot of times, write the way they write, they don’t write the way I talk. So I think maybe one of these days I’ll get a tape recorder and start trying to record something, but when I don’t know. Whenever I have time – maybe if I break a leg or something I’ll do it [laughs].
What drives you to do the charity work that you do with kids and animals?
There are two kinds of people in the world, and that’s it, there are people who want to make a difference, and those who are taking up space. I really want to be known as someone who tried to make a difference. Whether you do it or not doesn’t matter, as long as you try. So I love going to juvenile hall and telling kids who are on the way to the penitentiary, ‘Hey, you can change.’
When you go to talk to kids, I don’t care who you are, you first have to get their attention, which is impossible, because they have none, and then you have to keep their attention, which again is impossible, because they have none. The most important thing to them is what is going on this Friday or Saturday. And then you have to show them you’re cool, but the biggest problem is if you are ten years older than them, you’re just not cool. That’s just the law.
So, the blessing that I’ve got is that when I walk on to a campus I’ve got their attention. Not Danny Trejo, but, the guy from ‘Spy Kids,’ the guy from ‘Heat,’ the guy from ‘Desperado’ . ‘Machete.’ ‘Whoa! Machete!’ They don’t know who I am, but they know Machete. So I’ve got their attention and my message is to take drugs and alcohol out your life and education is the key to anything you want to do. And I think that because I’ve got their attention, they’ll hear it. So it’s a blessing and that’s one of the reasons I love to do it.
What is your proudest moment?
My kids. My daughter wants to be an actress, and she’s going to college right now and I think that’s so cool. My son is 25 years-old and he shadowed Robert Rodriguez and now he’s doing a film in Milwaukee. He’s producing and co-directing a film called ‘Snap Shot’ and he raised his own money on Kickstarter. He raised ninety-thousand dollars and I thought, ‘Damn, when I was twenty-five years-old I was sitting in state prison.’ My big boy is into electronics and so they’re all doing really good – I got great kids.
What other projects are you working on that you are excited about?
Whew! I got the Muppets [Muppets Most Wanted] coming out, I’m really excited about me and Ray Liotta doing a musical, [laughs] that’s funny. And then we got ‘Dead in Tombstone’ with Mickey Rourke coming out the 22nd of October, we’ve got ‘Bad Ass 2′ coming out and we’ve got ‘Bullet’ coming out, so those are all coming out, I think, this year, except for Muppets coming out in March.
So I’m just having a lot of fun. Right now I’m working on a sitcom with George Lopez, called ‘Saint George,’ and that guy is the funniest guy in the world. All we do is just crack each other up seeing who can tell the best joke.
You make about nine films per year. When do you find “Danny” time?
For me, I love what I do, so what I do is ‘Danny time.’ I remember somebody asking me if I was going to take a vacation when I was shooting a film in Hawaii. I was doing ‘Six Days Seven Nights’ and I was in Hawaii for three months, and they asked, ‘Are you going to take a vacation?’ What are you talking about? [Laughs], so, my vacations are my work. I love what I do. It’s like somebody that shoots pool for a living – they better love it. They’re not going to hate shooting pool and make a living out of it – and yeah, I shoot pool [laughs].
What films and television do you like to watch when you get a little bit of relax time?
I like Animal Planet and I like the news and that’s about it. There is a Western channel that we have and I love Westerns. When my kids were little and John Wayne would come on screen I would say, ‘It’s John Wayne,’ and everybody would stand up and salute, it was just our little thing for John Wayne. And finally my daughter was the first one to say, ‘He’s not really a hero, he’s an actor,’ and so they stopped. So I have a dog named ‘Cash,’ that’s a big Rottweiler, and I taught him, ‘Cash, Do you like John Wayne?’ Arooo-roo-rooo, he’ll start barking! My daughter said, ‘Only you would have a dog that likes John Wayne.’ So, yeah, I Love John Wayne.
You’ve worked with a lot of movie tough-guys, like Jean-Claude Van Damme and Sylvester Stallone. Which of the “tough-guy” actors that you’ve worked with is closest to the real deal, a real tough-guy?
Charles Bronson. I think he was the real guy. I love the guys that do things naturally, like Bronson and Clint Eastwood. Other people, you can see they are acting, but Bronson just made it so natural and I loved him. I worked with him on ‘Death Wish 4′ and ‘Forbidden Subjects’ [Kinjite: Forbidden Subjects] and I actually became his friend.
Is there anyone in particular you would like to work with?
I think I’ve worked with everybody [laughs]. Just bring me what you got, I don’t care, I’ll work with anybody. I love what I do.
Machete Kills opens October 11, 2013.