Danny Trejo interview: Bullet, Machete, Con Air, Muppets

Duncan catches up with the star of Bullet and Machete to talk about stunts, dancing, and Miss Piggy...

The last but one answer in this interview has a slight spoiler for Muppets Most Wanted.

If there’s one thing I discovered from our chat with Danny Trejo, it’s that he laughs a lot. For an actor who’s made a career out of playing bad asses whose actions speak louder than words, it was a strange thing to hear him so openly chuckling – when our call was connected I asked how he was doing and he replied “Great, we were just talking about Mel Brooks and Blazing Saddles – probably before your time, but it’s really funny!” and what followed was one of the most entertaining interviews I’ve ever done.

We were lucky enough to get a good amount of Mr Trejo’s time, but even then it was impossible to cover everything he’s done. A quick look on IMDB will show a staggering 280 credits to his name, with countless more to come no doubt. It was Desperado that first drew my attention to him, but as I mention below there was a period from the mid to late 90s where he was in every other film I watched; Michael Mann’s Heat, From Dusk till Dawn, Anaconda, Con Air, The Replacement Killers, Desert Heat – the list goes on.

While he may be best known for his work in action movies, especially those helmed by Robert Rodriguez, his distinctive voice has also led to a vast array of different work in everything from GTA: Vice City to Top Cat: The Movie and he’s appeared in a ton of great TV shows, including the ubiquitous Breaking Bad and Burn Notice – there’s nothing he can’t turn his hand to and make better in the process.

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Even his R-rated and, arguably, best known character Machete has allowed him to traverse from one side of the film classification board to the other, leaping from the bloody dismemberment of Machete Kills, to the family friendly antics of the Spy Kids franchise.

During this interview itself, to promote Bullet where he plays a ‘shoot first…’ cop on a personal vendetta, the sheer range of his work was proved as we ended it talking about The Muppets. So without further ado, it is my pleasure to hand over to the unique screen legend that is Danny Trejo…

Bullet’s great fun – a good, old fashioned, vigilante type of film…

Right, right, right – you got it right!

Have you always been a fan of those ‘man on a mission of justice’ movies?

First of all it’s like, I love defeating the bad guys, because I played the bad guy for so long and with Bullet I got to play with a couple of great actors, which is always a lot of fun. Torsten Voges is a good, good friend of mine, and we kept joking because he’s like six foot four and every time we would get next to each other I would tell the cameraman “make me that tall!” [laughs].

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He’s a really, really good actor and I got to work with Tinsel Korey, who’s the girl that played my daughter and is great. It was kind of like – remember Death Wish with Charles Bronson and Dirty Harry with Clint Eastwood – that’s what those kinds of movies remind me of and those were the kinds of movie I absolutely love.

Could you also tell me a little bit about how you got involved with the film, as you’re a very busy man!

Well, you know my agent takes care of everything for me and then there’s another producer named Robert Rodriguez – not the Robert Rodriguez from Texas – but the one from Los Angeles, who I know and who told me about the film and I said well, my agency I think is looking at it. Gloria, who’s my agent, she always picks good stuff for me and she said “Well, we’ve got this” and I looked at it and I said “Yeah, that’s a go” so went with it. But I mean we get about thirty scripts a week, so I can’t read ‘em! So they go through them all and pick out what they think is best for me.

And what I love about those kind of roles is the one-liners, which you also have a lot of in the Machete films too, so I was glad that there were a couple of cracking ones in Bullet, especially “We’re in America, speak Mexican bitch!”

[He roars with laugher, which I think at first might be because I’m repeating his line in such a white, middle class accent] That was my line! I thought up that line, honest to God! Because (the director) says “Well, you gotta say something” and I said alright “When you’re in America, speak Mexican bitch!” [he chuckles] and the director loved it!

And I also thought in that scene, that it can’t be a bad day’s work…

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[he starts laughing as he knows what’s coming]

…when you get to dunk a pretty, naked woman in a bathtub!

Absolutely! That was so funny! And it was funny because I would dunk her and I would try to pull her up and she was trying to do her best job, so she would actually stay under water and make it look real and said “I can hold my breath, I’m not fragile!” But you know it’s like yeah okay, all of a sudden ‘Danny Trejo accidentally kills actress!’ [laughs]

At the start of Bullet there’s a scene of you working out and then fighting, do you tend to do a lot of your own stunts?

No, and let me tell you something – first of all, insurance companies won’t let the lead do stunts, and then I don’t want to risk a hundred and fifty people’s jobs, just so I can say I got big nuts on a late talk show, you know what I mean? If a stunt guy gets hurt, you put him on a stretcher and the next minute you’re ready to go. I have a stunt guy named Norman Mora who does all my stunts, who’s amazing, and that’s his job. So my job is to say stuff like [puts on a grand voice] “To be, or not to be!”

That’s my stuff and so together we make a pretty good movie, but I don’t wanna risk everybody’s job just so I can say [in tough guy voice] “Yeah, you know uh, to tell you the truth I do my own stunts.”

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Although you’ve done so many action films now, you must be an expert in screen punching and shooting guns and everything?

Oh absolutely! [chuckles] Well I was pretty good at that stuff before, you know what I mean!

It usually ends up if it’s something about prisons and on any kind of robberies – the gun guys know everything there is to know about guns and stuff, but I love to watch all the rappers in movies, how they hold the gun to the side to shoot. Anybody that knows anything knows that is the best way in the world to get an automatic weapon to jam! [laughs] Anyone that you see hold that gun to the left – what happens is the bullet can’t eject, so it’s funny!

