Back in 2006-11 Phil’s Quick Review editor in chief Phil Hobden was the Film & TV editor and chief writer for the legendary martial arts focused Combat Magazine. The Combat Magazine Series takes look back at some of the best interviews, conversations and articles that Phil wrote or edited during that time.
Next up: Machete – An Interview With Danny Trejo . Interview by Phil Hobden
Danny Trejo stars as the titular character in the new grindhouse action release Machete. Trejo is one of Hollywood’s most recognisable stars and Combat Film sat down the iconic actor to talk grindhouse, Hollywood and his time behind bars.
What was it like to have Jessica Alba as your love interest in Machete?
God, she’s gorgeous. I kissed her and then all my friends wanted to kiss me. At this age!
How many knives do you carry under that jacket in Machete?
Actually that’s a secret, but there’s between 20 and 40.
Did you have to carry them all?
Well, in the jacket, they were in the jacket. Otherwise, Machete just carries six, I think, and two machetes, six small knives and two machetes.
Did you cut yourself during filming?
No. Thank God.
How many litres of blood did you spill in the movie?
A lot. But the good thing about Robert Rodriguez is that he comes from like a cartoon background, so even the blood is funny. It’s comical and it’s gross all at the same time. I cut three guys’ heads off and people were laughing. They were like, “Go, go, go!” My mum is 83 and she hates violent movies, but she was at my premiere and she loved it. She loved it.
What was the most outrageous and challenging scene to do?
When I was crashing through the window holding onto some guts. When I read the script I was like, “What are you talking about? I don’t understand.” But then I was like, “Okay, that sounds really good.” And now I think the guts really took it, like, “Wow! That’s awesome!” That was fun and that was challenging.
Do you regret any of your tattoos?
No. I love tattoos. I literally love tattoos. I think body art is great, but some people can rock them, some people can’t. Some people look silly in them, other people, they just fit. You’ve just got to find out. These days I see a lot of girls with ankle tattoos, or something cute, and that’s great. When I was growing up, you never saw a girl with a tattoo. So styles go and styles come, but tattoos are forever, so once you put it on, it’s there. I’ve had this one on my chest since 1965. My tattoo, it’s the most famous tattoo in the world.
[Looks outraged] It is. [Shows chest] That was done in prison by a friend of mine called Harry ‘Super Jew’ Ross, and we started it in San Quentin and then I got kicked out of San Quentin and I went to Folsom. It was almost a scene from West Side Story, because I was on the bus in chains being shipped up because of the trouble I had got into, and this was Harry’s first tattoo, so he’s going, “Don’t. Wait. Nobody touch it. I’ll go to Folsom, I’ll go to Folsom.” So about six months later, he showed up and did some more of it. There was a big riot in Folsom and I got sent to Soledad and he got sent to Vacaville, and he came down afterwards from Vacaville and finished it.
It’s in every movie that you’re in, but I never thought it was real.
How many years did that take?
About three. Maybe two and a half years. But I’ve got a plaque at home that has a picture of it on, which says, “Most Recognisable Tattoo in the World” by International Tattoo magazine.
Is it based on an actual woman?
No, it’s just a picture we drew. A senorita with a hat. You call them “charas”, they used to ride with Pancho Villa, they carried the guns and cook and do all that stuff. But they weren’t servants, they were fighters, so goes Mexican folk-lore.
What do you remember most about prison?
The fact that there are only two kinds of people: there is predator and there is prey. That’s it.
How much worse are prisons these days, compared to when you were on the inside?
Well, I know about California that there are so many more people in prison, so since there are so many more people in prison, they are all over-crowded because of a lot of the ridiculous laws, so a lot more people are going to prison for less and less reason.
If your boxing career had continued, would you have hit the big time?
It was said that I was pretty good, but boxing is management. A lot of boxing doesn’t have to do with skill, it’s management. And so I think that’s about the best way to say it. I know a lot of great fighters that can’t get good fights.
Could you have been such a success if you weren’t so scary looking?
(laughs) Well, I could have been Brad Pitt. But I’m not. I knew a long time ago I wasn’t a pretty boy so I was content with being the bad guy because it always seemed like the movie stars were pretty boys: Brad Pitt, Leonardo DiCaprio, Stallone… They’re pretty.
Stallone is pretty?
(laughs) Well… I don’t know.
How much fun is it to play a hard guy all the time?
It’s a job. It’s easy to do. And with a face like mine, I’m not going to be Leonardo DiCaprio (laughs) So I have a certain look. Now, I can be a good bad guy, or I could be a cop if I’m edgy.
You could play an artist or a painter.
An artist? But I wouldn’t get to beat up anybody or shoot anybody (laughs). And I just love action movies. I did a movie called SherryBaby, and at first I hated it, because I was the nice guy. Everyone else got to beat her up, and I didn’t get to sock anybody or shoot anybody. But I have a lot of fun in films, for me that’s what it’s all about. If I’m not enjoying it, I don’t want to do it.
