interview by Joe Vaz & Vianne Venter

From Issue 16 (Dec 2011)

DANNY TREJO HAS ONE of the most iconic faces in movies today, yet very few people know his name. Ask anyone if they’ve ever heard of him and most people will say no, then show them a picture and watch the recognition bloom across their face.

For nearly three decades Danny Trejo has been playing every type of convict or bad guy under the sun but thanks to Robert Rodriguez’s casting of him as a Mexican “Q”, who provides all the gadgets and toys to the heroes, in his Spy Kids movies, Danny Trejo’s popularity has evolved beyond “bad guy to have in your film”, to “fun guy to have in your film”.

Last year, of course, everything changed as Danny got his first-ever starring role, the Grindhouse fake-trailer inspired Machete (and soon Machete Kills and, we hope, Machete Kills Again), once again directed by Robert Rodriguez.

I was privileged enough to meet and work with Danny last year on Death Race 2 and I was completely taken aback by him. When you meet Danny he blows your preconceptions out of the water; this quintessential Hollywood bad-guy/thug/assassin is incredible friendly, funny and generous to a fault. He never turns down a fan asking for an autograph or a photo, so much so that it can take twenty minutes to walk out of a restaurant with him. And everybody recognises him. We were shooting in the township of Philippi last year for a few days, and Danny was accosted by a group of school kids just wanting to say hello to Uncle Machete. You literally could not get farther from Hollywood than Philippi, and yet even there he was recognised.

This industry can be very trying. There are lots of egos to contend with and the day-to-day work, although always different and interesting and fun, can often be extremely tiring and involve rather unpleasant working conditions or locations, so when an actor who’s been in the business for as long as Danny has, and has worked as much as he has is as pleasant and positive as he is, it really is a wonder. Every day he’s like a kid in a candy store. He is always excited about the day, is always in a good mood and is an incredibly positive person who, regardless of how hard or gruelling the day is, keeps everyone’s spirits up.

The following interview is a combination of two interviews we did with Danny, one by Vianne in March of 2010 and the other by me while recently on a set visit to Death Race 3, where Danny was gracious enough to squeeze in an interview while taking a coffee break.
Unfortunately, due to the Cape Town wind blowing through my entire interview, my video footage is barely usable so I have added little snippets where the wind died down enough to hear Danny’s responses.
Vianne’s interview is available in its entirety at the bottom of the page.

What up, Homey?

Welcome back to Cape Town.
I love it here, I love it.

You’re not sick of it yet?
No, no, no, you can’t get sick of this place. This is where God takes a vacation.

How many times have you been here now?
Three now. It’s been a great experience every time. We did From Dusk Till Dawn two and three here.

How did you get into movies, Danny?
I was a drug councillor and I was working with this kid, and he called me one night and said, “Hey, come on down, I’m having a lot of problems staying off of drugs.” So I just went to hang out with him and ran into a friend of mine I knew in the penitentiary, a guy named Eddie Bunker, and he actually offered me a job training Eric Roberts how to box. So I started training Eric…

This is on Runaway Train?
Runaway Train yeah, and Andrey Konchalovskiy, the director, saw me, saw that I could handle Eric, saw that he was scared of me (he says with a smirk) and asked me to box as his opponent in the movie.

So it was kind of accidental.
I call it divine intervention.

Did you ever expect to be here?
Nah, I mean I could’ve made that first movie and then been done with it, but every movie I did people would come up to me and say, “Good job!” “Are you sure?” “Yeah.” They paid me scale – it was more money than I’d ever made. First five years of my career, I never had a name, I was like, ‘Inmate #1’, you know. I thought that was cool.

Was that weird, to step back into a film version of prison after having spent as much time as you did in actual prisons?

At what point did you realise that you were no longer that bit-part actor and that you had become a recognisable star?
I don’t know that I’ve ever stopped being a bit-part actor, you know. (Laughs) I’m just working and I’m happy to do the job. My first starring role was a movie called Machete and the only difference was that I get to kiss the girl, you know, I didn’t have to rape her.

As far as international stars go, you are an incredibly recognisable personality. How do you handle all the attention?
Well, people see me in the movies and then they see me in the street and they ask me for my autograph and “Can I take a picture?” Yeah. I’ll give anybody my time – I won’t let anybody take it, but I’ll give it to anybody.

What is your most memorable fan experience?
Oh God, I’ve had some great fan experiences. In an airport in Germany, I forget which town, but in the airport in Germany, I gave a little girl a card I used to carry, that said, “You are now a Spy Kid”. Thank God her mother was there ‘cause this little girl just started screaming [with excitement] looking at this card. Everybody in the airport was looking at this big Mexican guy in a tank-top in front of this little blonde girl screaming her head off, but her mother was right there so…

You are seen as a cult figure, very iconic, larger than life, how does any of that process to you as a human being?
Well, you know the whole world can think that, but I can’t. I even feel dumb saying the whole world. You know I am a parent, that’s what I am, and I want to be a good example for my children. I have three kids who adore me, whom I worship the ground they walk on… and all I want to do is be a great parent, so all that other stuff is just what I do.

