It shouldn’t take more than a second talking to Danny Trejo outside of his character to realize he’s much more than a face. When I was younger, I’d be able to tell him from just looking at him, but I couldn’t have told you who he is other than an actor who’s always been tough.
And as grew up, and learned who he was, I still didn’t really know him. I knew him from movies and television, sure, but I didn’t know him outside of the persona he has played multiple times. Then Machete came out.
To be fair, the character Machete had been in my life a lot longer than I thought, even before the fake trailer they put in Grindhouse. He was a character in Spy Kids as well! But I still didn’t really know who he was.
Then I got a call to interview him for Machete Kills. Let’s be real here, I had never interviewed anyone remotely famous before, and getting this call excited me but also terrified me. So I prepared like hell for this interview, reading up on him, watching interviews with him, and prepping my questions. This wasn’t even a one-on-one and at one point I was having a mini-panic attack. But what I found in my research was he is not the guy I thought he was. I mean, I had some preconceived notions of what is life was like, but I after my research I realized I was meeting an actual badass.
If you didn’t know, let me give you a quick rundown of this man’s life before acting. He was in an out of jail in his twenties, his final trip to the big house was in 1972. During his time in San Quentin, he became a champion boxer. Yeah, you heard me right, a champion boxer. After that he went through the twelve-step program, and overcame his drug addiction, and has been an advocate for the program ever since. Hell, if it wasn’t for those meetings, he would have never even made it to the silver screen.
I realized, going into the interview, that I was even more nervous now. This is a guy that I respect, immensely. He’s a literal Hercules, zero to hero. And I was going to meet him.
That brings us to the interview.
The day of the interview, I arrive ten minutes late, driving around one of the richest neighborhoods in Scottsdale, cursing every golf course I pass to the country club where I will be interviewing him. Thank god the session before mine is running long as I rush to the waiting area. I’ve got everything prepared, my questions, my recorder, my nerves. Until I get into the room. I’m in a room with six other males, and suddenly I feel nerves again.
It’s not that I’m intimidated by the male pow-wow that I’ve just been thrown into, it’s that this is my first interview, and they’re all probably going to witness me fail.
Not really sure what to expect, we walk into the small living room and I shake hands with Danny. He’s not as tall as I imagined, but in my head he’s a giant of epic proportions. In front of me, he just looks like another guy on the street. He’s donned in Machete merch, as only he could pull off, and wearing the nicest smile on his face.
We talk about everything from his road to Machete Kills to him voicing El Cucuy for Halloween Horror Nights. He’s not a man who is content to sit back and do nothing, as he says “a busy man has time to do everything”. When prompted about his first role as a leading man, he references Robert Rodriguez as his torch bearer. Rodriguez “told Hollywood [that] the leading man is anybody who can carry a movie”, and man is that true. Unquestionably, Machete carries the movie on his his back, as the characters revolve around him.
But we know Trejo is not just a man from one movie, he’s a man of many roles. He’s done everything from movies to video games, and he’s still got enough energy to keep going. He talks about himself as a child, and his mother telling him “you hated sleeping, you always thought you were missing something”, and that seems to be true. A man who only gets a few hours a night, he’s always looking for something to do. He’s 69 and he’s got twenty things in production.
It was a big deal for him, when he started acting, but he tried not to let the fame get to his head. “When it started happening, and people started noticing me, you really start thinking you’re somebody. That’s why you see all these young kids going crazy [at] suddenly being famous.” He recalls his mentor, Edward Bunker, an ex-con crime novelist and screenwriter, and fellow prisoner at San Quentin, who told Trejo, “This is our job, this is what we do. [It’s] no different from a housepainter, or a plumber, or a writer.”
For a man whose lived the past twenty plus years as a literal professional badass, it’s impressive that he hasn’t let the character get to him. As humble ever, he’s not one to judge any of his co-stars based on their controversy. I had my own doubts about Mel Gibson, Charlie Sheen, and Lady Gaga being in the movie, but he doesn’t have a bad word to say about them.
Charlie Sheen is one of the “most underrated actors”. And despite whatever people might say about Lady Gaga, he tells it like it is. “People have this image of people because of what we do, and she was one of the most professional ladies I ever worked with”, “she was like a trooper”, “she’d never done a film, she kicked it in the ass”. He even applauded her eating habits, and after the filming of the movie, took her pots and pans home. “I have them on the shelf, and there’s a sign there saying: Lady Gaga’s Pots and Pans, She Cooks! Those are not going on eBay!”
The whole time, he’s telling us anecdotal stories, the whole room is laughing and the guy who I would have been terrified to meet at 15, is the guy who’s easing me off of my panic attacks. He jokes about Alexa Vega, formerly one of the Spy Kids, joining the Machete Kills cast, and Rodriguez’s protestations. “She had to beg Robert Rodriguez to get her in this movie!”
I’ve always believed Machete to be a sort of Mexican superhero, and Trejo agrees, except that he’s no conventional superhero. “He doesn’t see thorugh walls, doesn’t fly, doesn’t wear tights, he just kicks ass”, but he’s not aloof, he’s “kinda the guy down the street, that you can depend on”. Trejo relates to this, believing that there are “two kinds of people in the world: those who want to make a difference, and those taking up space.”
It’s clear that he’s a man who’s not only got himself together and knows who he is, but he’s humble and he’s out to do good in the world. No job is too big or small for him, from voicing El Cucuy for Halloween Horror Nights to being in The Muppets with Ray Liotta and Kermit in a Russian Gulag. He never downplays how much respect he’s got for Rodriguez, and it shows how proud he is to have worked with the man.
Finally, when it came down to it, I opted to ask him a semi-controversial question, hoping for the best. I was born and raised in Arizona, and immigration laws have been a part of my life since I was a kindergartener. Machete dealt with a lot of parodical and satirical moments with immigration, and I wanted his word on it. Afraid I might have stepped over the boundary, I ask anyways, and Trejo responds like a champ. “I’m a firm believer that within the next 20 years, we’re all gonna have to figure out how to coexist”, there’s “gotta be some kind of reform” because”pretty soon we’re not going to be borders, we’re going to be one planet.”
This is how awesome of a guy Danny Trejo is. I went in nervous as hell, and by the end of the interview I was asking him political questions. Did I commit a pretty major faux pas? Probably. But he proved himself to be eloquent in his response, and friendly in his answer. I left realizing, he’s more than just a mere badass, just a face. He’s a legend.
He’s a walking legend and lesson to never judge a book by its cover. Machete Kills has been out for a week, but don’t miss out on the other things that he’ll be in for the years to come. Viva La Tortuga! Viva Machete! Viva Trejo!