Interview: Danny Trejo of Machete Kills
Starting as the character “Uncle Machete” in the first Spy Kids movie in 2001, DIY director Robert Rodriguez and legitimate badass Danny Trejo have breathed life into the character we now know as Machete, a Mexican anti-hero, bringer of over-the-top violence, and unlikely vixen magnet. A “fake” trailer in Rodriguez and Quentin Tarantino’s Grindhouse double-feature led to the character’s first headlining feature, 2010’s Machete, a no-holds-barred breed of action flick that retains the same crass ’70s grindhouse aesthetic of Rodriguez and Tarantino’s collaboration. Machete returns in Machete Kills, a balls-to-the-wall sequel full of the craziest action scenes and death sequences you’ll likely see all year.
Machete himself, Danny Trejo, sat to chat with us during a roundtable interview about the origins of the character, his favorite death scene, how Machete appeals to kids, Mel Gibson, Carlos Estevez, other projects he’s got in the works, and more.
Machete Kills opens this Friday, October 11th
Press: The film bookends with a teaser trailer for a possible next film. Were you conscious of including these trailers, or was it more of an afterthought?
Trejo: The whole movie was an afterthought! (laughs) When [Robert Rodriguez] and I were doing Desperado, he saw the way I deal with people, [how I] mingle. I would be walking around Acuna, Mexico with no shirt, going into the barrio, eating at people’s houses and stuff. He says, “Danny, everybody [here] thinks you’re the star of [Desperado].” Nobody knew Antonio Banderas. I said, “You mean I’m not [the star]!?” He told me all about this character, Machete. He said, “[The character] is you. You don’t even have to act!” We talked about it, and when we got to doing Spy Kids, we thought, let’s name him “Uncle Machete”. We did it, and we thought, even if we never do [a Machete film], at least we put him in this movie.
Everybody has that uncle that nobody knows what he does. Especially Mexicanos! (laughs) We did Spy Kids, and then [came] Grindhouse, and they needed a fake trailer. Robert said, “Boy, do I have a fake trailer!” We did the fake trailer, and when the audience came out of the theater, nobody even mentioned Grindhouse. They loved [that trailer], man! Me and Robert talked about it, and we said man, we gotta make this movie. The audience demands it. We did the first Machete, and if you look, it’s one of the first times I’ve ever seen everything that was in the trailer in the movie. Usually, you’ll see something in the trailer, and then it’s like, “Hey! It wasn’t in the movie!” After we finished Machete, Robert thought there was something missing, and he said, “I know! Machete Kills!” and that’s how we got this film.
Press: Do you think Machete is like a response to Desperado?
Trejo: I think it’s that genre. Making Westerns is very expensive, to get horses to do [all these things]. We got as close as we could to a Western without horses! Desperado was as Western as you could get without horses. One of these days, I’ll try to talk Robert into doing a Western. He’ll probably go crazy. I did a Western called Dead in Tombstone with Mickey Rourke [that’s out now]. Dina Meyer from Starship Troopers and Michael C. Hall from Dexter are in it, and everybody really did [great]. This was a hard movie to shoot because we were in Romania, it was cold, and they had the best Western town I’d ever seen. Roel Reine, the director, directed me in Death Race 2 and 3, so he knew how I liked to work. I move, you know? Don’t keep me in the trailer, because I’ll go crazy! If you’re al wet and muddy, it’s not so bad when you’re moving.
WTI: The movie is over-the-top, with violence, guns, sex–let’s be honest, that’s what everybody wants! As I was watching the film, I couldn’t deny the 9-year-old in me who was going absolutely nuts over it. In a weird way, Machete appeals to kids, would you agree?
Trejo: Absolutely. It’s a fun movie. There’s no big social comment. It’s just, “Let’s kick some ass!” My mom wanted to go see Machete. She didn’t even think I had a job! I said, “Mom, I’m an actor!” Then, I did three episodes of The Young and the Restless, and it was like she and her grey-haired friends thought I won an Oscar. I took her to see Machete, and I was about to be onscreen with the two girls in the lake. I said, “Mom, you might not want to…” and she said, “Shut up! I’m watching this!” Robert and Quentin Tarantino were behind me, and to see my mom [freaking out], they couldn’t stop laughing.
Press: To switch gears, let’s talk about your work on Breaking Bad. How was that character proposed to you? It was only in a few episodes, but it makes such a huge impact on the show.
Trejo: Gloria, my agent, got the [offer], and she said, “Do you want to do a Hollywood first? Your head will go across the desert on a turtle.” It was a lot of fun. We did that episode, and it was received so well that we had to do the backstory.
Press: Which of Machete’s kills in the film is your favorite?