You’ve been in nearly 200 movies. Isn’t it about time you took a sabbatical, laid up on a tropical beach somewhere and wrote your memoirs?
Not really. My life is a vacation. I love what I do. This is my life. My kids are grown, they only call me in emergencies or for money (laughs). I have three dogs and everyone else takes care of them for me. And I don’t golf. Making movies is the most fun.
What about writing your memoirs?
I don’t know. There is a book, it’s called Champion, and it’s about my life-story, and that’s about as far as I want to go. I don’t want to sit down with somebody and start writing. My life is interesting to everybody but me.
You are finally a leading man. Playing Machete, is this the greatest honour of your long and distinguished career?
Yes. Absolutely. This is the greatest honour, thank you. And thank you Robert Rodriguez for bestowing on me being the first Latino action hero. I owe a lot to our predecessors: remember Pedro Gonzalez? He was one of the first Mexican actors in John Wayne movies, but he was the goof. He was the, “Forgive me senor,” guy, the funny guy, and we’ve come a long way since then. I have to thank him, and other Latin actors since then. (Shouts) “Badges? We don’t need no stinking badges!”
What’s your favourite prison movie – Tom Selleck’s An Innocent Man?
No. No. No. My favourite prison movie is a movie called Animal Factory. That was from a book written by Eddie Bunker. If you want to read the best criminal novel ever written, read Education Of A Felon by Edward Bunker. Great, great, great criminal novel that gets into the mind of a criminal. And Eddie Bunker is the guy that first hired me to be in a movie, he hired me to be in a movie called Runaway Train with Jon Voight and Eric Roberts. And he was my friend in prison and he was my friend throughout life. He passed away but he was a great, great writer.
How did you get hired that first time?
I showed up on a movie set by accident once. I was a drug counsellor working with kids, and one of the kids I was working with called me up and said, “Hey, I’m having a problem, I think I’m going to use,” and in 1985 cocaine was crazy on sets. I thought he had a regular job, but I turned up and it was a prison movie, and I thought it was the cutest thing I had ever seen – I kept smearing their tattoos, they were all fake tattoos, and I had a whole bunch of real ones. So this guy looks at me and says, “Do you want to be in this movie?” And I said, “What do I have to do?” And he said, “Do you want to be an extra?” “An extra what?” And he said, “Can you act like a convict?” I thought, “I’ve been in every prison in the State of California, I’ll give it a shot.” (laughs)
So I took off my shirt, to put on their blue shirt, and I had the big tattoo on my chest, and people who have been in prison know that it was a prison tattoo. I didn’t get that in a tattoo shop or in the Marines; it’s not about loving my mother, it’s a prison tattoo. So all of a sudden this guy comes over and says, “Hey, you’re Danny Trejo.” I said yeah. He said, “I saw you win the lightweight and welterweight titles up at San Quentin.” I said, “Yeah, you’re Eddie Bunker.” He was the guy that used to write, and I knew him in prison. He said, “What are you doing here?” So I told him I was hanging out with this kid, trying to help him, and he said, “Do you want a job? They need somebody to train one of the actors how to box.”
So you talk about God-shots or divine intervention or whatever. I said, “What’s it pay?” And he said, “$320 a day.” So I asked him how bad he wanted this guy beaten up. I couldn’t believe $320 a day for one fight. I would have chewed Godzilla’s ear off for fifty bucks. So I started training Eric Roberts how to box. The director saw me and he liked the fact I could control Eric – he was young then and didn’t care, but he wanted to learn how to box, so he would do whatever I told him to do. From there, to right now, I have done about 188 movies.
You must have got to a point where you got a pay-cheque bigger than $320.
Wait, let me tell you something. They hired me on a daily, and $320 a day to me means that at the end of the day, you get $320, okay, cool. So I worked for three weeks 16 or 17 hours daily. In the SAG union, that would be time and a half, then double time, and because you worked 16 hours, they are supposed to let you rest 12 hours. What that means is the money you have earned for this day gets put up in front the next day. I don’t know any of this. I’m just counting $320, $320, $320. I was just adding up all the $320s. That was enough for me! But when I got that first cheque, I looked at it and went, “Woah!” I put it in my pocket and didn’t say nothing. I started leaving and Eddie said, “Where are you going?” I said, “I’m out of here. They made a big mistake.” I just wanted to go and cash it. They could ask me for the money back later. He was like, “No, no, let’s figure it out. Oh yeah, overtime, yeah. This is right.” I knew nothing. I’d never been on a movie set in my life.
So when you got an even bigger cheque, what did you spend it on?
