Interview: Danny Trejo on Machete Kills , Life After Prison, and Working With Robert Rodriguez

Danny Trejo has a real life story that's at least as interesting as the many hard-bitten heroes and villains he's played on screens big and small since the mid-'80s. After spending much of his early life in and out of prison, he found a renewed focus in the film industry, with his distinctive, craggy visage easily landing him a variety of memorable character roles over the years. In 1993 he appeared in writer-director Robert Rodriguez's Desperado, and has gone on to team with the famed indy filmmaker eight more times over the past twenty years.

Trejo is currently back in theaters reprising his role as ex-federale Machete Cortez in Rodriguez's Machete Kills, the second film in a franchise that began as a fake trailer in 2007's Grindhouse. With his down-to-earth demeanor and winning smile, it's amply clear that he's acutely aware of how lucky he's been in life. I recently had a chance to talk to the iconic actor about how it feels to saddle up once again as Machete, the things he's learned over his long career, and what his long partnership with Robert Rodriguez means to him. Here's what he had to say:

So we're five, six years after you did Machete as a trailer. Did you think you'd be sitting here in the middle of a trilogy? 

You know, Machete started 20 years ago. Robert saw me, he said, "I got a character for you. You don't even have to act. Just walk and be yourself and talk." And he saw me kind of, like, mingling with all of the people in Mexico that were down there, and the way I approached things and he saddled up this character. And so we've talked about it, and then we did Spy Kids and he said, "Let's call him 'Uncle Machete'." So that kind of sprung from there, and then one day he did Grindhouse, and they needed a fake trailer, and Robert said, "We'd never make this movie, lets just do a trailer for it."

So they did Machete. When they came out of the theater seeing Grindhouse, everybody demanded we did Machete. It was the best thing in Grindhouse, you know? And, and then this movie, I love this movie. I'd love it even if I wasn't in it. It's the kind of movie I like, you know what I mean? It's not a whole lot of literary value, and it's not gonna go in the time capsule. It's just gonna... it was just a lot of entertainment, from start to finish. And so then after we did Machete, the audience received it so well we're doing Machete Kills [laughter]. Lets see how this one goes and we'll see how Machete Kills in Outer Space, you know?

What do you think the appeal of the character is from? Why do audiences respond to him? 

Well I think people can, first of all identify with him. He's just a guy that sees wrong and wants to do, you know, make it right. And he's... it's like, you can't identify with Superman, and you can't identify with Iron Man, and you can't identity with... none of those guys. I mean they all fly and none of us want to have to wear tights all the time. So, so it's like, like this guy is just a regular guy. He's just... he's just a bad ass.

You bring such an interesting personal story to this point where it's almost like you've lived two lives where, obviously all of the life experiences you've had, and now here you are starring as this action guy. And I'm wondering how does one inform the other in terms of the performance that you bring?  

Well a lot of times, when I wake up in the morning, I always say my prayers and I just kind of like ask the good lord to let me be the best person I can be. I know how to be the worst person I can be. And I just go about my day trying to see who I can help, because everything good that has happened to me has happened as a direct result of help from someone else. Everything. And I kind of realize it. That's the way Diosito wants us to live, really.

It's just helping one another. I don't care what it is. I don't care what it is. If somebody is sick in your neighborhood, go water their plants. You know go, go take care of their yard. You know it doesn't hurt, it doesn't bother you. So, you know, I started when I came out of prison. I used to take out all the old people's trash. Just help them, you know what I mean? They always used to think I was gonna rob their house [laughter]. But I just, you know just continued to help them.

Last week, just by chance, I tuned in to the ALMA Awards and it was right when you were on stage talking about Robert. I was wondering if you could talk about the relationship you have with him. You've been a team now for many, many years. 

Well, you know when I walked into Robert's office in Los Angeles, he was casting for Desperado. He looked at me and said, "You remind me of the bad guys in my high school." And I didn't know what to say so I just said, "I am the bad guys in your high school," and we just hit it off. We started talking, he handed me a knife and says, "Learn how to twirl." I knew how twirl and so, so we did Desperado, and we just hit it off. It was like this, you know, communication. And then my uncles came down from San Antonio, cause that's where they're from, to Acuña, Mexico and they ran into Robert and we found out we're second cousins, you know, and wow!

And then we just started talking and, and I love Texas, that's where he's from, I'm from Los Angeles. But, but we just started... I think our relationship is almost that, almost brothers. Almost relatives. He understands me and I understand him, even when we're working and we all understand that all of us, all our families, Mexicanos, we all have that one uncle that nobody knows what he does. Nobody knows who is, what is he? Shows up, and that's Uncle Machete [laughter]. Especially all Latinos know they have an Uncle Machete somewhere.

I think Robert has had such a big influence in terms of Latino filmmakers, and I was wondering if you can speak to that. Because it's a whole community that he's inspired.

I think Robert Rodriguez has done more for young Latino filmmakers than anybody in the past 50 years. I think he's done more for independent filmmaking than anybody. He's he's not a secret keeper. He kind of lets his secrets out -- whatever they are. "Here lets do this. If the technology is not there let's create it." My son Gilbert was in Machete and Robert liked him, so he put him as the artist, and then he was gonna give him another role in Machete Kills, and my son said, "Better, Robert, can I just shadow you? Can I just watch you?"

And he said "Sure, sure," so they actually collaborated, were talking, I see Gilbert talking to him behind the camera and stuff. And then, it's funny, my son right now, him and Frankie Latina, a friend of his, are making a movie called Snap Shot, and Gilbert wrote it. They're doing it, and producing, co-directing, and they raised their money on Kickstarter. So that's Robert. Robert showed young Latinos how to make a movie. It's not no big secret.

What advice do you have for people who right now are young and they're in the industry, and they're struggling, or they're having trouble? Because you, you have this amazing story that I think people can learn from. What is your lesson that you would pass on to people?

Perseverance. Just keep -- don't let anybody tell you -- everybody always says, "Oh, there's so much competition in moviemaking and acting." There's competition in plumbing! [laughter] Go drive down the street, you see 40 different plumbing trucks, you know? So, don't let anybody tell you, you can't do it. You want to do it, do it. Start writing. I mean, just write. I go to schools and I talk, and I say, you know, just sit down and write your day. Write your whole day out and look at it.

You'll say, "Wow, this is interesting!" Make a movie out of it! Just go rent a camera and start shooting. Get your friends and, and it's like we've inspired some pretty good little, little films goin', you know what I mean? And it's funny, 'cause Robert is always talkin' about, you know, don't worry about the money. Just do it. All that other stuff will come, you know? All that other stuff will come. For the first five years of my career, I was "Inmate #1." [laughter]. I didn't even know I had a career. Just Inmate #1. Good enough for me! [laughter]

So, what's next? 

Well I hope it's Machete in Outer Space. [laughter].

That's gonna be happening?

Yeah, we'll see how people like Machete Kills, and right now I've got...let me see Machete Kills comes out October 11. We've got Dead in Tombstone, a cowboy movie with Mickey Rourke, coming out the 22nd of October. We've got Bad Ass 2 coming out. Then we have Bullet coming out, and then I did a film with Ray Liotta called...The Muppets.

Oh, nice. A little bit of a left turn!

Yeah, if you want to see me sing and dance. [laughter]


Many thanks to Danny Trejo for being so open with his time and so candid with what he shared. I had an absolute blast talking to him, and I expect you'll have a blast watching Machete Kills, now playing at a theater near you. To hear the audio from this interview, check out the latest episode of the MovieFilm Podcast at iTunes or streaming below: