Danny Trejo graduated from being an indelible tough character actor to a bona fide leading man with the 2010 action comedy Machete. That film was itself inspired by a fake “Mex-ploitation” trailer made by director Robert Rodriguez for the omnibus film Grindhouse. The character of Machete, a heroic Mexican cop driven to the edge, was tailor-made for Trejo, and it fit him so well that, as the actor has noted, even his mom started calling him Machete. What of course gives Trejo some extra authenticity as a badass is the fact that he’s an actual ex-con; he did time in every federal prison in California, and was once the boxing champ of San Quentin. (See our 2010 slideshow of his eleven baddest badass characters here.) Now Trejo and Machete are back in Rodriguez’s Machete Kills, an even more over-the-top comedy than the last one, out today. The actor spoke to us about the role, randomly meeting Clint Eastwood when he was 13, and what he has against the TV show Oz.
So, what’s new in Machete Kills?
It’s in many ways a lot like the last one. It’s very funny. But Robert tries some new things here. There’s a bit of Star Wars in this one, there’s a bit of The Road Warrior. Machete gets to go to space!
Well, the movie opens with a trailer for a third Machete film, Machete Kills Again in Space. Is that something you guys are definitely planning to do?
We’ve been planning to do these movies since even before Grindhouse. We’ll make them as long as people keep watching them.
When did you and Robert Rodriguez discover that you were related?
After we started doing Desperado. He cast me in that movie, and my family came down from San Antonio, Texas, to Acuna, Mexico, where we were shooting this movie, and we found out we were second cousins. But we'd already hit it off. Me and Robert, we became great friends pretty much instantly.
You’ve done so many tough-guy roles that it’s occasionally striking to see you doing a more “normal” part. The other day I saw Sherrybaby again, in which your character, while not normal, is definitely not a violent, tough-guy part. Do you wish you could branch out more?
That’s interesting, because Sherrybaby was not a movie I wanted to do. My agent wanted me to do that movie. I don’t have a problem not doing those dramatic roles. I love action movies. I love being in them. And when they cast me in an action movie, let’s just say they’re not gonna cast me as the plaintiff, they’re gonna cast me as the defendant. [Laughs.]
There’s a great documentary about your career, called Champion. In it, you talk about how you didn’t start off intending to act. You went to the set of your first movie, Runaway Train, for entirely different reasons, right?
I was there as a drug counselor! I was helping one of the PAs, who called and said he was having a lot of problems. You have to remember, this was 1985, and cocaine had really just gone crazy on film sets. He was an addict and he was having a tough time trying to stay clean on a film set, so I went down there. And I ran into a good friend of mine named Eddie Bunker, one of the greatest crime writers ever. If you want to read a really good book, read his book Education of a Felon. So Eddie just offered me a job training Eric Roberts how to box. And the director, Andrei Konchalovsky, saw that Eric respected me, so he hired me. I’ve been clean now 45 years. And everything that’s good that’s happened to me has happened as a direct result of helping someone else.
You’ve been in so many movies set in prisons or in the criminal underworld. Do you feel the need when you’re on these sets to try to correct things you think are inaccurate?
You know, pretty much every prison movie I’ve been on, I’ve ended up as a technical consultant.
What’s the most ridiculous, most inaccurate thing you’ve ever seen?
Hmmm. Some of the tattoos. Some of the crimes that happen in prison in movies. Do you remember that show called Oz? That show was so ridiculous. It was done strictly for the audience. Everybody was rude, and everybody was a killer. It’s funny, in prison, you’ll find some of the most polite people in the world. I mean, think about it: You’re a killer and I’m a killer; I’m the last guy in the world who’s gonna want to offend you. So, in prison, people are actually very polite, they’re all like “excuse me,” and if there’s violence or killing, it’s usually gang-related or drug-related. It doesn’t have to do with people not liking each other. So, Oz was so inaccurate. But the audience loved it, ‘cause it was so gruesome and brutal.
Were you ever approached to be on it?
I think so. I didn’t go on.
But you were in Breaking Bad.
Did you watch the final season?
No, I was working. We Tivo’d it.
What are some of your favorite movies?
I like Westerns. One of my favorites is The Searchers, with John Wayne. And Once Upon a Time in the West, with Charles Bronson and Henry Fonda and Jason Robards. I love Charles Bronson and Clint Eastwood.
Did you ever act with them?
I acted with Charles Bronson. We did Death Wish 4 together. And then we became pretty good friends. He called me to do another one called Kinjite: Forbidden Subjects. But then he pretty much cut me out of it. You just get a quick glimpse of me in a jail cell. But I got paid, so it’s okay. As for Clint Eastwood, I actually met him when I was about 13 years old. My dad used to work in his building in California, back when [Eastwood] was playing Rowdy Yates on Rawhide. He used to live on Vineland and Ventura, and my dad worked in his building. And my dad had built a bar in our house, so he invited Clint Eastwood over for a drink. He and a couple of his friends came over one day. Even back then, you could tell this guy was really something. He had an unbelievable presence.
So, did you follow his career after that?
Yeah. Well, if I wasn’t in juvenile hall or prison, I’d be watching him on TV. But I’ve never had the pleasure of working with him.
Do you ever keep in touch with folks you knew from prison?
Ah, most of them are gone. But there are a couple. I have a cousin, Gilbert, he just finished doing 34 years and he’s up for parole. We’re hoping he gets out.
So, what are you working on now?
Badass 3. I’m also doing a TV series right now called St. George, with George Lopez. So I’m a funny guy now.
But you’ve done a lot of comedy. You were in A Very Harold and Kumar Christmas. And the Machete films are comedies, too. The new one is almost like an Airplane or Naked Gun movie.
Good! I’m so glad you said that, because Machete really is an action comedy. It’s funny, because some of the critics said, “Oh, it’s political,” and they made all these serious claims about it. But it’s a comedy! You don’t need to try and find any literary value in it.