The closest that actor Danny Trejo ever came to doing a love scene before he made “Machete”? That would be in Jerry Bruckheimer’s “Con Air.”
“Yeah, I played a rapist and I attacked Rachel Ticotin,” Trejo says, pausing and adding with a laugh, “I didn’t get the girl.”
By contrast, in Robert Rodriguez’s “Machete,” which opens Sept. 3, the menacing-looking Trejo has romantic scenes with not just one actress but several – because they come on to him. In a telephone interview, you can hear the amazement in Trejo’s distinctively deep and raspy voice.
“It’s my first lead in a film and I get the girl,” he marvels. “And not just any girl. I get THE girl – Jessica Alba. We had a kiss and I kept messing up – but I swear I didn’t do it on purpose.”
And not just Alba – Trejo gets frisky with Michelle Rodriguez and Lindsay Lohan: “I love strong women,” says Trejo (pronounced TRAY-hoe).
A character actor whose rugged face, imposing scowl, long hair, droopy mustache and massive chest tattoo have made him a favorite of directors and audiences alike, Trejo sounds slightly stunned at where he finds himself, at the age of 66. A one-time drug addict and seeming career criminal who did 10 years in California’s San Quentin penitentiary, Trejo now finds himself a hero in the Latino community, an in-demand performer whose IMDB page lists more than 200 film and TV credits since he made his debut in “Runaway Train” in 1985.
And now he’s the star of his own film: “Machete,” in which actors ranging from Alba and Rodriguez to Don Johnson and Cheech Marin – to Robert De Niro – play supporting roles to him.
“Every time I think about that, I laugh,” Trejo says. “I mean, I played a supporting role to De Niro in ‘Heat.’ When he showed up on the set for this, he told me, ‘I knew you’d make it.’ And I said, ‘Mr. De Niro, can I get you a cup of coffee?’ I mean, he’s one of the greatest actors America has seen.”
In “Machete,” Trejo plays the title character, a one-time Mexican Federale who comes out on the losing end of a confrontation with a Mexican drug lord (Steven Seagal) and winds up as an itinerant and undocumented worker in Austin, Texas. There, he is recruited into a plot to help the reelection of a right-wing senator (De Niro), who’s running on an anti-immigration platform. But Machete’s real goal is revenge against the Mexican drug lord, who is also secretly involved in the reelection campaign
The Machete character first appeared in what most people assumed was a mock trailer for the film, which was shown between the two halves of “Grindhouse,” Rodriguez and Quentin Tarantino’s 2007 hommage to exploitation movies of the 1970s. But Trejo says the film’s genesis began much earlier.
“Robert told me about 16 years ago that he wanted to make this movie,” Trejo says. “We were in a little town in Mexico, shooting ‘Desperado,’ and nobody knew who Antonio Banderas was at the time. And he was the star of the film. But everybody had seen me in movies and so people were gravitating to me for autographs. And Robert said, ‘I’ve got a role for you. You’ll be the first Latino superhero.’”
Twenty-five years into his acting career, Trejo still can’t quite believe it – not just that he’s the star of a film, but that he’s an actor at all.
“I never imagined myself out of prison, honestly,” he says. “In my record, it says I didn’t play well with others. The violence was turned outward. Actors like to say that they grew up on the streets – but I really did and it wasn’t that glamorous. It cost me the penitentiary.
“At one point, I figured I was either going to the gas chamber or I was going to change it around. Once I took alcohol and drugs out of my life, I got better. I did it when I was in the hole at Soledad one year from May 5 to Aug. 23 – a long stretch. I had a lot of time to reflect and it was a rude awakening. I even remember the prayer I said: ‘God, if you’re there, I’m going to be OK. If you’re not, I’m fucked.’ He must have been there because I got out.”
When he got out of prison, Trejo went to work as a drug counselor: “Everything good that’s happened to me has been a result of my helping someone else.” But a chance encounter with an old prison friend, writer Edward Bunker, led to Trejo’s first chance in films.
Trejo was summoned by a young man he knew, who needed Trejo’s help supporting his sobriety while the youngster was working as a production assistant on a movie set, where drugs were rampant among the crew. The film was “Runaway Train,” and Bunker, who was its screenwriter, remembered that Trejo had been a prison boxing champion. So he suggested Trejo work as boxing coach to the film’s star, Eric Roberts. When director Andrei Konchalovsky met Trejo, he put him into the film – as Roberts’ opponent.
“They said they’d pay me $320 a day – and I thought, ‘Hey, I’d have done it for $50’,” Trejo recalls. “They said, ‘The actor might accidentally sock you.’ I said, ‘For $320 a day, you can give him a stick, if you want.’”
He’s worked steadily ever since, amassing credits in films, TV, even voicing video games and modeling characters for them.
He doesn’t box anymore, staying in shape by doing cardio and lifting weights: “I don’t spar much,” he says. “Once you get past a certain age, you hate getting hit in the face.”
The father of two grown children, he proudly points to his son’s and daughter’s activities as producers and directors.
“My son is 22 and he just produced a film that I’m in,” he says. “When I was 22, I was jacking off to ‘Betty and Veronica’ in San Quentin. Oops, maybe you shouldn’t print that.
“But I love this industry. Thinking about what I’ve done and what my kids have done, it almost brings me to tears. My passion now is talking to kids who are in trouble to help keep them out of trouble. When I’m not working, I do that all the time. And when I am working, I ask the producers to find me a juvenile hall to speak to. And the film industry has gotten me their attention when I walk on to campus.”