You know what? I was married so a lot of it went to my wife. “How much did I make?” (laughs) But for the first part of my career, I was a single parent. During Runaway Train, I was a single parent. The craft service, they used to have a huge table with salamis and cheese and meat, so I would always make three or four sandwiches and take them home for me and my son the next day. Then one day, some girl comes up and says, “Oh Danny, you have a meal penalty.” And I had four sandwiches, so I was like, “No, no, I’m making these for some of the guys.” I thought she was penalising me for taking too much food, but she said, “No, no, we didn’t feed you within six hours, so you get $100 worth of food.” “Oh okay, so help me make sandwiches!”
How old were you when you first started in movies?
In 1985, I was 38 years old already. I had been a drug counselor ever since I got out of prison. I still work for Western Pacific Rehab. We still detoxify drug addicts and I do a lot of their public relations. People always call me and say, “This guy’s pretty hooked, can you help him?” and I still do that.
What has changed since the 80’s with drugs in Hollywood?
I think the worst thing that has happened since the 80’s is crack cocaine. Crack cocaine and crystal meth. Now the kids are just frying their brains. We’ve managed to push drugs more and more underground, but parents don’t want to talk about it any more. Parents are afraid to ask their kids, “Are you smoking weed?” I ask my daughter every day, “Are you getting loaded?” “No, Dad.” “Okay, cool.”
Smoking weed isn’t going to destroy your life though.
You’re right, it’s not, but it’s against the law. That’s the only problem. I think they should either legalise it and then just leave it alone… these are just my views okay. We have a war on drugs, that means this war on drugs supports the DEA, the FBI, the CIA, all these agencies, so if they legalise drugs – and I’m not advocating legalising drugs but this is a reality – if they legalise drugs, all these guys would be looking for a job. So it’s not only the war against drugs, we’re trying to save our economy.
We take it you don’t vote Republican?
(laughs) You know what? I try to vote what I honestly believe to be the best for people. It’s just the way. So if it’s Republican, Democrat, Independent – if there is an issue that I believe in that is not of my party, or whatever, then I will vote for that. I think that’s the best way I can say that.
Do you still drink alcohol?
No. Stopped drinking in 1968.
Machete being your first real leading role, are you hoping to get more lead roles now?
You know, I love to work. I’m not going to sit around and wait for just lead roles to come around. I will work all the time. If somebody wants me to play a tree, I will play a tree. If they want me to put fruit on it, they can pay me more money. But I just love to work. And I see guys in the gym, not working, waiting around to be the leading man. I’ll be like, “I don’t care, I want to work.” It drives me crazy hanging out.
What role do you get recognised most for?
For kids, and parents, it’s Spy Kids. But people remember me from Desperado, people loved From Dusk Till Dawn and now, just from the trailer, people shout, “Machete!” That’s funny.
You’ve worked with George Clooney, Johnny Depp, Al Pacino, how was that?
I have learned something from all of them, but the man who I think is one of America’s greatest actors is Robert De Niro. I love watching him. And I like the fact that he’s not like… a Johnny Depp. Depp’s just beautiful. But Robert De Niro still looks like Charles Bronson. And I love Charles Bronson. I worked with him a couple of times too.
What do you think the secret of success in Hollywood is?
Me? One of the keys to success is making sure that the people you work with want to work with you again. If you have an attitude, if you’re late, if you don’t feel good, or if you’re like, “I want a chai latte with whipped cream, with soy!” then people start to say, “Oh.” You know what I mean? But if you’re an asset, like on any job, make yourself an asset then people want to work with you again.
Don’t you need a lot of luck?
No. Luck don’t got nothing to do with it. People who are waiting around for luck are the people who aren’t shaking hands and being nice to other people and aren’t being polite. I was on this movie and there were three grips sitting in chairs, and an old lady standing. I was thinking, “What is wrong with this picture?” This old lady was 60, 70 years old, so I went over and said to the grips, “Get up. Get out of here!” I sat her down. I thought she was just an extra, but later, the director came over and said, “Danny, thanks for getting my mum that chair.” I didn’t know it was his mum, I swear to God I didn’t. I just saw an old lady standing and three guys sitting. So maybe those grips don’t want to work again, but I make sure everybody who works with me wants to work with me again. And so far, I have accomplished that.
What would you have done if you hadn’t got into movies?
I would still be a drug counsellor, working with kids, and I am. Everything good that has happened to me has happened as a direct result of helping someone out. So I dedicate my life to helping people. I go to juvenile halls, to high schools, prisons. You look at Hollywood, at the actors that are having problems in their lives, none of them give anything back. They are all very, very selfish, very, very self-centred, very, very egotistical, “What’s in it for me?” Well, nothing is in it for you but problems, until you start giving it back. I don’t mean financially, I mean your time. If you’re an actor you should be talking to kids in juvenile hall and telling them, “Wait, there’s a better way to go. You do this, you get in trouble.” That’s what I do.
Machete is out now on Blu-ray, DVD and Download, courtesy of Sony Pictures Home Entertainment.