I just finished Bad Asses 3 and I got to work with Danny Glover and John Amos, who used to be the star of Good Times back in the 70s, so we got to play in Baton Rouge, Louisiana which was gorgeous and had to go to Mardi Gras! And the director of that is Craig Moss, who is just a wonderful, wonderful guy and it’s funny because when we were at Mardi Gras I wore a mask and I was fine, nobody could recognise me so it was really great and then all of a sudden a big Mexican guy comes up and says “Hey! You that guy! You the Machete! Ahhhhhh!” and started screaming, so that blew my cover! [he laughs and repeats the guys scream!]

You must get that a lot, as Machete’s been part of your life for a long time…

Oh yeah.

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And he’s such a great character…

I mean my Mom was calling me Machete! [laughs]

I was going to ask about your work with Robert Rodriguez too, as I have a theory that since there aren’t many contemporary westerns, action films, like Bullet, now tend to use a lot of the same traits such as desert landscapes and gun duels and that’s largely down to the Mariachi movies…

One of my favourite movies of all time is a Mexican western called Valdez Is Coming and there’s another one called Viva Zapata!, which actually Marlon Brando appeared in when he was young, it was an amazing, amazing western – I love westerns by the way.

I do and I think that those Mariachi movies that you made with Robert Rodriguez were a big influence on the way that contemporary action films are made now…

Oh yeah, I mean Robert Rodriguez has done more for the independent film company than anybody in the last fifty years. My son right now, Gilbert Trejo is producing and directing a western that he wants to do, so it’s going to be a lot of fun to watch him.

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I’m sure you’ve said it a lot over the years, but could you tell me a little about your early meeting with Robert Rodriguez and the start of your working relationship?

Well, we started on Desperado and I went in to meet him and when I walked into his office he said, “Wow! You remind me of the bad guys in my high school.” And I said “I am the bad guy in your high school!” [laughs]

So we became instant friends and he just gave me a knife and I did Desperado and we just hung out actually in Texas and Mexico and he told me about Machete then and that was 25 years ago! (He said) “I’ve got this movie I wanna do, it’s Machete” and we talked about it for the next twenty years and then finally we did it. We named him Machete in Spy Kids and then we did the Machete trailer.

Yeah of course, because he’s been in four Spy Kids movies and the Grindhouse trailer and then in the two films…

Well the audience demanded – the audience had seen the trailer demanded we do the movie, because it was the best thing in Grindhouse!

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I was just writing about Machete Kills the other day and I’m really keen that Machete Kills Again… In Space happens – have you had any more news on that?

Yeah, we’re just waiting for Robert to finish it up… [he laughs with a mischievous chuckle]

I just loved the trailer for Machete In Space at the start of the second film!

Oh that’s gonna be fun! Machete In Space is gonna be so much fun.

On the Machete Kills Blu-ray there was a short, interesting feature about how Rodriguez is a big advocate for Latin actors, but he seems to be in the minority, why do you think that is?

Well, I think Robert doesn’t do Latin heroes, he does good heroes with Latin stars. I mean it’s about time they started using some new faces, new people, new guys in Hollywood and you know not everybody has to look like Brad Pitt, I mean I like him but still. I was born is Los Angeles, I’ve been in Hollywood all my life, I mean I don’t mean that – I spent a lot of time in San Quentin – but I mean I’ve been around Hollywood all my life.

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Talking of Desperado, that period around the mid to late 90s was when I really became aware of you as an actor in your own right…

You know what? It’s funny because but in Desperado that character never said a word and he was the strongest guy in that movie! [laughs]

And around that time your career really seemed to take off and I remember it seemed like you were in every other film I watched as there was also Heat, From Dusk till Dawn and Con Air…

And we had Once Upon a Time in Mexico too, which was with Johnny Depp and I just seen Johnny Depp and Amber Heard – Amber Heard was inducted into the Texas Film Hall of Fame, she’s right here from Austin, so I was honoured to be there with her.

Amber Heard’s great and she was so lovely to interview and of course she’s in Machete Kills with you…

And it’s so funny, you know you can dress her up and she can look like one of the old Marilyn Monroe’s or one of the old gorgeous – when Hollywood was just glamorous – and then you can make her a bad ass too! [laughs]

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She’s incredible, it must have been fun to work with her on Machete Kills…

The best thing about the movie! [laughs] I got to kiss Amber Heard!

You get all the best day jobs!

Yeah, she was awesome man.

And just quickly as we’re running out of time, I have to mention From Dusk till Dawn too, as I love that movie…

That was fun. That was like so much fun to do and I got to work with Salma Hayek and that made it a great day! And From Dusk till Dawn was George Clooney’s first movie.

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And I love Con Air as well (a mild understatement)…

Con Air was the biggest test of testosterone I’ve ever had. If you spit, somebody would try to spit further and then further and further and pretty soon you’d have a spit war going on – everything was a contest on that movie! [laughs]

And finally, my editor is a huge Muppets fan and he tells me the best line in the Muppets Most Wanted is about you and wanted to know what the experience was like working on that film?

Awesome. First up, I never thought I’d be doing a song from Chorus Line in my life, but wait till you hear me sing [he breaks into song and can’t stop laughing!] “I need this job, oh God, I need this…!” and I do this duet, this single with Ray Liotta and we dance the theme from Chorus Line, it’s amazing! You are just gonna love to take your kids to it and you’re gonna love to watch it, because to have a good movie that you can take kids to and you enjoy as well, is a real hard mark to do and the director, James Bobin, he hit it perfect. We’ve got Tina Fey in it, we’ve got Ray Liotta in it and they’re funny as hell. Lady Gaga’s in it – that’s my baby, she’s awesome!

She was awesome in Machete Kills too!

Yeah! [laughs] And I have a – don’t tell anybody – but I did have an affair with Miss Piggy!

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And that is a perfect place to end! Danny Trejo, thank you very, very much!

Bullet is out now on Blu-ray and DVD.

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