Trejo: The helicopter. I mentioned to Robert something about a helicopter, and there are three helicopter deaths in the movie! My mom was 84, and we were watching it. I take three guys’ heads off with one shot of a machete, but everybody laughs because of the way the heads bounce. Robert makes the violence funny. Even though its violence, you know it’s not real and you take it seriously.
WTI: Do you help Robert come up with these death scenes?
Trejo: He doesn’t need help. I was trying to get a hold of Robert before we did Machete, when we were putting it together. I called and called him, and finally I ran into him at Comic Con. “Robert! I’ve been calling you! Why don’t you answer your phone!” He said, “Danny, I was in a meeting with someone. Text me!” I said, “Machete don’t text,” and that ended up in the movie.
Press: You make a lot of blockbuster films, but you pepper in a lot of smaller projects. How do you choose what smaller projects to work on?
Trejo: I kinda let them come to me. Some people with a lot of money try to make low-budget movies. Low-budget movies, for me, are for people who are struggling. Those I’ll do in a minute. Student films ain’t got no money–they’ll take you to lunch and give you a hundred bucks or something. It’s good enough, especially to get someone started.
Press: I liked Bad Ass a lot.
Trejo: I’ve got Bad Ass 2 coming out with Mel Gibson, which is awesome…wait! It’s not Mel Gibson! Mel Gibson is in Machete Kills! (laughs) It’s been a long day. Bad Ass 2 is with Danny Glover. I gotta say, Mel Gibson was awesome in this movie. I had a sword fight with him, and when Robert yelled, “Action!”, I threw my sword down. Robert said, “What’s wrong?” and I said, “I’ve got to fight William Wallace?! He freed Scotland!” Mel has a great sense of humor. He laughed.
Press: What’s the tone like on the set?
Trejo: One day, we were in an abandoned Home Depot, completely empty. No AC, in Texas. I was looking around, and I was thinking, how could the morale on this movie be up? And it was so up! Nobody cared. We were having so much [fun]. Robert’s like me–he won’t do something if it’s not fun. If we’re not having fun, it’s like, let’s go home early. It starts from the top–if the director is having a good time, everybody is having a good time.
WTI: I think you’ve been blessed with this great face for film…
Trejo: That’s what Robert says!
WTI: It’s probably the most bad ass face I’ve ever seen. Is there anyone who you’d be afraid to face off with?
Trejo: Chuck Norris! (laughs) Let me tell you something–all of these guys who are supposed to be karate experts in the movies? If you want to make them shut up, just ask, “How would you do against Chuck Norris?” and they’ll go “Uh…”. Chuck’s the real deal. Everybody else is Hollywood. We were doing Con Air, which was the biggest test of testosterone. You 50 Hollywood wanna-be bad guys. You’d spit, and somebody else would spit a little further. Soon, everybody’s [spitting]! Everything was a contest. This guy who used to fight Chuck Norris, Benny Urquidez, a kickboxing champion, was John Cusack’s sensei. Now, nobody believes it, but John Cusack is a BMF! He’s bad. He looks like the kind of guy you’d pick on, but he’d kick your ass, man. At lunch, Benny would grab me and say, “Let’s go to the dojo.” We’d meditate, work out and stuff. We’d all throw rocks to see who could throw the farthest, and they said, “No, Dan. If you lose, you’ll throw a rock at somebody!”
Press: Is there any question you wish journalists would stop asking you?
Trejo: No. Everybody’s pretty considerate.
Press: No one crosses the line?
Trejo: I just give them a dirty look. It’s funny, everybody has trouble with the paparazzi, but they’ve always been polite to me.
Press: Who would win in a fight–Machete or Rambo?
Trejo: I think Machete would be a little too slick, and I think Rambo knows it!
WTI: Do you have any intention of stopping making the Machete movies?
Trejo: No. As long as the audience likes them. Even with Rocky, they said, “Why are you making Rocky V?” Because Rocky IV made money! When they stop making money, we’ll stop making them. So far, we’re batting 1000. We’re doing really well.
Press: How was it working with Demian Bichir?
Trejo: He’s awesome. He’s so beautiful. We hit it off the minute we met. He said, “I’ve always been a fan,” and I said, “Shut up! You got nominated for an Oscar!” He’s a great actor. Carlos Estevez! Everybody wanted to be in this movie because the last one was so good. We got Amber Heard. I have a love scene with her. Robert said action, and he said, “Why are you laughing, Amber!” She said, “Because Danny won’t stop saying ‘Thank you Jesus! Thank you Jesus!'” She’s such a Texas girl. Her dad’s from Texas. We all went to look at this car somebody got–everybody was looking at the interior, the color, etc. Amber’s a Texas girl–“What kind of horsepower does it have?” (laughs)