What percentage of you is the badass we see on screen and what percentage of you is the good old-fashion gentleman?
(Laughs) The only bad-ass that there is, is the one on screen, other than that, you know I… I don’t even argue.

Which of your movies do you get mobbed for the most?
Well I’ve got to say Spy Kids, because all the kids know that, and kids have no qualms about running up to you anywhere they see you, and I enjoy that. I loved that movie, that was a Robert Rodriguez movie, and Robert told me when we did it, he said, “I’m gonna make you a household name,” and he did, Uncle Machete from Spy Kids. And for the adults, Con Air, everybody loved Con Air, everybody loved Desperado, Once Upon Time in Mexico, those big action movies, and now, all over the world… Machete.

When did you first hook up with Rodriguez?
I hooked up with Rodriguez when we did Desperado. He called me in to talk to me and I walked into his office and he said, “You remind me of the bad guys in my high school,” I looked at him and said, “I am the bad guys in your high school.”

We hit it off straight away. Then we found out later on we’re second cousins.

You now have a recurring role in Sons of Anarchy, this is your first recurring role on TV.
Yeah, I’ve done a lot of TV but usually one or two shots. They gave me eight episodes and then the ratings went up so they brought me back.

How does that differ from working in features?
It’s faster, a lot faster, boom, boom, boom, you know. It’s kinda the difference between a no-budget movie and an $80 million movie. 80 million you have time, you know, 6 million, you don’t, you know, it’s like, “let’s get it shot”.

I think some directors are just unbelievable with that, it’s like Robert Rodriguez, it’s just boom, boom, boom. I love his movies. I love Roel’s movies. Roel comes under the same umbrella, it’s “let’s get it in the camera,” and I think that’s what I like to do, I hate sitting in my trailer.

You’ve done a lot of movies, I mean in the 18 months between shooting DR2 and DR3 you’ve added just over forty credits to your resume.
Yeah, look I gotta confess a lot of those are like student films that they ask me to be in, or some super low-budget first-time project, and I love giving them a shot and I love working, not just on major films, I like helping people out. I’ve literally gone from student film to student film, three in two days, you know, bang, bang ,bang.

You just love to work, basically.
I love to work, and I love seeing, like a bunch of students, just really happy that you’re there. I love to see a first-time director think like, “wow, I really got somebody” (Laughs)
Fuck, it’s just me, man.

Now Machete was your first-ever starring role. What was it like to work with De Niro, whom you had worked with before?
I had worked with De Niro [in Heat], but De Niro, when he saw me on Machete he was like, “You… You’re number one, you’re number one on the callsheet, you,” and all I remember saying was, “can I get you some coffee Mr. De Niro?”
(Laughs) So once we got De Niro on there everybody else signed on. We had some heavy hitters on it; it was an honour to work with those people.

And Machete Kills?
It’s happening. We start in January. That’s what Rodriguez wants.

Last question Danny. Personally I find you one of the most inspirational people I have ever worked with. You’re an incredibly positive man. How did you get to that from where you began? You’ve been doing this so long, and you always seem so happy, so proud, so positive.
You know I think part of that comes from where I come from, you know? 1968 I was on my way to the gas chamber, so, I’m not even supposed to be here, so for me to be upset is like…it’s like slapping God in the face, you know? For me to come to Cape Town, South Africa, how can I be upset? I love teasing, I love teasing with the 1st AD saying, “I have no TV reception,” I don’t give a shit, I hate TV.

(Laughs) Or, “can I have a Chai latté with soy, hold the foam.” I mean we’re out in the middle of the fucking desert here, you know, I just tease. It’s really hard to upset me, if you see me upset then something’s wrong, it takes a lot, you know. I have lost all right to be upset, besides, you know, people ask me, “don’t you ever take a vacation?” Come on, I’m in Cape Town, South Africa, staring at Table Mountain, I’m underneath the 8th Wonder of the World, so what the fuck? I’m blessed, man.

Vianne Venter’s Interview with Danny Trejo – Mar 2010
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Image from Machete © 2010 Twentieth Century Fox
Photo Credit: DeObia Operei

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Joe Vaz

Joe Vaz is the founder and editor of Something Wicked, which occasionally affords him the honour and good fortune to hang out with really cool people.
In his other life he is a film and television actor who gets small parts in big movies, most recently in Dredd 3D, due to be released in September 2012.

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Vianne Venter

Vianne Venter is a freelance writer and sub-editor for various South African publications. She served as story editor and sub for Something Wicked since its inception in 2005. She is also an artist and mother. She can communicate with inanimate objects, but only if they’re feeling chatty. In her spare time… oh, who are we kidding? What spare time?

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